Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
You might compare the Bible to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing through the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll travel through a small portion of the Bible—the letter of James. Because the letter is short, we will be able to take a leisurely walk through it, thinking carefully about what we are reading and what it means for our lives today. Despite its brevity, the letter gives us a great deal to reflect on, for James deals with basic issues regarding our response to God’s love.
This guide provides everything you need to begin exploring James in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections provide explanations that highlight what James’s words mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch your group into fruitful discussion, helping you to both explore the letter for yourself and learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp James’s message. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with this New Testament letter. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the text and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what James’s words mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you what the letter of James has meant to others—so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. But if participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud to the group at the points where they occur in the weekly material.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished amateur biblical scholars, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to take turns as facilitators and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 76) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. It contains the entire text of James, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 80 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 76) or individuals (page 79).
The Path to Wholeness Introducing the Letter of James
What do you look for in a sermon? I can tell you what I look for. I like the preacher to cut the flowery language and cutesy stories, explain the Scripture, and show how it applies to life today. In a sermon, I’m not looking for sentimental inspirations or flights of theological speculation; I’m looking for insights into what God’s word means and how it connects with me.
If your preference in sermons runs toward poems and anecdotes, you may find the letter of James not to your taste. But if you like your sermons plain and direct, then the letter of James is just the sort of thing for you, since that is exactly what the letter of James is: a practical sermon about Christian living.
James’s sermon is almost two thousand years old, so we do need a little help to understand it. But it requires less scholarly commentary than many other parts of the Bible. James deals with our struggle to surmount inner conflicts and become whole persons; he shows us how to become men and women of integrity and peace. The relevance of his subject and his straightforward style make James’s letter-sermon one of the most accessible portions of the Bible. Although many worthwhile books have been written about James’s letter, we don’t have to bring a stack of them with us when we sit down to read it.
What we do need to bring is ourselves. James not only points us toward the ideals of Christian life; he peels back the surface of our religious activity to expose the obstacles within us that impede our progress toward these ideals. He invites us to join him in an examination of our values. The primary requirement for benefiting from James’s sermon is willingness to take up his invitation.
A starting point for understanding James’s sermon is to see its connection with the sermons of Jesus. Jesus traveled from town to town in Palestine, announcing to his fellow Jews that God’s kingdom—God’s life-giving presence and power—was about to arrive and teaching them how to enter this kingdom and live in it. The Palestinian Jews who embraced Jesus as the Messiah, at the time of his preaching or after his death and resurrection, remembered his words and joined together to live them. They formed themselves into local communities that they sometimes called synagogues, the Greek term for “assembly” that Jews customarily used. These Jewish-Christian communities were the recipients of James’s letter. James, it seems, took up the oral tradition of Jesus’ teaching (the written Gospels may not have been composed yet) and addressed these Jewish Christians living in Galilee and in adjacent areas—present-day Lebanon, Syria, and southern Turkey.
If you have done any reading of the New Testament—and even if you haven’t—you are probably acquainted with the sermon in which Jesus launched his public ministry: the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). From this sermon come such well-known statements and instructions as “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (5:3), “Love your enemies” (5:44), and “Seek first the kingdom of God” (see 6:33). In this hilltop sermon, and in a similar one presented at ground level (the Sermon on the Plain—Luke 6:20–49), Jesus conveyed the basic principles of his way of life. (As they appear in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, these sermons are probably collections made by Jesus’ followers of teachings that he presented in various situations over the course of his ministry.) James’s preaching flows directly from these sermons of Jesus. James deals with the same topics that Jesus did, reinforcing certain points and helping his reader-listeners apply the teaching to themselves. Just as Matthew 5–7 is called the Sermon on the Mount and Luke 6:20–49 the Sermon on the Plain, the letter of James might be called the Sermon in the Synagogue (James uses the Greek term synagogue for the Christian assembly in 2:2, translated “assembly” by NRSV).
James’s sermon resembles Jesus’ sermons not only in terms of the topics he deals with but also in terms of a topic he does not deal with. In his Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain, Jesus did not speak about his death and resurrection but presented his instructions for how his followers should live. Similarly, James says nothing about Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. The Christians to whom James wrote would have been familiar with oral accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. James’s subject, however, is not the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection but the application of Jesus’ teaching about how to live as members of God’s kingdom.
