For the next two weeks the first reading at weekday Masses is taken from the Letter of Saint James. Here are some thoughts on James that might be helpful in preparing homilies during these days.
The Letter of St James comes to mind when thinking about community life. Invariably young men coming to find out about the Dominicans mention community life as one of the things they want, one of the things that attracts them to our way of life. But then we know from experience that community life often becomes problematic later on, some come to find it heavy, unhelpful, and a burden that seems not worth bearing. James is about this, about people who believe in Christ trying to live together, and the difficulties they experience. He has many comments relevant to community life in his discussion of vices and virtues, of anger and partiality, of control of the tongue, of jealousy and ambition. It is a very practical letter.
James puts his finger on the attitudes and dispositions that make life together difficult. People are usually relieved to be given a diagnosis for a problem even before they are told whether there is any treatment for it and what that treatment might involve. To understand where problems arise, why there are problems in the first place, is already a growth in wisdom. James does this for us. The letter belongs firmly within Jewish traditions of practical wisdom, drawing on the sapiential and prophetic literature of the Old Testament. This brings him close to much of the earliest gospel material. His teaching is similar to what we find in Matthew and Luke, about beatitudes and woes, attitudes to the Law, not judging others, prayer, the danger of riches, and so on.
James is very clear that problems in communities arise as a result of problems within individuals: 4:1ff. So it is not a Marxist-style analysis that we find here, seeing problems originating in systems or structures or other people's use of power, but rather a spiritual and even psychological analysis, seeing how problems for living together arise from conflicts internal to individuals. This is why desire is such a central concern in the letter. He is not just referring to lust but to 'having' in general, and to 'wanting' in general, to the kind of having and wanting that can only be fulfilled at the expense of others. ‘Where you find jealousy and ambition you find disorder’, he says in 3:16. This is where things go wrong. In Old Testament terms it is foolishness, manifesting itself as bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. I want to have - but my wanting to have sets off these negative things in me: jealousy and ambition. His analysis seems to anticipate the kind of thing René Girard talks about in his analysis of desire and its destructive consequences for human societies.
There is, however, also a 'socio-political' level to the analysis we find in James. He speaks of the danger of riches, and power, the way we are with the rich and powerful, and the way we are with the poor and lowly. It is still the case that we respond differently to neat and tidy well-dressed people, and to dirty and untidy smelly people. We will find ourselves reacting differently to people whom the world has decided are important and to those whom it has decided are not important. We can translate that into our dealings with each other in families and communities: who counts? what’s the pecking order?
So what to do? Prayer is one of the things to do and James talks about it quite a few times for such a short letter, and not only in the famous passage which the Church sees as establishing the sacrament of anointing, the prayer of faith for the sick person. And there is an interesting twist because James warns us that we can even put our prayer at the service of our desire. You might say, 'well, is that not what we are supposed to do?' Thomas Aquinas calls prayer 'the interpreter of desire'. But, James says, ‘you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions' (4:3). The passions he has just been talking about are jealousy and ambition so we have to watch out that we do not try to put our prayer at the service of these.
As we read through the letter we will probably find ourselves wanting James to be more Christian – to say something about Christ, and about love, and about grace. He does not say much about Christ, he mentions love of neighbour as the ‘royal law’, and he echoes Old Testament passages which say that God gives His grace to the humble.
For one who talks a lot about mercy, his analysis is fairly merciless. He invents a word for his readers – you are dipsuchos, he says, double-minded, split, your desire fragmented, and here is the root of your problems. ‘Above all’, he says in 5:12, and we expect something big after that, ‘above all do not swear by heaven or earth or anything else. Let your yes be yes and your no be no’. It is a bit disappointing after the lead in ('above all'), but maybe the world would be transformed, and our community life improved remarkably, if we used our tongues with the care James recommends, and if when we did speak we did it with the integrity and directness he encourages.
Although he does not get round to spelling out solutions as clearly as other moralists of the New Testament (Paul, 1 Peter), James brilliantly diagnoses the problems of community life and reminds us of the need to cast ourselves humbly on God’s grace: James 4:7a,8,10.