Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – James

Martin Luther’s Assessment of James

In his German translation of the New Testament, published in September of 1522, the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, added comments in which he famously called the Letter of James, “a real strawy epistle.” The metaphor of straw hearkens to 1 Corinthians 3:12, in which the apostle Paul speaks of different kinds of foundation materials. Straw would provide a weak, unsteady foundation. Better, Luther thought, to build upon the foundation of John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and the letter of 1 Peter.

Luther gave reasons for his assessment. First, the Letter of James says very little about Jesus Christ, and never mentions his death and resurrection. It also fails to mention the Holy Spirit. Finally, Luther thought the interpretation of Genesis 15 in James 1:21-24 was mistaken. All these observations led Luther to conclude that the letter was not itself built upon the faith that had been handed on by the apostles.  

While Luther did not have much praise for James, he did not want to remove James from the New Testament, or from the list of readings read in worship, and he did occasionally preach on texts from the letter.  

James in Hymnody

In 1782, Matthias Claudius wrote a German poem that in English is the hymn, “We Plow the Fields and Scatter.” The refrain of that hymn is this: “All good gifts around us are sent from heav’n above. We thank you, God, we thank you, God, for all your love.” The sentiment echoes James 1:17, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” In 1971, this hymn was included in the then off-Broadway musical, Godspell. It is also part of the 1973 film of the same name. 

The observation in James 1:17 that there is no variation or shadow due to change is echoed in another well-known hymn, “Great is thy Faithfulness,” whose first verse proclaims, “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father; there is no shadow of turning with Thee; Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not; as Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.”

“Abraham believed God”: Genesis 15:6 in Romans, Galatians, and James

Genesis 15:1-6 tells the story of Abraham expressing concern to God because he has no sons. How can God’s promise to make a great nation of his family come true if he has no heirs? The Lord brings Abraham outside, asks him to look up at the stars and count them if he can. “So shall your descendants be” says the Lord. “And he believed the Lord,” the narrator tells us, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

Both the Apostle Paul and James cite this verse from Genesis in their letters, but they argue quite distinct things from it. In Romans 4:1-4, Paul cites the verse to argue that Abraham did not do some righteous work that resulted in his being counted as righteous by the Lord. Abraham only believed, or trusted, that the Lord would bring the promise to fruition.

In the context of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul again cites Genesis 15:6, this time to show that Abraham was counted (or reckoned) as righteous before God gave the commandment that heirs of Abraham should be circumcised, or Abraham obeyed it. Paul points this out to convince the Galatians that God has reckoned them as righteous without circumcision, also, and they should therefore not submit to it, and not require it of others who would seek to enter the church. 

James has different concerns from those of Paul in Romans or Galatians, and he uses Genesis 15:6 differently in support of those concerns. For James, Abraham is an example of someone whose trust (or faith) in God found clear expression in his actions. James 2:21 alludes to the story in Genesis 22:1-14, during which Abraham is apparently willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. James sees in this story evidence that Abraham’s faith was not just words; rather, it found expression in his works. Abraham acted as if God would keep the promise of many heirs, even if something terrible were to happen to Isaac. His faith found expression in his willingness to comply with God’s request. (In the Genesis story, God does not finally require such a sacrifice and Abraham does not make it.)

While readers have sometimes imagined that James was writing against Paul’s understanding of faith, or Paul was writing against James’, it is more likely that neither author is addressing himself to the other’s writing. The two apostles are reasoning to different, but not incompatible, conclusions from the same Genesis verse. Faith does not need to be supplemented by works before God will declare the one with faith to be righteous (Paul), and faith is never just a matter of mental assent or saying the right words; rather, our actions will always testify to what it is we truly trust or believe (James).

James as a Corrective for Favoritism

Christians throughout history and into the present day have often reflected the surrounding culture’s favoritism of some people over others. In the Middle Ages, Christian wealthy patrons and local political leaders appeared in artwork depicting biblical scenes. In colonial America, well-to-do families paid rent on a church pew, which was then reserved for them. Again and again, across cultures, Christians leaders become starstruck by the wealthy.