By this point you are probably wondering who this James was. He calls himself simply “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). While this lean statement asserts James’s authority as a divinely authorized spokesman, it does not answer our questions about his identity. But this in itself is significant. Only a well-recognized leader would have been able to teach his fellow Christians with such authority without needing to present his credentials. The James who wrote the letter must have been a well-known, widely accepted leader of the early Church. If we look at the several men named James in the New Testament, the outstanding candidate for author of our letter is the one known as “James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19; see Mark 6:1–3). In fact, the letter of James has been attributed to this James through most of Christian history.
In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews in Palestine at the time of Jesus, the word for “brother” covers a wider range of family relationships than does the word brother in English. The Aramaic word for “brother” may denote not only a sibling but another male relative—a cousin, an uncle, etc. Since it was in Aramaic that James was first called the “Lord’s brother,” this identification does not necessarily mean that he was a full brother of Jesus. Thus his title does not stand in contradiction to the Church’s teaching that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth and had no other children. James and Jesus were probably cousins in some degree.
None of Jesus’ male relatives followed him during his earthly life (John 7:5), but some became his followers after his resurrection (Acts 1:14). Paul records that Jesus made a special appearance to James after rising from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:7). When Peter, the first leader of the church in Jerusalem, began to travel extensively, James took over the leadership of the Jerusalem community, which was the center of the early Christian movement. In Jerusalem, James presided over the first—and arguably the most crucial—council in the history of the Church (Acts 15). Jews outside the Christian community honored him with the title “James the Just,” that is, James the Righteous, for his upright life in obedience to the Mosaic law. But his position of leadership in the Christian community made him an object of hostility to Jewish leaders who regarded Christianity as a dangerous deviation within Judaism. In the year 62, James’s opponents brought about his death. Thus the letter we are about to read comes from the earliest period of the life of the Church, probably some time in the 40s or 50s.
I should mention that there is a range of scholarly opinion on the authorship and date of the letter of James. Since the letter is written in a more fluent Greek than might be expected of someone from a small village in Galilee, some experts view it as the product of an unknown later author who used James’s name, and perhaps some of James’s material. But the traditional view that the author was James the Lord’s brother is maintained by some scholars today, and that view will be the basis of our discussion in this booklet.
What about the people to whom James wrote: what do we know about them? Historians have devoted considerable attention to earliest Jewish Christianity, but they are unable to draw a detailed picture of the letter’s recipients. From James’s letter itself we get a very general impression of them. The way he speaks of the preciousness of the harvest (5:7) suggests that his readers were small-scale farmers, for whom every fruit tree and stalk of grain made a difference. It is impossible to determine the recipients’ economic and political situation with precision, but apparently some of them were being exploited by wealthy, powerful people (2:6–7; 5:1–6). An occasional wealthy person, and probably more than an occasional indigent person, could be seen in their assembly (2:1–7). One thing we know for sure: these early Christians were not yet thoroughly transformed by Jesus’ teaching. Their hearts were still divided between the values of the world and the values of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ way of life was only gradually taking root in their lives. In this respect, they were much like us, despite considerable cultural and social differences.
A few of James’s concepts deserve a brief introduction. James speaks of “the word of truth” (1:18), “the implanted word” (1:21), “the perfect law” (1:25), “the law of liberty” (1:25; 2:12), “the royal law” (2:8), and simply “the law” (2:9, 11; 4:11). With various nuances, all these terms refer to the moral law that God gave to his people Israel, as interpreted by Jesus, who focused on the central requirements of mercy and love (2:8). Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount provides a good idea of what James means by God’s “word” or “law.” In James’s mind, the law is not a burdensome set of rules but God’s call to imitate his love (see 1:27). God’s word, or law, brings freedom because it contains a power that transforms us as we respond to it (1:21).
Like the other authors of the New Testament, James speaks of “faith” as our response to God’s life-giving word. As you will see, James thinks of faith as a compound—a combination of belief plus action. When you come to the word in your reading of James, try mentally translating it as “firmly committed believing” or “faith in action.”
James also uses the term “works” (2:14–26), which could lead to a misunderstanding. When James speaks of the insufficiency of faith without “works,” it may seem that he is arguing against St. Paul’s teaching that we are saved not by works but by faith (Romans 3:21–4:25; Galatians 2:15–3:14). On closer reading, however, it seems less clear that James is taking issue with Paul. Paul speaks of “works of the law” (see Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 10), by which he means especially certain ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law, such as circumcision, which mark Jews as distinct from non-Jews. Paul argued that our relationship with God depends not on observance of these works of the law but on faith in Jesus. James, however, speaks not of “works of the law” but simply of “works,” by which he means actively following the way of life that lies at the heart of the Mosaic law as interpreted by Jesus. Paul would agree with James that we cannot have a relationship with God if we violate the basic requirements of justice and mercy (Galatians 5:19–21). James never argues that we are set right with God by our deeds rather than by faith. His argument is that faith and faithful actions cannot be separated. Without the deeds of love that spring from faith, faith is not really faith at all. Thus I would make another suggestion: when you come to the term “works” in James, mentally translate it as “actions motivated by faith” or “active expressions of faith.”
