It’s Labor Day weekend – Labor Day being the dread of children everywhere, school starting soon if not already. “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”1
In the lectionary cycle for this Labor Day weekend, we get a passage from the letter of James, which makes sense to me, as James, being the most practical of the writers of the New Testament, concerns himself with the labors of being a Christian; he gives us the meat and potatoes version of the Gospel, and that makes him a favorite of mine.
Martin Luther famously rejected the book of James, and some scholars contend that Luther tried to essential expunge the letter from the biblical canon. Luther wrote that “James is a “right strawy epistle… for it has no gospel in it.” A careful reading of Luther’s famous quote will reveal that he wasn’t really throwing James out of the canon as is commonly thought. He meant that it was of little value compared to John, Romans, Galatians, and I Peter, because it doesn’t directly address the issue at the center of the Reformation, the great doctrine of justification by faith alone. James, in Luther’s opinion, didn’t have enough of that gospel truth to warrant careful study. Indeed, James seems to challenge that doctrine in chapter 2. So Luther called it “strawy,” not meaty.”2
Martin Luther, though he did some good, was, of course, wrong on so many, many things, but he was an interesting guy. When he was 46 years old, he married Katharina von Bora, one of 12 nuns he had helped escape from the Nimbschen Cistercian convent in April 1523, when he arranged for the 12 nuns to be smuggled out in herring barrels, which I’m sure Katharina never let him forget. Luther was an avid anti-Semite and a personal wreck, and apart from his heretical rending of the Church, his devaluing of the epistle of James is his worst legacy.
James was “a relative of Jesus who is usually called “brother of the Lord”. He was the leader of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem whom Paul acknowledged as one of the “pillars”. In Acts he appears as the authorized spokesman for the Jewish Christian position in the early Church. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, he was stoned to death by the Jews under the high priest Ananus II in A.D. 62.”3
James, being a good Jew and a good Christian, wrote from that perspective. James knew the Law of Moses and then saw that Law fulfilled by Jesus. He not only heard the teachings of the Lord but saw the works of the Lord, and those labors, combined with his background, must have made quite an impact on him. Certainly knowing the writings of the apostles, and especially of Paul, who was concerned mostly with faith, and John, who seemed concerned mostly with the Personhood of Christ and His salvation, James takes up the Christian life from his unique perspective, to Luther’s dismay and to my delight.
We read today one of James’ most famous phrases: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.” James is concerned for the careless among the faithful, those who could observe the truth, observe the teachings and works of Jesus, observe the changed lives of the faithful, and then walk away unaffected, unchanged by the observance.
Be doers, then, James tells us; here James uses an old Greek word that best translates as “agents”. So be agents of righteousness, agents of Jesus, who gives us true religion, the true work of God. James tells us that “pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
As we celebrate this weekend, celebrated it joyfully and thank God for those who labor to make this country strong. Celebrate our Christian labor as well; thank the Lord for putting us at tasks that challenge and delight us, that work to the relief of the people of God, that make us more like the Lord Himself, holy and righteous before Him.
2Scott Hoezee, This Week http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-17b/?type=lectionary_epistle