Acts of Charity and Faith

Father John A. Kiley

Two disciples among the Twelve Apostles are known by the name “James.” St. James, sometimes called “the greater,” was a fisherman, the brother of St. John, and a son of their father Zebedee whose fishing business was prosperous enough to have “hired men.” This St. James was among the chosen three who closely witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration and the agony in the garden. The remains of this St. James are entombed at the famous shrine at Campostella, Spain. The other St. James, sometimes called “the less,” is remembered as the son of Alphaeus. He is always listed ninth among the twelve apostles. St. James the Less may have been younger or smaller in stature than St. James the greater, Zebedee’s son, as the Greek word for “the less,” mikros, conveys both meanings.

However, Scripture scholars observe that there was a third St. James who was possibly a relative of Jesus, maybe a half-brother through St. Joseph, or maybe a cousin like St. John the Baptist. Several times the “brothers” of Jesus, that is, the relatives or kin of Jesus, are referenced in the Gospels and a James is mentioned among them. The St. James whom St. Paul calls “the Lord’s brother” witnessed the Resurrection and became a leader of the church in Jerusalem, by tradition the first bishop there. In Acts he appears as the authorized spokesman for Jewish Christian attitudes in the early Church. St. Paul acknowledged this St. James as one of the “pillars” of the early Jerusalem church. In the Epistle bearing his name, a portion of which will be read at Mass this Sunday, he identifies himself only as a “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He wrote to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion,” who were Christian Jews scattered around the Mediterrean world. Paradoxically, this very Jewish work is written in an excellent Greek style, which ranks among the best in the New Testament and appears to be the work of a trained Hellenistic writer. Those who continue to regard St. James of Jerusalem as its author are therefore obliged to suppose that a secretary must have put the letter into its present literary form. For these reasons, many recent interpreters assign the re-written epistle to the period A.D. 90–100. The Jewish historian Josephus records that St. James himself was stoned to death at the instigation of the Temple priests around A.D. 62.

Father Joseph Egan, professor of dogmatic theology at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York, contended that the Epistle of St. James was written in answer to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Both epistles speak boldly of the relationship between faith and good works. St. Paul is almost a Lutheran in his exaltation of faith over works. “You are not under the Law but under grace,” St. Paul reminds his Jewish readers who are hesitant to forego the prescriptions of the Jewish law so dear to their ancestors. He insists, “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” St. Paul would later tone down his exaltation of faith a bit in the Epistle to the Romans. But apparently the Apostle’s words to the Galatians were enough to get St. James’ Jewish dander up causing him to write in defense of all good works. Some commentators believe that St. James apparently opposed the imposition of Jewish Law on gentile Christians but believed that Jewish Christians should continue to observe the old regulations.

St. James’ understanding of Christianity was certainly activist: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Again St. James writes, “Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” Citing the example of Abraham who backed up his legendary faith with his willingness to sacrifice even his son Isaac, St. James writes, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” He adds, “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” St. James summarizes his appreciation of good deeds with one of the most beautiful lines in all Scripture: “Religion pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to help orphans and widows in their tribulation and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” The Catholic Church, from St. Martin of Tours to St. Teresa of Calcutta, has happily remained faithful both to St. James’ charitable instincts as well as to St. Paul’s insistence on faith.