The Letter of James: Chapters 2 and 3

Here Stuart shows us what charity looks like through avoiding partiality; in the royal law of love and in the relationship between faith and works.

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In James chapter 1 we saw how faith is embodied in the day-to-day living of Christ’s disciples. In this session, we’ll look at chapters 2 and 3, where James unfolds what this life of charity looks like in the world.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 can be divided into three sections:

  1. Avoiding partiality
  2. The royal law of love
  3. The relationship between faith and works

Avoiding partiality

If we remember, chapter 1 closed with James reflecting on the need to receive the word of God and to offer it to others in a life of service. Chapter 2 opens by showing us just how keenly aware James was of the way human beings work; he warns us not to give in to partiality.

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to lean on the saying: “charity begins at home.” Sometimes we lean on it to the extent that charity begins and ends at home!

James was trying to form the minds and hearts of his readers and that includes you and me. So, like a good shepherd he doesn’t just point us in the right direction but accompanies us to make sure we stay on track.

He asks us to imagine sitting in Church – perhaps for Mass, or Adoration, or waiting in line for Confession – when a poor person comes in. And to imagine a homeless person wearing shabby clothes, maybe with a dog in tow. How would you react?

James reprimands us if we make “distinctions” (v.4) between rich and poor, when we are all one in Christ Jesus, we are all God’s children, and we all have as much reason to be in the Lord’s house.

This principle applies beyond the walls of the church building; when we walk down the high street and encounter the homeless, or when we choose the charities that we support, or who we prefer to make time for?

The royal law of love

Once James has given us this example concerning partiality, he then gives us a striking paragraph that’s worth dwelling on.

First, James identifies what he calls the “royal law” – you’ll be familiar with what he means if you remember in the Gospels where Jesus is asked to summarise the law.

HANDY TIP: Read James alongside the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, and see how many similarities you can note.

This royal law is to love your neighbour as yourself, without partiality. That is Jesus’ commandment to us, and it is reiterated by James. The Church Fathers developed this idea by arguing that if we fail on this commandment of love, we fail on all the commandments; because without love, the virtues mean nothing at all.

In verse 10, James gives us an insight into the Gospel that might not be immediately apparent if we aren’t looking for it. Notice that he says failing in one part of the law means being guilty of all of it. That seems strange to us; if we break a law in a modern country, we don’t find ourselves liable for every crime on the statute books! But James is reflecting the understanding of his time and his culture, and the understanding of the Old Testament.

It also helps us to understand how Jesus fits into this picture: if failing in one part of the law is failure to keep the entire law, what hope do we have? How many of us could keep the entire law perfectly, throughout our whole lives? Could we never slip up even in the smallest of ways? As St. Paul says, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:57) That is the cry of the Christian!

As James puts it here in verses 12 and 13, we are now under the law of liberty in Christ, in which mercy triumphs over judgement. This has been the great rallying cry of Pope Francis since he began his pontificate, most especially in the great Jubilee Year of Mercy.

The relationship between faith and works

James now takes us into the most famous, and most controversial passage of his letter. In essence, he wants to tackle this question: if we’re saved by faith in Jesus, why does it matter how we live?

You can see why this might have been a big question when we look back at the journey James has taken us on. If we fail in one part of the law, we’re accountable for all of it; how then do we have any hope? Our hope is in Jesus, who did the job for us. Ok, so nothing more to say?

No… James emphasises that it matters very much how we live. He puts it so strongly in verse 17 as to say that faith without works is dead. It has no life. It’s inactive, impotent, irrelevant.

How do we understand this? James gives us an example, he says in verse 19 that even the demons believe! What do the demons believe? They believe in the facts of the faith: that God exists, that he is Trinity, that Jesus became man, and so on. They believe in the same way that we believe geese exist; we’ve seen some, we take their existence as a given. But we don’t believe in geese in the same way we believe in our parents or other people who are important to us: we know they exist, but we also believe in them – we trust them, love them and know that they are there for us whenever we need them.

True faith, for James, has an essential element of trust; that’s why he tells us the story of Abraham in verses 21-24.

That trusting faith – that believing in – expresses itself in behaviours; it expresses itself in love, for God and for neighbour (“if you love me, you will keep my commandments” John 14:15), it expresses itself in charity that is shown without partiality. It expresses itself, as James said in chapter 1, in pure and undefiled religion. If it doesn’t, it’s the kind of faith that is merely factual; it’s without life, and is therefore, dead.

Questions to consider

  1. In what ways do you show partiality without realizing it?
  2. Why do you think James refers to the law as “royal”?
  3. How would you explain what faith means to someone who doesn’t believe in God?

Chapter 3

Unfortunately for us, it can sometimes be difficult to find a neat thread to follow through James’ letter! We’ve reached one of those points now. James pivots in chapter 3 to talk about a subject that can seem to come out of the blue: being careful about what we say. But when we dig a bit deeper, we can see the connections.

Keeping watch on your mouth.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” James 3:5-6

Wow! Strong words from James! How are we to interpret this passage? Why the emphasis that he puts on the words that we speak?

So far, James has emphasised living out of faith in the context of our actual lives. We do that, of course, among other living human beings. That can be in the family, in the workplace, school or college.

There, in the midst of living with other people, one very small but powerful way we can practice charity and love for our neighbour is to be careful about what we say. Words have power to both harm and to build up. Careless words, perhaps as much as calculated ones, have the capacity to tear down a person’s self-esteem and break down relationships. This practical wisdom (a subject that James returns to at the end of this chapter) was picked up by St. Benedict in his Rule, which guides the lives of monks, nuns, and laity even today. In it, St. Benedict counsels custody of the tongue, to be careful of hurtful laughter, and to respect silence. In more modern times, Brother Roger of the Taize Community emphasised the same insight.

James is drawing on the teaching of Jesus in Mark chapter 7, that human beings are defiled by what springs up out of the heart; what is the tongue, says James, but the outlet for the thoughts and emotions of the heart?

Verses 17 and 18 of this chapter beautifully sum up the interior attitudes that we should strive to cultivate: impartiality, peace, gentleness. These, then, are the antidote to a fiery tongue.

Questions to consider

  1. Can you think of examples of times when words have had a great influence over you? Was it for good or bad?
  2. In what ways could you practically keep watch over your words?
  3. You might like to go through an examination of conscience over this issue, or an Ignatian examen prayer?

Concluding Prayer

Spend a little time with your notes from these two chapters and your answers to the questions. Does anything jump out at you that you would like to pray for?

Heavenly Father,
I have heard your word today and I want to put it into practice.
Give me the wisdom to know how and when to live out your truth.
Help me to be strong and calm in difficult times,
to trust in you and the Spirit’s power to help me through.
May I always show compassion and care for the vulnerable I meet.
Through Christ our Lord.