THE LETTER OF ST. JAMES
LESSON 5: RESPECT FOR THE POOR and THE EXERCISE OF TRUE FAITH

 

Almighty God and Father,
In Your perfect love, Father, You show no distinction, but love all of Your children with the same intensity. You ask the same of each of us, that we should love our brothers not based upon beauty of form, nor on position or rank, nor on their prosperity and material wealth, but to love as Christ has loved us. From the least of us to the greatest of us Jesus willing laid down His life that we might inherit the gift of eternal life. All He asks of us is that the depth of His love be reflected in our acts of mercy to our brothers and sisters who are most in need of His love. We ask the guidance of Your Holy Spirit, Father, as we study St. James' call for Christians of all generations to acknowledge that just as a body without a soul is spiritually lifeless, so too is the spiritual life of the Christian dead when faith is not lived out in Your works of mercy and love. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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"And so, girded with faith and the performance of good works, let us follow in His paths by the guidance of the Gospel; then we shall deserve to see Him who has called us into His kingdom. If we wish to attain a dwelling-place in His kingdom we shall not reach it unless we hasten there by our good deeds." The Rule of St. Benedict

"It is obvious that words alone are not going to help someone who is naked and hungry. Someone whose faith does not go beyond words is useless. Such faith is dead without works of Christian love which alone can bring it back to life." Bede the Venerable, The Epistle of St. James

In the account of the transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke, the Apostles Peter, John and James Zebedee witness Jesus as the divine Messiah, as He is transformed in His glory before their eyes: "And it happened that, as he was praying, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became sparkling white. And suddenly there were two men talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem" Luke 9:29-30. The word "passing" in this passage is in the Greek text the word "exodus" and refers to the "New Exodus" Jesus will lead through His death and resurrection. The great prophet Moses summoned the 12 Tribes of the children of Israel to follow him out of slavery in the Gentile land of Egypt. At Mount Sinai the original Exodus generation became the covenant people of Yahweh and after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Joshua, whose name in Hebrew is Ya'shua [Yeshua], led the children of Israel into the Promised Land of freedom that God had promised them. In the New Covenant Exodus Jesus, the greater than Moses and the new Ya'shua [in Hebrew Jesus' name is Ya'shua/Yeshua], leads the children of Israel and all the Gentile nations of the earth out of slavery to sin and death and into the true Promised Land of heaven!

In St. James' letter/homily he has made two allusions to the "new Exodus". The first is his summons to the 12 Tribes of Israel in James 1:1 and the second is his identification of this 1st century AD generation of Jews as the "firstfruits" of God's creation. This 1st century AD generation will be the first generation of the New Covenant people to pass through the Gates of Heaven and to inherit the Promised Land that is theirs through the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Just as the firstfruits of the harvests were always dedicated to God in the ritual practice of the Old Covenant, so too is this generation of the New Covenant dedicated to God as the "firstfruits" of the gift of salvation, this New Covenant generation is now the first of the harvest of souls into the Promised Land of Heaven. The "firstfruits" of the Sinai generation were those "firstborn" children of Israel who were redeemed by the blood the Passover lamb or kid on the night of the first Passover in the land of Egypt. Now this generation of "firstborn" sons and daughters has been redeemed by the precious Blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus the Messiah.

Please read James 2:1-13: Living the Law of Justice
James 2:1-4: "My brothers, do not let class distinction enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord. Now suppose a man comes into your synagogue, well-dressed and with a gold ring on, and at the same time a poor man comes in, in shabby clothes, and you take notice of the well-dressed man, and say, 'Come this way to the best seats'; then you tell the poor man, 'Stand over there' or 'You can sit on the floor by my foot-rest.' In making this distinction among yourselves have you not used a corrupt standard?"

James admonishes the Jewish-Christians: "My brothers, do not let class distinction enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our gloried Lord." This passage can also be translated "do not let partiality enter into your faith..." or "do not let favoritism enter your faith."

A system of justice that protected the poor and disadvantaged was built into the Sinai Covenant. According to the Old Covenant law of Leviticus chapter 19:9-18, the poor must be protected. Landowners were forbidden to reap the harvest to the edges of their fields. They were also not allowed to gather the gleanings of the harvest, to strip the vineyards, or to pick up grapes that had already fallen. These portions of the crop were to be left to the widows and orphans. In addition to these laws, every seven years was a Sabbatical year in which the land was allowed to lay fallow and all debts incurred during that seven year period were forgiven. Every 50th year the sabbatical year mercies were repeated along with the freeing of all Israelite slaves and their children and the return of the land to its original tribal owner. Every 50th year was a year of liberation and mercy where the domination of the wealthy and powerful was checked and society was restructured so that the poor were not at the mercy of the rich. This year of favor and liberation was called the Jubilee year. In the days of the kings of Israel only the king as God's anointed could proclaim a Jubilee year.

