Sunday, January 11, 2015

James: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

The letter of James is an oft-overlooked gem in the Bible.  As we have seen, the voice of Paul dominates the New Testament.  However, the small book of James offers a different and unique perspective.  Many scholars believe the book was written by (or at least originated from) the apostle James, the brother of Jesus.  Wait, you say.  Jesus had a brother?  Yes indeed.  The gospels attest that he had brothers and sisters.  And it appears that his brother James (along with Peter and John) became a leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem following the death of Jesus.  This was a community of Jews, led by apostles who had known Jesus.  Thus, the book of James gives us a glimpse into the thinking and teachings of the original followers of Jesus.  For those interested in understanding the teachings and significance of the historical Jesus, the book of James turns out to be hugely insightful.

James was the brother of Jesus.  He was also called James the Just.

In contrast to James, the apostle Paul (whose writings dominate the New Testament) had never even met the human Jesus of Nazareth.  The entirety of Paul’s theology comes from a single, subjective visionary experience he had of Jesus while traveling to Damascus.  By contrast, James had known Jesus his whole life, had been with him throughout his whole ministry.  And so, as it turns out, if we want to know about Jesus from a person who actually knew him, we must look to the small, often-overlooked letter of James.

In contrast to Paul, for whom the death and resurrection of Jesus were the most important things about him, the letter of James never once mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Instead, for James, the most important thing is ethical behavior.  Echoing the words of Jesus in the gospels, James is harshly critical of the wealthy and those who exploit the poor:

“For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ’Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor.  Is it not the rich who oppress you?  Is it not they who drag you into court?” (2:2-6)

“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.  Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.  You have laid up treasure for the last days.  Listen!  The wages of the laborers 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.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.” (5:1-6)

James has love for the poor, and criticism for the rich (Just like Jesus!)

For James, as for Jesus, how one treats the poor and needy is of paramount importance.  In contrast to Paul, who believes people are saved by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, James sees works and good deeds as essential for human salvation:

“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?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Reading the book of James causes us to seriously re-evaluate the mission and message of Jesus and the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem.  Growing up, I often heard conservative Christians speak disparagingly of those who saw Jesus as mainly a “good moral teacher” and not necessarily the resurrected Son of God.  As it turns out, in the book of James, the book most directly connected to the historical Jesus, that is exactly what we find--no mention of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and a great emphasis on moral teaching.  What matters most for James is right action, and not so much right belief.  The message of James may be summed up by the “golden rule” of Jesus and the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Some traditions suggest that James the brother of Jesus had dreadlocks.  Like HERE.

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