Preliminary sermon explorations on James 1:17-27

This is not a sermon – it’s the preliminary notes I’ve made today as I’ve been thinking about the passage I’ll be preaching on this coming Sunday – James 1:17-27.

As this is the first in a series of Sunday readings from James, I offer some general thoughts about the letter as a whole.

This letter comes to us attached to the name of James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus. The family of Jesus had not believed in him during his lifetime, but after the resurrection there seems to have been a change, and James and Jude at least became believers. James emerges in the book of Acts as the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church, although he is not one of the Twelve. Certainly at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 he speaks with authority on behalf, not only of the Jerusalem church, but of the whole Christian movement, articulating policy with regard to the conditions on which Gentiles can be admitted to the Christian Church. This note of authority appears in this letter too; a large proportion of its teaching is in the form of unapologetic commands. There are also many clear echoes of the teaching of Jesus.

Did James the brother of Jesus actually write the letter? Some scholars deny any link. Others (exemplified by the introductory notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible section on James) posit an original sermon by James just before his death in the early 60s, which was later edited by his followers and circulated to Jewish Christian congregations ‘in the diaspora’ – i.e. beyond the borders of Israel. On this reading, while the sermon is early, the letter itself is late. Other scholars accept James’ authorship of the letter as we now have it, thus giving it a relatively early date.

Christian reading of this letter has been influenced by Reformation debates about faith and works; Paul is seen as the defender of ‘justification by faith alone’, while James takes the opposite view, that faith alone is not enough – you need to do good works as well. However, the two may have been using the same vocabulary but different dictionaries. It seems fairly clear that when James talks about ‘faith’ he means a simple intellectual assent to the existence of God (2:19), whereas to Paul it is a relationship of trust founded on the promises of God. ‘Works’ to Paul usually seems to be connected to ritual works such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, and the food laws, whereas to James it means caring for widows and orphans and keeping oneself unstained from the world (1:27) – something Paul agrees with in Galatians where he talks about the importance of ‘faith working through love’ (Galatians 5:6).

The likely context of this letter, I think, is persecution against the young churches James is writing to ‘in the dispersion’ (1:1). He kicks it off with an exhortation to his readers to ‘count it all joy’ when they face trials of any kind (v.2), which can be a good thing because ‘the testing of your faith produces endurance’ (v.3). So it is in the context of these trials, testings, persecutions that James writes to help his hearers remain faithful to the way of Jesus as they have received it.

The letter seems to jump from one subject to another in much the same way as Old Testament wisdom literature. However, there are a number of themes that recur in a circular manner, rather like the arrangement in the first letter of John; James obviously feels that if he keeps coming back to the same basic ideas in different contexts, the points he is trying to make will be reinforced.

After an introductory greeting in verse 1, James begins by introducing the subject of ‘trials’, encouraging his readers to count them all as joy, since the testing of their faith produces endurance and makes them mature and complete (1:2-5). If they need wisdom, they should ask God for it – but be sure to do so with faith, not doubting (1:6-8). And they should have a proper Christian perspective on riches, remembering that God will bring the rich and powerful low and will lift up the poor and needy (1:10-11).

The subject of testing (this time in the sense of ‘temptation’ (NRSV) returns in verses 12-16. Some Hellenistic Jews believed that God had created both the good and evil impulse in humans, but James opposes this idea; God does not tempt anyone, but it is our own desire that entices us and leads us into sin, which in its turn leads to death. Because this is the ultimate destination of those who sin, we should resist temptation and so receive the crown of life promised by God.

And now to today’s text…

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

The theme of God’s generosity has already been mentioned in verse 5 in connection with wisdom: ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’. But in this context it means not just God’s generosity, but ours as well, and so is perhaps in contrast with the subject of temptation in the previous verses. Certainly, to James, the Christian life (in contrast with the sinful life to which we are tempted) is a life of generosity and caring for the needy (1:27). James is rooting this generosity in the action of God; when we resist temptation and live the life of love and generosity, we are expressing the nature of God himself and living out the new life he has put within us. ‘He gave us birth by the word of truth’ refers to the new birth in Christ, which has come to us through the preaching of the gospel. Peter, with whom James was of course closely associated, has a similar thought:

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…’ (1 Peter 1:3)

‘You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God…That word is the good news that was announced to you’. (1 Peter 1:23, 25b).

This is a very important point. Throughout the letter James is not shy about bringing before us the moral imperatives of the Christian life, but we can only obey them because of what God has done in us. On the one hand, it is God who has brought us to new birth by the message of the gospel, or good news; we did not bring ourselves to new birth. But on the other hand, we are responsible for living out this new life he has planted in us by obedience to the teaching of Jesus as James expresses it.

James has a lovely title for God here: the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’. The title ‘Father of Lights’ is used of God in some of the Jewish inter-testamental literature, but it is his constancy and reliability that is stressed here (perhaps in contrast to the ‘double-minded person’ of vv.6-8).

