More interesting than the aphorisms and the calls to godliness is his building inference that the weight of judgment falls most harshly on Christianity who have left the Church for the world. That's because James infers they don’t understand the interplay of living in a community. Christians are not singular in their faith. We live out and display our Christianity in our relationships.
Everything we do affects other Christians in their faith life, and witnesses either good or bad to non-Christians.
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By John Pearring
My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
These final verses in Saturday’s gospel reading are also the final verses in James’ epistle. What an interesting wrap-up of the author’s letter to Christian Jews of the late 1st Century. Christians living in the author’s time had surely suffered from decades of trials, temptations, and doubt. James saw a new problem in the Church — fallen away believers — and he builds a strong case for the faithful to bring them back. Such a ministry is one of the most important things a believer can do. Rescue our brothers and sisters.
We don’t know which James penned this exhortation. To simplify, we'll just call the author James. Likely, it was not any of the three famous followers of Jesus named James. We do know, though, that the theology at the end of the epistle amounts to a carefully crafted urgency for Christians undergoing difficulties. James saw a new incentive for the remaining faithful in the Christian community. They should reach out to the lost believers.
The early Church of the 30’s through the 60’s AD did not have the same fallen-away problems as did James in the later Church. The Church grew dramatically. Nonetheless, the pressure of older historically Christian communities made life difficult. Rife with the world’s attractions, political arguments, and internal strifes born from human frailties, believers drifted away.
We’re under much the same kind of pressures in today's global Christianity. Dedicated Christians, especially Catholics, must wade through a constant roiling of painful challenges to the authenticity of our faith. We’re hesitant to urge fellow Catholics to become active in their parishes because of the Catholic Church’s unpopularity. The last two years have walled up Churches, physically, adding to years of subversive attacks — pedophilia, Vatican misuse of funds, pederasty (grooming of young seminarians as active homosexuals), clericalism, political hand-wringing, and the mocking of celibacy.
Rather than list the trials in James’ time, the author offers a much more mature, Christian approach to the problems facing Christians in the world.
Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
That’s so much lovelier than a doomsday list like the one I gave, isn’t it? James did get specific, though. Regarding the world’s issues with wealth and standing (another bugaboo for today), James wisely suggests:
The brother in lowly circumstances should take pride in his high standing, and the rich one in his lowliness, for he will pass away “like the flower of the field.”
The advice keeps coming from James. He addresses that all gifts come from God, but not our temptations. No one escapes temptation. To respond to the world's aggression, James identifies the sign of perfect religion as that which aids the orphan and the widow, rather than other things.
More interesting than the aphorisms and the calls to godliness is his building inference that the weight of judgment falls most harshly on Christianity who have left the Church for the world. That's because James infers they don’t understand the interplay of living in a community. Christians are not singular in their faith. We live out and display our Christianity in our relationships. Everything we do affects other Christians in their faith life, and witnesses either good or bad to non-Christians.
So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
Decades of Christian living, within the context of its Jewish beginnings, has taught Christians that their community of faith is so much larger than they thought. Our faith communities include those that we've lost. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” operates from holy people living with each other. Holiness extends toward those who are not part of the Christian community in a variety of ways.
I believe James sets up two more chapters of such interplays — covering forgiveness, fairness, and taking care of each other — to make the key point of the epistle. Fallen away Christians need to be ministered to with great urgency. They are in more danger than the un-Churched. Those who left the loving embrace of the Church already have known the Lord, known the Holy Spirit, and taken part in the Eucharistic body of faith. They’re in grave danger of permanently dismissing the God they once knew.
Non-believers, folks who do not know Christianity, cannot dismiss God in the same way as a believer. Non-believers dismiss out of ignorance and misunderstanding. Believers dismiss God through purposeful ignorance, fallen prey to temptations they once denied. They need our love, our mercy, and our gentle witness, not our judgment. Is part of our lost believer's issue with the Church justified?
"Do not speak evil of one another, brothers. Whoever speaks evil of a brother or judges his brother speaks evil of the law and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save or to destroy. Who then are you to judge your neighbor?"
(James 5: 11-12)
We may find that our own jealousy, our own lack of mercy, and our judgment of others, in truth, has put us outside of the very Church community that we loved in the first place. We, too, likely need to be rescued.