We’re reading at Mass for the next two weeks from the Letter of James. Is he a relative of Jesus and leader of the Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem as some say? Modern commentators aren’t sure who greets his hearers as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion.”
James was stoned to death in the mid 60s as the Jewish establishment turned against the followers of Jesus and forced many of them to flee. Jerusalem itself fell in 70 AD when Roman armies destroyed the city and crushed the Jewish revolt. Jewish-Christian exiles were exiled from their beloved city and would never return. Some commentators believe this letter contains an original letter of James sent to support the exiles and other material later added to it.
The letter opens with words of support. It’s tough to be thrown into exile, but tough times test your faith, so be brave, your faith will become stronger. God will give you the wisdom to know what to do; keep asking for it. But be “doers of the word,” the author of the letter says. Be practically concerned for others.
What does it mean to be practically concerned? The letter couldn’t be clearer about it:
“If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them,’Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?
Though the letter speaks of “a brother or a sister” as the one in need, it isn’t just a family member or a friend you’re called to care for. Concern doesn’t end with your own; it’s impartial and extends to all in need, even our enemies.
The letter surely isn’t directed only to concern by individuals either. Don’t countries and communities have to look out for the needy? “Don’t worry, work hard, aim high and good luck.” Is that any answer to the poor among us?
The Letter of James says it isn’t.
Some consoling words are given to the exiles, but not many. The letter is challenging; no relaxing of standards, no permission for self-pity. Keep your standards high, the letter insists and as the old song says: “When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout: There’s gonna be a great day.”