14th Sun after Pentecost: James 1:17-27
This letter sounds a little harsher and rules oriented than many of the other letters found in the New Testament. Sure, the other letters have rules, but they’re also relational and include encouragements. Before jumping into this text, it would be good to zoom out a bit and look at the style of the writing. James is categorized as wisdom literature, the same style found in the book of Proverbs. So, instead of having the tone of explaining the faith, James is urging this community to examine their ethics and to take action. Wisdom literature speaks in extremes, comparing good and bad, right and wrong.
Aside from the wisdom literature style, I also hear echoes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). James is not just taking issue with specific issues that need addressing as we find in Paul’s letters. He’s covering all the bases, starting right here in chapter 1. This is more of a challenge to the church to inspect their whole way of living and to remind them that everything right that’s happening is from God. Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, sometimes we need to take our focus off of the way we compare our righteousness with others, and be reminded to thank God for our faith.
These instructions can easily be used as a checklist. If we can remember a time in our life when we were “doers” of the word…check, did that one, next! If we held our tongue when we were angry once—boom! I know how to do that one. That obviously misses the point. Rather than reading these as a list of instructions that we know we can do at times, we should approach these commands as reflections on why we don’t do these all the time. Ask yourself when did you fail to hold your tongue? When did you fail to care for orphans in their distress? Consider your answers to these challenges, in which we all fail at some point.
This is not a call to work your way into God’s favor, but rather a reminder that our actions can show us the condition of our heart. Use these reflections as a conversation starter the next time you talk to God.