The Liberation of the Sabbath and Jubilee years
The Sabbath Year Liberation:
Exodus 23:10-11;
Leviticus 25:1-7; 18-22
Deuteronomy 15:1-11
The Jubilee Liberation:
Leviticus 25:8-17; 28-55;
Deuteronomy 15:1-11;
every 7th Sabbath year is a Jubilee
1. Rest for the land every 7th year; it was forbidden to plant the fields
[Leviticus 25:2-7]
1. The land would be redeemed and rest, no crops can be sown the land must lay fallow
[Leviticus 25:11-12; 17]
2. All debts remitted in the 7th year [Deuteronomy 15:1-2] 2. All debts are to be forgiven [Deuteronomy 15:1-2]
  3. all Israelite slaves & their children are to be freed [Leviticus 25:35-55]; an Israelite can only be enslaved for a 7 year period outside of a Jubilee year [Deuteronomy 15:12-16]
  4. the land would be freed to revert to the tribal family originally entrusted with it [Leviticus 25:10, 13, 23-34]

The prophet Isaiah prophesized a divine jubilee with the coming of the Messiah in Isaiah 61:1-2a: "The spirit of Lord Yahweh is on me for Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, to release to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favor from Yahweh...."
In Jesus' first homily given at His hometown synagogue in Nazareth, He quoted this passage and proclaimed He had come to fulfill it, inaugurating a divine jubilee of liberation!

In this opening passage of James 2:1-9, James is affirming that social justice is necessary for those who put their faith in the Resurrected Jesus Christ, just as social justice and the showing of no partiality within the covenant family was part of the Old Covenant. James' teaching recalls the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus 35:12-13: "for the Lord is a judge who is utterly impartial. He never shows partiality to the detriment of the poor, he listens to the plea of the injured party. He does not ignore the orphan's supplication, nor the widow's, as she pours out her complaint." James was probably thinking of this passage when he identified the mercy shown to widows and orphans as a sign of one's true practice of religion. [Also see Exodus 23:10-13; Deuteronomy 24:17-22; 26:12-13; Ruth 2:2]

In James 2:2, the gentle bishop uses the Greek word "synagogue" to identify the assembly of worship of his brothers and sisters in faith. The word in Greek is sunagoge. Is he discussing a Jewish-Christian place of assembly and worship or is he talking about a Jewish non-Christian assembly? Some scholars suggest the words "your synagogue" seems to indicate an assembly controlled by Messianic Jews, while others suggest that James is speaking to a mixed assembly of Jews and Jewish Christians. The term "synagogue" is used 57 times in the New Testament and 56 times it refers to a Jewish place of assembly. In the early Church even Jewish-Christians used the term for their Christian gatherings but later, the Jews adopted the Greek word "sunagoge" to identify their assemblies and Christians adopted the Greek word "ekklesia." At the time James' letter was written there does not seem to be this distinction, which may point to the early dating of this epistle. In the early years of the Church there is evidence to suggest that the Jerusalem Jewish-Christians were attending the Sabbath worship at the Temple in Jerusalem or were attending services in the local synagogues in their home towns. They were also studying what we call the Old Testament in the light of the teaching of Jesus' Gospel of salvation and were receiving the Eucharist in their assemblies on Sundays, what they called "the Lord's Day" [Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10]. James may be addressing both Jews and Jewish Christians since in James 2:7 James mentions these same wealthy men who insult the name of Jesus which certainly wouldn't be the case in a strictly Christian assembly.

Question: Why does James say in 2:4 that such an attitude of preferring one man over another man based upon his wealth sets a corrupt standard?
Answer: There is no spiritual value in material wealth, the value is in what material good the wealth can provide. The rich man is not being valued for who or what he is morally and spiritually but simply for what he has obtained materially, while the poor man is being judged of less worth as a person simply because of his poverty. The corruption is in the man or woman who judges the worth of a person this way because that person's motives are corrupt. He/she is either coveting the wealth of the rich and how that person can be used to advantage or he/she is dismissing the value of the poor man based only on outward appearances and not taking into consideration of richness of his soul.

Question: Compare James' statement of non-partiality in James 2:1-4 with the Old Covenant Law teaching found in Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17 and Job 34:3, 19 and the wisdom teaching of Proverbs.
Answer:

 

The Old Covenant's concept of social justice is illuminated and perfected in the law of the Gospel of salvation. Human righteousness and justice, like God's justice from which our justice is derived, must exceed the perceived value of civic or social conduct. Perfect justice calls for complete conformity to the will of God and total non-partiality as far as the individual is concerned.

James 2:5-9: "Listen, my dear brothers: it was those who were poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love him. You, on the other hand, have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who lord it over you: Are not they the ones who drag you into court, who insult the honorable name which has been pronounced over you? Well, the right thing to do is to keep the supreme Law of Scripture: you will love your neighbor as yourself; but as soon as you make class distinctions, you are committing sin and under condemnation for breaking the Law."

