My brothers, what good is it to profess faith without practicing it?
Such faith has no power to save one, has it?
The battle over which is more important spiritually, faith or works, has been fiercely debated among Christian denominations over the centuries. For the author of the epistle of James, however, there is no debate. It is not a question of faith or works, but a definition of faith as works. In other words, James sees no sense in paying lip service but not following through. In pop-psychology speak, if you can’t walk the walk, then don’t be talking the talk.
James sees a strong contrast between “friendship with the world” and “friendship with God.” For example, where the world mocks and scorns the poor, God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Therefore, one cannot express faith verbally and then follow the ways of the world. One must follow the ways of God. There is indeed a strong call to social justice and action in this letter, and when Christians today are criticized for “meddling” in politics or other things that supposedly don’t pertain to faith, James is certainly one place to go for proof that the church community is called to do more than wrap itself in its own internal concerns.
James is odd in comparison to the other epistles in the canon. Aside from its initial greeting, it does not follow the form of a letter. Instead there is a series of spiritual and moral warnings, followed by essays that further expand on these ideas. There is no concluding blessing or address to the reader. A further confusion for scholars is the identity of both author and community addressed. The author speaks “to the twelve tribes in the Diaspora” (James 1:1). This could be a metaphor for the Christian community or perhaps James is directly addressing the dispersed Jewish community. The writer, a very skilled writer in Greek, might be James the apostle, or it may be someone assuming the name to make a point. The assumption of a known figure’s name is traditional in biblical texts, as in the use of Solomon’s name in Wisdom.
James does indeed discuss the need for wisdom, and in his letter it is wisdom to live one’s faith. The author links faith in God with loyalty to people. This care for others is found in a lack of envy, which is a vice engendered by worldly ideals, and in a care for one’s speech. James is very aware that carelessness or maliciousness in speech is detrimental to the community.
In the letter, community is an important fact of lived faith. James ends his epistle with an exhortation that the members of the community correct each other and look out for each other, not in judgment, but out of love and concern for each other. By answering this call to justice and community, we really are giving our faith a true workout.