James 2:1-9 speaks in the clearest possible terms against favoritism of the rich and disrespect for the poor. The letter sets up a scenario that is as timely today as when it was first written. When a poor person enters the church building, where will the ushers direct that person to sit? Will people receive a different kind of welcome depending on what clothes they wear? James announces to his readers that distinguishing or judging between people based on their wealth is wrong. The law requires Christians to “love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8) and favoring the rich over the poor is incompatible with that requirement. 

The vivid examples and clear condemnation of such favoritism offer a scriptural corrective for Christians whenever they are tempted to value people the way the surrounding culture does, in terms of the wealth they possess. 

James in Response to the Prosperity Gospel

The Prosperity Gospel, or Prosperity Theology, holds that a Christian’s positive thinking and bold prayer will result in health, wealth, and healing. The movement in America reaches back to the early part of the 20th century and has grown through the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The letter of James interacts with ideas associated with the prosperity gospel and exhorts readers to a different expression of faith. For example, James speaks forcefully against the arrogance of planning as if one knows what tomorrow will bring (see James 4:13-17). Human beings, whether Christian or not, are “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). James tells his readers that bold, self-assured speech about what will happen should be replaced by speech that echoes the words Jesus taught his disciples in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done” (see Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4). “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15). Thus, James undercuts theology that teaches one only needs to “name and claim” a preferred future (and perhaps have enough faith or think enough positive thoughts) in order for that future to come true.  

James also undercuts the prosperity gospel with his unflinching condemnation of the rich. This section of the letter follows on the heels of his rejection of human arrogance in planning the future. “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you” (James 5:1). Wealth is not a sign of God’s blessing. Instead, wealth is a sign of two things James preaches wholeheartedly against: (1) trusting one’s own possessions to ensure safety and status, and (2) cheating one’s workers to enrich oneself. 

Misplaced trust and dishonest business dealings may not be present everywhere that wealth is accumulated, but if such accumulation can be done without these things, James does not speak about it. Moreover, elsewhere he writes, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). James does not see the favor of God in the accumulation of wealth; he sees grave dangers. The rich he addresses in James 5:1-6 have failed to love and trust God, and they have failed to love their neighbors as themselves. 

Prayer and Anointing for Healing

Near the end of his letter, James commends communal prayer for all sorts of occasions. One of these verses offers instruction for prayer when someone is sick. The one who is ill should enlist the presence and prayer of the community’s elders. “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). This passage provides scriptural support and a blueprint for healing rites practiced in the church throughout the centuries. 

Sickness is an isolating experience. Whether because a disease is contagious, or results in a body’s or mind’s deterioration, or in some other way creates social awkwardness, the one suffering often suffers alone. Prayer offered in the home of the one who is ill blunts the isolation imposed by illness. Those who are present bear witness to the presence of God with the one who is sick and to the solidarity of the Christian community with that one. 

In addition to visitation and prayer, James commends anointing, or applying oil to, the one who is ill. (In Mark 6:13, the disciples of Jesus anoint the sick and cure them.) The Roman Catholic church has long practiced anointing in a sacrament known as Extreme Unction. This anointing is often administered to those who are dying, but it is not reserved only for those near death. In the 20th century, Protestant churches began publishing rites for using oil to anoint the sick. 

The passage in James, like others in the New Testament (see Mark 2:5; Matthew 9:2; Luke 5:20; John 9:1-3), makes a connection between the forgiveness of sins and healing. Nowhere in the New Testament is this connection one of simple cause and effect. When the disciples in John 9:1 assume that sin caused a man’s blindness, Jesus rejects their conclusion. It is more that forgiveness, or healing of the spirit, and wellness, or healing of the body, are each part of the wholeness that God intends for the creation. The Christian community, and prayer, play a role in both of these elements of wholeness.