Wednesday of Week 6 of Ordinary time – First Reading

Commentary on James 1:19-27

Today we come to a central point in this letter: the need for our faith to be seen in action. That is the proof that our faith and worship are genuine.

James begins with a number of instructions:
a. "Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger; for a man's anger does not fulfil God's justice." Advice that is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it. It is so easy to jump to conclusions and over-react. So often we do not really listen and we are too hasty to respond. And, while there is a legitimate anger, our angry responses are seldom made for the good of the other. And our reactive anger certainly does not reflect the Spirit of God working in us.

b. "Strip away all that is filthy, every vicious excess." That can cover many things, every form of over-indulgence, sexual and otherwise.

c. "Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you, with its power to save you." We have constantly to be in a receiving mode for the word of God, which can come to us from so many sources and in so many ways. And this word has truly a saving power; it can genuinely have a transforming effect on us.

d. "Act on this word. If all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves." As we have pointed out elsewhere, listening to God's word embraces a number of elements: 1, to hear the Word; 2, to understand it; 3, to accept and assimilate it; and 4, to act on it. Without the final step, our hearing is incomplete.

James then goes on to give a vivid image. He compares a person who hears God's word and does nothing about it to a man who looks at himself in the mirror and then goes off forgetting completely about what he saw. On the other hand, the one who “looks into the perfect law of freedom” and then acts on what he sees is not just a hearer but a doer. The Jewish concept of human freedom flowed from obedience to the Law; for Paul, however, Christian freedom flowed from the Christian's release from obedience to the Law. The Christian who really looks at the law of God sees in it the source of his freedom. God's law for him is no burden; on the contrary it is a source of liberation. “The Truth will make you free,” said Jesus. It is something that many, including practising Christians, seem unaware of.

"Happy will this man be in whatever he does." It is a great moment of enlightenment when we realise that what Jesus teaches us in the Gospel is a source of freedom and not a burden and restriction on our freedom, or a sacrifice of freedom.

Finally, he gives an example of persons who truly act on God's word. For instance, people who have no control over what they say cannot call themselves devout or religious. Their external worship, however pious it looks, is a sham. They are like the man who goes to the temple to offer his gift while a brother has a serious grievance against him.

Real worship, James suggests, consists in taking care of orphans and widows, the most pitied of people in Jesus' time, and remaining untainted by the world. “World” here is not the world of nature but the world of people in their rebellion against and alienation from God. “If you do not reach out to these, the very least and the most needy in my Kingdom, you are not doing it to me.” No amount of time in church can alone make up for this. 

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