What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?
During the process of canonization, there was a good deal of dispute about whether the book of James should be included in the New Testament, and centuries later Martin Luther revived the question, calling it “a right strawy epistle”. James only mentions the name of Jesus twice, and never mentions his crucifixion or the resurrection. It emphasizes behavior over belief to the extent that it reads more like a sermon intended for pious Jews than for new Christians. James, the brother of Jesus, is traditionally thought to be its author; however the writer only identifies himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. It’s also interesting that the letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” rather than to a particular church community.
It seems to me that the main point James wants to make is that faith is not a belief system, but an action. What a person believes to be true means nothing unless that belief is expressed in tangible action. It doesn’t help at all, and in fact is quite harmful, when a self-identified Christian says “Jesus is Lord” and then behaves in ways that are in direct opposition to what Jesus taught and how he lived. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves”, James urges, mirroring Jesus’s words that “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock”
Like Jesus and Paul, James prioritizes the “royal law” of love over all others. But “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” isn’t an internal feeling of goodwill; it is an action. And like any good preacher, James proceeds to give several examples of what that might look like. Don’t treat those who can do something for you better than those who can’t.
If you see someone in need, help them
Control your temper.
Watch your mouth.(maybe James would have something to say about the unhelpful and unkind use of social media, too)
Don’t be greedy or selfish
Don’t judge others.
James is not a comforting book to read. It’s full of warnings and admonitions and is bound to make the reader feel guilty about something. But I don’t think James meant to give us a laundry list of virtues to pursue and sins to avoid, but to paint us a picture of what love in action looks like. Love is not thoughts, not words, not feelings, but actions. When we act in love, we not only facilitate our connection to God, but we can change the world. And that’s pretty good news to me!