Question: Why did God choose the materially poor to be rich in faith? In addition to Jesus Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:1-2 which promises the Kingdom of heaven to the "poor in spirit", what homily of Jesus from Luke's Gospel does this blessing of the poor recall?
Answer: In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus blesses those who are spiritually poor, who are not self-sufficient but recognize that they need God. James' statement also recalls Jesus' homily in which He blesses the poor in Luke chapter 6:20-23, known as The Sermon on the Plain. Material wealth, which provides a sense of self-sufficiency, distracts the wealthy from the blessings of spiritual wealth, while the poor fully embrace the richness of faith because they have nothing else to cling to. The poor fully understand their limitations, they need God in their lives. The simple truth is that spiritual poverty is far more deadly that material poverty. The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah warns the poor, "Seek Yahweh all you humble of the earth who obey his commands. Seek uprightness, seek humility: you may perhaps find shelter on the Day of Yahweh's anger."

The poor and afflicted are called the anawim in Hebrew. There is a sacrifice set aside for them among the 5 animals acceptable for the Old Covenant blood sacrifice; turtle doves and pigeons are called the sacrifice of the anawim [Leviticus 5:7; 12:8]. We know that Joseph and Mary were of humble station because this is the sacrifice they brought to the Temple when Jesus was dedicated to Yahweh 40 days after His birth in Luke 2:22-24. The question of justice on behalf of the poor is continually a concern in sacred Scripture. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament does distinguish between poverty as a result of idleness [i.e. Proverbs 10:4], and poverty that exists in an unjust and unmerciful society, but prophets express the knowledge of Yahweh that the poor those who are the oppressed of society. Yahweh's prophets demand justice for the weak and poverty stricken in Isaiah 10:2; Amos 2:6ff; Job 34:28ff; Ecclesiasticus 4:1ff. James, as one of Yahweh's New Testament prophets, demands the same justice for the poor and defines such justice as the true practice of religion as defined by Jesus in His summing up of the Law in Matthew 22:40.
Question: How did Jesus sum up the entire body of the Old Covenant Law in two commandments in Matthew 22:34-40 [also see Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:34-35]?
Answer: A man asked Jesus which is the greatest commandment of the Law and He answered: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest ad the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hand the whole Law, and the Prophets too." The first 3 articles of the 10 Commandments address love and devotion to God, while the remaining 7 articles deal with love of neighbor. In these two commandments Jesus has effectively encapsulated the 10 Commandments into two laws of love: one in a vertical dimension and the other in a horizontal dimension: the first between God and man is the vertical and the second dimension between man and man is the horizontal. If you express these two commandments in a drawing the result is a +.

In 2:7 James points out the foolishness of holding a different standard for the rich because it is the rich and powerful who use their influence in the law courts to gain control over other men. The rich who drag Jewish-Christians into court are probably non-Messianic Jews who are persecuting Jewish-Christians by bringing them into a beit-din, a Jewish religious court in the Diaspora or into the Sanhedrin, Jewish civil and religious law court in Judea.
Question: What does James mean when he says the rich "insult the honorable name which has been pronounced over you?" Whose name? When is this "name" pronounced over Christians?
Answer: The name of Jesus Christ which is pronounced over Christians at their baptism. Jewish-Christians were probably being charged with blasphemy for declaring Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah and their accusers were defaming the name of the Lord.

The ancients understood that one's name contained all the power and influence that the person who bore the name possessed. That is why in ancient literature, or even in dramas you will see for example, Roman officials invoking the name of Caesar, it was the name of the Roman general and statesman Gaius Julius Caesar, but this man was so powerful and his name carried such power that it became the title of the men who succeeded him as the leaders of the Roman Empire.
Question: When did the Jewish authorities who opposed Jesus invoke the name of Caesar against Jesus?
Answer: The priests who condemned Jesus at His trial invoked the name of Caesar and all the power and authority that the name of Caesar possessed in John 19:15-16: "...Pilate said, 'Shall I crucify your king?' The chief priests answered, 'We have no king except Caesar.' So at that Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified." In invoking the name of Caesar against Jesus and declaring the Roman leader as their king, the Jewish authority was declaring an act of treason against the Messiah who was their true Davidic king.

In the Sinai Covenant the relationship between Yahweh and Israel was expressed symbolically in two ways:

  1. God was the great king of the nation/Church of Israel, and Israel was His vassal state
  2. Israel was the faithful virgin Bride of Yahweh.

Later God allowed a human king, Saul, to serve as God's royal representative to the people [1 Samuel 8:1-9]. Even though the desire of the people to have a king like the other nations was a rejection of God as their king, God allowed Israel the failure of wanting to be like the pagan Gentile nations. God in His mercy and can take a bad plan and make good come from it, as He did when He selected David, son of Jesse from the tribe of Judah to be His anointed King of Israel and to become the ancestor of the promised Messiah and future Davidic king [2 Samuel 7:16; Isaiah 11:1; Zechariah 12:10-12; etc.], Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus Christ God's supreme role of Kingship over the Church was reestablished, and His name was more powerful than all other names under heaven, including Caesar!

