Luke Timothy Johnson
James as Moral Exhortation
Letter writing was so popular in antiquity that the epistolary form became a package capable of holding many materials. In the case of James (as noted in the introduction, NT, pp. 1637–38 ), the letter format is the frame for a moral exhortation intended for a general readership.
Before turning to an analysis of the text, it is helpful to consider some of its literary features and major themes. James is not terribly difficult to understand; its style is lucid, its message is straightforward. The reader's task is putting into practice what James teaches. Our task here is simply the deeper appreciation of a clear witness.
The form of Greco‐Roman moral exhortation called parenesis was concerned with reminding readers of traditional values rather than with constructing theory. Such reminders often took the form of short maxims. James's first chapter in particular has such maxims, which are less connected to each other than to other sections of the composition. Chapters 2 through 5 take the form of short essays. The maxims in chapter 1 set themes that are developed in the essays of chapters 2 through 5 . Note how the control of the tongue in 1, 26 is elaborated by 3, 1–12 . Moral exhortation also presented models of virtue for readers to imitate. In James, the figures of Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah provide examples from Scripture of the practical virtue James encourages.
James, however, is more than a moral treatise. It is a religious writing that uses the symbols of Scripture. James resembles the Wisdom tradition in its use of maxims, and in advocating a “wisdom from above” as the measure of life ( 3, 13–18 ). James uses the language and perspective of the Prophets in its attack on rich oppressors ( 5, 1–6 ). James also uses the Law. For James, both the Decalogue and the Law of Love are binding for Christians. They are to be understood, however, in light of the teachings of Jesus. James has many allusions to the words of Jesus (see, for example, 1, 12; 2, 5; 3, 12; 5, 12 ).
James advocates living faith and practical love. His concern is behavior. Like other moralists of his age, he is impatient with fine words that go nowhere (see, for example, 1, 22–25 ). Above all, faith that is not expressed in love is a charade.
James's target is the Christian who is “of two minds” ( 1, 8; 4, 8 ). This person wants to live by two standards at once: that of God, and that of the world. James demands a choice. Not only speech but also the use of possessions and the practice of fairness within the community lie within the range of his concern. He especially attacks envy, which perfectly illustrates the morals of “the world” opposed to God (see, for example, 3, 13–4, 10 ).
Readers may be surprised to find that Jesus is mentioned only twice ( 1, 1; 2, 1 ), with no reference at all to the messianic message of salvation through Jesus' death and resurrection. But James does not lack theology. He bases his exhortations on the one God who creates and judges all humanity. James centers attention on God rather than on Christ.
This study guide divides the text differently than the New American Bible. No major issue is involved, only a judgment concerning what goes better with what. The paragraph headings in the NAB are helpful, as also are the notes.
The Two Measures ( 1, 1–27 )
Although chapter 1 is made up of separate aphorisms with only loose internal connections, the chapter does more than simply provide a table of contents for the essays to follow. The opening statements also make clear that humans must live by either one sort of measure or another.
The first verses have some word‐linkages, but they don't form an easily followed argument. Like the book of Proverbs, they offer a set of maxims that invite testing against the reader's own experience of life. Although the same Greek word (peirasmos) is used in both verses, for example, the meaning of “trial” in 1, 2 is not the same as “temptation” in 1, 13 .
The aphorisms are not, however, simply a random collection of wise sayings. The maxims in chapter 1 provide something of an index to the contents of chapters 2 through 5 . The theme of enduring trials ( 1, 2–4.12–15 ) is developed in 5, 7–11 ; the opposition between rich and poor ( 1, 9–11 ) recurs in 4, 13–5, 6 . Control of the tongue ( 1, 19–21 ) is expanded in 3, 1–12 . Carrying out words in speech ( 1, 22–26 ) is enlarged by 2, 14–26 . The theme of true wisdom ( 1, 5–8.16–18 ) is argued by 3, 13–4, 10 . The prayer of faith ( 1, 6f ) is amplified by 5, 12–18 .
