One of the hard things about reading James is that there is no structure. There is no story. There are themes (don’t show favoritism based on finances, don’t be surprised by resistance to faith in God), but they show up without regard to clear reasonable thoughtful essay writing. Or narrative. Or even lecture notes.
The other day, I was preparing to talk about the letter with a group of learners and came up with the question, “What did the first draft of James look like?”
Was it an outline? Was it a collection of the first-century-equivalent of Post-it notes? Did James (or someone close to him) take the journal that captured his daily interactions as leader of the church in Jerusalem and highlight the bits that showed up over and over?
I work hard to make sense of things by knowing their context. It’s a resistance to the tendency we have to know things by our context. We preach and teach for application: Here’s what that phrase means you should do right now. We offer comfort and counsel based on phrases without any regard to their context: Love one another means that you should let me do whatever I want.
But I can become so concerned with unpacking the context that I never apply what is meant to be applied.
I could, for example, in considering the “To the twelve tribes scattered abroad” of James 1, unpack the whole history of the scattering of the Jewish people through exiles, through military actions, through economic survival.
Or I could simply say that whatever this letter says, it’s written to people who have a common understanding of God and who are spread into cultures everywhere. Like us.