My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:19-27)
In a world where we are bombarded by all kinds of messages, the voice of the Gospel sometimes becomes inaudible. For various reasons, the announcement of the Good News of Jesus Christ has become inaccessible to a large part of the world. In this context, how can we help our contemporaries to hear God’s Word?
The Letter of James, written for the Christian communities of the dispersion outside of Palestine, is still relevant in our multicultural, secularized and globalized world. It stresses the importance of works, in other words the concrete practice of love. We must not merely listen to the Word; we must act.
James urges his readers to be “quick to listen but slow to speak.” The importance of listening to build and keep peace at all levels of society cannot be overstated. This virtue is even more necessary for those who bear responsibility. Being “slow to anger” (v. 19) reminds us that “God is slow to anger, abounding in love” (Psalm 103:8). Of course, there can be a holy and justifiable anger. We have good reason to be indignant at injustices done to the weak in society, at the abuse of the innocent. But when we are misunderstood or falsely accused, most often anger resolves nothing. It facilitates neither our relationship to others nor the peace of our own heart. Persevering in a relationship instead of getting angry prepares the ground for the Word of God.
The Word, in fact, has already been planted in us (v. 21). It is good news: Christ loved us and offered himself to God for us (Ephesians 5:2). We can live in love because he loved us first. We must welcome this Word of life and truth as a precious treasure, since it can save our lives (v. 21). Receiving the Word also means putting it into practice. Meditating on it or contemplating it is not enough. Later on the letter develops the relationship between believing and acting (2:14-26). In a language different from that of St. Paul, James says that people are justified by their works and not by their faith alone (2:24). This is a topic which, since the Reformation, has generated much controversy and divisions. However, the position of James is not necessarily in contradiction with what the apostle Paul said. For Paul too, “what matters is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
For James, putting love into practice is closely linked to the worship of God (v. 27). Solidarity with the poor is not only an ethical requirement but also a way to encounter the Lord, who identified himself with the lowest of the low (see Matthew 25:40). One cannot separate action and prayer, struggle and contemplation, solidarity and inner life. True religion is never a flight from the realities of life. For James, the refusal of worldliness is consistent with commitment to the poor in distress (v. 27).
Translated into concrete acts of love, the language of faith can rediscover its power and meaning. Then the words of the Gospel can touch people’s hearts beyond our Churches and can change their lives.
How can we learn to be “quick to listen but slow to speak”? What helps me to deal with anger?
Who are “the orphans and widows in distress” for us today? Where is it urgent to show solidarity around us and in the world?
“Ubi caritas Deus ibi est” (Where charity and love are found, God is there). When have I experienced this? Who are the people whose lives reflect this?