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New Testament | Study Guide

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New Testament | Catholic Letters and James | Summary

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Summary

The early part of the letter advises believers to let their faith lead them to do good works and avoid wrongdoing.

  • The author encourages all readers to face any tests of faith with joy.
  • The author exhorts the Christ-believers to keep in mind that riches are not worth boasting about because they are not permanent.
  • Listening to God's word should inspire actions and perseverance, because religion that is truly pure requires one to do deeds like "care for orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27).
  • The author accuses the Christ-believers of "favoritism" when they give preferential treatment to the rich who show up in their worship spaces and treat the poor less well (James 2:1).
  • The author points out that breaking any part of God's law is breaking the whole law.
  • It is not enough to claim to be faithful if that does not translate into caring for those who are hungry or naked.
  • The tongue is compared to a horse's bridle or a ship's rudder, because although it is small it can lead or mislead, and harsh words can damage others.

In Chapters 4 and 5 the author addresses specific conflicts and suffering within the community, seeking to encourage his readers.

  • He blames their problems on people's desires for worldly things, because being friendly to the world means being enemies with God.
  • The solution is for Christ-believers to "resist the devil" and devote themselves to God in humility, admitting that they have done wrong and need forgiveness.
  • The letter offers encouragement to those who are waiting for the coming of the Lord, or the parousia.
  • The author highlights the importance of prayer, both in terms of praising God for good things and making petitions when people need healing or forgiveness.

Analysis

Among the documents of the New Testament, James is remarkable for its lack of references to Jesus, who is only mentioned twice (James 1:1; 2:1). As a universal (Greek katholikos) letter, James offers important ethical guidance grounded in a concept of active faith. The author reveals a special concern about the dangers associated with wealth and the accumulation of wealth.

For the person who is rich or trying to become rich, wealth comes with a particular set of temptations. A person looking to gain money might be drawn into unethical behaviors and, at the very least, is not properly focused on righteousness and the final judgment. Wealthy people also present a few kinds of danger to other members of the Christ-believing community. First, they might lead the community to show preferential treatment that is not God-like. Material wealth is insignificant to God and might even be detrimental. The second danger arises because wealth is associated with political and social power: the rich are identified as those who "oppress" the community, and the author calls them litigious and blasphemous (James 2:6).

The letter also invites its readers to engage with a deeper question behind the importance of ethical behavior: for Christ-believers, actions reflect beliefs. The author insists that unless someone performs good deeds, such as caring for the poor and needy, that person's faith is not truly active or effective. It is only on the basis of a person's good life that observers can truly tell that the person believes in a loving God and his son Christ, who teaches people to love one another. The author explains the need for both belief and action, using the terms "faith" and "works."

Because the letter insists on the importance of works, it has had mixed reception among Christian groups at various times throughout history. For example, in the 16th century the Protestant reformer Martin Luther saw the letter of James as teaching something incompatible with the letters of Paul. In Luther's reading, Paul claims that works of the law cannot lead to salvation, because only faith can save; James's insistence that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" could be seen as directly contradicting Paul's statements (James 2:17).

However, many other interpreters, including Catholic interpreters at Luther's time, saw no incompatibilities between the teachings of Paul and James. Hardly any interpreters today think that the author of the letter of James is rejecting an idea of God's grace in favor of humans saving themselves through good deeds. Instead, most people read the letter as offering corrective guidance to a community that thought belief was enough even if their practical actions did not change.

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