Jesus and James: A Short Reconciliation of the Sermon on the Mount and the Epistle of James

            Of all the texts in the New Testament canon, perhaps no two have been dealt with more divergently than "the sermon on the mount" [1] and the Epistle of James. While the sermon on the mount has been received as "a perfect standard of the Christian life," [2] and treated with the utmost respect, the epistle of James has been called "a right strawy epistle," [3] and has at various times throughout church history been viewed with deep skepticism. Thankfully we are not in such a time of skepticism, and most people today accept James as a valid part of the Biblical canon; James is accepted as a text that does not contradict other parts of scripture. And yet, much more than simple non-contradiction with the rest of scripture can be viewed in James. Not only does James not contradict the rest of scripture, but The Epistle of James is actually the closest biblical document in content to the sermon on the mount.

            God "wants not only good fruits, but the good tree, not only action, but being," God "appeals to man's magnanimity" in "a demand always for more," "it reaches to the absolute, the infinite, the whole" [4] Nowhere is this message seen more clearly than in the two texts that will be examined herein: The Epistle of James and the sermon on the mount.

The Interior Life

            The need for a holy interior life is one of the more obvious aspects of the sermon on the mount. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to read the text without noticing how Jesus, while not dismissing the need for obedience as seen outwardly in good deeds, focuses on the inward man: on the inward motives. Jesus says: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Jesus, before he says a single word about lust or divorce or oaths, makes sure his audience understands that one who wishes to follow God must start with a proper interior life; only after establishing your heart can you be obedient to God's will in a more outwardly way.

            When Jesus speaks of the meek he is speaking of those who return gentleness for wrath, who return humbleness for boasting, who do not condemn blasphemers, but instead pray for them and teach them gently. [6] James likewise puts the interior life first, telling Christians to receive "the implanted word" with meekness: in other words, meekness is already within a Christian as they receive the soul saving word. [7] Our whole mindset is to be one of meekness; when James speaks of being slow to anger, when he speaks of the righteous who do not resist martyrdom, when he admonishes Christians to be slow in speaking, [8] he is not focusing on outward deeds, he is focusing on a state of the heart. People sometimes have a tendency to view James as being about "works," and end up viewing the entire book as though it were speaking of outward deeds, but that is simply not the case. James is certainly not as straight-forward in his language as Jesus concerning the interior life, yet there is a great deal waiting there beneath the surface, if one is only willing to abandon their eisegetical tendencies.

            "Blessed are the merciful," our Lord says, "for they shall obtain mercy". Jesus then says a bit later in the sermon on the mount: "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get" [9]. James combines these two statements into one, saying that "judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!" [10] Jesus further says that our mindset should be one that seeks peace, and so in a state of meekness and being merciful we are to live peacefully with those around us. [11] James too speaks of peace, telling his audience that strife and fights are caused because they do not ask God: because they are not focused on God, they do not have the correct spiritual mindset [12] James tells us to get rid of our bitter envy and selfish ambition, but rather to be "peace-loving," to be "submissive": to be "Peacemakers who sow in peace and raise a harvest of righteousness". [13]

            Jesus and James further elaborate on the spiritual mindset we are to have, saying that we are to be non-judgemental in our attitude. [14] The point here is not to universally forbid judging, but rather, Jesus and James are trying to tell us to examine ourselves first, to humbly remember our own sinfulness before we start pointing out the sinfulness of others. And if we do judge, we will be meek, merciful, and peaceful. For when we have a judgemental attitude, when we have not learnt to control our thoughts and opinions, we are giving sin a foothold in our lives. This can lead to much more than merely earthly consequences, but has potentially eternal consequences, as Jesus says, "whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire," [15] This is why James warns "There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor?". [16] James admonishes us to develop self-control exactly so that we don't get into situations where we say 'You fool!', [17] we are to have a mindset such that we will never even be tempted to rashly judge our brother.

