Tuesday, August 29, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 1:17-27

[Each week, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since most weekends, our Bible lesson is one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

The Lesson: James 1:17-27
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In 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.

19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

General Comments:
1. James, the earthly brother of Jesus, was a leader of the first-century church in Jerusalem. He represented that group of early Christians most devoted to maintaining their Jewish identity as they proclaimed the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord. But, displaying the flexibility that comes to those who submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, at the famed counsel of Jerusalem, it was James who recommended that Gentile converts not be forced to adopt Jewish ritual or religious law.

2. Some scholars dispute whether this book was written by James. They argue that it's written in a sophisticated version of New Testament Greek. (The Greek of the New Testament is slightly different from classical Greek. The language of the New Testament is known as koine Greek. Koine, not surprisingly, is a Greek word meaning common. The fairly well-known Greek word, koinonia, means fellowship or, more literally, in common together.)

The significance of the style of James' language, say many scholars, is that it was not likely to have been written by a carpenter's son from Nazareth.

Nazareth was an insignificant village, comprised of perhaps fifteen households in all. But it was also located just west of the cosmopolitan region of the Decapolis, a federation of ten Greek-speaking cities. Traders no doubt traveled through or near Nazareth from the cities of the Decapolis to other parts of Judea and on to Egypt.

Like the Gallilean fishermen among Jesus' first followers, it wouldn't have been unthinkable for any resident of Nazareth to be adept--if not downright fluent--in four different languages:
  • their native Aramaic;
  • their religious language of Hebrew;
  • the language of their Roman occupiers, Latin; and
  • the language of international commerce, as well as scholarship, Greek.
Like today's residents of so-called Third World countries or of nations that are major players in the world economy, the residents of Judea would have found to be it in their interest to know how to speak in the language of major powers. James may well have known Greek.

Another argument advanced against James as the actual author of this book is that when Old Testament passages are cited, the quotations aren't from the Hebrew Bible, but from the Greek version of it. Known as the Septuagint, this translation is thought to have been produced sometime between the third and first-centuries BC.

Scholars argue, unconvincingly to my mind, that the real James would have quoted from the Hebrew version of the Old Testament. Why that should be the case is beyond me, particularly since his original audience would have been Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin. These were people who would have necessarily been forced to be conversant with the general culture. By the time of Jesus' birth, Hebrew had ceased to be a language used in everyday conversation. Jews knew it for the sake of reading the Torah and for worship, in the way some Roman Catholics formerly knew Latin. But in discussing the Old Testament Scriptures, first-century Jews, even those in Judea, would have used their everyday languages, including Greek, which was almost everybody's second language then.

3. The book of James was not accepted into the New Testament canon until a relatively late date, although some of the early Church Fathers--like Origen--quoted it extensively and appreciatively. It was accepted as part of the inspired holy writings earlier in the eastern Church--that is, in the general Asia Minor region--than it was in the west. But by the fourth century, it was also accepted there, a region centered by that time, on Rome.

4. Martin Luther hated the book of James, believing that it shouldn't be part of our Bible and thinking that James commended salvation by works, rather than adhering to the central Biblical doctrine that we are saved by grace through our faith in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

But Luther was wrong. James' emphasis on living out our faith echoes Jesus' teaching that the changed relationship with God that comes to those who turn from sin and follow Him will be evidenced--however imperfectly--in our lives.

The New Interpreter's Bible points out that, in their writings, James and Paul were addressing different issues. And, it says:
...when read on its own terms, James is a powerful witness to both the diversity in early Christianity and the moral imperative of Christian identity in every age. [italics mine]
5. James is an example of what's known as wisdom literature, like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament.

At first blush, James seems less cohesive than say, Romans, written by Paul. But our lesson for this week acts as an introduction to the book, helping us to see some of its themes. (I hope to address those in the next pass.)

6. James' wisdom is rooted firmly in a relationship with Jesus Christ. That will become apparent as we explore the passage more fully. This is not some generic listing of wisdom sayings. It's wisdom for Christians wanting to mature in their faith.

7. James' use of the term, law, is different from how Paul usually uses it. (Or fifteen centuries later, how Luther would use it.) James' use has more in common with the way the term is used in Proverbs or in the Psalms, as the expression of God's will that we love our neighbor.

James is mostly interested in how the law guides the believer already in a relationship with Jesus Christ. For such a person, the law is a gentle nudge from the Lord we know loves us forever, a nudge that keeps our lives moving optimally, blessedly. The first Psalm well expresses this understanding of how God's law works in the lives of those already justified by grace through faith in the God we today meet in Jesus Christ:
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1)
More tomorrow, I hope.

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