James 1 & Matthew 7:24-29

James 1 – Ears, Mouth, Hands

I’ve been watching an American cop show recently, and in this show there is latino character whose names is Santiago. But he is called Jimmy by his friends and colleagues. If you’re familiar with the famous pilgrimage in Spain to St Iago de Compostella you might be able to work out why. Santiago is Spanish for St James. In the romance languages of Western Europe, the name James has taken many forms – Jacques in French, Giacomo in Italian. These all flow from the Latin name “Iacomus” which was used in the early Latin translations of the Bible. But actually, the Hebrew name is Yaakov – or, as we would say in English – Jacob. This connection between the names James and Jacob is seen in our history books – it’s why the attempt to restore James Stuart to the throne of Britain in the 18th Century is called the Jacobite rebellion.

So what, you might be thinking! Well, I don’t know about you, but when I hear the name James, I think of an English bloke. When I hear the name Jacob, it suggests a Jewish connection, it brings to mind Old Testament stories. This term we are going to be exploring the letter know as James in our English Bibles, but actually written by a Jewish man, called Yaakov, and it is important to remember this, as we read it.

The first sentence of his letter reads, “Yaakov, a slave of God and of Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, greetings.”

So the first question for tonight is prompted by that first word – Yaacov. When we’re assessing the content of teaching, or reading a letter, it is helpful to know who has it written it. It can help us to understand the perspectives they have, and the emphasises they choose to focus on. We don’t have anything to go on really, apart from this name. That fact in itself is, perhaps, a clue. There aren’t many people who are known just by their first name, with no surname, or family connection. This is especially true when the name is a common one in the community. There would have been loads of Yaakovs in first century Palestine – but this writer assumes people will know which one he is. Of the four different Yaakovs in the New Testament, that leaves us with the disciple, the brother of John, and Jesus’ brother. Now we know from Acts 12 that Yaacov the brother of John was murdered by Herod not long after Pentecost, so it is unlikely that he would have had time or opportunity to write this.

On the other hand, we know from Acts 15 that Yaaacov the brother of Jesus had become a leader in the church in Jerusalem, and with other elders wrote letters to Christians in other towns and cities. We also know from his conversations with Paul, that this Yaacov had a particular focus on supporting Jewish Christians, and this is reflected in the second half of that first sentence of the letter- to the twelve tribes in the dispersion. So, it seems likely that this letter was written by the brother of Jesus to Jewish Christians that had been scattered around the middle east by trouble and persecution, a theme that is picked up in the first section that we heard read tonight.

The letter itself has quite a different pattern to many of the other letters in the New Testament. Unlike other letters it isn’t seeking to set out a particular doctrinal position, or address particular local issues in a church. After that brief introduction it just dives into the content, and then at the end just stops – with no summary, conclusion, or farewell greetings. As we read it, it doesn’t divide up into neat sections that each address a particular area of life, or which build up an argument. In this, it reflects a particularly Jewish way of writing and thinking. It feels to me that it is more like the book of Proverbs than anything else in Scripture. It is not that there aren’t themes and things the writer wants to emphasise, but they are woven through the whole letter, with a wide range of images and metaphors to illustrate them. It is an intensely practical book – with many examples of what it means to live out faith in the real world. It is a beautiful tapestry, and perhaps one of the best ways to engage with it is to explore the patterns within it. I know the print is a bit small, but it is possible to print out it out on a piece of A4 paper. Over the next few months, I invite you to pick different words or themes and use different colour pens or highlighters to see where they crop up through the book.

Tonight, as an example of this, we are going to look at how three themes are woven together in verses 19-27. Listening, speaking, and doing.

Let’s begin with the theme of listening. Where does this occur in these verses?

V19 – be quick to listen
v21 – accept the word
v22 – do not merely listen to the word
v23 and 25 – contrasts those who listen but do not do it, with those who look intently into the word

If we reorder this a bit, we can see a strong emphasis and progression here from the writer. Be quick to listen to the word of God, look intently into it, accept it, but don’t just listen. This emphasis clearly echoes the wisdom of Proverbs, with it’s repeated instruction to listen to the wisdom being taught. It also reminds me of the writings of the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, who repeatedly confront the people of God with their refusal to listen. It is also rooted in Jesus’ teaching, an example of which we heard in the parable that brings the sermon on the mount to a close in Matthew.

So we are to listen to God’s word. We are to spend time in it, reading it, reflecting on it, asking the Holy Spirit to speak to us through it. We are to accept it. Where we find it challenging or difficult to understand, we are to submit to it, not to sit in judgement on it. And we are to do it – we’ll come back to this.

Our second theme is speaking. Where does this come up?
V19 – slow to speak
v26 – criticism of those who do not keep a tight reign on their tongue.

Again, it feels like we are in Proverbs. Last week we were reading chapters of Proverbs in Morning Prayer. One day we read this, from chapter 26:

“For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarrelling ceases. As charcoal is to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife. The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are smooth lips with an evil heart. An enemy dissembles in speaking while harbouring deceit within;”

Again, we have echoes of Jesus teaching in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, where he says that not only should people not commit murder, but that, “anyone who says, ‘You fool’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Much has been made over the centuries of perceived differences between Yaakov’s teaching and that of Paul, but in this area they are in lockstep. Repeatedly in his letters Paul warns of the evil of gossip – listing it alongside murder, strife, and deceit as evils that cripple a church community.

So, we are to control our tongues. It’s as easy, and difficult, as that.

And our third theme – Doing. Where do we find this?

v19 be slow to become angry
v21 get rid of all moral filth and evil
v25 continue in the law – not forgetting but doing it
v27 look after orphans and widows in distress
v 27 keep yourself from being polluted by the world

Again, a slight reordering might help us to see a progression. Don’t forget what you hear in the law, but continue in it – do what it says. Be slow to become angry. Look after orphans and widows in distress. Get rid of all moral filth and evil, keep yourself from being polluted by the world.

As I said earlier, Yaacov is a highly practical book, rooted in the Jewish Scriptures, applying the teaching of Jesus. Once again we can see the wisdom tradition of Proverbs and the Prophetic tradition of Isaiah so clearly. Proverbs 1:3 describes Proverbs as being for “receiving instruction in prudent behaviour, doing what is right and just and fair.” Isaiah 1:17 says, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” And as we read earlier, Jesus said, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

In every sphere of life, this is challenging. We are called to listen carefully to God, and to each other. To speak with care and love. To live holy lives in which we take particular care for those on the margins. Later in the Autumn we are going to have a series of sessions looking at the area of identity, sexuality, and relationships using the Church of England’s “Living in Love and Faith” material. It is my hope that as we do this we will be able to listen well to each other and to God, to speak carefully, and to discern what we are being called to do, so that we can build each other up and encourage each other in our lives of discipleship. It will be a good arena to put with Yaacov calls us to into practice.

In the meantime, I invite you to continue with us in exploring this letter in our evening services. You might like to start your colouring in this week by choosing a colour for listening, speaking, and doing, and going through the whole book and highlighting where these three themes appear.

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