An example of the power of the "name" of Jesus is found in the Book of Acts of Apostles when Sts. Peter and John were subject to persecution for invoking the name of Jesus the Messiah in Acts chapters 3-4. In Acts 3:1-10 at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem, St. Peter cures a man who had been paralyzed from birth by invoking the name of Jesus over him: "in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk!" When a crowd gathers, attracted by the news that a miracle has occurred, Peter uses the opportunity to give a homily proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ [Acts 3:11-16]. The Temple priests arrest Peter and John the next day, and they are required to present an account of their actions before the Jewish Law court known as the Sanhedrin. It is the same Jewish law court that condemned Jesus. In Acts 4:7 the council of elders, scribes and priests ask Peter and John, "By what power, and by whose name have you men done this?" Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, gives a rousing homily [Acts 4:8-12] which concludes with the statement: "Only in him is there salvation; for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved." This was a very bond statement for Peter to make. He was in fact using the same words as a decree issued by the first of the Roman Emperors, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, and the first man to bear the name "Caesar" as a title. Octavian, who took the throne name Caesar Augustus, ruled from 29AD to 14AD. In declaring his sovereignty and authority as the proclaimed dictator for life by the Roman Senate, Caesar Augustus declared: "there is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved." Now Peter has declared that foolish statement null and void; it is only the name of Jesus that can truly save!

In the ancient world one's "name" was associated with everything concerned with that person, what that person stood for and what that person believed. The names of powerful men carried their power and authority. It is the same with Jesus the King. When we invoke the "name" of Jesus, we are professing to believe in everything He ever taught and everything He ever claimed to be true of Himself. Since the Apostles were using the "name" of Jesus to invoke His power as the Messiah, the court elders conferred among themselves saying: "But to stop the whole thing spreading any further among the people, let us threaten them against ever speaking to anyone in this name again [Acts 4:17]." And then summoning the Apostles, '..they called them in and gave them a warning on no account to make statements or to teach in the name of Jesus" [Acts 4:18].

Question: What power does invoking the name of Jesus have over those who profess belief in Him?
Answer: His name has the power of life! It is the name of Jesus of Nazareth that beings about the miracle of our baptism, when we are reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit into the family of God, becoming children who bear His name, and come to His house, and gather around His table, and eat a meal. And because we are members of one divine family as well as members of one human family we should practice that familial love. As James wrote: Well, the right thing to do is to keep the supreme Law of Scripture: you will love your neighbor as yourself; but as soon as you make class distinctions, you are committing sin and under condemnation for breaking the Law." James 2:8

Question: James writes of attaining the goal of the "supreme Law of Scripture" or perhaps a better translation would be the "Law of the kingdom teaching/Torah according to the Scriptures" in James 2:8. The Greek text uses the word basililos, which means "royal" or "pertaining to the king." How does St. James define this royal law and how does one attain the goal?
Answer: The reference to the "royal" law in 2:8 and the command not to show favoritism in 2:9 are a direct link back to James' thesis in James 2:1 and 2:5. The identification of the "royal law" is a reminder of the promise in 2:5 that believers are heirs of the kingdom of heaven, and the law to love one's neighbor quoted in 2:8 is a link to the reference to those who love God in James 2:5. James sees the entire body of the Law as the expression of God's will for His covenant people. In James' view the Law of the New Covenant doesn't negate the Old Covenant law or make it obsolete. Rather it is fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit in Jesus the King who declared that the whole of the teaching of the Torah of the Old Covenant is summed up in the commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself". A teaching which Jesus identified in Matthew 22:36 as the basis upon which all the Torah of Moses and the writings of the prophets depends [Matthew 22:40]. The Greek word translated as "to keep" in James 2:8 is teleite, which can also mean "to obtain" or "to complete" or "to perfect." James doesn't mention the commandment that Jesus identified as the first and the greatest: "to love God", because one cannot love one's neighbor as one should without loving God first. The first commandment to love God connects man to God. As we already mentioned, it is the vertical of our relationship with the divine and to love one's neighbor is the horizontal. It is in the Cross of Jesus Christ that these commandments are fulfilled.

Question: According to St. James how does one obtain and fulfill the Kingdom teaching of the Old Covenant and bring this teaching to its perfection? What is the command of Leviticus 19:18?
Answer: To obtain and fulfill the Kingdom teaching and to bring it to its goal or perfection, one must faithfully observe it and obey it in conformity with Jesus' teaching in Matthew 22:40 which echoes the Old Covenant teaching of Leviticus 19:18: "You will not exact vengeance on or bear any sort of grudge against, the members of your race, but (you) will love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh." But James understands that Jesus has raised the bar on this command to love. One's neighbor is no longer just your kinsman but everyone; both the poor and the rich are counted as "neighbors" to be loved as oneself and to be treated with dignity and honor within the royal family of Christ the King.

