Each Sunday during the month of September, we are going to hear from the Letter of James. It is a strange letter. Sandwiched between the letters attributed to St. Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, James combines Jewish thought with a black and white approach to life in Christ. It both condemns and uplifts. There appear to be no general theme, intended audience, connection with the audience (unlike saints Paul and Peter who directly and personally connect with their hearers) or application to a particular time and place. Some call it a paraenesis – device and exhortation to continue in a certain way of life – that reads like a diatribe. On the positive side, because it has no specific audience and is removed from any place and time, it reads like it might have been written last week with many useful applications to our modern lives.
Many have asked throughout the centuries, who is the author? Three men named James are mentioned in the Gospels. There is the Apostle James who is the brother of Andrew and son of Zebedee, the second James is the obscure “James the less,” and lastly is James, the brother of Jesus. Century after century, theologians continue to assert that the author is one of the four brothers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. The brothers seem reluctant, at best, to accept Jesus as the messiah. In fact one story shows they went to “seize” Jesus because he was “out of his mind”; the only thing that stopped them was that they could not enter the house because there were so many people. It was in that house that the well-known story takes place of the paraplegic man who was lowered down through the roof. St. Paul writes that when Jesus made his many resurrection appearances, he met with James alone. Many, including me, believe this post-crucifixion visit was the turning of James’ heart to Jesus as Lord.
After Jesus’ ascension, his brother James became a major figure in the early Christian church. He presided over a bi-lingual Greek/Hebrew congregation in Jerusalem. And, he was the pastor of both gentile and Jewish converts to the faith of Christ. In this setting, James writes about how to live and worship together. He writes, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (1:19) I wonder if James wrote this because Jesus said, “A prophet is not recognized by his own kin,” which seems to be a comment made directly at him. (Mark 6:4) It appears those were times when James was quick to speak in anger. Later on, after rising from the dead, Jesus was able to speak to his brother one-on-one. I imagine then James was quick to listen and worked past his disbelief and anger.
Do you know someone who is quick to listen? I had such a person on my discernment committee in my home church. She would listen to me and to what everyone else had to say. Before she spoke, she’d take a moment, long enough to breathe in and out. I never saw her angry. Her listening produced righteousness.
Imagine how different our American culture would be if all Christians followed James’ example of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. I imagine that is the world as Jesus wants it – one that is slow to anger and always willing to listen.