Second Reading: James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Be Doers of the Word
17 Everything you've received, especially those perfect gifts, come from above, from the Father of lights. He is always reliable and never, ever changes his mind. 18 He planned ahead and then placed his Word of truth in us. In that way, we would be like the best fruits of his creation. 21b Accept the Word God planted in your hearts. It is able to save you. 22 Don't just listen to his Word, and think that's good enough. No, act on his Word!
27 This is the absolute best way to serve our God and Father. First, visit the widows and orphans. Help them in their suffering. Second, don't let the evil of the world corrupt you.
17 Every (thing) given and every complete gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, from whom there is never any change or (cycle of) turning shadow. 18 Having thought ahead, he gave birth to the Word of truth in us, for us to be some of the first fruits of his creatures.
21 So, having set aside every impurity and evil excess with gentleness, receive the implanted Word, the (one) able to save your souls. 22 Become doers of the Word, not only listeners, reasoning yourselves falsely.
27 This is a clean and in-corrupt (practice) of religion before (our) God and Father: to visit orphans and widows in their suffering, keeping oneself stainless from the world.
1:17 "(cycle of) turning shadow" was a reference to the transient nature of the day. Shadows fall at different times during the day. Hence, this change was a symbol of lacking substance (i.e., people who change their minds have no depth; they are like "changing shadows.")
Tradition holds that the book of James was written in opposition to the views of Paul. The famous "faith vs. works" battle of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation found its seeds in this letter. But, we should be careful not to over generalize the book as only a polemical treatise. Primarily, it was a wisdom book, a set of sayings that guided the conduct of a Jewish Christian community in Palestine. While the author had an eye on the sayings of Paul, his first question was: how can his community live out the Law as a follower of Jesus?
Judaism has always been more than a set of religious practices. It was a world view that combined faith with a highly moral lifestyle. Worship of God had ethical consequences. When Paul rejected the duties of the Law (so-called "works"), he really rejected its ritual obligations. Gentiles who joined the Church were not to be circumcised, maintain a kosher diet, or remain separate from their non-Christian neighbors. In this sense, they were truly free from the Law. They had a relationship with God, not based upon the covenant of Moses, but upon faith.
Unfortunately, some took Paul's words to their logical conclusion. Freedom from the Law meant a libertine lifestyle: freedom without God's Law. Here was where James stepped in. He defined "a clean (i.e., 'kosher') religion" as one based upon the ethical duties found in the Law. A relationship with God was to be lived out in the spirit of Hosea 6:6 ("For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings." RSV). Or, as Matthew 9:13 paraphrased Hosea: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Those who lived out God's Law performed acts of charity and kept a morally upright reputation. This was what James meant by the phrase "be a doer of the Word."
James placed the moral lifestyle of the Christian in the context of grace. Every good gift came from God. But the highest gift was his "Word," the indwelling of Christ through the power of the Spirit. The Word was not something to be simply heard, as something external. No, it was to take root in one's being and lived out. For James, the life of grace was the ethical life.
Paul may have rejected the Law to be more pastoral with the new converts. But, with his Jewish background, James was more practical in the everyday implications of the Christian lifestyle. They may have come from different theoretical corners. But together, they helped define the new movement of the Nazarene.
Have you studied the Word today? How will you bring the Word to others? How does your faith guide your everyday actions?