We will begin our exploration of James’s letter in a leisurely way, with shorter readings in the first three weeks to allow us the opportunity to become familiar with his characteristic ideas. Along with the readings from James, I have included additional passages from Scripture, mainly from Jesus’ preaching, that deal with subjects that James treats. I have not discussed these non-Jamesian excerpts in the “Guide to the Reading” sections, although some of the questions for careful reading and questions for application refer to them. Finally, let me point out that I have often written that James speaks to us, even though, strictly speaking, he wrote his letter not to us but to some of our long-deceased Christian brothers and sisters in the ancient Near East. By the grace of God, the letter is so relevant today, even after twenty centuries, that it seems natural to say simply that James speaks to us. James’s words to his recipients are God’s words to us.
As I already suggested, what we get out of James’s letter depends on what we put into it. James’s message is directed to adults and to those who want to become adults, because it concerns responsibility. He calls us to respond to God’s presence in our lives. James’s letter provides us not with a theology of Christ but with a call to examine ourselves as Christ’s disciples; thus reading it is an opportunity to learn, but mostly about ourselves. Are we willing to submit our hearts to God (see 4:7–10) so that we can love God wholeheartedly? James would say that reading his letter and failing to act on it is not reading it at all. On the other hand, “those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (1:25; references in this booklet are to the letter of James unless otherwise noted).
Questions to Begin
15 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 In the last week, what made you happy?
2 What’s your favorite flower? Why do you like it?
Opening the Bible
5 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
The Reading: James 1:1–11
Faith Grows amid Hardships
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
Adjust Your Worldview
9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.
Who Will Be Happy? (Matthew 5:1–10)
1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Which Will You Choose? (Matthew 6:19–21, 24)
19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . 24 No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Questions for Careful Reading
10 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 If James is “the Lord’s brother,” why doesn’t he identify himself this way (1:1)?
2 What does James mean by “joy” (1:2)?
3 What kind of wisdom does James seem to have in mind in verse 5?
4 Which of Jesus’ beatitudes (“Blessed are . . . ”—Matthew 5:3–10) have some connection to the reading from James? How does each passage help us understand the other?
5 What are the similarities and differences between James 1:9–11 and Matthew 6:19–21, 24?
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
1:1–4. James urges us to take a patient attitude toward suffering. He bases his encouragement on an unstated assumption, and it will benefit us to bring it out into the open. To refer to the distresses of life as “trials” assumes that human life is not a mere sequence of random happenings but a meaningful process with a specific goal. In this process a divine Trainer is with us, ready to use everything, especially our hardships and sorrows, to test us and challenge us to grow. James recognizes that at present we are immature and incomplete persons, but he is confident that with our Trainer’s help we can become fully developed, men and women of integrity and wholeness, “lacking in nothing.” James’s outlook on life can be a source of joy alongside even the deepest sorrow, not because it anesthetizes our pain but because it gives us hope that no matter how chaotic or incomprehensible our suffering may be, it is not ultimately useless or absurd.
How does this training process work? James tells us that “endurance” of suffering is a vital factor in our development. By reminding us that life is transitory, suffering spurs us to turn to God, who is eternal. At the same time, because suffering seems to call God’s love into question, it challenges us to reaffirm our trust in God. Thus our relationship with God deepens under stress. We grow to maturity as men and women of truth and love by holding on to God’s truth and love even in adverse circumstances—just as an athlete grows to excellence through workouts and competition.
James’s words spur me to examine my own attitude toward my problems. Do I worry? feel envious of those who have an easier life? become discouraged? You bet I do. God has a vision of my becoming a complete person, and he views my difficulties as chances for me to get closer to that goal; but I fixate on the bad news in today’s memo, report card, diagnosis, or tax notice. How differently God and I look at my problems!
