My Faith Looks Up to Thee
What does your reflection look like? – James 1:17-27
The letter of James is a short one and is not sent to any one group of people as Paul’s letters are. James is one of the apostles whose Jewish roots are very evident. He is one who wanted to see the new faith remain within the synagogue and be accepted as a new and fuller revelation of the God the people had known throughout their history. And so his letter is sent to all those who came to faith in Christ as Jews and who are living in what came to be known as the Diaspora or Dispersion. Many of the people who lived in ancient Palestine had left the area to pursue business interests or for other reasons. They lived all over the ancient world in small communities. They continued to practice their faith even in these remote places. James wanted to be sure that these communities would ever remain open to receiving new people and he wanted them to present to the community and the world around them a picture of the faith that would draw others to them.
He also knew how important it was for the community’s continued existence that they be reminded of how they were to conduct themselves. And so the letter of James focuses on remaining true to the tenets of the faith and even more on how that faith is expressed in the community’s life with one another.
In his opening message to the scattered communities, he encourages them to always seek the wisdom of God. The people are not to rely on their own wisdom or strength but to constantly look to God to inform their choices in life and guide them on the path to full life. Further he reminds all in the community that whatever their status in the society outside the community, they are not to bring that status or hierarchy into the community. The lowest in the society and the highest in the society are to find that place where both can be honoured and valued. James believed very strongly that we all stand equal before God and that the prayers of all are heard. Each person, regardless of their position in society, is an equal in the eyes of God and in the community of faith. Whatever path the society around may choose to follow, it is for the community of faith to follow the path of God and to uphold each person. After all, whatever we may amass in this world will ultimately be lost to us but the life we gain in God will be to us an everlasting gain; and that gain is open to all in an equal measure.
First of all he encourages us to be quick to hear. It is often said that we have two ears and two eyes because we are to listen and look more than we are to speak. Listening to others and watching them is something that is often hard for people. If someone feels that no one is ever listening to them or really seeing them, they can have the tendency to not be willing to share their thoughts or feelings. And if we are concerned that people will dismiss us if we are not constantly sharing, then we will fail to listen and observe others. What James is seeking for here is for us to learn to listen and observe one another and discover how best to blend our lives in such a way as to respect the life of one another and enable everyone to feel valued in the community; doing this will enable us to be slow or slower to speak for we will be taking the time to consider more carefully what we are to say. What a blessing it would be if we could ever achieve this! James knows it will not be easy but he also knows that the communities can splinter and fall apart if we fail to even try. Of course hand in hand with being slow to speak comes being slow to anger. Anger often arises from an impulsive reaction to something that is said or done; perhaps it comes from a feeling of frustration with a person or situation; perhaps it is something over which we have no control; but our reaction can have disastrous results not only for us but for others and so often it is difficult to put the words back into our mouths and swallow them. I want you to note, though, that James does not say that there will not be times of anger or that anger is totally inappropriate at all times; rather, he is saying that it should not be the first reaction we have. It is his hope that these words of wisdom will save us from putting our feet in our mouths too many times and perhaps save us from tearing our communities apart.
He then goes on to remind the people that we need to be more than just hearers of what God asks of us. In other words, when we ask for wisdom, when we ask for patience, when we ask for grace and forgiveness, we need to put such things into action. We can accept all kinds of things in our minds but they must go from our minds to our actions if people are to see that we truly believe in the word of God. James likens it to looking at our reflection in a mirror. If we look at our image and then forget what we look like, we are like people who hear the Word of God and then act in a way that totally contradicts it.
But James knows that looking at the law of God like looking in a mirror will never make that law real except that we carry that law of God with us in our mind, heart and spirit just as we carry that image of our face that we see in the mirror.
He closes his message in this chapter by speaking to the people about what he really thinks makes a person religious. What makes a person religious is not how often they attend worship or how much money they can give or what status they have in the community; what makes a person religious is when their whole person reflects the image of God. It is when the words of God take root and become real. It is when their faith is more than words or ritual but becomes the pattern of their life. It is when the needs and concerns of the community are heard and responded to.
James identifies two things that he sees as true religion. The first was a great concern because there was no social network to care for widows or orphans. The community had to care for them. The second is as true today as then. It is about how we choose to express our faith in our daily life. Today how we express our faith may be different in some respects but it remains essentially the same. We need to look at who we are called to be by God in Christ and then not forget what that looks like as we go into the world as the people of God!