The Pope: James the Less

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Beside the figure of James “the Greater,” son of Zebedee, of whom we spoke last Wednesday, another James appears in the Gospel, who is called “the Less.” He also forms part of the list of Twelve Apostles chosen personally by Jesus, and is always specified as “son of Alphaeus” (cf. Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 5; Acts 1:13).

He has often been identified with another James, called “the Younger” (cf. Mark 15:40), son of a Mary (cf. ibid.), who could be Mary of Clopas present, according to the Fourth Gospel, at the foot of the cross together with the Mother of Jesus (cf. John 19:25). He was also from Nazareth and probably a relative of Jesus (cf. Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3), who, after the Semitic manner, was called “brother” (cf. Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19).

Of this last James, the book of Acts underlines the pre-eminent role played in the Church of Jerusalem. In the apostolic council held there shortly after the death of James the Greater, he affirmed together with the others that the pagans could be received in the Church without first having to undergo circumcision (cf. Acts 15:13). St. Paul, who attributes to him a specific apparition of the Risen One (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:7), on the occasion of his trip to Jerusalem names him directly before Cephas-Peter, describing him as a “column” of the Church together with him (cf. Galatians 2:9).

Afterward, the Judeo-Christians considered him their main point of reference. To him in fact is attributed the Letter that bears the name James and is included in the New Testament canon. He does not present himself as the “Lord’s brother,” but as “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).

There is a debate among scholars over the identification of these two personages of the same name, James son of Alphaeus and James “brother of the Lord.” The evangelical traditions have not preserved for us an account of one or the other in reference to the period of the earthly life of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles, instead, show us that a “James” carried out a very important role within the early Church, as we already mentioned, after the resurrection of Jesus, (cf. Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18).

The most prominent action he accomplished was his intervention on the question of the difficult relationship between Christians of Jewish origin and those of pagan origin. In this he contributed, together with Peter, to surmount, or better, to integrate the original Jewish dimension of Christianity with the need not to impose on converted pagans the obligation to be subjected to all the norms of the law of Moses.

The book of Acts has preserved for us the compromise solution proposed precisely by James and accepted by all the apostles present, according to whom the pagans who had believed in Jesus Christ should only be requested to abstain from the idolatrous custom of eating the flesh of animals offered in sacrifice to the gods, and from the “immodesty,” a term that probably alluded to marital unions without consent. In practice, it was a question of adhering to only a few prohibitions, held rather important by the Mosaic legislation.

In this way, two significant and complementary results were obtained, both still valid: On one hand, the unbreakable relationship is recognized that links Christianity to the Jewish religion as its perennially living and valid matrix; on the other, Christians of pagan origin are allowed to preserve their own sociological identity, which they would have lost if they had been constrained to observe the so-called Mosaic ceremonial precepts: These now were no longer to be considered obligatory for converted pagans. In essence, a reciprocal praxis of esteem and respect was being initiated, which, notwithstanding subsequent unfortunate misunderstandings, sought by its nature to safeguard all that was characteristic of each of the two sides.

The most ancient information on the death of this James is given to us by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In his Jewish Antiquities (20, 201f), written in Rome toward the end of the first century, he tells us that James’ end was decided with the illegitimate initiative of the High Priest Ananus, son of the Annas attested in the Gospels, who took advantage of the interval between the deposition of one Roman Procurator (Festus) and the advent of his successor (Albinius) to decree his stoning in the year 62.

To the name of this James, in addition to the apocryphal proto-Gospel of James, which exalts the holiness and virginity of Mary the Mother of Jesus, is particularly linked the Letter that bears his name. It occupies the first place in the canon of the New Testament after the so-called Catholic Letters, addressed, that is, not to one particular Church — such as Rome, Ephesus, etc. — but to many Churches. It is a rather important writing, which insists much on the need not to reduce one’s faith to a pure verbal or abstract declaration, but to express it concretely in good works. Among other things, he invites us to constancy in joyfully accepted trials and to trusting prayer to obtain from God the gift of wisdom, thanks to which we succeed in understanding that the true values of life are not in transitory riches, but rather in being able to share one’s food with the poor and needy (cf. James 1:27).

Thus the Letter of St. James shows us a very concrete and practical Christianity. Faith must be carried out in life, above all in love of neighbor and particularly in commitment to the poor. It is with this background that the famous phrase must be read: “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). At times this statement of James has been contrasted to Paul’s affirmations, according to whom we are rendered just by God not in virtue of our works, but thanks to our faith (cf. Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28).

However, the two phrases, seemingly contradictory in their different perspectives, in reality, if well interpreted, complement one another. St. Paul is opposed to man’s pride who thinks he has no need of the love of God which anticipates us; he is opposed to the pride of self-justification without the grace simply given and not merited. St. James speaks instead of works as the normal fruit of faith: “The sound tree bears good fruit,” says the Lord (Matthew 7:17). And St. James repeats it and says it to us.

Finally, the Letter of James exhorts us to abandon ourselves into God’s hands in everything we do, always pronouncing the words: “If the Lord wills” (James 4:15). Thus he teaches us not to presume to plan our lives in an autonomous and selfish way, but to make room for the inscrutable will of God, who knows the true good for us. In this way, St. James is always a timely teacher of life for each one of us.

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~ by Rob on June 29, 2006.

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