James 1:19-27: Pure vs worthless religion

Reading:  James 1:19-27
Reading this, I have to admit that my religion is sometimes pretty worthless. Sometimes, no matter how righteous my cause is — I am able speak before I listen. I was angry just a few days ago, and I spoke out of that anger. This week I am reading and talking about the passage that says: “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” and later “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

This is not an easy passage for me, and I have met few who would say that it is as easy passage for them either. When I speak in anger, without listening, I want to say that I spoke for the right reasons. I want to say that I am on the side of righteousness — or that God is on my side. I want to say that my anger is justified, because I am right. I even want to defend my anger by insisting that my anger is about the right things — but, James tells me that my anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

The words of Jesus really are not any easier. In the sermon on the mount Jesus speaks on anger saying:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
(Matthew 5:21-26 NRSV)

Jesus’ advice is to place reconciliation even above religious practice. God tells us that we face judgment for our anger, and that if somebody has a grievance, make it right, make reconciliation, even if it means leaving the temple. Making our relationships right is more important than going to worship.

What is religion? Religion is something grounded in a faith in something or Someone much larger than ourselves — it is a faith that causes us to live differently. People who are religious do things to practice their religion; they take time out of their schedules to go to a place of worship, they read scriptures, they pray, they fast, they give to support their religious institutions. I hate it when people say they have a relationship and not a religion — I have a relationship with a lot of people who I would ignore if they told me how to live my life, or what my relationships with my family should look like. The relationship does not give these people permission to change the details of my life — but, religion does just that, religion asks me to change the way I approach life, and even habits of thought and attitude like what I do with anger. Yes — my religion is about a relationship with Christ, but it is more than just another relationship; it is something that permeates and changes my life.

What is hard here is the reminder that as important as those acts of piety that I am used to are, there are some much more basic things that are far more important. It is hard for me to imagine bringing a sacrifice to the temple, and when it is my turn to offer the sacrifice, I remember that I need to reconcile with my brother — so I run out and do it; fix relationships first.

The New Testament makes the importance of loving your fellow human beings very clear. The first thing that comes to my mind is the passage in 1 John 4:20 tells us that if we cannot love our brother, who we see, than we do not love God who we do not see. Jesus talks about loving others, including the other on multiple occasions — the story of the good Samaritan where that man is made an example stands out, as does his direct command to “Love your enemies.” Jesus gives the explanation that there is nothing noble about loving those who love us back.

If I am to give a theological explanation I would look back to the creation narrative, and how it tells us that God created humanity in God’s own image — both male and female. I would point out that images are important, and that almost every temple you walk into holds an image that represents the god of the temple — but, for the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, making an image to represent God was forbidden. Now, I’m not going to go down the rabbit trail of Christian images, nor the argument about what is appropriate and what isn’t. I am going to say that Torah both rejected images made by human hands to represent God, and informed humanity that God personally crafted an image.

Now, think about what this means — think about how important images are to us. We might think that we are too modern to connect an image with the thing that it represents — but we do it constantly. For those of us who use a computer, we click on `icons’ all the time, with no thought of separating the action the computer does with the icon that has come to represent the action.

Think about how angry people get if somebody burns a flag in protest. There are all sorts of calls of criminalizing this extreme action. Does this not sound like an extreme reaction to what a person does with a small piece of patterned cloth? How is it different from any other piece of cloth? If the protester burned the flag where nobody could see it burn, nobody would get angry, and the fire would not harm anything — as long as it did not spread, so why is the flag more than a piece of cloth?

The flag is different because of the value we put on it. We take a very big concept — that of a nation of over 300 million people that is built on a philosophy of what it means to be a free people who are ruled justly, and a system of laws that tries to to be consistent with that philosophy; and we attach all our complex feelings to a piece of cloth with a specific pattern. When we see that cloth, we feel about the cloth the same way we feel about the nation — if we are angry with the nation, we are angry with the flag; and if we see violence done to the flag — even though the nation is unharmed, we feel anger as if our nation, and not a piece of cloth was burning. This is the power of an image.

God commanded that there be no image of God, but there were still images. The best known was the Ark of the Covenant, and to a lesser degree the Temple. These were images that declared God was present, but there was no Idol, no statue of the most high God.

There is also symbol that God’s law was the sovereign law of the land — and the sovereign law of a person’s home; Jewish custom was to put a few verses of scripture into a small box, and nail that box to the entryway. Nobody will open a mezuzah to read the scripture contained inside; but it sits there as a symbol that Torah is sovereign — including the commandment in Deuteronomy 6 to write the commandments you hear today on the doorposts of your houses.

These symbols however are not the image of God; Torah teaches that God made God’s own image in humanity. When we read that Jesus tells us to leave worship if we need reconciled with our brother, and do that right away — think about what the images mean. The person we need reconciled with is God’s image — how can we love God, and hate God’s image? This question should make as much sense to us as: “How can we love our country, yet hate its flag?”