The aphorisms also introduce the basic pattern that structures the whole of James: the contrast between the measure of the world and the measure of God. The measure of the world is expressed by envy: “desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death” ( 1, 15 ). The values of the world are self‐deceptive ( 1, 16.27 ), are expressed in wrathful behavior ( 1, 19 ), and in every sort of excess ( 1, 21 ) especially the pursuit of illusory wealth ( 1, 11 ). These values are based on the perception of life as a closed system; God has no part. Therefore all humans are in competition: one person's gain is another's loss.
The measure of faith is the opposite. All creation—life itself—is a gift: “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” ( 1, 17 ). Because God has created humans by “the word of truth” ( 1, 18 ), humans are able to receive the implanted word from him ( 1, 21 ) and live in the way God does, giving “generously and ungrudgingly” ( 1, 5 ). In the Greek, these words suggest the opposite of envy, which always grasps for more. Life by God's measure is expressed by “care for orphans and widows in their affliction” ( 1, 27 ). One is thereby “unstained by the world” by living according to a different value system ( 1, 27 ).
The greeting in verse 1 , “to the twelve tribes in the dispersion,” can therefore be understood as referring to the condition of Christians “in the world but not of the world.” As in Hebrews and 1 Peter, Christians are regarded as pilgrims and sojourners. They are not hostile to the world but neither are they defined by it. James's whole effort is to persuade those “of two minds” ( 1, 8 ) to live by God's measure which is the perfect “wisdom from above” (see 3, 15 ).
Discrimination and the Law of Love (2, 1–13)
The first essay reveals a voice that resembles Paul in Galatians. James uses the same oral, dialogical style known as the diatribe. Vivid and lively, it is filled with rhetorical questions, exclamations, and abrupt transitions. The effect is a direct challenge to every reader—then and now. The challenge is even more clearly heard when the text is read aloud.
Christians, James says, must live consistently with their convictions. “Faith in our…Lord Jesus Christ” ( 2, 1 ) is incompatible with any form of discrimination within the community. James sketches a lively scene that probably reflects a general situation rather than a local incident. The context is judgment within the community, like that carried out in the diaspora synagogue to settle disputes. In the background is the injunction of Leviticus 19, 15 that forbids partiality in judgment. How plausible and true to life is his portrayal of a community pandering to rich members and slighting their poor!
That James intends us to see discrimination as an offense against love as well as faith in his allusion to Leviticus 19, 15 is shown immediately by his explicit citation of Leviticus 19, 18 in 2, 8 . The “law of love” is also identified by Jesus as the summation of Scripture. James calls it the “royal” law, and he means the standard regulating relations in the community. It is the “law of the kingdom.” James spells out this commandment by alluding to the Ten Commandments ( 2, 11 ), and also to the specific commandments found in the original context of Leviticus 19 that accompany the original exhortation, “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Jas 4, 11; 5, 18.104.22.168 ). James says that breaking any commandment means breaking the whole law, because sin is not against a law but against a lawgiver. Faith in the one God excludes picking and choosing between commandments, just as it excludes picking and choosing between fellow Christians!
Active Faith ( 2, 14–26 )
The following section is often misunderstood. Because James speaks of “faith” and “works” (terms often used by Paul), people think James is responding to Paul's teaching. In fact, his perspective is entirely different. James speaks not of the commandments of the law but of active faith. He is a moralist and is concerned with the way speech gets converted to action. Like all moralists, his concern is efficacy: “of what use is it?” The examples of Abraham and Rahab illustrate James's point. Their faith expressed itself in effective action. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son; Rahab showed hospitality to God's scouts. James is not debating with Paul over the question of how people are saved. His exhortation is intensely practical and arises from the situation pictured in 2, 14–16 : pious talk does not feed or clothe the needy. Such faith is as “dead” as a corpse; such religion is fraudulent (see l, 26f ).
We discover here two distinctive aspects of James. His teaching is not based on what is specifically Christian, but on faith in the one God shared by other monotheistic traditions. For James, the “faith of Christ” and teachings of Jesus do not oppose but refine Torah. James therefore also contains the opening to genuine social ethics. His moral teaching is not confined to the Christian community; it can be extended to the world. If there is no partiality in the community, based in the law of God, then forms of discrimination in the wider world can be combated on the same basis. If sister and brother in the community are to be fed, then the community as such should also feed the needy of the world in every changing circumstance.
James also warns us that this can cut both ways. If the Christian community does not live up to its own calling, and is unjust, then it bears no witness to the world and is itself subject to condemnation ( 2, 5–7 ).