            Perhaps the hardest part spoken of concerning our interior life is what we must do when we think that we have been wronged, for we are to take a meek, non-judgemental attitude. Our human, (fallen) earthly will cries for justice, it wants payback, but this is not the path we are to take. We are not to retaliate against those who persecute us, those who take our possessions, those who treat us like dirt. [18] We are to "Love whom [Jesus] loved," which sometimes means "supplicating God for our enemies," and "beseeching blessings on our persecutors." [19] Jesus did not resist: "the righteous man" was killed. [20] Our mindset should be the same: loving and praying for those who hurt us, who persecute us, who would even kill us; and we should endure such trials with the joy of the Lord. [21]

Doers of the Word

            "'A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel,' By these words Jesus trains us to a stricness of life, teaching us to be earnest in our endeavors, as set before the eyes of all men, and contending in the midst of the ampitheatre of the world." [22] Jesus further says that we are "the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men." [23] Certainly the interior change in us, this "beauty of holiness" [24] that happens inwardly, is part of what Jesus is talking about here. Yet, there must be more. Even if our light shines brightly, we must go further, since the interior life "has no works, is dead". What good is our interior life if we watch our neighbor starving and help them not? [25] Jesus and James ask us to go beyond letting our light shine through our "faith," they tell us that we must let our light shine through our deeds.

            Jesus spoke of the interior life as a sort of introduction to the sermon on the mount, making sure that his audience knew it was not outward deeds that God wanted, but that the blessed were those who were meek, merciful, peaceful, etc. Yet, Jesus also makes a striking statement before he begins with his "hard sayings" on anger, lust, divorce, etc.: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees," Jesus says, "you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.". [26] This righeousness certainly comes from the inward life we have through God, for every good and perfect gift is from God. [27] Yet, even if it is God working in us, and not of our own efforts, still we must be "doers of the word, and not hearers only," otherwise we are "like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand". [28] Both Jesus and James speak of those who "hear" the word, who receive God's revelation, and both say that those who hear but do not act based upon what they've heard are foolish, and have heard in vain. [29] It's not enough to simply hear, or even agree, we must act upon our knowledge, or our disobedience will lead to eternal death. [30]

            "Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?" Jesus asks, "Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?" James queries. [31] Proper things will come from a proper attitude: proper deeds will follow a proper interior life. "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?" [32] James says that faith alone does not save a man, as does Jesus: "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." [33] This "doing" is not just something to pass the time while we remain on earth, and it is much more even than being a "light" for others (as we reflect the light of God like the moon does the Sun's light).  It has been "said that the greatest compliment God ever paid man was when He said to him, 'Be ye perfect as you heavenly Father is perfect'". [34] Indeed it is, and our efforts here on earth has the purpose of realising this command, uniting us with God; salvation as theosis, partaking of the divine nature. [35]

            These "efforts" are not a self-righteous "doing," which Jesus spoke against, [36] but they are the natural consequence of the proper interior life. Our mindset is one in which we constantly look to serve God, to serve our neighbor, to do whatever is asked of us; this path of service is not necessarily easy. Yet, we are told to meet our trials with joy, even in the midst of persecution, even when falsely accused. [37] In persecution we see a perfect example of the interior life and being doers of the word come together: forming one whole; inseperable. When trials and persecution arises, we must handle them both inwardly and outwardly in a Christ-like manner, faith and works joined in one.  Saint Clement of Alexandria spoke aright when he called enduring persecution "the sum of all virtue". [38] Let us then look for this virtue in those who have been Martyrs in the past, [39] that we may lead Christ-like lives in the now, ready to be whatever we need to be for Christ, and let us diligently ask for what we are lacking in comparison. [40]

Conclusion

            The importance of the interior life, as well as right action, are important to every Christian according to both Jesus and James. This should not be understood as "salvation through human works, over and against grace," however, for as Saint John Chrysostom said, "It is not possible for us ever to accomplish anything good unless we enjoy help from above"; [41] indeed, "every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above" [42] It is in this sea of God's grace, and only in this sea, that we are to develop our Christian lives; only in God's grace can we work out our own salvation. Yet, not everyone who prays a “sinners prayer” or attends a church is being saved. Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord," and not everyone who does "mighty works,” [43] are known by God. Surely God’s grace is available to all, yet not everyone accepts God’s gift, we must choose to either be for God or against him, for “no one can serve two masters” [44]

