A Letter from James
Martin Luther famously couldn’t decide whether or not the Epistle of James deserved space in the Holy Bible. On one hand, he was concerned because the letter has very little to do with Jesus. In fact, Jesus only gets two mentions, one in connection with the author, and a second time as part of a challenge to Christians who claim to believe in “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” while showing favoritism to rich people in their community.
And it’s that second reference—James’s discomfort with wealthy people—that may be at the root of the problem for Luther. (It’s unmistakably one of the reasons others have argued against James’s inclusion in the biblical canon.) Elsa Tamez, the Latinx liberation theologian, hits the nail on the head when she titles her commentary on this short letter buried near the end of the New Testament The Scandalous Message of James. James is scandalous because its author makes no effort to hide his (or her) contempt for privilege that inevitably affixes itself to wealth.
Luther, like most of his Reformation contemporaries, was very conscious of the power of wealth, because it also carried political power, which he and his fellow Reformers needed. Without the backing of rich and powerful people, the changes they sought to effect on Western Christianity didn’t stand a chance. So Luther tempered his fondness for scripture (which was epic) with a pragmatic view that his biggest patrons might not take kindly to hearing James preached fervently, which was how Luther and his pals typically approached their sermonizing.
James doesn’t mince words. “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” (James 2:5-7) The rich are blasphemers, James says. It would take a mighty deft preacher to dance around that!
So, for many years in many places, the strategy has been simple: ignore James. Pull a favorite bit from here or there—because James’s writer is an excellent wordsmith—but don’t dig into the guts of this powerful letter aimed at shaping the community life of the Early Church.
Yet James refuses to be ignored. And he’s never been more relevant than in our time, when the wealthiest one-tenth of one percent own a frighteningly disproportionate slice of American wealth while, in many rural and blighted urban communities, children don’t have shoes or glasses or know where breakfast is coming from. We need to listen to James, both as a corrective for our own warped sense of success and security, but also for guidance on how to do life together.
That’s what we’re focusing on this month in our Bible study series: “The Scandalous Message of James: Faith, Works, and Doing Life Together.” Don’t miss one week in this blended series, with some lessons taught in person and others online
Join us this Thursday at 7:30p as we conclude our series “Words & Music”—a look at worship from the Early Church to today. We meet in person at Pilgrim Congregational Church, 460 Lake Street, in Oak Park. Or you can join online via FB Live.
We need your help!
As we think about the future of Gather, please let us know what gifts you bring and would like to share with the community. There are many roles that have to come together to make Gather happen every week. This includes setup, technical support, worship, managing handouts and information, coordinating drinks, and teardown. We need your help. Please let us know what type of service you’d be interested in!
Watch God Work,
Tim & Shea
As we prepare to become a vibrant worshipping community, we invite you to enjoy a Spotify playlist that captures the kind of worship we hope to embrace. Give it a spin while you’re driving. Make it your workout jam. Add it to your devotional time. Most of all, feel yourself becoming part of a sacred village of believers who love their God and one another!
Check out the Gather Worship Playlist here.