You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Form or substance? Early Christians, brought up as observant Jews, had been taught the importance of keeping every letter of their law with the effect that for some it had been more important to get the form right rather than understand and live by the intention, the substance of such guidance and law. We remember how, time and again, Jesus was criticised for associating with those considered unclean and for healing sick people on the Sabbath – Jesus was indeed far more concerned about the substance of God’s teaching and revelation than with its codified form but it seems that early Christians continued to wrestle with an apparent conflict between Law and Liberty. As we still do.
The Greek words for “religious” and “religion” in the final section of today’s passage were often used to indicate “ritual” rather than “holiness,” form rather than substance. James uses direct, every day instances to make it clear that for the followers of Jesus it is the way we live our faith that is crucial, the example we set in our personal lives and in the way we treat others.
James is in effect adding a commentary to the words of Jesus noted at Matthew 7: 26-27: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!”
The Letter of James is often entitled “Practical Religion” – but how often does our practice reflect well on our faith?
Most gracious God, thank you the clarity with which the Apostle James wrote. Forgive us when we have paid lip-service to our faith but not let your Word take deep root in our lives. May the lives we lead be an example of the faith we proclaim in the power of our Lord and Saviour. Amen
The Rev’d Julian Macro is a retired minister and member of Verwood URC in Dorset.