It’s the feast of St. James of Jerusalem today. We’ve got a brief round-up prepared for this holiday, plus a little devotional.
This year, meanwhile, we’re looking at the New Testament lesson appointed for Morning Prayer on this major feast day: James 1. Specifically, just the verse first.
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greeting.St. James 1:1
Compared to all the other New Testament Epistles, this really stands out. To the casual reader it doesn’t even sound like he’s writing to Christians! But this makes perfect sense when the reader considers two key things about his context.
- It was universally understood among the first Christians that the kingdom of Israel was being re-founded around the throne of Jesus as King. The New Covenant, further, brought a new rite of entry into the covenant people: baptism instead of circumcision. Gentiles, therefore, were eligible to join Israel with unprecedented ease! When James writes to the “twelve tribes”, he means the “Israel of God”, the Church, which St. Paul refers to in Galatians 6:16.
- James was based in Jerusalem, so when he wrote to his fellow believers elsewhere they were naturally considered “the Dispersion”, literally, those who weren’t in or near Jerusalem.
That said, St. James of Jerusalem did have a distinctly Jewish view of Christianity. His epistle, of all in the New Testament, reads the most like an Old Testament treatise, drawing heavily on biblical Wisdom literature and the Law of Moses. He speaks of the apostolic testimony, of course, and makes references to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, but the tone is very much reflective of someone who was raised Jewish and continues to live according that culture.
Despite this strange character compared to the majority of the New Testament’s wide-eyed perspective towards a Gentile-inclusive future, the epistle of James gives us an unexpectedly close portrait of the world in which Jesus walked. He kept the Law, he lived under the Old Covenant (thus fulfilling it), his cultural references were almost 100% parochial Jewish. Although James’ language doesn’t represent the majority tone of the Apostolic witness, it does bring us very close to what one might have experienced had one walked with Jesus during his earthly ministry.
This “awkward Jewishness” about James is compounded when you consider one of the few references to him in the Gospels. Natives of Nazareth expressed their unbelief regarding Jesus in this way: ““Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him” (Matthew 13:54b-57a). One of the reasons (or excuses) that some people rejected Jesus was that they knew his family and relatives. They were “too close” to him to take him seriously.
And that sort of thing can be a challenge for Christians, sometimes, too. We know about his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. We hear about his relatives, including this James. They’re unapologetically Jewish, undeniably 1st-century Roman Palestinians. And still we exalt and worship that Jesus as God-in-the-flesh. St. James can bring us very close to Jesus, and sometimes that can be a little uncomfortable. It’s somehow “safer” to imagine Jesus in isolation, with no mother, no relatives, just a man descended from heaven. But, thank Him, that isn’t who he is; he’s a real person from a real lineage and race and region.