“So that you may be perfect and complete”: Reading the Epistle of James

I would like to look more closely at the Epistle of James. I hope that doesn’t sound so strange that I have to justify myself by suggesting some sort of usefulness for an immediate controversy. To be sure, what might first come to mind is an apologetic usefulness for Catholics, as we remember that Luther called the letter a “right strawy epistle.” And the letter does say that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Jm 2:17). But I really don’t have any particular usefulness in mind. Luther is a good place to start, but this is because he raises provocative questions for our reading of the epistle. Why doesn’t the epistle mention the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? And how do we deal with the perception that it seems “kein Ordo noch Methodus” (“without order or method”)? At the very least, I will try to give an explicit answer to the second question. Perhaps the answer to the first question will be implicit.

I might begin by pointing out that there has been a great deal of recent research on the once neglected epistle for a number of reasons, including a welcome reconsideration of the relationship of Christianity and Judaism and the introduction of new exegetical approaches. Compared to its richness, this might seem very flat indeed. I will be indebted throughout to an article by the Carmelite priest Huub Welzen of the Titus Brandsma Institute (“The Way of Perfection: Spirituality in the Letter of James,” Studies in Spirituality 13 [2003]).

That being said, we can begin our search for “Ordo” and “Methodus” in the epistle by first identifying it as wisdom literature. Wisdom, says Fr Welzen, is attained when we not only act according to the law, but also begin to appropriate it to become one with the law. The truly wise person, then, fulfills the aptly named “royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Jm 2:8). The epistle will go on to say, “Whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it” (Jm 2:10), sounding very much like the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:19). Demanding, yes? This “becoming one with the law” would be depressingly impossible if wisdom were not a gift “from above” (Jm 3:17). Fr Welzen reminds us, “Wisdom is a gift from God; it is the opposite of all human wisdom and it turns the humble, poor and simple-minded into wise people.” The Epistle of James consists of the practical maxims and proverbs that are very much part of the Jewish Wisdom tradition – inclduing the teachings of Jesus Christ preserved in the Gospel of Matthew – so that we might really receive this wisdom “from above” through faith.

But we must be cautious. If we listen to the epistle, we will become aware of two paths that we might follow, which, when we happen upon trials, can lead us to either perfection or death itself. The very first Psalm poetically spoke of these two ways, “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Ps 1:6). We can also recognize this bifurcation from the Gospels. One way is marked by the wisdom that is a gift “from above.” Faith is tested, but this only leads to perseverance. “And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jm 1:5). The other way begins with desire, the Jamesian counterpart to the Pauline “flesh” (Rom 7:5), which, when we are faced with trials, “conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death” (Jm 1:15). How do we know whether we have received wisdom or are simply imprisoned within the funhouse of our own desires? We must go through the trial. This is discernment. We hold ourselves up to the light of truth and ask with honesty whether we really are peaceable and gentle, try to recognize whether the origin of our behavior is wisdom or selfish desire, and strive to remain faithful while purifying ourselves in the midst of our trials, trusting that the reality of who we are will unfailingly emerge as we are sifted by them.

To be honest, the picture of these diametrically opposed paths might seem rather disheartening. For many of us, “perfection” is but the prelude to despair, as we realize that we cannot immediately morph ourselves into St Francis (or even fulfill our mothers’ expectations) by a sheer act of will. What does James mean by “perfection”? The epistle’s use of teleos (“perfect”) may refer to the moral perfection in Stoic theory, but probably also reflects the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew tamim. Tamim described the wholeness and unblemished quality in sacrificial animals, but also quite naturally indicated a similarly whole and unblemished relationship with God. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (teleos)” (Mt 5:48), telling us that this perfection must be preceded by an experience of the perfect Father. James also suggests that an experience of the Father’s perfection must come first, for “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jm 1:17). We are then drawn to mirror God’s perfection in our own lives. “But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does” (Jm 1:23). We begin with faith and go from there.

Perhaps we shy away from perfection because we assume that it should be within our grasp from the very start, and we then head quickly into despair when it clearly is not. We forget that the beginning of our spiritual journey is meant to be marked by the “fear of God,” since, after all, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10). Perfection refers to the end. But, of course, the end is already there in the beginning. As the Carmelite friar Kees Waaijman, also of the Titus Brandsma Institute, writes, “Perfection (tmm) is completely contained already in our original integrity, integrity which via a process of gradual growth blossoms into the complete surrender which is the hallmark of perfection (Isa 18:5; Prov 20:7; Ps 18:26).” And there truly always must be a dynamism in our spiritual journey that continually bears fruits, even in the midst of trials.

James outlines some of these trials. We are tempted by double-mindedness. We are tempted by class distinctions, foolishly clinging to transitory things because of a residual fear of the powerlessness of death. James reminds us that, despite our desperate measures, “The sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass, its flower droops, and the beauty of its appearance vanishes” (Jm 1:9). We must struggle against our wild tongues. Finally, we must struggle against our passions. James writes about the latter, “You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war. You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jm 4:1-3). How much of this describes our own present reality, even within the Church? As we move towards perfection, we must remember to practice discernment in the midst of all these trials, focusing on how our spiritual orientation manifests itself “in the things one actually does.”

To put it bluntly, none of us is perfect. But this is not cause for despair. James is speaking “from the point of view of the end.” Perfection is eschatological. What does this mean? Fr Welzen says, “We have to take into serious consideration that the perfection James wishes to point us towards will ultimately remain outside the scope of our lives.” This does not mean that we give up, but rather that we continue to pursue “the crown of life that he promised to those who love him” (Jm 1:12) more selflessly, trusting God’s promise without looking for its fulfillment as a reward for anything we might accomplish in the here and now, even as we see anticipations when we recognize ourselves as more “peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity” (Jm 3:17).

How do you read the epistle? 

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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