Commentary on James 1:17-27
Lectionary editors do not always make the most helpful choices.
James 1:17-27 exemplifies this. Rather than a single argument, the passage contains at least three arguments, one of which begins far earlier than 1:17. Each of these arguments in James 1 introduces later portions of the letter of James. James 1 serves both as a precursor to the rest of the letter, and as a succinct exposition of what James calls “pure and undefiled religion.”
James begins by contrasting children of desire with children of God (James 1:12-18) an argument that ends with 1:17-18, the first two verses of this lection. This theme will recur at the end of James 3 and through most of James 4. Following this, he contrasts human sharp-tongued hot-headedness with God’s justice (James 1:19-21, 26), the focus of most of James 3. Finally, he differentiates between those who hear and those who do God’s word (James 1: 22-25), the primary subject of James 2.
Each section of today’s lectionary passage could become its own sermon. The first portion, when taken within its literary context (James 1:12-18), highlights the contrast between the gifts and acts of giving that come from God and the desires that lead to sin and death (1:14-17). Here, the author contrasts two birth narratives.
In the first, desire or craving (epithumia), gendered as a feminine noun in Greek, conceives and gives birth to sin (hamartia), who in turn conceives and gives birth to death (thanatos). By contrast, the gifts of God are good and complete (teleios), coming down from above (1:17). These come to us from the God who is at once figured as the “Father of lights” and as the one who has given birth to the community of faith through the word of truth, a remarkably feminine description (1:18). The community of faith represents the first fruits of God’s creatures, an allusion perhaps to the expected coming of Christ. The first portion of this lection suggests meditations on what it means to be children of God rather than children of desire.
The second portion of this lection focuses on communication, a topic of some currency in the contemporary climate. James, here, counsels the value of listening and of keeping a cool head (James 1:19), not only as ends in themselves but because their obverse does not produce God’s dikaiosune (1:20), God’s “justice” or “righteousness” depending on one’s understanding of that word. Note, here, that James does not warn against all speech or anger, but rather against a temperament that speaks too quickly and is easily angered. Instead of these attributes, James’ audience must turn from filthy and evil behavior to welcome God’s implanted word (1:21). This part of the lection invites an exploration of the connection between one’s communication, verbal or virtual, and one’s faithfulness to God.
The third part of the lection picks up a theme that will be repeated in next week’s reading also: the importance of faith-informed action. Faithful action, for James, means paying specific attention to “the law of liberty,” possibly a shorthand for Torah, especially the Ten Commandments (James 2:11) and Leviticus 19:18 (James 1:25). Believers should enact the law of liberty, rather than just listen to it, so that they not become like those who look into a mirror and then immediately forget their own reflection (1:24). Here, a contrast arises between those who look into the mirror and those who look into the law, a contrast, perhaps between seeing things as one wishes and seeing things as God wishes.
James 1:26-27 encapsulates the spirit of the entire chapter, by pointing out the primary characteristics of “true religion.” Here, all three themes merge. Pure religion, according to James, guards its speech (1:26, compare with 1:19-21). It acts out its faith by caring for society’s marginalized persons, here represented by “widows and orphans” (1:27, compare with 1:22-25). And, it keeps itself unstained from the world. This last corresponds to 1:17-18 obliquely, but begins a theme that James will continue throughout the letter: the contrast between God and the world that culminates in the pronouncement that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:3).
Throughout these verses, James invites the question: “What does it mean to live as a Christian?” James 1 suggests preliminary answers, answers that deepen as the James lections continue for the next few weeks.