The Letter of James is odd.
James is one of a set of texts in the New Testament that we call Epistles – Greek for “letters.” Some of the Epistles were written to a particular church – or even a particular person – and address specific situations or questions; and some are more general teachings, probably circulated among many churches. James seems to be the second kind of Epistle. He says he’s writing “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” – a poetic way of saying that he’s writing to God’s scattered people, to Christians all across the ancient world.
While fitting the general template, in other respects, James is pretty different from other Epistles. For one thing, James doesn’t have much to say about Jesus. In five chapters, James mentions Jesus exactly twice – once when the author introduces himself, and once in today’s text. Compare that with Paul who mentions Jesus seventeen times in the six chapters of his letter to the Galatians.
James has many resonances with the Wisdom texts of the Hebrew Bible – texts that use poetic language to describe the ways of the world and offer moral guidance. Our Proverbs text this morning is a good example, and you can easily see the similarity with James. And like Proverbs and other wisdom texts, James covers a lot of ground in a few verses. James can be hard to preach because there’s so much you could unpack from any given passage!
Who wrote this text? The author introduces himself as James, “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus.” The traditional view – held by some modern scholars as well – is that this James was Jesus’ brother, who became an important leader in the church in Jerusalem, the mother church of early Christianity.
In the letter to the Galatians – which is one of the earliest Christian texts, possibly written only fifteen years or so after Jesus – the apostle Paul mentions James, the brother of Jesus, as a church leader in Jerusalem. Non-Biblical early texts also mention a leader named James.
This James was probably not the same person as either of the disciples named James – because the Gospels say Jesus’ immediate family did not follow him, during his lifetime. But apparently James was a fairly common name! So it’s not a stretch to assume there was another James.
Some scholars think that the oddness of the letter of James makes it likely to be a late text, perhaps written 100 years after Jesus or more – based on similarities of language and theme with other, non-Biblical texts of that period.
Some scholars think the oddness of James makes it more likely to be very early. If James really was a prominent leader in the Jerusalem church, and possibly Jesus’ brother – and writing as early as the late 40s when the Christian world was still quite small – he wouldn’t have felt a need to explain who he was, or justify his Christian credentials. James doesn’t refer to the Gospels at all, which would make sense if it was written before the Gospels. He doesn’t talk a lot about Jesus – but he does sound a lot like Jesus. There’s a lot in James that closely parallels, or expands on, Jesus’ teachings. Which, again, would make a lot of sense for an early church leader – who maybe knew Jesus pretty well. The ways in which James has more in common with parts of the Old Testament than with other New Testament texts also makes sense for an early date, when most followers of Jesus were Jews.
I’m not a New Testament scholar and I haven’t read all the sources – but I do find the case for James as a very early Christian text to be pretty convincing, and that’s how I think of it.
The Letter of James covers a lot of ground, but it does have a strong central theme: The call for believers to live a transformed life, in keeping with their new orientation as followers of Jesus. Last week I talked about integrity – about having our outsides match our insides, our actions match our values and intentions. That’s one way to describe James’ core message: Live a life that matches your faith.
And it’s a message that transcends time and context. Reading James, I feel like he’s speaking to me – to us – a lot of the time. There are parts that don’t carry over as well, but much of James’ teaching feels pretty timeless: practicing generosity; guarding our speech so we don’t harm others with our words; being considerate of those in need; not being judgmental or greedy; being watchful about where the ways of the world – the social norms of our time and place – may be at odds with the way of Jesus. And so on.
Integrity is always aspirational, always something we’re living into, step by step. And some of James’ words are important for me personally, as part of that work. They function as holy thorns in my side, urging me to live what I say I believe. In last week’s reading we had this passage: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
I think about that text pretty often. About looking in the mirror of my faith and seeing myself honestly: where my life matches my deepest hopes and commitments, and where it does not. When I turn away from that mirror, what do I do? How do I act? What do I change?
And then in today’s text, there’s this: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
That passage gives me a good sharp poke now and then. I’m very clear that my salvation in Jesus Christ is God’s free gift. Our works – our actions – cannot earn God’s favor. But we are called to live lives shaped by gratitude and mercy – to live out love, as people who know ourselves beloved. As James says here: If our faith doesn’t show up in how we live, then what difference does it make – to us, to our neighbors, to the world?