This is the second reference to Leviticus chapter 19 in James chapter 2. Leviticus 19 contains the moral and religious regulations imposed after the sin of the Golden Calf and the establishment of the Levitical priesthood. In 2:8 James calls for fulfilling the law according to the Old Covenant Scripture. The first reference to Leviticus chapter 19 was to the prohibition against partiality in James 2:1-2. Catholic Biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out in his Anchor Bible commentary on the Letter of St. James that throughout his letter James articulates the dimensions of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant Law in the Gospel of Jesus Christ through repeated references to Leviticus chapter 19. Dr. Johnson has identified 7 references to Leviticus 19 in James' letter in which the bishop articulates the dimensions of the Old Covenant law to love one's neighbor in the light of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

THE LETTER OF ST. JAMES LEVITICUS CHAPTER 19
2:1 "My brothers do not let class distinction (partiality) enter into your faith in Jesus Christ our glorified Lord." 19:15-16 "You will not be unjust in administering justice. You will neither be partial to the poor nor overawed by the great, but will administer justice to you fellow citizen justly."
2:6 "You on the other hand have dishonored the poor.' 19:18 "You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against the members of your race,..."
2:8 "Well, the right thing to do is to keep the supreme (royal) Law of Scripture: you will love your neighbor as yourself.." 19:18c "...but will love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh."
4:11 "Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who slanders a brother, or condemns one, is speaking against the Law and condemning the Law. But if you condemn the Law, you have ceased to be subject to it and become a judge over it." 19:16 "You will not go about slandering your own family, nor will you put your neighbor's life in jeopardy. I am Yahweh"
5:4 "Can you hear crying out against you the wages which you kept back from the laborers mowing your fields? The cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord Sabaoth." 19:13 "You will not exploit or rob your fellow. You will not keep back the laborer's wage until next morning."
5:12 "Above all my brothers do not swear by heaven or by the earth or use any oaths at all. If you means 'yes', you must say 'yes'; if you mean 'no', say 'no'. Otherwise make yourselves liable to judgment." 19:12 "You will not swear by my name with intent to deceive and thus profane the name of your God. I am Yahweh."
5:20 "he may be sure that anyone who can bring back a sinner from his erring ways will be saving his soul from death and covering over many a sin." 19:17b "You will reprove your fellow countryman firmly and thus avoid burdening yourself with a sin."

*Leviticus 19:11 and 19:14 are not literally repeated in James' letter but the substance of those commands is echoed in James 2:14-16 and 3:13-4:1

In James 2:9 James warns: "as soon as you make class distinctions, you are committing sin and under condemnation for breaking the Law." James' warning is that sin brings judgment. There is accountability for sin and judgment can be both temporal and eternal. Reconciliation with God for the breach sin has caused in our relationship with Him is the first step. Asking forgiveness for the sin committed begins to repair the damage but there is also the issue of accountability for the sin committed. The Universal Catechism addresses this issue in CCC # 1459:

These are the three acts that the Council of Trent identified as the Sacrament of Penance. The council gave a Scriptural example in the repentance of the pagan city of Nineveh from the Book of the Prophet Jonah in chapter IV, Session XIV, "On the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance and Extreme Unction": "...the Ninivites, at the preaching of Jonas (Jonah) did fearful penance and obtained mercy from the Lord" [see Jonah 3:5-10]. But the Council condemned the notion that asking forgiveness for the sins committed was enough to establish full reconciliation with God: "Wherefore falsely do some calumniate Catholic writers, as if they had maintained that the Sacrament of Penance confers grace without any good motion on the part of those who receive it: a thing which the Church of God never taught or thought..." The Dogmatic Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent and Vatican Council I, pages 94-95; 116. In this statement the 16th century council affirms what had been a teaching in the Church since the first century and it is a theme which is an important part of James' address, that one's actions or deeds are the expression of the condition of one's heart. True repentance and contrition must be accompanied by a penitent action that reflects the depth of one's repentance and willingness to accept accountability for the sin committed.

In the next verses James continues in the theme of obedience to the law, which is the will of God for our lives:
James 2:10-13: "You see, anyone who keeps the whole of the Law but trips up on a single point, is still guilty of breaking it all. He who said, 'You must not commit adultery' said also, 'You must not kill.' Now if you commit murder, you need not commit adultery as well to become a breaker of the Law. Talk and behave like people who are going to be judged by the law of freedom. Whoever acts without mercy will be judged without mercy, but mercy can afford to laugh at judgment."

James' affirms the principle that the Law is one whole, it is all of God's Law that we are required to keep, not just to uphold the prohibition against murder and then feel free to break the law of fidelity to the marriage covenant. One cannot be a Christian and pick and choose which section of the law he will obey and which part of the law he will disregard. The phrase "Talk and behave like people who are going to be judged" refers to the judgment which will be visited upon us for our failure to fulfill our obligation of obedience the law. James words suggest that the Christians he is addressing are being judged and are reaping the grace or the retribution according to how the law is observed, or how the Law is ignored which results in falling into sin. Judgment isn't just futuristic but is on-going. The judgment of the penalty of sin is being visited on the sinner as he progresses on his journey through this life and the blessings for obedience and holiness are also being visited on the faithful.
Question: Is this teaching of obedience to the whole body of the law still in effect for the modern Catholic?
Answer: As faithful Catholics we are called to be loyal and obedient to the whole teaching of the Church'not just the parts we find convenient or in our view morally relevant. James reminds Christians, in his time and in ours that we will ultimate be judged by our obedience to the teaching of Jesus Christ as we have been instructed by Mother Church, and as we have lived that whole body of the law in mercy and love.

