THE LETTERS TO ALL CHRISTIANS.
The seven letters following Hebrews have often been designated as the General Letters. The letters so designated may be said to be, for their most part, addressed to general audiences rather than specific persons or local groups. From the earliest days they have been known as the ‘Catholic Epistles’ due to their universal appeal.
The Letter of St James the Apostle.
St James the Less, the author of the first ‘Catholic Epistle’, was the son of Alpheus of Cleophas. His mother Mary was a sister, or a close relative, of the Blessed Virgin, and for that reason, according to the Jewish custom, he was sometimes called the brother of the Lord.
St James addresses himself to the ‘twelve tribes that are in the dispersion’, that is, to Christians outside Palestine; but nothing in the Epistle indicates that he is thinking only of Jewish Christians. St James realizes full well the temptations and difficulties they encounter in the midst of paganism, and as a spiritual father, he endeavours to guide and direct them in the faith. Therefore the burden of his discourse is an exhortation to practical Christian living.
Deeds not Words.
1, The opening chapter mentions almost all the topics dealt with more fully later: testing, endurance, wisdom, prayer, faith, riches, the tongue, and Christianity in action. The crisp, succinct style and some of the themes recall both the Old Testament book of Proverbs and Jesus’ own way of speaking in the Sermon on the Mount. James’ comments in this chapter provide us with a fair idea of what Christians should be like. They have a positive attitude to the difficulties of life, knowing their value. They do not blame God when things go wrong. They know where to turn for help and guidance. Their values are right. They have control of their tongues and their tempers. They set themselves to discover God’s standards and to live them out. They put faith into practice – and it shows. James 1:1-27.
Respect for the Poor.
2. It is a natural tendency to defer to social superiors and despise those below us on the social scale. There is nothing Christian about this. The right thing is to treat everyone with equal respect – to love one’s neighbour as ourself, as God’s commandment teaches us. James 2:1 ‑13.
Faith and Actions.
3. Faith that stops at words is not faith at all. Even demons believe in God, and fear him, but that won’t save them from God’s judgement. Real faith works. God accepted Abraham and Rahab (Joshua 2:1-7) because their faith resulted in action: it was genuine. If what we believe does not affect the way we live, what we do, it is dead. James 2:14-26.
Taming the Tongue.
4. Those who want to be teachers in the church must first learn to control their tongues. To master this most uncontrollable and contradictory member of the body is to have perfect self-control. One spark can light a forest fire - a deadly venom. The same tongue can bless and it can curse, do good and do untold harm. This inconsistency, James says, is against all the laws of nature. James 3:1-12.
5. ‘Pure Wisdom’ comes from God and shows itself in gentleness, peace, and mercy. It is a very different thing from being worldly-wise. The worldly-wise are full of selfish ambition, eager to get on, asserting their own rights. James offers a sort of counter-order wisdom, in contrast to the conventional wisdom of the wellborn and educated in the Greco-Roman world. James 3:13-18.
Whose Friend are You?
6. James turns from peace to conflict. The root cause of quarrels and fighting is envy: setting our hearts on something we want and determining to get it, no matter what. We align ourselves with the world when we behave like that, James says. And the world’s friend is God’s enemy. Don’t be proud – be humble. Resist evil and submit to God who lifts up the humble.
7. Don’t criticize and judge others: judgement is God’s business. Don’t assume you have total control of your life: that is in God’s hands too. James 4:11-17.
A Warning to the Rich.
8. There is a special danger in wealth. It wraps people up in false security. They are so well-insulated that they cease to feel for those who are cold and hungry. This life is so pleasant that they forget the day of reckoning. But God sees and hears all. In the style of the Old Testament prophet. James denounces those who pile up riches yet pay out no wages. There are echoes of Proverbs, too, in these phrases. Compare Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21) James 5:1-6.
Patience in Suffering.
9. James continues the thought of the day of God’s coming. Christians need patience in the waiting time, the patience of the farmer, the patient endurance of suffering that we see in the prophets and Job. All was well for Job in the end, and so it will be for us. James 5:7-12.
Prayer and Praise.
10. Are you in trouble? Pray, then. Are you happy? Praise God. Are you ill? God heals in response to trusting prayer. Elijah is no different from us. Think of the power of his prayer and be encouraged. James 5:12-18.
11. James’ final words, perhaps still in the context of prayer, concern the backslider. When one of the fellowship turns away from God, another must go and bring them back. That return means a soul saved and sins forgiven. James 5:19-20.