            And to “choose God” does not simply mean to make an intellectual decision about a set of propositions concerning a particular perspective of God. No, our model is the small child, not because the "child's supposed innocence is to be made into a romantic ideal," but rather, because the child--helpless and small--takes it completely for granted that he is to be helped, that he must surrender himself. [45] Choosing God means praying “give us this day our daily bread” [46] and meaning it, truly recognizing that God is the sustainer of life, and the giver of all good things. Choosing God means relying totally in him for everything, [47] knowing assuredly that he will answer us. [48] If we seek God with our hearts, if we serve God with our hands, if we rely on God for earthly things, which shall eventually dissappear, [49] and also our spiritual well-being: then, and only then, we shall be saved.

Footnotes

[1] Matt. 5:1-7:29; Luke 6:20-49  (All quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted)

[2] Saint Augustine, Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount 1,1

[3] Martin Luther, Luther's introduction to the 1522 German New Testament

[4] Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, (Doubleday, 1976), p. 246

[5] Matt. 5:5, 7, 9

[6] Matt. 5:44; Lk. 6:27; 1 Thes. 5:15; 2 Tim. 2:24-25;(cf Saint Ignatius, Ephesians, 10; Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 11 on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians)

[7] James 1:21

[8] James 1:19-20; 3:13; 5:6 (cf Sirach 5:13);  However, Jesus and James do speak of "trouble" that a person can get into do in his deeds concerning oaths (cf Matt. 5:33-37 - James 5:12; 2:8; 2:13; 3:18)

[9] Matt. 5:7; 6:14-15; Matt. 7:1-5; (cf Matt. 18:32-33)

[10] James 2:13 (NIV)

[11] Matt. 5:9; 5:38-42, 44; 7:12 (cf Heb. 12:14)

[12] James 4:1-2

[13] James 3:14-18 (NIV)

[14] Matt. 7:1-5; James 4:12

[15] Matt. 5:22

[16] James 4:12

[17] James 3:2-12; We "develop" self-control through God's help: Let God be sought, that man may be tamed (cf Saint Augustine, Sermon 5, 2)

[18] Matt. 5:38-45

[19] Polycarp - Epistle to the Phillipians, 2 (paraphrase); Tertullian, Apology, 31 (paraphrase)

[20] James 5:6

[21] James 1:2-4

[22] Matt. 5:14-15; Paraphrase of text within Saint John Chrysostom's 15th Homily on Matthew

[23] Matt. 5:13

[24] John Wesley, Sermon 24, Introduction, 1  (1872 edition)

[25] James 2:14-17

[26] Matt. 5:20

[27] James 1:17; God working in us towards our perfection: 2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 3:18

[28] James 1:22; Matt. 7:26

[29] Matt. 7:21-27; James 1:22-27

[30] Matt. 5:27-30; James 1:14-15

[31] Matt. 7:16; James 3:12

[32] James 2:14

[33] James 2:14-26; Matt. 7:19

[34] Anthony M. Coniaris, Achieving Your Potential in Christ: Theosis (Light and Life Publishing Company, 1993), p. 31

[35] James 1:2-4; Matt. 5:48; 2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 3:18

[36] Matt. 6:1-18

[37] James 1:2-4; Matt. 5:10-12

[38] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 4, 6

[39] Matt. 5:12; James 5:10

[40] Matt. 7:7, 9-11; James 1:5

[41] Saint John Chrysostom, 25th Homily on Genesis, 7; Cited by: Bishop Kallistos Ware, How Are We Saved? (Light and Life Publishing, 1996), p. 44

[42] James 1:17

[43] Matt. 7:22

[44] Matt. 6:24; James 4:4; (cf John 3:16-18; Lk. 11:23; 2 Pet. 3:9; Tit. 2:11; Rom. 5:15)

[45] Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, (Doubleday, 1976), p. 250 (I borrowed Kung' phrasing, though I think we have different overall views) (cf Matt. 18:3)

[46] Matt. 6:11

[47] Matt. 6:25-34; James 4:13-15; 5:14-15

[48] Matt. 7:7-8 - James 1:5-7; 4:8-10

[49] Matt. 6:19; James 5:2

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