 

Question: What is it that makes the Law of the Gospel a "royal law" and a "law of freedom," as James calls it?
Answer: The fact we are judged as sons and daughters of God and heirs of Christ the King that makes us both royal children and willing servants. We are no longer slaves under the Old Law, this redefined and elevated status makes the transformed Law of the Gospel a "law of freedom" and a "royal Law" for royal children of the New Covenant royal priesthood [1 Peter 2:9]. It is as sons and daughters of the Covenant, infused with the life of the Holy Spirit, that we recognize our need for God's mercy and forgiveness and in turn, the necessity to give mercy and forgiveness to others.

James' statement, "Whoever acts without mercy will be judged without mercy" echoes the beatitude in Matthew 5:7 "Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy," and Jesus' statement in the Matthew 6:12 & 15 section of His Sermon on the Mount where He says in the Lord's Prayer, "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us (New American)" and "For if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Jesus parable of the Ungrateful Servant in Matthew 18:23-35 is a teaching that illustrates what will be the fate of the individual who fails to show mercy to a brother. Please read that parable.
Question: God will impose the same judgment on those of us who are His servants if we fail to show mercy: "Were you not bound then to have pity on your fellow-servant just as I had pity on you?" is the question He will ask us. What is the penalty for failing to show mercy? What was the fate of the ungrateful servant?
Answer: He was sent to Sheol or Abraham's Bosom to be purified of his sin of unforgiveness: "till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart" Matthew 18:34-35. For those who die in a state of grace but retain unconfessed venial sins, like the ungrateful servant that soul will be purified before entry into heaven. The Catholic Church calls this state of purification Purgatory [see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; CCC# 633; CCC# 2843].

In the New Jerusalem translation our good bishop assures us, "mercy can afford to laugh at judgment," which is perhaps more literally translated "mercy triumphs over judgment."
Question: What does James mean by this statement? Does God's mercy dismiss or suspend the Law and God's impending judgment upon our sins? See CCC # 1829
Answer: That mercy triumphs over judgment is the Universal Law of God. He does not condemn us and send us to Hell as our sins deserve, but in His Divine Mercy He offers us not only forgiveness when we sincerely seek forgiveness, but He also offers us the grace and the power through the Holy Spirit to overcome sin. God's mercy, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ transforms the Law of the Old Covenant into the Law of freedom in the New Covenant of God's grace and infinite mercy.

However, God's mercy is not opposed to His Law nor is His Law opposed to His love. He can't suspend the commandments of the Law because they provide the guide to holiness that we all need. Likewise, being a just God He cannot suspend His judgment for those who have sinned, but He freely gives His mercy to those who sincerely seek reconciliation and forgiveness and in His mercy suspends His punishment and infuses us with His grace. Mercy is a fruit of charity, which James would define as "love in action." God in His mercy offered the perfect sacrifice of His Son so that through His perfect sacrifice man might receive God's mercy for the forgiveness of our sins and restoration to fellowship and communion in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. However, mercy does not negate the law or dismiss the sin but mercy can affect the penalty paid for the transgression against the law, punishment for sin can be tempered with mercy. When we are grateful for the mercy God has shown to us by extending that mercy to others, the exercise of mercy carries the promise that the one who is merciful will be shown mercy. For centuries it has been the practice for Christians to hold their hands folded in prayer with the right thumb over and across the left. The left thumb stands for "judgment" and the right thumb represents "mercy." In holding one's hands in this fashion one is praying for God's mercy over God's judgment; a prayer that should be made continually and without ceasing! James' point is that one who practices mercy towards others need not fear God's judgment because God will extend the same mercy to him.

Please read James 2:14-26: The Exercise of True Faith and Good Deeds in the Practice of True Religion

In his address James has progressed from the obligation to imitate Jesus' non-partiality in our daily interactions with others, valuing each man and woman as a child of God no matter what his or her social standing, to the obligation to keep all of the Law of salvation and to exercising mercy toward others in the same way that God has been merciful in His forgiveness of our trespasses. These examples of love in action as expressed in Jesus command to love our neighbor now prepares us or the next section which is to define faith as "love in action."

James 2:14-17: "How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act claims to have faith? Will that bring salvation? If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, 'I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,' without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good it that? In the same way faith: if good deeds do not go with it, it is quite dead."

The ascent to the entire doctrine of faith requires action. To dismiss the needs of the poor by saying it is not our responsibility to feed and cloth those who are in need shows contempt for the poor. To simply say "I wish you well" is useless without actions to make what is wished take place. The sentiment is as valueless as faith without the action of good deeds. James calls this "dead faith" as opposed to living, active faith which is a sign of the quality of our love.

James 2:18: "But someone may say: So you have faith and I have good deeds? Show me this faith of yours without deeds, then! It is by my deeds that I will show you my faith."

