A different story altogether (James)

James is almost certainly written by James the Just (thought to be the brother of Jesus) who led the church in Jerusalem. His was a very Jewish form of Christianity, shown by his opening address to the twelve, scattered tribes of Israel. As with Paul in Romans, James writes in the shadow of the Law of Moses. But reading between the lines, it’s pretty clear that James takes a very different view of justification to Paul. And he writes in part to rebut Paul’s ideas.

As I argued in my post on Romans, when Paul talks about ‘justification by faith’ he doesn’t mean what we generally think he means – normally something around how we get right with God. The question on the lips of the Jews was ‘how are we justified in believing we are the People of God when the Kingdom of God still hasn’t arrived?’ Which is really another way of asking how the dream still has any credibility after 600 years of foreign occupation? The standard answer was: we’ve got the Law. It’s the best blueprint for life and if we keep it then eventually we’ll be vindicated in our hope.

In Romans, Paul challenges the idea that the Law can justify this hope. To cut a complex argument short, he says the Law can’t save you, because the more you cling to it, the more it exposes how much you don’t keep it. But we are justified, he goes on. By faith. Not primarily by our faith, but by God’s faith in Jesus as a hope for our future. We’re justified in believing that we are the People of God because Jesus has redeemed humankind with his life. If Jesus can do it, says God, then so can we!

Royal Law

James, however, challenges that idea head-on. Faith without works is dead, says James. ‘Show me your ‘faith’ without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do’ (2:18). ‘People are justified by what they do and not by faith alone!’ (2:24).

It seems pretty clear that Paul and James disagreed. (It’s been well documented; Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem – see Acts 24:17; 1 Cor 16:1–3 – being understood as a token of solidarity and unity, even amidst their disagreement.) It’s possible that James had just misunderstood Paul. But what’s really interesting about James is the way he frames the Law.

He uses this phrase, the ‘royal Law’, to describe the command to ‘Love your neighbour’. It’s a particular lens through which to read the Law of Moses. I guess it’s a way of saying: this command is more important than the rest – following in the tradition of Jesus, who called it the greatest commandment after loving God with all your being.

Which is why James is about how to love your neighbour. For James, this is how the People of God fulfil the Law.

So his examples are all about prioritising the poor and levelling the status of the rich (2:1-7; 5:1-6), and his teaching is directed against the desire for wealth (4:1-2). Even the famous passage about taming the tongue and keeping one’s words in check is framed in terms of the perils of pursuing status in the community – ‘not many of you should presume to be teachers my brothers’ (3:1).

But it is the opening chapter on perseverance which makes most sense in the light of James’ disagreement with Paul. ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance’ (1:2-3). The ‘trials’ and ‘perseverance’ James is referring to is not just the normal wear and tear of life; it is in relation to the hope for the Kingdom of God. So the phrase ‘the testing of your faith’ has a sharp tip. You want to be justified by faith? Prove it by your persistent good works.

Semantics?

In one sense the difference between James and Paul might seem pretty slim. After all, Paul exhorts his Roman readers not to take the grace of God for granted. Aren’t they both trying to say the same thing in different ways?

I think not. Firstly, James’ letter is radically committed to the Law. He filters it through the command to love your neighbour, but essentially he does not believe for a moment that it has been replaced, superseded, or in any other way made obsolete. In James’ world, it is the duty of every Christian to keep it. And in this way they demonstrate their hope in the coming Kingdom of God.

Secondly, this impacts on the way he imagines the future. The Kingdom of God will involve a coming judgement in which the rich are seriously humbled and the poor lifted up. The rich should repent now, to avoid that coming judgement. Because they will be judged according to the Law: which is to look after orphans and widows in their distress (1:27)

Shaping stories

Like much of the Old Testament, the New Testament is also rife with competing ideas; this isn’t the account of one uniform faith. Early Christianity inherited the fiercely divided strains of Jewish religion and worked hard to make sense of them through the lens of Jesus’ life and death. It’s the wonder of the Scriptures that we are invited in to the honest wranglings of communities trying to imagine a faithful future under the oppressive shadow of an empire. It’s the wonder that the Scriptures invite us to unleash today.

Yet one of the ironies of the Protestant Reformation (that has so shaped our contemporary faith) is that while Luther and others were busy proclaiming sola scriptura – the Bible alone – as the basis of their new-found faith, Luther himself was also asking whether James was worthy of inclusion in the Canon because it was so at odds with Paul. We’ve inherited a doctrine of sola scriptura which does just that: enforces the Bible as sole authority in the church, but with the added requirement that the Bible be thoroughly consistent.

Unfortunately it isn’t.

Love is the motif of both Paul and James - on that they both emphatically agree. The shaping story of faith by which they get there, however, is quite profoundly different.

So let us be so full of love that we can enthusiastically embrace the difference and diversity of both the Scriptures and of the world around us. And with open hearts and open minds shape the stories of the days to come.