We are studying James 1:19-27 for Sunday, August 9. This is the second in a series of five lessons on James, the immediate continuation of the text we began last week, and the source of the quotable quote: “be doers of the word and not hearers only.” Here are some notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve jumped ahead eight verses from where we ended last week.
James seems [to me] to develop by introducing a set of themes, and then circling back to those themes, elaborating them, and building up to our awareness that all of these things are deeply interrelated.
The section we skipped is a rhetorical unit that contrasts the fruit of yielding to temptation – which does not come from God, but from [intrinsically unstable] desire – with that of receiving the good and perfect giving that does indeed come from God, the opposite of changeable. Two different kinds of birth-giving (“gives birth” and “gave birth” probably the most natural translation of the verbs the NRSV translates as “brings/brought forth”), with radically different outcomes: sin and death, vs. truth and life.
[Note that the Psalmist uses the same metaphor of conception, pregnancy and giving birth to dramatize the process of going from bad to worse (Psalm 7:14). How common was this way of thinking among the ancients, I wonder?]
Part of that text, beginning with the beautiful verse 17, plus all of our text this week, is in the lectionary for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost every three years. If all you know about the Bible is from the lectionary, you’ll know this.
CLOSER READING: In v19, the “understanding” the author counsels is the eidō kind of knowing or understanding (discussed a couple of weeks ago).
The “anger” to be slow to could be translated “wrath,” or these days we might say “rage.”
The figure of speech in v20 – “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” – is even more dramatic in Greek, which can play around with word order more than English can: “The anger of man the righteousness of God does not produce.” There might be a little play on words with the verb “produces,” literally “works,” too. In Greek it’s a little more similar to the word “become angry.” The original audience might have heard that closeness. That’s speculation, but I think not entirely ridiculous.
Does all that mean anything? I think so. I think the author has in view our human tendency to think of our own anger as “righteous,” and to see our acting out on our anger as doing God’s work, by giving those annoying reprobates a foretaste of the wrath that is coming to them. [I have composed a lot of those eloquent lectures myself, in my head, while cleaning the house …] We might avoid that trap if we were quicker to listen and slower to speak. Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner – to understand everything is to forgive everything.
The “rank growth” of wickedness in v21 looks like it’s the suggestion of a historic commentary, and picks up on the metaphor of the “implanted word” later on. It fits; in other contexts this word means something like “abundance” or “surplus:” all that wickedness we still have going on.
In v22, the word for “deceiving” incorporates the word for “word,” and has a connotation of misusing reason or words (logos) – maybe, that is, the very thing you are supposed to be a doer and not only a hearer of.
In v23, the “looking” involved is an intensive activity – something like “contemplating.” Literally this person contemplates “their birth face” – maybe, “their original face.” [That might remind some of us of the Zen koan “show me your original face before you were born,” though I doubt it’s what the author has in mind.]
The key contrast seems to be between an activity that has no lasting effect, and one that does. Hearing a word, seeing a face in a mirror, these are passing experiences. Treating that word as instruction – the perfect, completed law, the law of liberation, whether that is Torah, or Christ – and continuing in it – literally, being a “doer of the work” – has the effect of blessing.
At this point, we might want to notice that this doing of the word, unlike the anger of man, seems to “work” something desirable.
The word translated “religion” in vv26 and 27, repeated three times, is not precisely what we mean by “religion” in contemporary America (something private, doctrinal, denominational, and so on). It refers to pious ceremonial worship practice. For the Greeks, that would be “the worship of the gods,” going and making sacrifices at some relevant altar.
That makes it even more significant to name visiting widows and orphans in their distress as the key to “religion.” That compassionate activity is here presented as the really important pious ceremony. [We might notice commonality with Micah 6 or Isaiah 58.] That, and being “unstained by the world.”
The need to “bridle the tongue” may arise because people lie to themselves – hence the “deception” that can make religion inactive, and thus worthless, or unproductive. For this author, Christian life is straightforwardly practical: actively do what the word says to do, rather than engaging in endless debates of whatever kind. The action is what’s really worth something, and is in itself a blessing.