1:5–8. In order to undergo trials in a spirit of submission to God, we need insight into God’s plans: a sense that God’s power is active on our behalf, that God overcomes evil with good, that God is leading us through transitory earthly life toward an eternal kingdom. James calls this insight “wisdom,” and he declares that God is unhesitatingly willing to give it to us.
However, we must ask for this wisdom “in faith, never doubting.” The Greek word translated “doubting” also means hesitating, being at odds with oneself, being undecided. The old Catholic translation brought out this meaning by rendering James’s words: “Ask in faith, nothing wavering.” James’s point is that we must seek God’s wisdom with a willingness to adopt his values and act on his instructions. The “doubting” that gets in the way of our receiving God’s wisdom is not so much our doubt that he will answer our prayer as our doubt as to whether we want him to answer it. God is like a coach who is willing to work patiently with an athlete but who challenges the athlete to give the training his or her full effort. The coach knows that if the athlete is not committed, the training won’t succeed.
Some of us have not made up our minds. We are “double-minded” and “unstable,” or vacillating. James will have much to say to us in his letter.
1:9–11. The believer that James calls “lowly” is literally poor, and apparently there are many poor “brothers and sisters” in the Christian communities to which James is writing. In James’s view, poverty has an advantage, inasmuch as the poor may have a high place in God’s kingdom (1:9). The problem with wealth is that there is no future in it. James’s perspective here is an example of the heavenly wisdom of which he has just spoken (1:5). This wisdom reverses the ordinary way of looking at things. It perceives that neither poverty and suffering nor prosperity and ease are what they appear. God has a special love for the poor, while the wealthy are constantly in danger of relying on their material resources rather than on God. The wisdom James speaks of is the kind of wisdom that Mary expressed when she sang that God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). This wisdom can sustain us in suffering.
Questions for Application
40 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 What has James said so far that challenges your thinking?
2 What is the greatest difficulty that you are facing? Do you feel angry at God for allowing it? If so, do you talk to God about it? How could you seek God’s wisdom for dealing with this situation?
3 How can you encourage others in your church community to have faith in God when they are experiencing difficulties or are in pain?
4 What experiences have helped you to realize the transitoriness of life?
5 What need or lack do you experience to which you might apply James’s words about being “lowly,” or needy (1:9)? What would his words mean for you?
6 In what ways are you rich? How might you relate to this wealth differently if you viewed it in light of James’s words in 1:10–11?
Without prayer or homework the sense of personal growth or divine communion will fade; without good leaders and a strict schedule, the group will appear to be out of control.
Jerome Kodell, O.S.B., The Catholic Bible Study Handbook
Approach to Prayer
15 minutes Use this approach—or create your own!
♦ Read James 1:9–11 aloud. Pause for silent reflection. Then pray together this portion of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). End with a Glory to the Father.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
A Living Tradition A Medieval Interpreter’s Comments
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
The following comments on this week’s reading come from Bede, an English monk and scholar who lived in the eighth century and is regarded as a saint (often he is called the Venerable Bede).
“If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God” (1:5). James seems to be speaking in particular about that wisdom which is indispensable when we face temptations. If any of you cannot understand the usefulness of the temptations which happen to believers in order to test them, he says, ask God that you might be given a mind able to discern the great kindness by which the Father disciplines the children whom he is carefully making worthy of an eternal inheritance (see Proverbs 3:11–12).
“The doubter, being double-minded . . . must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (1:7–8). The double-minded person does not seek an interior reward but external approval for the good things he or she does. . . . People like that are inconsistent in all their ways, because they are both very easily discouraged by the difficulties of the world and entangled by favorable circumstances, so that they turn aside from the true path.
“Let . . . the rich [boast] in being brought low” (1:9–10). Clearly this is said with irony. James says, let him remember that his arrogant self-confidence, by which he takes pride in his wealth and looks down on or even oppresses the poor, must come to an end.
“The rich will disappear like a flower in the field” (1:10). Wildflowers are delightful in fragrance and appearance, but they very quickly lose the charm of their beauty and sweetness. Therefore the present happiness of the wicked, which cannot last very long, is quite rightly compared to them.
“In the midst of a busy life, [the rich] will wither away” (1:11). He is not speaking about every wealthy person but the one who trusts in uncertain riches. For by contrasting a wealthy person with a poor brother or sister, he shows that he is talking about the wealthy person who is not humble. . . . Such a wealthy person, that is, one who is proud and wicked and prefers earthly joys to heavenly ones, will wither away in the midst of a busy life, perishing in the midst of evil actions because he or she has passed up the opportunity to enter the Lord’s straight way.