The Power of the Tongue ( 3, 1–12 )
James's concern for the proper use of speech (see 1, 19.26) now becomes thematic. Preoccupation with speech is typical of ancient moralists. Taciturnity as a sign of wisdom was proverbial (see, for example, Prv 10, 19; 11, 12 ). That such “control of the tongue” was almost insurmountably difficult to achieve was also well known. James therefore considers control of speech to be a mark of perfection ( 3, 2 ).
James makes two related points using conventional imagery from Greek philosophy. The first compares the tongue to a horse's bit or a ship's rudder, showing not only how a small organ can direct a large body but also how much that organ itself, with its disproportionate power, needs to be controlled by someone with a sense of direction! James's second point concerns the potential for harm in uncontrolled speech. It is like a flame “setting the entire course of our lives on fire” ( 3, 6 ).
The capacity of speech to do evil is more impressive than its power for good: “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” ( 3, 8 ). Sadly, the story of human discourse from the Garden of Eden to the latest garden party only confirms James's harsh judgment. No wonder the ancients valued taciturnity: better no speech than destructive speech. The dangers inherent in speech also undergird the value of silence in the monastic/contemplative tradition of both the East and the West. Silence is the necessary precondition to “welcome the word that…is able to save your souls” ( 1, 21 ).
The theological implications of speech are central to James's exhortation. In 3, 9–12 , he contrasts the speech that “blesses God” with that which “curses human beings” who are made in God's image! Once again James combats the “two‐minded” person, who thinks that it is possible to have a relationship with God that disregards human obligations. As in 2, 14–17 , James insists that religious language and practical human care must go together. The same source cannot yield two kinds of water, and a Christian should not speak with two tongues. Action should follow conviction; speech should conform to faith.
The warning is directed most of all at those who desire to be teachers in the faith community ( 3, 1 ). If care is required for all speech, it is even more necessary for those who shape the minds of others according to the measure of God and not of the world.
Friendship with God or the World ( 3, 13–4, 10 )
Although the paragraph division of modern translations hides what is clearer in Greek, 3, 13–4, 10 is a self‐contained essay stating the central theological framework for understanding James as a whole.
Formally, it is a call of conversion. In 3, 13–4, 6 , James presents an indictment. In 4, 7–10 , he exhorts his readers to repentance. A powerful spatial metaphor governs both parts, a contrast between what comes “from above” (true wisdom, God's gift), and that which originates “from below” (false wisdom, human arrogance). Correspondingly, the readers are told to “humble” themselves, so that God can “exalt” them ( 4, 10 ). The spatial metaphor points to differing measures of reality. That “from below” James calls “the world.” It treats life as though God had no claim; human success is measured by human accomplishment and acquisition. But God's measure says that everything comes as a gift from “the Father of lights” ( 1, 17 ), and that arrogance is empty pretence. James, as always, has as his main target the “two‐minded” person ( 4, 8 ) who wants to live by both measures at once.
Within this call to conversion, James develops the theme of envy as exemplifying the measure of the world. Notice the occurrence of “jealousy” in 3, 14.16; 4, 2 and climactically in 4, 5 . This last verse is notoriously difficult to translate, not least because we have no verse of Scripture saying what James suggests. The best solution is to render 4, 5 as two rhetorical questions (a technique common in this essay): “Do you think the scripture speaks in vain? Is the spirit God has made to dwell in us for envy?” The word for “envy” here is never used of God (whereas “jealous” sometimes is), and never occurs in Greek with a positive connotation. The point clearly is that God's spirit has nothing to do with envy. Envy comes from the “wisdom from below.” James associates with envy all the vices commonly attributed to it in Greek moral discourse, especially social unrest, murder, and war.
Why is envy so singled out? Because its underlying assumption is that your gain is my loss. This is the opposite of the Spirit of community, where all gain by anyone's growth and all rejoice in anyone's good fortune. Envy causes me to sorrow when another has something that I lack. And when life is measured simply in terms of what I possess—“I am what I have”—then for another to have and me to lack is intolerable. Envy drives the acquisitive instinct: “you covet” ( 4, 2 ). It is a short step to conflict, war, and murder, between individuals and among nations. Like other Greek moralists, James assigns the cause of war to envy ( 4, 1–3 ). It is remarkable that this passage, which alone in the New Testament analyzes the causes of human conflict, should play so little role in moral discussions of war and peace.