So this passage starts with a gospel message: the Father of lights, who is totally reliable and consistent, is a thoroughly generous giver. As part of that generosity, he has given us the gift of new birth through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that new birth creates in us a new life which is modeled after the life of its author – a life of generosity and love.

But this new life is not just an idea – it has practical consequences. James spells out a few of them in the verses that follow.

19 You must understand this, my beloved [brothers & sisters]: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

One characteristic of the new life is its basic humility. The mind set on the flesh (to use Paul’s language) is full of its own opinions and longs to inflict them on others at every opportunity. If others don’t agree, and resist, the natural sinful reaction is to get angry with them. “Can’t these people see that I’m only thinking of their own good? Don’t they understand that I know best on this point?”

Maybe we think we’re going to change the world – for good – by inflicting our opinions on others and by exercising our righteous anger, but James assures us this is not so. ‘Your anger (literally ‘human anger’) does not produce God’s righteousness’ (v.20). This word ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosune) is customarily understood in individual terms, especially in Reformed and Protestant Christianity – the righteousness God requires of individuals, the demand to live a holy and righteous life. Of course, some Protestant and Reformed circles believe that this righteousness is impossible for us, even as newborn Christians, and all we can do is rely on the ‘imputed righteousness’ of Christ – a sort of sanctified legal fiction whereby God counts us righteous by counting Christ’s righteousness as if it were ours.

No matter – I don’t think the issue is relevant to James. He is the heir of the Old Testament prophetic tradition in which ‘righteousness’ is primarily a community thing – very close in meaning to ‘justice’ – a righteous world. What James is saying here is ‘You don’t achieve justice – that is, a better world for everyone – by getting angry with those who you disagree with (politically? theologically? morally?) and imposing your ideas on them. Rather, you start on the assumption that your first responsibility is to listen to the Word of God yourself: ‘Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’ (v.21).

As the saying goes, ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world; no one thinks of changing themselves’. Curious, since the only person we can really change is ourselves. And even that can’t be done on our own steam – it needs the guidance of the implanted Word of God and the indwelling Spirit of God. Our focus must be on rooting out our own sinfulness, receiving the word of God, and putting it into practice in our lives. And this leads to the next part:

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

Nowadays, of course, there are mirrors all over the place. Not only that, but everyone has a digital camera and is snapping photographs by the dozen, posting them online; some of my friends have dozens of alternative ‘profile pictures’ on Facebook! If I were to forget what I looked like, and didn’t have a single mirror in my house, all I’d need to do would be to look at Facebook and I’d remember right away!

By contrast, in the time of Jesus, mirrors were quite rare; only the richest houses would possess them. Glass windows, too, were almost unheard of. Most people only saw their own reflections if they happened to be on the shore of a lake on a windless day when the surface of the water was very still. In that society, it was very possible that a person might forget what they looked like!

In the same way, James says, it’s possible to forget what the Word of God tells us about our own spiritual state. We might listen to the Word of God and recognize what it says to us about what God wants from us, and our own shortcomings. We might even feel really bad about our own spiritual state and cry out to God to forgive us and help us to be different. But none of this is of any use whatsoever unless we actually do something about it.

Here, of course, James is reflecting the teaching of his brother.

‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ (Matthew 7:24-27).

I sometimes think we’ve made a serious liturgical mistake in the Anglican Church of Canada in our prayer of confession, in which we say to God, ‘We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent’. Why is this a mistake? Well, real repentance is not a matter of words but of actions. Perhaps it’s not for me to say, “I humbly repent”; rather, it’s for me to actually repent, by doing things differently, and then God will nod in approval and say, “Good – Tim is humbly repenting”.

So the question for all of us, week by week, as we hear the Bible read and the sermon preached, is this: ‘What am I actually going to do differently in my life as a result of what I’ve heard today?’ James is teaching us that this is the way to true freedom. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing’ (v. 25). Note carefully how that phrase is worded. It’s not the language of reward – if it were, it would be ‘they will be blessed for their doing’. But what it actually says is ‘in their doing’ – that is, as we do it, we will find it to be a blessing to us. The good deed will be its own reward, because we will find ourselves to be in harmony with the way God has designed us, and that is the way to true freedom.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

We’re back to speaking again, and our tendency to spray the universe with words – often angry, hurtful, unhelpful words. Perhaps James is remembering something else his big brother once said:

“I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

Careless words – thoughtless words, words that hurt and wound and sting and condemn – are here contrasted with care-full actions: caring for orphans and widows, reaching out to the needy and doing what we can to make their lives better. Of course, James is standing squarely in the prophetic tradition again here, and in the teaching of Jesus as well. True religion is not about rituals and liturgies and elaborate churches; it’s about ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ – which is all about community, and equality, and everyone having enough and no one having too much.

That’ll do for now. Time to check the commentaries and see what others have said about the passage.

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