An Epistle of Straw?

Placing the letter of James in the company of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and 1 Peter, Martin Luther infamously said, “… St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the gospel about it.”

An epistle of straw!

It has nothing of the gospel about it.

Well of course. I mean what would these kinds of sentiments possibly have to do with the ‘gospel’?

“Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.”

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress ….”

“Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

“A harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.”

Yep, that’s a bunch of straw. Good for bedding the animals, but no sustenance in it. Maybe rip it up and line the hamster cage, but don’t feed it to the children.

Because there is “nothing of the gospel about it.”

You know, you got to wonder why Luther, and to be fair, much of church tradition had such a problem with James.

I mean, it was one of the very last of the writings to be accepted into the canon, and long before Luther’s dismissal of this letter it had been neglected and disparaged throughout church history.

For Luther it is probably clear. He had come to an understanding of the gospel as justification by faith and let that theological formulation function as the litmus test for the whole Bible. By those standards, James knows nothing of the gospel.

But I wonder if there is something else going on here.

Might it be that James is just too in your face?

Might it be that James is just so damn uncompromising that he makes it all too uncomfortable?

Might it be that an ‘established church’ that has made its peace with the empire simply cannot countenance such a radical call to discipleship?

Might it be that a church with the rich amongst its benefactors simply can’t afford an epistle with such a radical critique of the rich?

Might it be that a church preoccupied with orthodoxy and “correct” belief finds the call to be “doers of the word” disconcerting?

Might it be that James sounds too much like the Sermon on the Mount, and we never really liked that stuff much either?

Might it be that you just wouldn’t want to invite James to a party?

Well, that is exactly what we are going to do this summer in the Wine Before Breakfast community. Except that in the summer we morph Wine Before Breakfast into Wine Before Beer.

So we are inviting James to a little Wine Before Beer party.

We will allow James to have his say during our worship, and then we’ll and have a party.

Can you do that with James?
Can you party after attending to his radical call to discipleship?
Can there be celebration in the face of such an uncompromising Kingdom?

Or is James just such a killjoy that we’ll have to have a few drinks to get over his prophetic word before we’ll be able to have any fun together?

Well, remember that he begins the whole letter with joy.

James is proclaiming a revolution, and my hunch is that there is dancing in this revolution, good food and good drink … as long as there is no oppression.

We’ll keep our Empire Remixed friends posted on how it all plays out with James and beer this summer.

And if you are in Toronto, then check out the WBB Facebook page for dates of our services/parties.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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