The Epistle of James is one of those books in the Bible that almost didn’t make it at all. It certainly didn’t appeal to some of the Bishops who were making the original lists of Holy Books for what we now call the New Testament. The oldest surviving list of the New Testament books of the Bible – the so called Muratorian fragment, leaves out the letter of James. Some lists did include his Epistle but Tertullian, one of the early Christian Church authorities, also left out James altogether in his list and although the Bishop Eusebius writing about the time of the Emperor Constantine did at least include the Epistle of James, he calls it one of the disputed books. While it is true that the main Church Councils reinstated James as part of the Canon, there was a continued roll call of those prepared to object. The most famous of the critics was Martin Luther. The teachings of James clearly upset Luther who called the Epistle the Gospel of Straw. Luther’s beef with the Epistle was that as far as he was concerned it seemed to contradict what Paul was saying about justification or salvation by faith, and what is more to Luther , it didn’t seem particularly evangelical. Finally he wrote in exasperation:
“I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove!”
The popular assumption that the author of the letter, James, was one of the original 12 disciples is generally contested by many scholars. James the Son of Zebedee was martyred in 44 AD which is too earlier a date from other evidence and James the Son of Alphaeus the other likely apostle was virtually unknown in all but one other mention in the Bible. There is some better if ambiguous evidence for the suggestion that it was in fact James the brother of Jesus (or half brother) who wrote the letter. Others point out that the Greek is too high a standard to be that of James the brother of Jesus, but regardless of the authorship, it is the teaching of James which sets it aside from the other books of the New Testament.
Even today, some of the more orthodox Christians continue to be uncomfortable with James. I have for example encountered some conservative ministers who tell me with some smug satisfaction that they have never preached on James. For those who love the finer points of theology, these modern day critics may feel they have some justification. In his writing James appears to have absolutely no interest in the parts of the faith that require great learning. It would be hard for example, to imagine James taking part in discussions about intellectual theology or what in the Methodist Church we call issues that need to be sorted by the Faith and Order committee. Not for James a consideration of how women should dress and behave in Church, nor for the slightest concern about the colour of vestments, nor even the vexed matter of who is worthy to administer or receive communion. It would also be hard to think of James having the slightest interest in denominational Christianity.
The theologians who criticise James appear to think he is saying “by your good deeds you can get to heaven”. As it happens, for what it is worth from a non authority, I disagree. I think what James is saying is that it makes no sense to be a hearer of the word if you don’t at the same time let yourself become a doer of the word. Or to change the metaphor…When we look into a mirror it is true we see ourselves… but there is little point in letting the mirror help us with our perception unless we are going to do something about the self-image it shows.
James’ theology then, is only theology at the most basic level but just because it is simple it doesn’t mean it should be set aside. If Jesus could summarise the entire law with the two commandments focussed on love – and if Paul could rank the expression of love as the greatest of the three things that last forever, is James doing anything different by grounding the expression of this love in suggested action?
From his writing we might concede James would not be likely to pass an elementary theological exam, but on the other hand we ought to be able to imagine James as a very practical and focussed City Missioner. Whereas a Pope might make deeply authoritative statements about the assumption of Mary, or Transubstantiation of the elements, or alternately, an Archbishop in the Anglican Church might give a Bible-based opinion about the troubling issue of what rank a woman should be entitled to assume in the church hierarchy, but James appears to be giving his attention to the mundane and is going on here about nothing more significant than the treatment of widows and orphans.
Well what of that word for the crossword. To James what is true religion all about? Eight letters. I suspect one word that would fit is… “Kindness”. The example of pure and undefiled religion in God’s sight – at least as far as James is concerned – is nothing more nor less, than going to the help of widows and orphans in their distress. If we were to go back a little in history we would probably soon see why James was focussed on widows and orphans. In an age where, since only the man of the household might be expected to get meaningful employment, it was indeed an extreme misfortune to suddenly find a family without a breadwinner.
According those who wrote the Bible there are a number of references to the plight of widows and the fatherless. In Deuteronomy for example there is a rule which insists the picking over of what is left after the harvest of grapes, of olives and of sheaves of wheat should be set aside for widows and orphans. (Deuteronomy 24: 17-22). God is also described in one of the Psalms as one who cares about orphans using the term “Father of the fatherless” (Psalm 68, verse 5) and Jesus himself uses much the same metaphor when he assures his listeners: “I shall not leave you fatherless” (John 14.18).
We might do well to remember that even in countries like England it wasn’t all that many years ago (up to the mid 19 century) that widows and orphans were at the total mercy of an unfeeling society. The widows were the ones who might only survive in the poor-house and orphan children were assumed to be virtually free slave labour for the mines, factories and chimneys. Some commentators have suggested it may have been advances in technology rather than the application of Christianity that released them from their bonds. Unfortunately even today a very unequal set of varying circumstances ensures that the problems of many orphans are still by no means entirely addressed.
The modern equivalent of what James was responding to is seen in what happens where a large-scale disaster strikes in an area where there are few social protection measures in place. For example AIDS orphans are often seen as pariahs and on the African continent at least, the incredibly high number of such unfortunate children is worrying indeed. We might also reflect on the plight of war orphans. We might also remember those orphaned by chemical disasters such as Bhopal or where the orphans are from areas affected by nuclear accidents or unwise nuclear testing particularly for those without being in the fortunate situation of having appropriate compensation and care.
I suspect if James were writing today he might still be talking of orphans and yet as you read on into James he was concerned for a number of other practical situations. If we extend his principle of caring for those in trouble, to caring for those now currently in trouble, I would imagine that James would be making some very direct and indignant statements about the growing gap between the rich and the poor that we find in operation in virtually every developed nation today. I can also imagine him being strongly in favour of a work like Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion particularly where she says that focussing on compassion is the most important part of all the major religions.
James does not spell out precisely how we should be caring for the widows in their distress – or for that matter how we might care for any others, like new immigrants or those who are unskilled or unemployed. It is true that it is sometimes embarrassing to insist that we are called to address serious problems when their real solution might well mean first acknowledging that the problems only get that way in the first place as a result of the community’s neglect. Why is it that, for centuries, there have been problems for the widows and orphans? Surely in part it was because no one acted to put sufficient safeguards in place. And to be truthful, those who should have acted are probably those like us. Why is it that in the most productive and advanced nations the distribution of resources is so unequal? Surely in part it is because those like us allow those who govern to set the rules to advantage those most likely to vote for them. Why else would we allow a situation to develop whereby the top 20% of the socioeconomic spectrum should have virtually all the resources and the bottom 20%, virtually nothing.
James is right to remind us to attend to the tasks our faith claims to be important. Our only question can be about which tasks actually matter.
If the occasionally unpopular James is right, we can understand some in the Church feeling a bit uncomfortable. It is one thing to see ourselves as Christian and to ask our leaders to help build our understanding of Church history and theology. It is quite another to see ourselves as James would have us see ourselves as being required to be practitioners of compassion. To follow James: pure and undefiled religion is visiting the widows or if you would prefer the crossword clue: expressing in our actions that single word, kindness.
The challenge James lays down is in effect a simple choice. Shall we join the critics in claiming the inclusion of his letter in the Bible was a mistake, or will we accept his simple message and act accordingly?