James: Off the List?

“You’re off the list!”

When I worked with the Devil Rays, there was a guy in our sales group who, whenever he was upset with someone for some small grievance, would bellow “You’re off the list,” and summarily cross them off of his interoffice phone list. This happened a lot, almost always for pretty inconsequential stuff, and was mostly a joke to him and to everyone else. He never really reinstated people formally to “the list,” but I think he reprinted his phone list from time to time. (Also, we were all in the same room, so it’s not like we really needed phones to talk to each other.)

There has probably always been an element within Christianity that has sought to restrict who’s “on the list” as a believer; in Acts, you see the early Church going rounds about whether non-Jewish believers can join the group without first converting to Judaism. It’s ebbed and flowed since then, I suspect, and I’m sure that there are scholars who can identify what elements in a given time and place breed a stronger instinct to shorten the list. 

History tells us that right now is probably not the worst it’s ever been on this front, but it’s a little disquieting to realize that the phrase “more Catholic than the pope,” once a hyperbolic joke, lacks its former punch, as you see stories about American Catholic seminaries full of students who disavow the current pope to such a degree that there are declared “Francis-free” zones. (I don’t know that this kind of “who counts” list-keeping is as much a thing in Protestant and evangelical circles.) 

I mentioned in a previous post that James’ definition of “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:27) That first part, most people can wrap their heads around and get onboard with, but the second part can be read a lot of different ways. The writers of the New Testament and generations of interpreters have layered a lot onto what in “the world” we need to keep free from, and I have my own biases on that front just like everyone else. But a couple points from James’ letter might be helpful.

I already noted that James’ framing of the law hinges on love of neighbor (2:8). Earlier, he uses some uncharacteristically frilly language to talk about what it means to act from a place on “God’s list”: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” (1:17-21).

Quick to listen, slow to speak. Slow to anger, meek.

A couple chapters later, after talking about how perilous the tongue can be (and how dangerous teaching can be), he comes back to what it looks like to be unstained by the world. “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness and born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality and hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (3:13-18)

Gentleness and peace. Full of mercy and good fruits (which aren’t enumerated here. Paul has my favorite list in Galatians 5:22-23).

The New Testament doesn’t really have a clear manual for what a church is supposed to do or what it’s for, but at the end of some letters, you get a flurry of things that, taken together, look kinda sorta like an outline of what church looks like. Paul does it in I Thessalonians 5, for instance, and so James does here:

“Are any of you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (5:13-16) Then after a quick example of the power of prayer, he closes the letter abruptly with “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (5:19-20) Not even a “the end” after that.

So James outlines a community that prays, praises, comforts and heals the sick, confesses and forgives sins, and especially reels back in those who wander away. That’s the charge of the church, within an ethic of gentleness, peace, listening, humility.

The world, and even the Church, may be saying that we should be focused on crossing people off the list. But James seems to say here that God’s not the one pushing us to take people off the list. He’s asking us to help get people back on it. That’s probably the best lesson to take from this short letter before we turn toward Luke.

One response to “James: Off the List?”

  1. […] live in a time of retributive justice. I talked a while ago about my former colleague who liked to bellow “You’re off the list!” when someone crossed […]

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