Who is the "someone"?'he is an imaginary interlocker with whom James is having this debate, and to whom James responds: Show me this faith of yours without deeds, then! It is by my deeds that I will show you my faith." James' point is that faith is our first response to God's grace. It is the first step on the road to salvation. The Church defines this faith as "initial justification" in our initial response to God's grace. But the next step is to act upon that faith and the first work should be conversion, the repentance and confession that leads to Baptism, [or to a turning back to God for those who are already Baptized]. This is a work of faith. But the works of faith do not stop with the sacrament of Baptism. If you say you only have faith and nothing else, James asks what proof is there that you have any faith at all? James says that it is by his deeds that his faith is realized. We are justified by faith as our response to God's grace, and we are sanctified by works of mercy and love which enrich our lives as we continue to grow in grace and faith. Sanctifying grace is a habitual gift that perfects the soul to enable it to live in fellowship with God and to act out living faith in God's call to love our neighbor as Christ loves us. It is a process that does not end until we reach our final destination, the throne room of God on the day of our individual judgment.

James 2:19: "You believe in the one God, that is credible enough, but even the demons have the same belief and they tremble with fear."
Question: What is the Old Covenant profession of faith in one God and where is it found?
Answer: It is called the Shema and it is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41. The Shema begins: "Listen (Hear), Israel: Yahweh our God is the One, the only Yahweh [New Jerusalem translation]," or "Hear, O Israel, the LORD (Yahweh), our God, the LORD (Yahweh) is One." In some Scripture translations God's holy covenant name is written all in capital letters as LORD, which the literally text reads as the holy 4 consonants YHWH. Did you notice the 3 times repetition of God in the opening lines of the Shema? It is the mystery of Trinity hidden in the Old Covenant profession of faith.

James refers to the Shema, belief in the oneness of God but adds that even the demons have this belief!
Question: What does James mean when he says that even the demons have faith? Why do they tremble? Hint: see Mark 1:24, 34.
Answer: Even the demons and Satan recognize the existence of God and the Oneness of God. They also recognize that Jesus is His Son, but theirs is not a faith formed by love. To simply acknowledgement that God exists is not enough to save the demons and simple intellectual acknowledgement, or "the faith of demons" is not enough to save us. It is submission to the will of God that Satan and the demons resist. What does that same resistance to the sovereignty of God do to humans but to make them sons of Satan like the fallen angels we call demons. At least the demons have the sense to tremble with fear knowing that their refusal to submit to the will of God subjects them to God's divine judgment, many men and women do not have the sense of the demons in this regard!

James 2:20-23: "Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar? So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by what he did. In this way the Scripture was fulfilled: Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright (justified); and he received the name 'friend of God'."
James has already said that faith without works is dead, and now he says that faith without works is useless or "fruitless" and "barren".

In this passage James is quoting from Genesis 22:9; Genesis 15:6:

But James may also be thinking of 1 Maccabees 2:51-52: "Remember the deeds performed by our ancestors, each in his generation, and you will win great honor and everlasting renown. Was not Abraham tested and found faithful, was that not considered as justifying him?" This passage also combines Genesis 15:6 and 22:9.

Faith was active in Abraham's works and faith was completed in his works, and in both he was justified. In James 2:21 our good bishop is talking about Abraham offering up for sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22:9 and in James 2:23, James is referring to Genesis 15:6, just as the 1 Maccabees passage.

James 2:24: "You see now that it is by deeds, and not only be believing (faith alone) that someone is justified."
James 2:24 is significant because it is the only passage in sacred Scripture where an inspired writer uses the words "faith alone": (New American translation) "You see now that it is by deeds and not only by faith alone that someone is justified." It is James teaching that it takes both faith and works to be declared justified. You are justified by a faith that is working in love! Martin Luther was so enraged that this one verse in James' letter defied his doctrine of "faith alone" that he commented that he should have liked "to throw Jimmy into the stove," meaning he would have liked to have dropped the Letter of St. James from the Protestant canon, but he didn't dare. As a counter to James teaching, Luther changed the text of St. Paul's letter to the Romans in Romans 3:28 by adding the German word "alone" to the text so it would read: "...since, as we see it, a person is justified by faith alone and not by doing what the Law tells him to do." In this passage Paul is speaking of the Old Covenant works of the Law like circumcision and the ritual purity laws. For centuries since Luther, Protestant scholars contended that St. Paul's letter was written to take St. James to task on the false doctrine of justification by faith and works. However, this theory is simply without merit because St. Paul and St. James are in perfect agreement concerning the necessity of faith being living through works of mercy and love in the New Covenant Law, which Paul also refers to as a law of liberty and freedom in Romans 8:21.

James 2:25-26: "There is another example of the same kind: Rahab the prostitute, was she not justified by her deeds because she welcomed the messengers and showed them a different way to leave? As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds."

 

Question: Who was Rahab and why is she important in salvation history? Hint: see Joshua 2:1ff; Hebrews 11:31; and Matthew 1:4-6.
Answer: She saved the Israelite spies and hid them in her home in the city of Jericho. She was probably forced into ritual prostitution in the local pagan temple. Her act of heroism saved her and saved the Israelites. She became a convert to the covenant and married an Israelite man named Salmon. Later she became the mother of Boaz and the ancestress of both King David and Jesus of Nazareth. Her faith and her act of mercy was the work of her salvation, both temporal salvation and eternal salvation.