One thing religion has always been about is images — and if we despise the image of the God we claim to worship; is it not obvious that our religion is worthless? The reason that this would be a priority — even a priority above pious acts such as participating in worship should seem clear. To quote a later part of James, about the need to control the tongue: “With our tongue, we bless God yet curse man who is made in God’s image — this should not be”. If we do not bridle our tongue — if we curse God’s image, we symbolically curse God.

The first chapter of James ends with telling us that pure and undefined religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress. This is a natural result of humanity being God’s image — the most religious thing to do is, if one sees an image defiled, to try and clean it up, perhaps even to repair minor damage. The society that the early Christians lived in did not treat the vulnerable people as God’s image; no, it treated God’s image as so much garbage. True religion sees God’s image for what it is — and works to honor it.

James 1:1-18

Reading:  James 1:1-18

My relationship with James is kind of odd — out of all the books in the Bible, I’m most familiar with it. It takes just over 10 minutes to recite, and as a teenager I think I was able to do so. I know the text of James very well, but I’m not always very sure what to do with it. James is hard; and if you don’t think it is hard then think of the last time that you had to go to a hospital, or your car broke down; or the money ran out before the month and you had a moment when you didn’t know that everything would be all right — did you experience this as joy? My teenage self redefined the word `joy’ to mean those things I didn’t want — I knew the words, but I’m quite sure that entirely missed the point.

James is also hard because we really don’t know much about the epistle. Tradition tells us that it was written by James the brother of Jesus — and, ancient tradition has three competing traditions on what this means, one is that James was one of Joseph’s children from a previous marriage; and there are ancient writers who believed that they were Joseph’s children by Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome’s theory is that James is the son of Cleopas, Joseph’s brother, who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (and thus Mary the mother of James, mentioned in Mark, is Cleopas’ wife, and Jesus’ aunt.)

What tradition agrees on is that after Jesus was taken up into heaven, James became the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and he remained there until his death in either 62 AD or 69 AD depending on which source you use — James was killed by Jewish leaders by being thrown off the temple, then beaten to death with a club.

Tradition tells us very little about the book of James, other than who wrote it. I cannot look at the great ancient preachers and read their sermons on James; I cannot even say that James meets the description used for scripture that it was “accepted everywhere from the beginning”, because it is missing from several of the “local” canons, and according to the 4th century church historian Eusebius James was a disputed book.

This, and a few internal issues causes many scholars question the tradition that James wrote the epistle of James, and suggest that it might be the last book of the New Testament, written as late as the 2nd century. They have the idea that James is either an ancient sermon, or perhaps a piece of wisdom literature that somehow had “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” added to the beginning.

The scholars who accept the tradition that James was written by James the brother of Jesus, and the head of the Jerusalem church obviously date James before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. One of the proposed dates is before the council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15, which would explain why this letter is only addressed to Jewish Christians; the decision that a person could be Christian without becoming a Jew had not been made yet. This is my favorite theory.

If I go with this theory, then this epistle would come between the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and the council that decided to accept Gentile Christians in Acts 15, sometime before 50 AD. When the Jewish leaders persecuted the Jewish Christians; many left Jerusalem for safer places. The church didn’t spread when everybody was content to stay in Jerusalem, but it did spread under persecution — and, James would have had people under his spiritual care who had left Judah for safer places. I like to picture this as a letter to religious refugees, and as the oldest book in the New Testament.

One reason I like the early date is that it makes James very interesting because James quotes Jesus a lot, and when not quoting, there seems to be an allusion to the words of Jesus. An early date for James is interesting because this would make James the earliest extant source of the teachings of Christ. I can read “Consider it pure Joy” and notice this is a lot like the sermon on the mount which begins:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)

To put the first words of James into the formula of the sermon on the mount:  “Blessed are you when you face diverse trials, for the testing of your faith brings endurance and leads to maturity.”  This sounds a lot like Jesus.

James jumps from this to telling those of us who lack wisdom to pray for it, and to trust God to give it to us. Following this, James tells the poor to talk about how they are raised up, and the rich to talk about how they are brought down — Christ is an equalizer, and in Luke’s gospel Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven… but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

James follows this by reminding everybody that when we are tempted, we are tempted by our own desires. I know it is an old joke, but I smile at the person who prays the Lord’s prayer, and when he gets to “Lead me not into temptation”, adds: “for I already know the way.”

Today’s section ends with the verse that tells us every perfect gift comes from the Father; I tend to see this as God is the source of generosity and the generous spirit — so, even if I give, it is God who gave and give the desire to be generous, so our generosity, as well as any wisdom we receive is ultimately a gift from God.