James 1:19-27English Standard Version
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
One of the targets the author is aiming at throughout his letter, is a lazy version of Paul’s teaching that God rescues us through our faith rather than keeping the Jewish Law. Perhaps in certain circles this had been degraded into a kind of permissiveness that made belief more important than goodness. James wants to insist on the necessity of “hearing and doing the word” which of course echoes Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the houses built on rock and sand.
But he starts by commending readiness to hear and slowness to speak, a traditional piece of wisdom, made lively by the beautiful comparison between the receptive mind and well-prepared soil in which the seed of goodness takes root and grows. This echoes Jesus’ parable of the sower: sustained growth in goodness through genuine listening to the word, is salvation.
But James wants to make sure that his audience understands the nature of true listening, because it is not a superficial grasp of religious teaching, but the “whole person, wholly attending” (DH Lawrence). This crucial distinction is communicated in a fine simile which is not easily understood:
The man who grasps the teaching as if it were a mere possession, sees himself as in a mirror with his new toy, thinks what a fine fellow he is and forgets what he really looks like; whereas the person who listens and acts, sees himself in the clear mirror of the law of freedom, acts in truth and goodness, and is blessed. This is a profound theology, which teaches that in the genuine believer, the true teaching takes the place of the deceptive self-image of the person, holding genuine goodness before her will and her desire, so that she may gradually become what she sees. This is similar to Jesus’ teaching that if the “eye is sound the whole body will be sound.”
Like Paul’s teaching about the power of faith, James’ teaching describes a process of transformation. They use different vocabularies but they are both pointing to a goodness that changes the person from the inside out, so that their outward actions flow from their true character.
James however wants to emphasise that goodness is inherently practical, like God’s goodness which the scriptures describe as especially directed to the dispossessed, the widow and the orphan. A genuinely religious person will hold to God’s way by personal commitement to the dispossessed, rejecting worldly standards of honour and success. This ideal of self-disipline and social generosity is one of the great gifts of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to humanity.