Needing All Our Brothers and Sisters to be Saints

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.
(Isaiah, 35:6-7)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Letter of St. James 2:1-6
September 5, 2021

We continue today with the Letter of St. James. It was, as we discovered last week, written by a Jew to fellow Jews. Whether the author was James, the kinsman of Jesus or not, he had significant prestige among the people and insight into their communities.

These communities were within the Roman empire. It was part of the managerial genius of the Romans to realize that they could not directly administer every aspect of life, especially in small towns in faraway places. Therefore, they used the native ruling elites to maintain order and peace. We see this with the trial of Jesus. The priests were the local elite entrusted with this task and they first examined Jesus. When they deemed him a greater danger than a mere rabble rouser and thought he needed to be put to death, they needed the Romans to approve and perform the execution.  

Outside of Jerusalem, those, whose primary commitment was to Judaism, would have sought justice from the local Jewish leadership in the synagogue. Judaism was very comfortable with law and had a most noble legal code which covered most aspects of life. They also understood that their law came from the LORD himself and that his words to Israel and actions with her were the model for the administration of justice. Where it did not interfere with Roman priorities it could be applied to Jews throughout the Empire.

They thought the law perfect; they knew themselves flawed. One especially treacherous area always is the human tendency to treat the rich and the poor differently. There are many verses in the Old Testament reminding people that the LORD treats all impartially. To quote just two.

From an early stage of Jewish history:

Now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you;
take care what you do,
for there is no perversion of justice
with the Lord our God,
or partiality, or taking of bribes.

(2 Ch 19:7)

To a very late one:

and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.

(Sir 35:15–17)

When Jews became Christians, they sought justice from their own assemblies. There are many examples of this in the New Testament Reflecting these concerns Paul reminds the rather Jewish church in Rome that God shows no partiality. (Rom 2:11)

This is the context of today’s reading. James referred to the “Assembly” (synagogue) rather than Church (ekesaia) for the only time in his letter to emphasize that this was about a judicial procedure, not worship. Yet it was not just trying one individual but the entire community on trial.

He contrasts the welcome two members of the “parish.” A rich, well-dressed person enters and is given every mark of respect: even a seat. A poor person shabbily dressed is not only not given a seat but is told to “sit at my feet.” This is a sign that this person is not worthy of being at the same level of not only the rich person but the rest of the assembly.

The assembly has already judged itself:

Have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

(Jas 2:4)

As we have seen making distinctions between people does not reflect the mind of God. These are people who consider themselves Jews and James is telling them they are not good Jews. He has also begun this section with

My brothers, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith
in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.

(Jas 2:1)

Glorious here means risen and they are being told that, not only does the law forbid showing partiality to the rich, but Jesus requires this as well.

When we do, we fall into evil designs or thoughts and will act unjustly.

James now reminds the assembly that before all else they must believe in Jesus and accept the kingdom that is his gift to us. Far from excluding the poor, the poor are closer to the LORD and have much to share with us.

Our passage ends here but let us complete this section.

But you dishonored the poor person.
Are not the rich oppressing you?
And do they themselves not haul you off to court
Is it not they who blaspheme
the noble name that was invoked over you?

(Jas 2:6–7)

Remember that this letter was sent to many communities and James is sufficiently secure in saying that as a general principal the rich have not behaved well yet have been favored and are given ever sign of deference. All made promises at baptism, but those who oppress others have dishonored their baptisms and blasphemed.

Another of the insights of the Jews was that the law was the LORD sharing himself with his people. Thus, the law must be seen as a whole and is to be accepted or rejected in its entirety. Therefore:

However, if you fulfill the royal law
according to the scripture,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,”
you are doing well.

(Jas 2:8)

To show partiality however is to reject an important part of the Law and the gift of God

For whoever keeps the whole law,
but falls short in one particular,
has become guilty in respect to all of it.

(Jas 2:10)

A person can live an outwardly pious life and obey every particular of the law, but to hold a neighbor as beneath oneself is to show that one has been deaf the LORD’S call through the law.

James as we have seen is not primarily interested in the behavior of individuals, but how the community acts towards its members as a whole. When the community acquiesces in patronizing or abusive behavior of the poor and marginalized them, James is clearly warning them that they are abandoning Jesus.

We have rediscovered this with the idea of the preferential option for the poor. Jesus will judge our community by how we treat those who most rely on him.

As we establish the new normal, we are reminded that it must be firmly based on the recognition that God does not show partiality. We can be sinners by ourselves, but we need all our sisters and brothers to be saints.