The Letter of James has been described as a sermon written in letter style. Its style is hortatory. It tells us what we should be doing in order to be recognized as good Christians.
The portion of this letter designated as today’s first reading can be divided into three parts: The first part might be described as first of all recognizing the importance of careful listening and self control. The second part asks us to translate our understanding of the Word of the Gospel into action in our daily lives. In the third part it defines the meaning of religion as being mindful of the needs of those in distress, especially widows and orphans, and keeping free of worldly attitudes and sinful thoughts and deeds.
Having said this, we can take a good look at each of these parts in turn and examine what they mean in terms of our lives as Christians.
Quick to listen really tells us to listen carefully and learn quickly how to understand Jesus’ teachings given to us in the Gospels. Then we should try to be careful not to jump to wrong conclusions about what we have heard, that is, we should not speak before we understand what has been said in terms we know are true and right Christian teaching. If we truly understand what Jesus taught in terms relevant to the age in which we live, we can grow in faith, avoid making wrong judgments and learn to control our anger.
Considering the hortatory nature of the letter of James, being doers of the word can be taken as a call to an active ministry. I think it can also mean applying our understanding of the word of the Gospel to the way in which we lead our daily lives. There are many ways in which we can apply the teachings of the Gospel to daily life. Not everyone is called to serve food in a soup kitchen, or to go out into other parts of the world to be missionaries, or some other form of active ministry. Others are called to witness quietly to the Gospel teachings in other ways, wherever they are by showing kindness and love to those with whom they live and work, and to pattern their lives on the teachings of Jesus in ways appropriate to their circumstances. Those of us who live here as monks are doers of the word in our own way, praying daily for the needs of the world, giving spiritual direction and retreats, trying to be good witnesses to Jesus’ teachings as we live together in community, and walking humbly with our God. (Cf. Micah 6:8)
We know that there are people who consider themselves Christians who are only passive hearers deceiving themselves, and others, by selfishness and by their lack of real love towards one another. The author of the Letter of James has given us a graphic example of self-centered hearers as being like those whose vanity brings them to look often in mirrors, forgetting that what they see is not really what they are. On the other hand those who look to the law of love as Jesus taught it, as the law of perfect liberty, and act accordingly as doers, whose acts are motivated by that love, will be blessed by God for living by that teaching.
By his definition of true religion as caring for widows and orphans and keeping unstained by the world the author of the Letter of James has shown us that he was drawn to the active life rather than to the contemplative. His definition shows us only a small part, only one side of the ministry of the Church. It is my belief that religious ministry that is pure and undefiled before God consists both of prayer and of action. Those two forms of ministry should not be considered as mutually exclusive. They support one another. We do need those who go out and do active ministry, but we also need those who support ministry by prayer.
It says in the last sentence of our reading; keep oneself unstained by the world. This can keep anyone very busy if this is the only focus.
I prefer Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14)
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