The letter of James contains much that strikes and unsettles the Christian believer. As it must have been for the community James was addressing, it remains so today.
There is a lot of reflection material packed into six verses. The writer challenges us to put words into action, then offers a curious metaphor. From there we are affirmed with that word “freedom,” and perhaps knowing that living the Christian life is truly in our hands, we encounter a beatitude for those who “do” the word we hear.
Do we think too well of ourselves? Are we deceiving ourselves? Are our desires all for nothing? Taking care of the needy: this seems a sure way to go, that, plus not being sullied by the world, however we might interpret that.
Anyway, here’s the passage:
Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer,
he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror.
He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets
what he looked like.
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.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue
but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
What part of this speaks to penance? Definitely the notion that faith must be put into practice. As a penitent, how often do we confess the things we have failed to do? The truth is: we don’t do a lot. And in the freedom God gives us, how much of that “doing” is not done because we are attending to other important matters? The apostles excused themselves in Acts 6 so as not to neglect the Word. And that is fine. Married persons can check the excuse for the care of a spouse or children. Right?
But at what point does the nudge of the Holy Spirit in our conscience inform an urge to do something, and then we don’t get it. We don’t do it. We don’t hear it. Maybe for the latter, we might be excused. We are sometimes deaf, and there is no sin in that.
But if we call ourselves Christian, believer, disciple, Catholic, faithful, orthodox, or whatever, and it turns out we are doing very little, then perhaps James 1:22ff convicts us. Do we feel it? Is it true?
My sense is that one must be very careful with a reading like this. A confessor might use it very rarely. One has to really know a penitent to be able to make a judgment that a person might be avoiding an active outward faith life. When can one chalk it up to the introvert in some of us? Given the number of ways it is possible to do good and do it behind the scenes, I doubt this is a valid protest.
And for a public liturgy, form II or a service of the Word? There you get the full spectrum of people–those who indeed live the Word in a balanced and fruitful way, plus others who have not let the faith seep deeply into them and are looking for the minimum requirement.
This is a good reading. But it needs preaching, exploration, discernment, and mindful application in a believer’s life. That doesn’t give us license to avoid it. But handle with care.