The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 7: James 2:1-14 and the Scandal of partiality

A few weeks ago a friend introduced me to a British television sitcom entitled, Rev. Which follows the life of Anglican priest, Adam Smallbone, who is newly promoted from a sleepy rural parish to the busy, inner-city world of St Saviour’s, in East London[1]. The series revolves around Adam’s ordeal of running a modern inner-city church, with a reluctant wife and a depleted, motley congregation where every day throws up a moral conflict for Adam. His door must always be open – to urban sophisticates with ulterior motives, the chronically lonely, the lost, the homeless, the poor and the insane.

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The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 6: Occasion of writing

Audience: the twelve tribes in Dispersion

At first glance, it seems that James is writing to Jews. After all, to translate literally, James addresses his epistle “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” The twelve tribes traditionally represent Israel, and the dispersion signifies the Jews scattered throughout the pagan world. But there are reasons to think James is writing for Jewish Christians, not Jews in general. As “dispersion” can serve as a metaphor to indicate that believers are never fully at home in this world. So there is reason to believe that James, like other New Testament writers, envisions a wide audience[1].

The addressee, “the twelve tribes in dispersion,” seems to indicate metaphorically to Christians that are scattered throughout the world.  Since the phrase “twelve tribes” was continued to be used as a metaphor for the Israel as the people of God, long after twelve distinctly identifiable tribes were more of a memory and ideal than a visible reality.

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The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 5: Authorship

In the prescript of the letter the author merely identifies himself as James, “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This self-designation raises the question of James’ identity.[1]

Several schools of thought abound with regards to the identity of this James, because several people bearing the name abound in Scripture[2]. Traditionally authorship of this epistle has commonly been attributed by Church Fathers such Jerome, to James the brother of Jesus.[3]

This is the one whom the Apostle Paul designated as “the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19), who also appears other places in the New Testament as the leader of the early church in Jerusalem. Internal evidence seems to support this view. The author’s knowledge of synoptic tradition is not surprising in one who was a close relative of Jesus and became his disciple.[4] Verse 1 of the epistle shows James stating his office as  “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” here James puts forward to whose authority he is speaking from but also implying that it is not of his own accord that he is writing to his audience, but of his Lord Jesus Christ,  while at the same time implicitly shows his Jewish roots by speaking of the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” to which he is writing to and later on in the passage he would refer to as his brothers (Jas. 1:16).

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The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 4: The theological thrust of James

The phrase: ‘action speaks louder than words,’ finds an appropriate denotation with regards to the epistles theological and moral vision. As it seems to accentuate the concept of working faith that is animated by love that which is a feeling that begs to be expressed, as it gains personality in action, and like in all things that is put in reference to love: actions speak louder than words.

For James, the reception of God’s implanted word is not sufficient for it is in responding in action, that is to heed what it says that James seems to put extra weight on that is why he calls them to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22) for doing and hearing are two different and yet related actions for one can hear and yet be passive thus according to James is mere self-deception. Using the analogy of a man facing a mirror James speaks of what can be seen as the goal of receiving the word: transformation!

This transformation that we speak of is that which results in pure what James calls as pure and undefiled religion that manifests itself in the ministry of: visiting orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.(1:27)

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The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 3: Literary Genre and Style

James as a Catholic Epistle

Scholars generally classify James as among the seven writings that are commonly referred to as Catholic Epistles. Although there is some doubt about the meaning of katholikos in this context, it seems likely that it is meant to imply the “general” as opposed to the “particular” nature of these writings: the Catholic Epistles were addressed to Christians in general, in contrast to the Pauline Epistles which –for the most part –were addressed to individual churches[1].

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The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 2: James in the Christian Canon

With the many diverging perspectives with regards to the identity of the author of James has led it also to become subject to scrutiny with regards to its canonicity –that is its place as to whether or not it is to be considered rightly as Scripture.

In fact church history itself testifies to several disputes over the place of the epistle in canon Scripture, which is prominent in Martin Luther’s consignment of it as an ‘epistle of straw’ to which he wrote: “Therefore, St. James’ epistle is really and epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it[1].”

Luther’s supposition of the epistles’ worth finds substance in his conclusion that: in comparison to books such as Romans and Galatians, the Gospel of John and 1st Peter. James bears “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” As according to Luther it does not bear witness to Christ or to such cherished Reformation themes of salvation that one appropriates by faith alone, in Christ’s accomplished work of redemption in contrast to that of the Pauline epistles of Romans and Galatians as well as to that of John’s Gospel and 1st Peter which Luther considers as documents that were to be prized as the “true kernel and marrow of all the books,” because they would “show you Christ” and “teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know[2].”  As a consequence such an appraisal, Luther deemed James unfit to qualify as a book that is to be considered as Scripture, consequently marginalizing the epistle along with its message from the rest of Reformation movement that burgeoned later.

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The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 1: Introduction

Many agree that the message of James is scandalous as it contains the famous passage that says: “man is not justified by faith alone.” In fact, a book has already been written about it –Elsa Tamez’s The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead. However, I would like to point out that there is perhaps a more scandalous message contained in the Epistle of James –that is James’ disdain towards the practice of partiality in the community of faith.

The Scripture as the Word of God couched in ancient human language, in human words that persevere for Christians of all generations as a form of God’s self-revelation to his people who are fashioned in and through Jesus of Nazareth. As Christians in the twentieth century we read and study that Word of God as nourishment of our spiritual lives. But we do not study it in a vacuum. We are members of a faith-community that feeds its spiritual life, indeed on the written Word of God along with the tradition that has been born of it and that has helped fashion the understanding of that written record[1].

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