The mercy of God must lead us to mercy between people.
There is no greater human spokesman for this central message of Christianity than St James.
Ah, but who is St James?
One thing we know for certain: the most significant St James in the early history of the Church was the one who was a leader of the Jerusalem brethren after the ascension of Our Lord up until he himself was stoned – and clubbed – to death in around 69 AD for promoting the Christian revelation.
This St James was the same one to whom St Paul deferred when he was seeking ratification for his mission to the Gentiles. He told St Paul that he could continue to convert the non-Jewish population of the Mediterranean, only ‘remember the poor.’ (Galatians 2:9-10).
This St James was known in the ancient world as ‘James the Just’, where ‘Just’ can also mean ‘Righteous’.
He was clearly an imposing personality, known for wise judgment and authoritative pronouncements on matters of faith. In dealing with St Paul and in formulating the Apostolic Decree after the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), he showed that he had listened carefully and that he was able to balance the requirements of Jewish law amongst Jewish believers with the more liberal needs of the Gentile cultures.
‘Remember the poor.’ are significant words, because they link James the Just to the spirit of the remarkable Letter of St James; for there is no single letter in the New Testament more thoroughly focussed on the way justice, born of mercy, should be practised.
James insisted that rich people must behave justly to the poor: Christians must not practise favouritism towards the wealthy. Faith, in James eyes, demanded good works, by which he clearly meant fair and compassionate treatment of the weaker members of society; pure religion, he wrote, was to care for the underprivileged, such as widows and orphans.
In this, James reflected the cry of the Old Testament prophet Amos: social justice means being merciful to the poor. And, interestingly, we can see the influence of Amos in James’ reflections at the Jerusalem Council mentioned above, giving greater weight to the argument that the James who led the Jerusalem church also wrote the letter.
He wrote aphoristically, which means he made statements which he felt needed little argument for people to see that they were true; in this he was unlike St Paul, who argued his theological case at length. Paul was a scrapper; James was a pronouncer of wisdom. He resembled Jesus in this manner of teaching.
His letter has been neglected by some because he came into conflict with St Paul on the matter of circumcision and because Paul now represents the more widespread, non-Jewish character of the Christian church.
But James and Paul agreed on the most important thing: that all life-giving mercy has its origin in God, and is fulfilled on Earth in our just treatment of others.
Peter Fleming is the author of Would I Like Jesus? (Paulist Press 2015)
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