Something in us loves to root for the underdog. Whether it’s cheering for Rocky Balboa to knock out Apollo Creed, or pulling for Scrappy Doo to defeat cartoon criminals, we like to see the person in the shadows have at least one moment of fame. Take the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team. Few events have captured the attention and imagination of our country as did the US hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union in the medal round of the Olympics. The US team went on to win the gold medal. And thanks to movies, books, and frequent replays, it’s a moment that lives in infamy. The triumph of the misunderstood or ill-equipped or least suspected character happens all the time in literature as well, from Harlequin Romances to Jane Austen to Jane Eyre to Harry Potter. When the less likely contender takes home the prize, we tend to feel a sense of satisfaction. And, frankly, maybe that’s why I find myself drawn to the Epistle of James.
We’re not completely sure who wrote the book of James—there are several different James mentioned in the Bible. And the salutation of this epistle describes James simply as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” But many scholars believe the James referred to here is Jesus’ brother— and there’s nothing like being the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ to make you feel a little overshadowed by a sibling; being the middle child pales in comparison to what that must have been like. But not only was James perhaps a little overshadowed, but the book that bears his name has been as well. Whether this letter was written by James or by a community or author using his name, the book of James has been short-shifted and misunderstood in the scheme of New Testament letters. And since we’ll be reading from James for the next few Sundays, I think it’s important to talk for a moment about what has given rise to the misunderstandings that surround this book.
The Reformer Martin Luther referred to the letter of James as “an epistle of straw compared to [St. Paul’s letters].” For Luther, James’ emphasis on doing good works threatened to slide back into a “works righteousness” theology—Luther was afraid that good works would be seen as the way to salvation, instead of faith. And unfortunately, many since Luther’s time have read James in the same way, too, causing it to be relegated to the second tier in the epistle hierarchy. But, rooting as always for the underdog, I think James has actually gotten a bad rap.
For James, doing good works is not about adhering to the letter of the law in a blind way, and it isn’t a way to obtain riches or favor. Instead, being a “doer of the word” is about participating in the divine economy of gift. God is seen here not as a punitive lawgiver, but as the one from whom all good things come. God is the giver of gifts. And because God is continually giving us good things, the logic goes that we should then be able to give to those around us as well—whether that’s giving our love, our patience, our kindness, our food, or our money.
I call this the sponge model of discipleship. Sponges don’t have circulatory or digestive systems to move nutrients through them. They are dependent on the constant flow of water through their body to give them life. In the same way, when we give to the world, it’s not from our own resources, but from the gifts we have ourselves received. James doesn’t see the world as a closed system of resources and need, but as dependent at every moment on the generosity of God. And for James, it’s precisely because God is gift-giver and not merely lawmaker that we’re also able to give, to orphans and widows (as our passage commands) and to others in need as well. We are in a sense a conduit.
In all fairness, though, God was never seen by Israel as strictly a lawgiver. According to Deuteronomy, the commandments given to Israel were a way to show the closeness of God to the people of Israel. It was about relationship, not blind obedience. And that’s the point in our gospel reading as well. Jesus wasn’t saying that following Jewish law was wrong or unimportant, just that our hands can’t be separated from our hearts. The problem is that it’s all too easy for us to make what we do about rules, and to forget that what we do is really about participating in God’s gift-giving.
But here’s the thing: saying that it’s not about a set of rules doesn’t make what we do any less important, because what we do reflects the kind of God we believe in. When we believe in a God who gives mercy, we are more able to show mercy—to forgive those who may have wronged us, to be willing to provide a second chance for those who need it, to not beat ourselves up when we fall short of the mark. When we see God as the creator and redeemer of all that is, then we care about the earth—we know that what we do will affect those who come after us, we view tending a garden as a form of worship, we see creation as more than a set of resources for our own consumption. When we believe in a God of abundance, we work hard to show that there is in fact enough for everyone. We get food to those who are hungry, medical care to those in remote places, and shelter for people who need it. Here in Pope County, one in every four children have food insecurity (defined by the USDA as “the lack of consistent access to enough food to live an active, healthy lifestyle”). We have a church on almost every corner (81 churches in this county), but one in four children do not know if they will have enough food this week. That’s why what in this place every Saturday is so important; that’s why sharing music, laughter, and a free hot meal with our neighbors every Saturday is—at it’s core—eucharistic. Simply put: when we truly see God as the giver of all good things and we celebrate those gifts the way that God created us to, then we become gift-givers, too—we’re compelled to share those gifts with the world.
So as we hear more from James over the coming weeks, let’s not see him as an opponent of Paul’s words about faith, or as someone who is fixated on the law, or on good works for their own sake. Instead, let’s see him as someone who’s taking us to task. James knew that good relationships empower us, and the relationship we have with God does this more than any other. Because when the implanted word takes root in us, it changes us more and more into a reflection of the God we proclaim.