The Letter of James addresses Pastoral, Moral, Doctrinal, Spiritual issues because of its universal nature. This essay, then, will illustrate the Moral Teaching of James’ EPISTLE ON HUMAN DIGNITY AND FAIRNESS. The following texts are going to be considered: James 5:4, James 2:1-3, James 3:1-12.
To begin with, I wish to emphasise the fact that the moral teachings of St. JAMES’ Epistle is first of all seen in his teaching on how the rich exploit the poor. Thus in James 5:4, he says:
“Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts”
Indeed, the wicked behavior of the rich towards the poor defames their dignity and obstructs justice. For James, in a society where the rich oppress the poor, true reconciliation, justice and peace are hardly attained. Thus for this to happen in the Christian community, is more serious and so it is sinful. The poor have been created in the image and likeness of God and deserve some respect. That is why their cry will reach God and God will unleash justice on the rich and condemn them. If the letter of James is universal, then we are not sure whether the rich people James is addressing are Christians or not. If they are not Christians, then it only supports the fact that the Letter of James is universal in character and for that matter, his discussion on morality transcends all religions. In the same vein, James condemns the violent nature with which the rich treats the poor, to the extent that they condemn and murder the righteous who pulls resistance. What James wishes to stress here is the fact that the rich do not only exploit the poor in terms of salary, but they even condemn the innocent and have them killed. Therefore, human dignity and fairness is trampled upon with impunity.
Secondly, in James 2:1-13, he addresses another moral question which defames the human dignity and fairness and this is partiality or favouritism. For James, partiality has both social and moral dimensions. Socially, St. James draws our attention to the life of the early Church where the poor people were given a special place among the community of believers. In Acts 2:44-45, we are told that:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common, they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.”
Therefore, James addresses the issue of partiality and ask where this behavior came from. Partiality again, has a moral dimension. This deals with the rightness or the wrongness of the issue. Partiality as a moral issue, therefore, is sinful. For James, it defames the dignity of the human person; someone created in the image and likeness of God. Whenever people gather to worship God, it is because they love God and so to discriminate defeats the purpose of the gathering; the gathering of the community of believers. In fact, partiality is a scandal. Thus James asks them:
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1).
This question presupposes that when Jesus walked this life, he showed no favouritism. He was “The Man of the People”. He was even accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners. This means that Jesus had a special place in his heart for the outcast, poor and needy and so for a Christian to discriminate against a fellow Christian is unchristian. For James, showing partiality breaks the law of love; love of God and love of neighbor and when one breaks the law of Love, one is guilty of the entire law. He concludes that those who discriminate will face judgment without mercy because to discriminate against a creature of God is to discriminate against God himself.
Finally, James’ Epistle addresses the moral issue of taming our tongue (James 3:1-12). The misuse of the tongue defames human dignity and fairness. James draws our attention to the destruction our tongue can cause our society when it is not tamed. He acknowledges the innumerable roles of the tongue in the life of the individual. First of all, he compares the tongue to a rudder which controls an entire ship on the high seas; to bits put in the mouth of a horse to control its activities or hold the body in check; like small fire that can set a whole forest ablaze. James seems to rather present to us a pessimistic view of the human tongue when he says:
“ For every species of beast and bird of reptiles and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species but no one can tame the tongue- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and father and with it we curse those made in the likeness of God” (James 3:7-9).
The point or the moral lesson James brings out here is the fact that it is not good to speak evil of people with the same tongue we bless God with. He says “This ought not to be so”. Backbiting is evil and in any civilized society, when someone offends you, you do not go about gossiping about the person even though what you are saying may be true. James seems to be reiterating Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and true reconciliation when he says in the Gospels that when your brother wrongs you go to him and settle it, if he refuses, invite the elders of the Church and so on.
Again, in our in ability to control our tongue, we bear false witness against one another. We blackmail one another and prescribe the way people should lead their lives according to our standard and when they fail to fall into the standard we have set for them, we are quick to condemn them. As Christians, James invites us to be slow to speak, quick to listen and slow to anger. He invites us not to speak evil against one another when he says:
“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another judges another and speaks evil against the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is only one law giver and a judge who is able to save and destroy. So then who are you to judge your neighbor” (James 4:11-12)
Finally, James invites us to be patient in suffering and not to grumble against one another in times of trouble or difficulties. The prophets are our examples (James 5:9-10). Again, we must not swear by heaven or by earth or by any other means (James 5:12). Anything aside this is from the evil one.
In sum, the moral teachings of St. James’ Epistle on human dignity and fairness has been illustrated in the area of the rich oppressing the poor (James 5:4), partiality (James 2:1-13) and taming of the tongue (James 3:1-12).