Question: Why does James use Abraham and Rahab as examples? What did they have in common as far as faithful works are concerned?
Answer: They both face works of testing: Abraham work was a trial which tested his faith in believing God's promise that He would have many descendants from his son Isaac [Hebrews 11:17-19]; Rahab's work represented a work of charity toward a "neighbor." Both tests were topics of discussion James raised in James 1:12-15 [persevering in the face of trials that strengthen faith] and in James 2:8 [loving one's neighbor].

Question: Do St. Paul and St. James agree or disagree on the necessity of works and faith and obedience to the Law?
Answer: When Paul is writing about the necessity of works he agrees with James. The confusion comes from Paul's focus on not works of charity but works of the Old Covenant Law as incapable of leading to salvation. It is Paul's teaching that there was no salvation under the works of the Old Law like circumcision and dietary and purity regulations. James never mentions the works of the Old Covenant Law like circumcision and purity, James only speaks of the Old Law in terms of being fulfilled and perfected in the new Law of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and defines that Law as the "Law of freedom" or liberty. Where works are concerned, James is concerned with the corporal works of mercy, acts of charity, kindness, and compassion, which triumphs over judgment. James' teaching isn't something different from faith about which Paul writes, but he does mean something different in the discussion of the Old Law and the Law of the Gospel. Paul's teaching was opposed to the ritual works of the Old Law and is a response to the Jewish-Christians who were loathed to let go of what was old and fulfilled and therefore failing to fully embrace the New Law of freedom in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Protestants contend that Paul is at odds with James' teaching about the necessity of works of mercy, but Scripture does not support such a position. Both inspired writers cite Abraham in his faith and deeds in Genesis 22:9 and 15:6 [see Romans 4:3 & 9] and both quote the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself [Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14].

Paul's teaching on the necessity of faith and deeds in the Law of the Gospel in agreement with James:
Romans 2:5-8: "Your stubborn refusal to repent is only storing up retribution for yourself on that Day of retribution when God's just verdicts will be made known. He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve. For those who aimed for glory and honor and immortality by persevering in doing good, there will be eternal life; but for those who out of jealousy have taken for their guide not truth gut injustice, there will be the fury of retribution."
Romans 2:13: "For the ones that God will justify are not those who have heard the Law but those who have kept the Law."
Romans 13:8-10: "The only thing you should owe to anyone is love for one another, for to love the other person is to fulfill he law. All these: You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and all the other commandments that there are, are summed up in this single phrase: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love can cause no harm to your neighbor, and so love is the fulfillment of the Law."
Galatians 5:5-6: "We are led by the Spirit to wait in the confident hope of saving justice through faith, since in Christ Jesus it is not being circumcised or being uncircumcised that can effect anything-only faith working through love."
Galatians 5:13-14: "After all, brothers, you were called to be free; do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence, but be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in the one commandment: You must love your neighbor as yourself."
Galatians 6:2: "Carry each other's burdens; that is how to keep the law of Christ."

Question for group discussion:
James 2:10-13: "You see, anyone who keeps the whole of the Law but trips up on a single point, is still guilty of breaking it all. He who said, 'You must not commit adultery' said also, 'You must not kill.' Now if you commit murder, you need not commit adultery as well to become a breaker of the Law. Talk and behave like people who are going to be judged by the law of freedom. Whoever acts without mercy will be judged without mercy, but mercy can afford to laugh at judgment."
James affirms the principle that the Law is one whole, it is either all the Law which expresses the will of God for our lives or non of it applies. One cannot be a Christian and pick and choose which section of the law he will obey and which part of the law he will disregard.

Question: Is this teaching still in effect for the modern Catholic? What does it mean to be a "cafeteria Catholic" and is such an attitude toward the teachings of the Church valid as part of the Royal Law of the Kingdom? What areas of the "royal law of freedom" as expressed in the teachings of Mother Church does secular society tell Catholic they should abandoned? What jeopardy do Catholics who have embraced this philosophy place themselves?
Question: Does God's application of "mercy" cancel accountability for sin? What does God's mercy applied to our judgment mean?

Catechism references for James chapter 2 [* indicated Scripture quoted in citation]
2:7 432*; 2148 2:14-26 162*
2:9-10 1459; 578 2:15-16 2447
2:10-11 2069*; 2079* 2:26 1815
2:12 1972*    

Resources used in this lesson:

  1. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, Kenneth D. Whitehead
  2. Teachings of the Church Fathers, John R.Willis, S.J.
  3. Church History, Bishop Eusebius
  4. Church History, Father John Laux, M.A.
  5. The Anchor Bible: The Letter of James, Luke Timothy Johnson
  6. Sacra Pagina: James, Father Patrick Hartin
  7. Navarre Bible Commentary: Catholic Letters
  8. Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus
  9. Strong's Concordance
  10. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, edited by Gerald Bray
  11. Catechism of the Catholic Church
  12. Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles, Venerable Bede
  13. Dogmatic Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent and Vatican Council I, Tan Books, 1977
  14. Christianity and the Roman Empire, Ralph M. Novak

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