Ordinary Time provides an opportunity for those who follow the liturgical year to take a different direction in their approach to the Scriptures. In Ordinary Time, we go week by week, examining how we might live the life we share together in Christ. Ordinary Time is therefore a good season for the Church to study books of the Bible, in particular the epistles, which were written to various congregations and individuals to guide them in the Christ-life.
Our study this summer is on the Epistle of James.
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Wednesdays with James
Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James
James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus the Messiah, to the twelve dispersed tribes: greetings.
• James 1:1 (Kingdom NT)
This epistle begins with a standard letter greeting, indicating that:
- It was a letter.
- It represented the teaching and counsel of a well-known Christian leader.
- It was a letter designed to be circulated and read in a number of different communities.
- It was sent to Jewish-Christian communities outside of Palestine.
As a letter, James is rather impersonal. Perhaps we should call it a “pastoral letter” or a “teaching letter” so that we don’t confuse it in our minds with a letter containing news and personal greetings and so on. We find none of that in James. I like the word “encyclical,” as it combines the ideas of official communication and circulation.
It was sent out representing James. As we saw in an earlier study, this most probably refers to James the Just, who was the brother of Jesus and a leader in the church of Jerusalem. Whether or not James actually penned the epistle as we have it now is an open question, but it is certainly cast as representing a body of his teaching. Quoting Peter Davids:
G. Kittel appears to be correct in arguing for an early date for the book, in that the source material probably was early, and this means that this material is probably by James the Just. In the light of the Greek idiom used in the work, it is likely that either James received assistance in the editing of the work or that his teaching was edited at a later date (perhaps after his death) as the church spread beyond Jerusalem and began to use Greek more extensively….
The preceding section has argued that James is a two-stage work, an initial series of sermons and sayings, which ostensibly come from James the Just…, and a later redaction of these units into an epistle by either James or a member of the church.
James’s description of himself is consistent with that of a Jewish Christian leader. To call oneself a “slave” of God (doulos) was to employ a “thoroughly Hebrew term” (Hartin) expressing the relationship between God and his people. “It captures the concept of God’s ownership of God’s people and their willingness to carry out God’s will” (Hartin). The following phrase designates James as a follower of the one he believed to be the promised Messiah of Israel. He also calls him “Lord,” a title used in the LXX to refer to God, and a common NT designation indicating his kingly authority.
This immediately adds an eschatological flavor to the letter of James. James sees himself as a representative and servant of the true Messiah (King) who came to inaugurate the “last days,” to reconstitute the “twelve tribes” of Israel and bring righteousness and peace to the world.
This eschatology is further confirmed by his description of the addressees: “to the twelve dispersed tribes.” Patrick Hartin explains:
The end-times have begun with these Christian communities emerging within the house of Israel. James uses the eschatological perspective as motivation for his wisdom advice. This horizon culminates at the end of the letter with an exhortation to his hearers/readers to patient endurance: “Be patient, then, my brothers (and sisters), until the coming of the Lord” (5:7). As the first fruits of the reconstitution of God’s people, his hearers/readers must hold fast to this identity until the end-times have reached fulfillment. (p. 52)
Some have suggested a more “spiritual” meaning to the twelve tribes here. They say that James is addressing Christians (Jewish and/or Gentile) as exiles in a metaphorical sense, as Peter seems to do in 1Peter 1:1. Heaven is their true home and, until the day they arrive there, they are dispersed throughout the world.
This viewpoint fails to give enough weight to the thoroughly Jewish character of this letter. It is much more likely that James’s words are going out to communities of (mostly) Jewish Christians, who would have been seen as a sect within Judaism at this early date. “The parting of the ways between the house of Israel and Christianity has not yet taken place” (Hartin). These believers are members of communities outside of Palestine, geographically separated from what would have been understood by them as “home” — Jerusalem and the Promised Land.
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A few thoughts on this text…
(1) If the “James” we read about in 1:1 was Jesus’ brother, we have here an example of humility and Christian identity. He presents himself as a “slave” to God and Jesus the King. His identity is rooted in God and what he has done in Jesus.
(2) Christianity is Jewish. A letter like James reminds us of our heritage and the continuities between the Hebrew Bible and the Greek NT, between the patriarchs and the apostles, between the Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
(3) The “end-times” are not characterized by spectacular, supernatural, other-worldly events, but represent the working out of God’s promises in history, to be grasped by people of faith in communities of faith, whose lives among their neighbors evidence wisdom and love. The “twelve dispersed tribes” will receive that kind of instruction in this letter, and we would do well to listen in so that we may apply this wisdom to our own contexts today.