The book I like most in the Bible is the New Testament Letter of James. I really can’t think why Martin Luther called it ‘a right strawy epistle’. I take strength from Isaiah’s prediction that in the new world ‘the lion shall eat straw like the ox’. I’m happy to be a spiritual ox, building moral muscle by chewing over James’s wisdom, and I look forward to being joined at this dinner in the world to come by all the fastidious lions who go chasing up and down the scriptures to find something juicy!
Eight reasons why I like this book so much
It comes in handy bite-size chunks
In my Bible it’s divided by headings into twelve parts, each round about a dozen verses. Every section is about something of real importance and relevance—trials and temptations, not showing favouritism, controlling the way one speaks, judging others, and so on.
It is so loving in the way it addresses us
James speaks to his readers (or hearers, as they would have been back then) as if they are members of his family: ‘beloved brethren’, or ‘my brothers and sisters’ as a more modern version has it; ‘my beloved’. These addresses occur about ten times, and the constant repetition is very heartwarming.
It is so primitive (in the best sense)
It is obvious that this document comes from the very dawn of the Christian church. In chapter 2, verse 2, the Christian assembly is called ‘synagogue’, which suggests that we are still at the stage when the church was a Jewish institution with Gentile members. And the teaching is very much in the tradition of Jewish wisdom literature, simpler to follow than the complicated theological discourse of most of the New Testament letters.
It reads like a letter from a close relative of the Lord
You’ve only to look at the imagery and listen to the language to sense the atmosphere of the gospels. James’s metaphors, like Jesus’s, are based on the natural and agricultural world around him. (My private theory is that they picked up their idiom from their Mum.) We have: the flowers of the field in chapter 1, horses and ships in chapter 3, fog in chapter 4, farmers in 5. Strongly reminiscent of gospel teaching is the image of riches rotting, clothes being eaten by moths, and gold and silver rusting, and that of the grapevine not bearing figs.
It is passionate about justice
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you…You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. I think that chapter 5:1–6 is the best prophetic invective in the whole of Scripture. It makes me think of the appalling imbalance between the incomes of rich MPs and those of the sick and disabled whose benefits they voted to cut. And then it makes me think of my house with three WCs and the third world slums where people have no toilets at all.
It is uncompromising about ethics
It puts the way we think, speak, and act at the very forefront of our Christian life. This is not in any way opposed to the ‘spiritual’ or ‘devotional’. It shows that the two strands are inextricably intertwined.
Let’s not fool ourselves that we are spiritually advanced if we speak critically or viciously: if anyone thinks that he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, that man’s religion is vain. How many Christians do I know whose talk is uncontrolled? Come to that, what about mine?
Let’s not think that we are spiritual if we organize our lives around our own ambitions to be well off and successful: Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”… Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
It prioritizes prayer
The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. I trust that the outcome of the recent general election testifies to that, knowing how Christians joined in prayer in the days before Pentecost. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault… (how unlike him we are!).
It is enormously encouraging in a down to earth way
Alongside the admonitions and warnings are placed the most amazing assurances for us if we choose to persevere in the life it depicts. The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Beautiful, or what? (And did you catch the echo of the Beatitudes?)
So what example does it offer to a Christian writer?
It’s very noticeable that it contains no doctrinal presentation of Jesus—no declarative exposition of his ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. Just once, James calls his immeasurably greater brother ‘the Lord of Glory’. There are a couple of references to the Parousia. Otherwise, no Christology. Instead, the whole letter is suffused with the presence of Christ. In its stern, yet affectionate, admonitions it speaks with the voice of Christ. And in its vignettes of everyday ethics it displays the Christlike way of living.
We could try copying that approach.