Of Word and of Deed:
‘Working’ through the Epistle of James
Dn Jason Ketz
1) What is this strange obsession with faith versus works? What triggered this lengthy discourse?
2) How does St James then transition from emphasizing deeds to discussing words
3) By the way, where is Jesus in this whole letter???
The last question eventually became such a distraction for me that I may as well work through it now. Jesus is mentioned by name only twice in the epistle: in the opening verse, by way of introducing the author “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1), and again at 2:1, “my brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Paul wrote his epistles without heavy recitation of or reliance on themes from the life of Christ, but Paul certainly factored Christ into his teachings, his theological framework, his doxologies. And of course, the theological significance Paul placed on Jesus’ death on the cross is unmistakable.
James does not go nearly so far. In fact, it has been suggested that the epistle could function as a Jewish text if these two verses were removed. Perhaps that is so, but Christians have long been willing to identify Christian themes in texts (like the entire Old Testament) which lack explicit references to Jesus of Nazareth. Further, although James’ epistle is nearly as light on theistic references as the Book of Esther, this simple reasoning by word-count masks the fact that this epistle has a thoroughly ‘New Testament’ character. Several Gospel themes, including a few from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, factor heavily into this epistle, as do a number of Old (and New) Testament teachings and values. And a great deal of the logical argument seems to complement (or contrast) a very Pauline perspective on faith.
Finally, it deserves mention that this document is ostensibly a letter to an audience. One does not write this way to strangers, so some common ground (and common belief) between author and audience is to be expected. So what, then, should we make of the absence of reference to Christ? Ultimately, there is no cause for concern. James felt no need to define his belief, but merely to confess it succinctly. And in fact the whole focus of the epistle seems to shift away from this topic of abstract theology. Therefore, we should not linger.
On faith versus works, James leaves us with a great deal more opportunity for exploration. The veracity and length of the epistle’s position on this topic is stunning. The basic argument is that authentic faith (in Christ) does not exist when the faithful person’s life is devoid of good works. “But someone will say ‘you have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (2:18). James’ extended position on this topic seems to put him in conflict with Paul’s epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, and perhaps with the epistle to the Hebrews (which contains the repeated phrase “by faith…”), but this assessment is too simplistic. Certainly, there is tension, but it is the tension of two ideas which occupy opposite ends of the same scale; opposite sides of the same coin. In fact, neither Paul nor James proposes that faith or works can exist independently. Paul is willing to go so far as to say that faith can be expressed without specifically predefined works (ie, the Law of Moses), but neither would propose that a Christian can be such without acting in a certain manner, with respect to God, one’s self, and one’s neighbor. Unfortunately, any deeper dive into the discussion comes at the risk of importing the Luther / Catholic debates of sola fide into these ancient and timeless epistles that together form the harmonious cornerstone of our faith. That is not to say the matter cannot be parsed, only that it takes a great deal of energy and time. Time that, in fact, neither apostle felt the need to spend on the topic. James was concerned about his community’s behavior – the human expression of faith. And he calls them—and us!—out on some truly insidious behavior, not the least of which is glossing over people’s physical needs in order to preach faith in Christ. “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” (2:15-17). How many times have we been anything except generous with our possessions? What drives that behavior, and how can we be so comfortable returning to Church the following week? In fact, with this passage, St James also provides the answer to a distracting verse in Christ’s sermon on the mount, from the Gospel of Matthew: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow … if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” (Mt 6:28-30). In fact, as the apostle James understands it, it is now our responsibility to provide for others, in God’s name.
Halfway through the epistle, St James makes a transition from talking about various actions to discussing the spoken word. He discusses the dangers of a loose tongue, of sloppy teaching or hypocrisy amongst teachers, about the incompatibility of prayer and praise with profane speech, alludes to proper versus improper prayer, and chastises for planning our future as if we have control over, well, anything. The transition feels odd in some respects, because speech (and clearly constructed ‘speech-like’ thought patterns are usually categorized separately from more physical ‘actions.’ Our pre-communion prayer parses sins into those “of word and of deed.” But this distinction is ultimately foreign to the apostle James. Rather, in the context of this epistle, speech is unquestionably a form of action – a work. Therefore, improper speech (boasting, cursing, ‘bitter ambition and selfish hearts’) constitutes bad works, indicative of flawed or dead faith, while proper speech and speech-centered behavior (ie, gratitude, humility, patience as regards the future, repentance and lamentation) testifies to a true faith in Christ. So at once the faithful are expected to feed others whenever possible, and we are also expected to pray—fervently!—for our own needs. Both are the acts of a Christian.
Many epistles focus on Christian behavior – this idea is hardly unique in the New Testament epistles. However, the Epistle of James expands on the salvific impact of our attitudes and actions in a positive, thorough manner which finds no equal in the New Testament. And lest we depart from this survey thinking that the apostle James is heavy on the practical advice but light on theological insight, we can close with a passage from his epistle which is already familiar to us from the
concluding prayer of the Divine Liturgy: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment 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 (Jas 1:17-18).