The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 12: Conclusion

The most striking theme in the whole letter is the denunciation of the rich and the powerful, and the corresponding concern for the poor and the oppressed. Which is evident in the vehement denunciation of social injustice, oppression and exploitation, above all in the direct attack on the rich traders and merchants (4:13-17) is integrally connected (cf. also 4:1-12), and the same point is sharply evident also in 2:6-7, even though this section is dealing mainly with the issue of favouritism within the community, and is not addressed directly to the poor. James in this section exposes ruthlessly the sources of power relationships and the causes of conflict, oppression and social unjustice. To live for personal gain and to exploit the poor and defenceless is the epitome of evil; above all it is in direct contradiction to what God requires (2:5). Yet at the same time James insists that it is not simply the direct exploitation and oppression of the poor by the rich that constitutes the problem. It is also the obsequious favouring of the rich and powerful, for the favour it is hoped they will bestow, and the contemptuous treatment of the poor, because they can offer nothing, that serves to reinforce the injustice, suffering and imbalance of power (2:1-7). James sets these issues in eschatological perspective, above all that of final judgement[1].

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The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 11: Mercy should have the final say

Therefore, being guilty as charged James in verse 12 calls upon his audience to be responsible and own up to their guilt as they are accountable by they have done to judgement while verse 13 speaks of mercy being rendered only unto those who renders mercy (reminiscent of the Mosaic antecedent ‘eye for an eye’ in Leviticus 24:19–21, Exodus 21:22–25, and Deuteronomy 19:21) while at the same time reminding his audience of the paradoxical statement where mercy triumphs over judgement. In a way this shows that as far as dealing with sin (partiality) is concerned justice must have the first word, however it cannot have the last as mercy is important because James in writing this epistle reproofs his audience so that they would repent and in so doing have their fellowship restored regardless of their economic standing, thus putting into effect the royal law according to the Scripture, that is to: love our neighbour as ourselves!

The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 10: Guilty in accordance to the law

In verses 8-11 James’ brothers, his co-servants in Christ those who belong to the twelve tribes scattered among nations (1:1), are now reminded of their identity which finds itself in their history as the people upon whom God disclosed His divine will according to the law.

Verse 8 echoes what was spoken of the Lord in Leviticus 19:18 which find its place within what scholars call as ‘the Holiness Code[1]’ of Israel. The code calls on the people of Israel to separated from the rest of the world because God has chosen them in doing so they are to demonstrate their unique relationship with God by disassociating themselves from profane worldliness and by their rituals and by obeying the commands in the Law which includes exercising equality as a demonstration of justice and righteousness with injunction to “love one’s neighbour as oneself” (Lev. 19:15). While, Jesus emphasized that the moral requirements of the law –justice, mercy and faith –were the heart of God’s will for Israel and were to be the norms governing its life as a people of God. Jesus spoke of the entire law as summarized in two commands: love of God and neighbour[2] (Mat. 22:37-39).

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The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 9: The implication of guilt

Notice James implicates his brothers’ of their fault by posting a rhetorical question: “has God not chosen the poor…?” This question indicates the expectation of an affirmative answer, because the church knew well that God had chosen the poor, since this concept of God’s preferential option for the poor is already deeply rooted in both Jewish and Christian thought[1].

Notice also how James clearly distinguishes the type of rich person about whom he is speaking. Instead of merely referring to him as “the rich,” he writes “a man in gold rings in fine clothing” –characteristic adornment of a wealthy person[2]. Furthermore, James emphasized that the God whom they serve as co-servants, the God who has implanted his word upon them has: “chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,” on the other hand James also highlights that this divine option for the poor is a promise that can only be claimed by the poor who loves God –thus the poor who are part of their faith community, and it is here where the irony of the situation lies.

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The Scandal of Partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 8: Partiality in their midst

Having set the stage in his introduction, James now turns to discuss one of the major themes he has introduced, that of wealth and charity. A discussion that expands on the previous statements in 1:9-11 and 1:22-27[1]. Following James’ theme of responding to God’s implanted word in action in the previous chapter (1:22-25), the author now starts situate the behavioural patterns that ought to be manifested by his brothers and co-servants who have received the word. He does so with the emphasis of practicing equality within the church, as James clearly believes that the poor have a very important place in the church because of the levelling effect of the Christian gospel, to which he argues that true faith has no place for the social distinction of the world.[2]

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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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