At the climax of the indictment ( 4, 4 ), James accuses his readers of being “adulterers” because they have broken covenant both with God and with their fellow humans. The covenant is about loyalty and love. There is no connection between those attitudes and the self‐seeking of envy. James also uses the language of Greek philosophy concerning “friendship.” He contrasts “friendship with the world” and “friendship with God” as opposing ways of life. James is not condemning the world understood as the place of human activity or God's creation. Rather, it is a system of values that excludes consideration of God. To be “friends with the world” therefore means to live by a measure that leaves God's claim aside.
To this closed system James opposes the measure of faith: God is the source of “all good giving and every perfect gift” ( 1, 17 ). God gives more grace to the humble even while resisting the arrogant ( 4, 6 ). God is not envious of humans but gives to all generously and without grudging (see 1, 5 ). Those who submit to God are therefore also lifted up by God ( 4, 10 ). Their tears of repentance will rapidly turn to joy, because—a remarkable statement—when humans draw near to God, God also draws near to them ( 4, 8 ).
Against Arrogance ( 4, 11–5, 6 )
James now turns to three forms of arrogance, which exemplify life according to the measure of the world. The first is the practice of slandering a neighbor ( 4, 11f ). Such critical speech naturally involves both a condemnation of the other and an implied assertion of one's own superiority: “I am in a position to judge.” James insists that such judgment breaks the law of love (see Lv 19, 16 ) and reminds his readers that the lawgiver is also the judge. God alone can both save and destroy life (see 1, 21 ).
A second form of arrogance is demonstrated by those who make great business plans without ever considering the fragile nature of their own existence ( 4, 13–17 ). Once more, their speech gives them away; they assume control over the present and the future. James comments: “You are boasting in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” ( 4, 16 ). The speech of one living by God's measure is also revealing: “If the Lord wills…” This is more than pious talk; it refers all of life and all of life's projects to the one who gives and can alone sustain life.
Finally, with a prophetic rage like that of Amos, James attacks the insolence of the rich who withhold wages from their laborers. The security gained by such fraud is illusory; the rich fatten themselves for the day of judgment ( 5, 5 ). They sin because they “know the right thing to do but do not do it” ( 4, 17 ). How do they know? Because the scriptural context for the law of love in Leviticus 19, 18 states plainly, “you shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer” (Lv 19, 13 ).
Patience, Plain Speech, Prayer ( 5, 7–20 )
Having called the double‐minded to conversion and excoriated the arrogant, James turns to the community's inner life. Speech is again the underlying theme, this time with reference to the proper uses of speech in the church.
The attack on oppressors ( 5, 1–6 ) leads naturally to the condition of those who suffer persecution from without. James recommends patience and extends the example of Job ( 5, 11 ). Patience is possible for them as it is for a farmer, because the fruitful outcome of their loyalty is certain: “the coming of the Lord is at hand.” In the meantime, nothing would be more natural than for the afflicted to turn on each other in resentment and hurt. James again uses Leviticus 19 when he tells them, “Do not complain about one another that you may not be judged” (see Lv 19, 17f ).
Christians should speak plainly. In 5, 12 James repeats the commandment of Jesus (Mt 5, 33–37 ) that speech should be unadorned and straightforward, without oaths. And in his last exhortation, James encourages the sort of mutual correction that can build up the identity of the church ( 5, 20 ).
Because the church is constituted by the word of truth ( 1, 18 ), it should above all express that truth in its communal life of prayer. James enumerates the sorts of prayer that are appropriate to the community's diverse circumstances ( 5, 13f ) and then elaborates the prayer with anointing for a sick member. This ritual is the basis for the sacrament of anointing for the sick and has roots in the healing ministry of Jesus (see 5, 15 ). James's last example from Torah is the prophet Elijah, whose prayer demonstrates the power of faith for those who live by God's measure ( 5, 17f; cf. 1, 6–8 ). These final exhortations, down to earth and humane, summarize beautifully the character of James, who from beginning to end finds wisdom in practical faith and active love.