Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Letter of St. James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
August 29, 2021
We begin today our readings from the Letter of St. James. Like the other letters from the New Testament, we have read: 1 Peter, 1 John, Romans, and most recently the “Letter to the Ephesians,” the Letter of St James breathes the life of its community. We might better say communities. Except for Paul’s letter to the Romans, these are circular letters addressed to Christians in several cities. Individual churches, we would now say parishes, were joined to other parishes as a loose confederation based on loyalty to the founder. We have often been unsure if these letters were written by the founder himself, but if written by a disciple successor, they would have been in his tradition and spirit.
The letter of James is attributed to James, the blood relation of Jesus, who was considered the first Bishop of Jerusalem and the leader of the Christians most committed to maintaining continuity with Judaism. We note however that he was instrumental in freeing gentile Christians from the most burdensome aspects of the law, most importantly circumcision, and had an experience of the risen Lord. He understood the freedom of the Spirit, but he also wrote the most Jewish writing in the New Testament. We may assume it was written to those parishes which maintained some Jewish customs and many Jewish attitudes. The other letters we have read desired to educate Christians born Gentile in the basics of Judaism in order to understand Christianity. This is not an issue here. This is a Jew instructing other Jews in who Jesus, another Jew, was to them.
Like the other communities, we have seen they did suffer for their new faith. After introducing himself to the “Twelve tribes in the dispersion” (Jam 1:1) he immediately says, “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials.” (Jas 1:2)
These trials were not yet Roman persecution, but rather from their own household and neighbors. This is a time of testing: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (Jas 1:3) Good Jews that they were both writer and reader knew that ultimately a person had to choose between two ways of life, that of Wisdom or that of foolishness.
Happy are those(Ps 1:1–2)
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.
Delighting in the law of the Lord is Wisdom and it is only by living in wisdom that the new Christians will persevere. In this we will know that, as the first line in our passage today says:
All good giving and every perfect gift is from above,(Jas 1:17)
coming down from the Father of lights
This is a characteristic way of speaking about the Jewish God
who made the great lights,(Ps 136:7)
for his steadfast love endures forever
As good Jews, they knew God as creator and understood that everything they needed to be good came from him as a gift. But they recognized that he has been more fully revealed in Jesus the redeemer.
He willed to give us birth by the word of truth(Jas 1:18)
that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures
Through baptism we receive a new birth, and the word of truth is the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This has made us firstfruits.
From the earliest days of Judaism, the law abiding were to offer the best they had to the Lord.
The choicest of the first fruits of your ground(Ex 23:19)
you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God.
The person who allows Jesus to make him or her wise is the best and worthy of being firstfruits.
We cannot save ourselves so we must humbly accept the word of God which we have received through preaching and baptism.
Yet hearing the word is not enough, we must actively love each other. Talking a good game is not enough This is stated many times in the Old Testament, perhaps most beautifully in Hosea.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,(Ho 6:6)
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
This must be part of our daily lives. Not quoted today but very relevant is the line before our final sentence today:
If anyone thinks he is religious(Jas 1:26)
and does not bridle his tongue
but deceives his heart,
his religion is vain.
This is a practical example of the need for Wisdom to be on the right path. If you want your parish to function, control your tongue.
The major test of religion, however, is the care of the poor and marginalized.
Religion that is pure and undefiled(Jas 1:27)
before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows
This is repeated throughout the Old Testament including Deuteronomy one of Judaism’s founding documents:
For the LORD your God(Dt 10:17–18)
is God of gods and Lord of lords,
the great God, mighty and awesome,
who is not partial and takes no bribe,
who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and who loves the strangers,
providing them food and clothing.
In a world sustained by tribe and household, those who found themselves in any way outside this structure were in dire straits. That this description fit Mary and Jesus would have been immediately understood by James and his audience. This is not speculative. It also would have fit new Christians who were now removed from their families. James’ command is practical and timely.
This would not have been foreign to James’ Jewish-Christian audience. A key concept of Judaism is usually translated “being perfect”: tamim, often teleios in Greek. Its meaning was originally cultic. The offering in the temple had to be without blemish: thus perfect. It was next attributed to the one who presented the sacrifice. The offeror should give him or herself completely, wholly, thus perfectly to God. The best way to do this was to obey the Torah and “Walk with God.” This concept occurs countless times in the Old Testament, but not so much in the New. Yet it appears 7 times in this letter and explains much more of it. We read before the “perfect” gifts come from God (Jam 1:17) and now we have just read that “pure and undefiled”, perfect, whole, religion is to care for the needy.
This is the way we reveal that we are on the path of the wise and not the foolish. James will show us many times in this letter that only with practical charity can our religion be perfect and our lives whole.