Commentary on James 1:17-27
This Sunday is the beginning of a series of readings from the book of James.
Although Martin Luther made critical remarks about this book, calling it an “epistle of straw” in his preface to James, the book retains a significant place in the canon of Scripture. The author is traditionally identified as James, the brother of the Lord (James 1:1; cf. Galatians 1:19), though this is disputed. More important is the basic perspective the author brings to Christian proclamation. The driving questions concern the shape of Christian life.
The author is aware that people sometimes confine their understanding of faith to a simple series of truth claims–something limited to their heads or their words. For James, this is inadequate. Throughout this letter, the faith that counts is the faith that is actually operative in a person’s life. People might say they believe one thing and yet do something completely different. Therefore, James will insist that true faith is whatever is actually operative in your life. Faith that is not active is not faith at all. And in this, James agrees with both Paul (Galatians 5:6) and Luther.
The passage for this week explores at least two questions. The first is, “Who is God?” The response that James presents is pure gospel. God is identified by what he gives. Every perfect gift comes from above, the gifts come down from the Father of lights (James 1:17a). The author will later turn to questions about human giving, but will not do so without speaking first about God’s giving. The people to whom James writes are those who have received life from God. Without this, there would be nothing further to say, since people have something to give precisely because they have received from God.
God is called the Father of lights, with whom there is no shadow or variation due to change (1:17b). This recalls that God is the Giver because God is the Creator. In the beginning he brought light into being and put all the particular lights in the heaven (Genesis 1:3, 14-17). What is more, this Creator or Father of lights has no “shadow side.” For American audiences, this distinguishes God from the Force depicted in Star Wars. You may recall that the Force is said to be an energy field comprised of all living things; and the Force has a dark side. The lives of major characters in Star Wars are shaped by whether they draw on the bright side or the dark side of the Force. In James, however, God does not have this kind of dark side. And God is not simply an energy field that people tap into at their will; God is the Giver who conveys life to them by his will.
God does this by his word of truth, which in this context is the gospel. The word of truth is God’s creative agent. It gives birth to new life in a person (James 1:18a). Birth language is life language. It points to a life that has a bodily dimension, yet this new life is not limited to the beating of the heart or breathing of the lungs. It means new life in relationship with God. James says that those who are given new birth become a “first fruits” (1:18b). In biblical tradition, the first fruits are the first ripe sheaves of grain or the first fruits that appear and ripen on a tree. They are signs of a greater harvest yet to come. And the first fruits were regularly offered to God as a sign that the entire harvest belonged to God. To be a first fruit is to belong to God, to be claimed by God, to be wanted by God.
The second question James considers is, “Who are you?” It would seem as if the question was answered by what has already been said, yet James recognizes that people do not necessarily live as the people they are in God. In 1:22-24, he speaks about a lack of correspondence between hearing and doing, between who one is and what one does.
He asks us to picture ourselves standing in front of a mirror. We are to pause there as James asks, “Do you see who you are?” Ordinarily, standing in front of a mirror might mean that we see ourselves as thin or overweight, blemished, disheveled, wrinkled, or scarred. But that is not what James is getting at. Instead, we are to think about ourselves in light of what has just been said. Do you see you who are? You are someone who has been blessed by God’s gifts, someone who has been brought to new life through God’s word–a person who is a first fruit, set aside as someone who belongs to God.
What happens when you forget who you are? Life typically takes another course. If you forget how much you have been given, why would you give anything to others? If you forget how much you have received, then life is reduced to a quest to get what you can while you can. You may find the situation of the orphan and the widow to be regrettable (1:27), but conclude that this is the way the world is, and you need to get what you can while you can. Or what if you forget that God’s word has given you new life, bringing you into renewed relationship with the God who made you and wants you as his own? If you forget what God’s word gives you, then what you do with your words seems to matter little (1:26).
So James says, “Look at yourself again, in the perfect law of liberty,” and tell me what you see (1:25). The law of liberty is the law of love that is mentioned in 2:8. And the law of love brings liberty–it is freeing–because love both frees us and constrains us. To know that one is loved is the most freeing thing imaginable, even as this same love holds us in a relationship of love. This is where we see ourselves, James says. Look into the law of love. This is who God creates you to be. Is there some reason you don’t want people to know who you are?