James’ description of faith that never manifests itself in acts of justice or mercy is harsh: he says that faith is as good as dead. I wouldn’t be so sharp in my own language. Living up to our own best intentions is demanding lifelong work. But James’ challenge rings in my ears now and then: You say that you have faith? Show me.
So James’ strongest theme is the call to live in accord with what we believe. Not just keeping it in our heads and hearts but letting it spill over into our lives. Today’s reading gives us a look at the second strongest theme in James: the rich, the poor, and how folks in the middle respond to the rich and the poor.
James starts with the question of a church’s hospitality to someone joining them for worship. He says, Your welcome should be the same, whether someone is visibly poor or visibly wealthy. If anything, you should favor the poor, whom, says James – quoting Jesus – God has chosen to be heirs of the kingdom of God.
Later, in chapter 5, James preaches against the wealthy who become rich by exploiting their workers: “Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire… Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
The Sunday lectionary tactfully skips this passage!
James’ indictment of those who gather wealth through unfair practices is also a call to concern for the welfare of workers. Tomorrow is Labor Day, a federal holiday set aside to honor the American labor movement and American workers. Labor unions are a way for workers to organize so that they have the power, together, to ask those in charge – factory owners, company leaders – for what they need. Like any human movement, the labor movement is imperfect, but I’m deeply grateful for its contributions. Some of its accomplishments include the eight-hour workday and the concept of overtime pay; the weekend; workplace safety standards and equipment; sick days; child labor laws; and the minimum wage.
But while there are some protections for some workers – there is so much left to do. One of the realities laid bare by the Covid pandemic was that all of us depend on low-wage workers, who in many cases don’t have much protection. While many Americans relied on Amazon to meet daily needs during lockdown, Amazon warehouse workers faced a grueling pace of work that took a toll on both bodies and minds. Food workers – those who plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, sell and serve food – were deemed essential and required to stay on the job, but with few added protections. As a result, one study found that in California – which grows a lot of food – food workers faced a 39% increase in deaths, compared to a 22% increase across all working adults. Many low-wage workers don’t have sick leave – so they come to work sick and potentially help the pandemic spread, not because they are selfish or thoughtless, but because they depend on their wages and can’t afford to risk their jobs.
The Covid pandemic has been especially brutal for health care workers. Nearly 4000 health care workers died of Covid during the first year of the pandemic in the United States; the World Health Organization estimates that over 100,000 health care workers have died of Covid worldwide.
Even apart from Covid illness, the past eighteen months have been exhausting and traumatic for many health care workers, especially those directly involved in care for Covid patients. Maybe you’ve seen some of their anguish, frustration, and grief in viral social media posts. A friend tells me about another friend who did a stint in Covid care last year, and now experiences what I would describe as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when they step back into that part of the facility.
This week it was announced that nurses in the UW Health system are seeking to re-form a union, as a way to advocate for themselves, their families, and their patients, in the face of challenges like deteriorating staff-to-patient ratios, recruitment and retention challenges, contributing to burnout and exhaustion. As one UW doctor said, “I want the nurses I work with to have what they need because their working conditions are patients’ treatment conditions.” (Source: https://spectrumnews1.com/wi/madison/politics/2021/05/20/uw-health-workers-push-for-union-voice_ )
One of the night prayers in our prayer book asks God to watch over those who work while others sleep, and to help us never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil.
Our common life depends upon each other’s toil. It’s hard to put it more simply and clearly.
There’s dignity and significance in most human work. But Labor Day and the letter of James invite us to be especially mindful of those who keep our society and economy running, for low wages and with few benefits or protections. CNAs and grocery store shelf stockers; bank clerks and mail carriers; farm and factory workers; bus drivers, first responders and child care workers; and so many others.
May one of the lessons we carry away from the Covid pandemic be a deepened awareness of just how much our common life depends upon each other’s toil, and a renewed commitment to the wellbeing of all essential workers.
May the apostle James provoke us not only to wish our neighbors peace, and health, and food, but to do what we can, when we can, to help ensure the wellbeing of all God’s people.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
— Collect for Labor Day, the Book of Common Prayer, p. 261
Heavenly Father, we remember before you those who suffer want and anxiety from lack of work. Guide the people of this land so to use our public and private wealth that all may find suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment for their labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
— For the Unemployed, the Book of Common Prayer, p. 824
Source for figures about food workers, and more information: