While the content of this site is informed by my faith, I seldom leap headlong into Bible study here. There are good reasons for my typical approach. But, for some time now I've felt compelled to unpack the content of one short section of the New Testament, the letter of James.
For starters, I consider it one of the least understood portions of the Bible. For centuries the church both turned to James and, in some notable cases, away from James when grappling with issues of salvation, discipleship and good works. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, referred to the short letter as a "right straw epistle," regarding its content as contrary to his the Apostle Paul's theology of salvation by faith and by faith alone apart from works of law. Luther believed that James did not deserve a place in the canon of scripture because of its undo emphasis on good works.
In the faith tradition of my youth, leaders used James to argue about essential works and acts of faith that were required for any and all who wanted a place in the kingdom of God. I grew up listening to debates about baptism and other religious actions that were considered essential works and not to be disregarded by any movement toward "faith alone."
None of this has anything to do with the message James shares with some of the earliest Christian communities.
James, the brother of Jesus, writes to some of the first disciples who followed his brother. These communities of early Jewish Christians lived in a Judean social context that shaped what James communicated. His message focuses on the particular day-to-day social and economic realities of the immediate context of his readers, as well as the deep Hebrew understanding of justice and equity as essential, required elements in any authentic walk with God.
James is concerned with the suffering of his community, particularly that pain caused by economic and social injustice at work in the world and in the experience of himself and his readers. James establishes a clear connection between deep spirituality and a struggle for justice--economic and social. James points out that the struggle for justice occurs even inside the church.
What will follow is a non-technical narrative interpretation of this important piece of Christian literature written in response to what James and his community observed.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
Clearly, James writes as a follower of his very own brother, Jesus. He positions himself, not as a sibling, but as a "servant" of the Christ. This is especially significant since he writes to Jewish people ("the twelve tribes"), such as himself, who have chosen to follow Jesus as the promised Messiah. The image of "dispersion" suggests a scattered reality and an alienated community experiencing discomfort and difficulty, even possibly the homelessness of an alien people in a land of uncertainty.
Faith and Wisdom2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
The community to which James addresses his remarks knows suffering firsthand. No doubt some were beginning to suffer due to their new faith/religious alignment. The fact that James leads with his subject indicates that suffering is a pressing issue for his readers. Apparently, pain and difficulty have become a part of normal life for these readers. The pain tested those who experienced it. No doubt, some were tempted to give up, to turn back, or to be resigned to the systems and the powers responsible for the "trials."
James reframes suffering by pointing out the benefits or the positive results of going through hard times, no matter who or what the cause--"trials of any kind." Suffering should give way only to joy. This seems a strange claim, but I expect we've all seen this played out in life again and again. The joy is rooted in the effect of suffering: faith is tested, endurance is produced. When allowed to engage fully, endurance leads to maturity. Life fills up and is complete or whole. The bottom line: this understanding of suffering positions the one who suffers in a place of total abundance where nothing is lacking, even in the press of discrimination and poverty.
How often, working in the inner city, I've witnessed this kind of faith take root and flourish. The suffering is beyond real for the impoverished. Still, I've never witnessed such joy, a joy that grows from undeniable endurance, perseverance and character. The result can be seen in the life of the poorest exhibiting the truth and power of a life that "has it all." The joy leads to sharing. The testing leads to amazing strength. The endurance shocks me whenever I see it.
Recently, I attended a WorkPaths graduation ceremony. Eighteen men received certificates of completion in a 13-week, construction trades training program. So far, nine of these graduates have found jobs. Here we have very poor men and families, many just out of prison living with a stent in prison on their resumes. Men who've made mistakes. Men who've been unfairly treated and brushed aside as useless.
But as the ceremony progressed, I felt a rallying of spirit and I witnessed spontaneous outbursts of joy and hope. I saw evidence of endurance and character. Pressed down, but not defeated. Oppressed but refusing to give up.
Injustice creates systems and circumstance filled with unfairness, discrimination, marginalization and despair.
Faith results in courageous action.
This is where James begins, but it's only the beginning and not nearly the whole story!