Fulfilling the Law (James 2; Pentecost 15B)

I have already given some consideration to the strongly Jewish ethos of the book we know as the letter of James—which, as I have argued, is better portrayed as a moral treatise. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/

The passage in view in the lectionary epistle reading for this coming Sunday (James 2:1-17) places this characteristic right to the fore, when it declares that “you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (2:8).

The recipients of the treatise of James are identified in the opening verse as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). This is a generic description giving no specific clues as to their identity. This does, however, provide a testimony to the continuing presence of Jewish believers within the Jesus movement.

The readers of this work would well have recognised the reference to Leviticus 19:18, which clearly states: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. They would also have known very easily that the laws cited in James 2:11 are drawn directly from The Ten Words which God gave to Moses to give to Israel (Exodus 20).

This Jewish element can be seen in much of the treatise, particularly in the way that God is portrayed. God is the Father (1:17, 27; 3:9), the One God (2:19), both “lawgiver and judge” (4:12), who is acknowledged as being “compassionate and merciful” (5:11). God has created the world (1:17) and made humans in image of God (3:9). God acts as the champion of the poor (1:27), and requires human beings to act with justice for the poor (5:1–6). All of these claims about God can be seen to have been drawn from the testimony of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The treatise of James thus draws on the prophetic tradition of Israel for its view of God. It shares this viewpoint with Matthew’s Gospel, where God is acknowledged as Creator, judge, lawgiver, showing mercy yet demanding righteousness. These two books of the New Testament testify to the ongoing vitality of “Jewish Christianity” in the middle and latter decades of the first century.

Also similar to Matthew’s Gospel is the way that this treatise includes numerous explicit references to Hebrew scripture. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus quoted often from his scripture and drew on biblical imagery as the basis for his teachings. This characteristic is heightened both by the Matthean narrative’s emphasis on fulfilment of scripture (Matt 1–4; 8:17; 12:17–21; 21:4–5; 27:9–10) and the words attributed to Jesus concerning the fulfilment of the law (5:17–20) and of the prophets (13:14–15, 35; 26:52–56).

In the treatise of James, there are two significant passages which contain direct citations of the Law. First, the Levitical command to love the neighbour (Lev 19:18) introduces a discussion of the need to fulfil the Law (2:8). There is reference to two of the Ten Commandments (2:11) before a succinct moral conclusion is drawn: “so speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). These verses appear in this Sunday’s epistle reading.

Second, in his consideration of faith and works (2:18–26), the author engages in a midrash on the Genesis account of Abraham being reckoned as righteousness (Gen 15:6); once again, a concise conclusion is drawn, that “faith without works is dead” (2:26).

Ever since Martin Luther dismissed James as a “right strawy epistle”, interpreters have tended to assume that James 2 stands in direct contrast to Paul’s argument in Gal 3:6–18; more recent interpretation has questioned this assumption. James here defines “faith” as mere verbal assent, with no practical outworking (2:18–19)—a sense which it does not have for Paul, who links faith and love by referring to “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

In fact, it is claimed, both authors regard authentic faith as inextricably linked with “works”. But the sense remains that this treatise reflects a strand of the Jesus movement which differed from Paul’s views—and was perhaps more in tune with the opponents with whom Paul often argued. The polemic against a Pauline understanding certainly underlies the argument of James 2:14–26; the twice-stated conclusion (2:17, 26) is pointed in rebutting the Pauline criticism of relying on “the works of the Law” (Gal 2:16; 3:2, 10–12). It’s a matter of priority: faith comes first, the “works of the Law” come as a consequence of that first priority. Trusting first in works has the order the wrong way around.

But simply relying on faith with no regard for the Law is not good enough for James. In affirming that “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26), the treatise of James affirms the ongoing validity and central importance of “the royal law”, continuing the ancient Israelite commitment to living a life consistent with the intentions of God that they be a holy people.

The ethic imbued by keeping the Law is fundamental to the life of faith. In this way, for followers of Jesus, the model of Abraham continues to inform their discipleship; “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (2:22).

In this regard, viewing Abraham as a model of faith, this letter is consistent with what Paul writes, in Romans: Abraham “did not weaken in faith … no unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom 4:18-21).

And Paul, like James, also affirms the ongoing validity of the ethic that is taught in the Law, asserting that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12) and “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19).

Indeed, Paul affirms that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”, citing some of the Ten Commandments in support (Rom 13:8-10). So whilst there are some points of disagreement between James and Paul, as to how the Law is used in specific ways, there is a fundamental commitment to keeping the ethic, the way of life, that is taught by the Law. James can’t simply dismissed as being as unsubstantial as straw–sorry, Luther!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/01/wisdom-from-ages-past-for-the-present-times-leviticus-jesus-james-and-paul-pentecost-15b-23b/

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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