Commentary on James 1:17-27
The book of James is something of an enigma in NT literature.
Is it from the very earliest stratum of the church — the Jewish Christians who looked to Jesus’ brother James as their leader, even before the Gentile mission — or a later, second- or third-generation group who struggled to keep the faith amid stress and persecution? Why does this material bear so many similarities to the teaching of Jesus, yet mention him by name only twice (1:1, 2:1)? Is it written in opposition to Paul’s teaching on faith, or does this author simply understand “faith” differently? Is the text a series of loosely connected teachings strung together, or is there an underlying structure? The preacher of James probably will not need to raise and answer all of these questions in the sermon, but will need to consider them as she or he decides how to interpret the text.
The first chapter of James, in particular, seems to move from topic to topic with little overarching structure. Yet commentators have noted that the major themes of the following chapters of James all appear in chapter one. In a sense, then, this chapter is the overture to James’s opera, the place where ideas are introduced that will be more fully developed only later.
James begins with a greeting to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” then promptly proceeds to establish that members of the readership are undergoing persecution, apparently difficult and prolonged, which they are encouraged to endure for the sake of the reward that awaits them. Neither should they think that God is behind their sufferings, for God gives only good gifts.
This theme — God’s goodness and perfection, and therefore the goodness and perfection of what God gives — is the starting place for the present passage (verse 17). (The phrase “shadow of turning,” familiar to many from the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” comes from the end of verse 17, although most modern translations use “shifting shadow” or “shadow due to change.”) Human beings, brought forth by this good God by means of a word of truth, are to reflect divine goodness and perfection in the world.
Then the author urges his readers to “Know this!”, and we anticipate a major point, perhaps the purpose for which God has made us “first fruits.” What follows, then, may surprise us: we are to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (19). Is this our purpose as Christians? Not going into the world and preaching the gospel? Not teaching and baptizing? We are far more accustomed to hearing that our task as Christians is to speak than that it is to listen. So this command is unexpected, and we need to pay close attention.
From this unexpected starting place James develops an argument that may make us uncomfortable. He creates a set of connections and oppositions that links “mere” hearing to quick, angry, and unprofitable speech, and ultimately to self-deception. On the other side are “doing” and meekness (and no mention of speech at all!), which lead to blessedness. Those of us whose work for God consists largely in crafting theological language and speaking it are beginning to squirm.
One of the notable features of James is the author’s use of vivid, concrete images that, parable-like, both illustrate the author’s points and leave enough ambiguity to tease our minds into active thought (recalling C.H. Dodd’s famous definition of the parable). Presumably the point of looking into a mirror (verses 23-24) is to tell us something about ourselves — our hair needs combing, our lipstick is on crooked — that we remember at least long enough to address the issue. Who checks her hair in a mirror and then forgets to comb it? (Granted, we may suspect this of our teenagers.) But the one who hears without doing, James implies, has what one of my students called “moral Alzheimer’s,” a kind of deep forgetfulness that leaves the religious self unable to function fully.
So this is what James tells us: that we are to be quick to “hear,” because not hearing enough leads us, apparently inevitably, to speech that is angry and unproductive. But hearing alone is not sufficient. We must also “do,” because failing to act is evidence of a fundamental failure to function as God’s first fruits in the world.
In what, then, does our religion consist? Perhaps the second startling turn in this passage is not so unexpected, after all, to those who have followed the argument leading up to it. Pure and undefiled religion, according to James, is this:
- caring for orphans and widows in their distress
- keeping oneself unstained from the world
That’s it. The care of “orphans and widows” is a synecdoche for actions taken on behalf of the less fortunate, since in the ancient world widows and orphans were the most vulnerable members of society, singled out for special consideration also in biblical law and prophetic pronouncements. And since such work would necessarily bring one into contact with unbelievers and with the seamier side of human existence, believers are supposed to be careful to avoid participation in practices contrary to their Christian ethic.
Certainly these are important facets of most Christians’ understanding of their religion. They would likely make many Christians’ “top ten.” But James challenges us to imagine a Christianity in which these are vital. What would such a faith and practice look like?
Perhaps, if we as Christians were to follow James’s precepts, we would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. We would forswear anger and self-deception. We would measure our faith by our personal relationships, both in our habits of speech and our relationships with others in the community. Our primary expression of our religion would be in outreach to the poor and neglected. By such attitudes and actions, James tells us, we fulfill the divine purpose and become first fruits of all God’s creatures.