James here begins this passage with a warning about our speech, and about anger. “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” In having declared us as the first fruits of his new creation through baptism; he goes on to explain what he means by this. And notice for a moment the descriptive words he uses in this passage. Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Quick to hear, to listen attentively to what is said and pay attention to all that is going on. Slow to speak; not silent, mind you, but slow, discerning. All too often, we observe something being said or done and react impulsively, lost in our passions. And while there are certain things that we should speak out against, that speech must always be well considered, never impulsive. And lastly, slow to anger. We must constantly fight against this impulse to merely react to a given situation. The wrath of man is unjust, proceeding from uncontrolled passions, and never produces the righteousness of God.
And then James goes on to admonish us to be “doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving ourselves.” This is such an important statement. In Isaiah, we read the word of the Lord, “This people approach me with their mouth, and with their lips they honor me, but their heart remains far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13 LXX), a statement which Jesus quotes later (see Matthew 15:8). Further, in the parable of the two sons, Jesus teaches us of two sons who are told by their father to go and work in his vineyard. The first son says no, but then goes and does the work anyway. The second son agrees, only to not go. And Jesus asks which of the two did what the father asked, and the answer of course is the first. This was to teach the Pharisees that they were doing everything in word that the Father had commanded them, but not in action, because it is not the declaration of obedience which equaled true obedience, but the actual obedience itself; the actual living of the commandments.
See, when we know the word of God, and we know his commandments, but we do not allow those words to change our lives, those commandments to guide our actions, we become the second son in that parable. We become those who draw near to God and honor him with our lips, but keep our hearts far from him. We become the son who doesn’t go to work in the vineyards, even though we say “yes, you are my Lord.” To which he responds, “Why do you say to me Lord, Lord, and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). And James warns us that when we do that, we deceive ourselves. We are self-proclaimed Christians, in name only, rather than intentional Christians, in word, deed, and thought. He describes it as though a man looks in a mirror and sees his true self, only to walk away with a distorted image in his mind of what he looked like. Rather than remembering the true image that he saw, he remembers only what he chooses to remember.
This kind of cuts to the heart of the matter. We are magnificent at deceiving ourselves. And we are even more gifted at justifying those deceptions. We constantly convince ourselves, whether out of pride or sheer foolishness, that we are better than we truly are. I’ve often heard it said that the reason the monastics are so humble is that, since they are removed from the world, rather than comparing themselves to other sinners, they can only compare themselves to God. We, on the other hand, tend to compare ourselves to the world, which is full of sinners. And we usually choose someone far worse than ourselves to compare ourselves to, thereby feeding our own self-righteousness. We do our Bible studies, attend Church, and in comparing ourselves to others, tend to feel as though we are truly pious; especially compared to so-and-so who constantly jokes that the church would catch on fire if they entered.
Forgive this digressions for a moment, but it is fully relevant. I remember hearing one day a Protestant Pastor who told a story about his daughter. He said that he told her to clean her room. A day later, the room was not clean. So, he asked her about it, and she responded that no, she hadn’t cleaned it, but she had thought a lot about it. She had some friends come over and they did a study about what it would take to clean it. She contemplated what it would look like if she had done it. She even learned how to say it in Greek. But, she didn’t actually clean it. Yes, this was hyperbole (I hope), but it drives home a very serious point. We would never accept this sort of behavior from our children, yet we expect our heavenly Father to be content with it. He has told us many things to do, what he expects from us, and yet, rather than doing them, we expect him to be content with us studying them, memorizing them, learning his commands in Greek, Russian, Hebrew and every other language; but not actually doing them.
“Lay aside wickedness,” James tells us. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, his religion is useless” he warns. “What proceeds from the mouth flows from the heart, (Matthew 15:18), thus our speech will ultimately reveal our love, our faith. Pure and undefiled religion, James tells us, is to care for those in need, to be the grace of God manifest in the flesh for those who most need the grace of God, those who are lost in the world. And also, to keep ourselves unstained, uncorrupted, by the world. Not to be separated from the world, but rather to not allow the precepts of the world into our hearts. Jesus himself spent a large portion of time with sinners, with harlots, drunkards, tax collectors. But, in so doing, he never once allowed himself to be corrupted by those sinful passions. He never partook of those sins, but he also never once offered harsh words of judgment on those who were tethered to the bonds of sin. Rather, he loved them and offered them the grace to become freed of their bondage, freed from the power of sin.
And he calls each of us to do the same. To visit the patients in their illness and offer them the medicine to heal their infirmity. But not in hateful words. He calls us to love the loveless, to care for those who most need care. To be the love of Christ manifest for all the world to see. Mother Teresa once said that “if you judge someone, you have no time to love them.” And I love that saying. We are called to help those who need help, to visit those who are most in need, and to show them the love of Christ that they may never have been exposed to.
To merely profess Christ as God is never enough. In fact, James teaches us here that so doing is merely deceiving ourselves. If that profession of faith doesn’t radically alter the way we live our lives, the things we do, our priorities, then it is merely saying, “yes father, I’ll go and do the work that you require,” and then not going. We must instead allow our faith to be living, actively seeking to do the work that God has called each of us to do. Our lives must be worthy to bear the name of Christ. Otherwise, we are merely deceiving ourselves.
Christ is in our midst.