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Church as the People of God

 

Lectio 4- James 1:19-27

by Fr Giuseppe Fabbrini

Introduction

The Church as the ‘People of God’
The People is exhorted to acknowledge that their source of inspiration is the Word of God, which not only must be listened to and welcomed with good will, but must also be put into practice in the lives of the individual members of the People and in the life of the whole People. Faith must be ‘incarnated’, St James warns us.

Lectio

James 1:19-27
19 Remember this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to listen but slow to speak and slow to human anger;
20 God’s saving justice is never served by human anger;
21 so do away with all impurities and remnants of evil. Humbly welcome the Word which has been planted in you and can save your souls.
22 But you must do what the Word tells you and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves.
23 Anyone who listens to the Word and takes no action is like someone who looks at his own features in a mirror and,
24 once he has seen what he looks like, goes off and immediately forgets it.
25 But anyone who looks steadily at the perfect law of freedom and keeps to it – not listening and forgetting, but putting it into practice – will be blessed in every undertaking.
26 Nobody who fails to keep a tight rein on the tongue can claim to be religious; this is mere self-deception; that person’s religion is worthless.
27 Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.

Meditatio

19 Remember this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to listen but slow to speak and slow to human anger…
“Remember this” is a ‘catchword’ that St James makes use of in order to catch our attention. He warns us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to human anger. Listening-speaking-anger: here, the presence of anger signals that we must be quick to listen and slow to speak not only with regard to the Word of God but also to our neighbour’s words (which could anger us). If we ponder the matter well before speaking, we will avoid anger and grumbles.
Here St James is urging us to love our neighbour and to avoid sinning with our tongue.
The People of God must listen to the Word of God, speaking to us “as friends” (DV, 2); “faith comes from hearing,” St Paul writes (Rm 10:17).

20 God’s saving justice is never served by human anger…
This is the reason of the previous warning. Anger would make us pass judgement on our neighbour, a hasty and unjust judgement. Thus, we would not be conducive to God’s saving justice.
In the Old Testament the People fulfils God’s justice when they are faithful to the terms of the Covenant; justice is practiced by obeying to God’s commandments. He who gets angered transgresses the commandment to love one’s neighbour, thus destroying the order willed by God.

21 …so do away with all impurities and remnants of evil. Humbly welcome the Word which has been planted in you and can save your souls.
A new exhortation: to do away with all filth and evil excess, exactly because anger hinders God’s justice. Here St James quotes the baptismal rite: “to do away with all filth” meant to free oneself from pagan habits. Freed from those burdens, man can welcome the Word sowed by Baptism.
The sown Word must be fruitful; its fruit is the salvation of the soul (this comes from the Old Testament anthropology, where ‘soul’ was equal to ‘life’, or ‘the man in his wholeness’), that is, the salvation of man from the divine judgement and eternal life.
The Word then ‘moves’ man and enables him to put into practice God’s will, so that he can reach salvation. The People of God is daily nourished by the Word: they proclaim it; they welcome its gift and give witness to it, by putting it into practice in their daily lives and actions.

22 But you must do what the Word tells you and not just listen to it and deceive yourselves.
To truly accept the Word, not only have we to listen to it, but also to put it into practice concretely in our everyday experiences.
Then, the three things we have to do are: to listen to the Word, to accept it in all faith, to ‘translate’ it into concrete actions.

23 Anyone who listens to the Word and takes no action is like someone who looks at his own features in a mirror and,
24 once he has seen what he looks like, goes off and immediately forgets it.
25 But anyone who looks steadily at the perfect law of freedom and keeps to it – not listening and forgetting, but putting it into practice – will be blessed in every undertaking.

Now St James, by making a comparison, exposes those who just listen to the Word: they are like someone who looks at his face in a mirror, the face that he has from birth, but once he has gone back to his daily occupations, he cannot remember what he looks like. This comparison has to do with one’s self-consciousness, and also with superficiality, frivolity. The ‘face’ looked at in a mirror stands for one’s self, one’s features, character, qualities and so on. Those who just listen to the Word, then go off and immediately forget it, do not bring anything with them, they are empty.
On the contrary, those who fix their gaze on the Word (that St James deems “the perfect Law” and “[the law] of freedom”, referring respectively to the Old and New Testament) and do not go off immediately forgetting it, but keep themselves faithful to it, persevere and are fully motivated to put it into practice. By putting the Word into practice, by taking action, man can find his true happiness, ie salvation. Christianity is not delusive. But if one just listens to the Word and does not put it into practice, he will be definitely deluded.
Among all the peoples of the earth, the People of God is the one called to put the Word into practice, being inspired by it. They can look at themselves in the ‘mirror of the Word’, acknowledging their history, origin and face; and not forgetting them.
When they go back to their daily occupations, they will be supported and guided by the Word they have listened to.

26 Nobody who fails to keep a tight rein on the tongue can claim to be religious; this is mere self-deception; that person’s religion is worthless.
Now St James makes an example: a man who claims to be religious but fails to keep a tight rein on his tongue. In fact, he is deceiving himself; his religiosity is not true religion. This passage seems to refer to someone in St James’ community in particular; and to struggles and disagreements about religion within the community. Those who are not able to keep a tight rein on the tongue are impious: they deceive themselves and their hearts; they show an empty, worthless, dead religiosity.
In the People of God there are too many ‘factions’, originating from thinking that one’s own ideas, charisms, practices are better than the rest. In fact, groups, movements, associations, parishes, religious orders and congregations are all fruits of the creative work of the Holy Spirit. If they become someone’s ‘proprietas’ (‘properties’), they are divisive. While the Holy Spirit fulfils in the People of God its ‘catholicity’ (every good, everywhere, in the whole thing; creative unity in diversity).

27 Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.
An empty religion is opposed to true religion, “pure in the eyes of God our Father”. True, therefore “pure”, “unspoilt” (“immaculate”). In this context, the meaning is that, after hearing and listening to the Word (as opposed to the empty gossip of those who cannot keep a tight rein on their tongues), we have to ‘translate’ it into concrete works, those that the Word of God itself recommends: to come to the help of orphans and widows (who at the times did not have anybody to defend their rights and were at the mercy of their powerful and rich enemies). And to keep ourselves uncontaminated by the ‘world’ (here ‘world’ does not refer to creation, but to the ‘world’ that is a slave of lust and of riches), leading a sober life.

Conclusions

This passage from the Letter of St James shows the awareness that belonging to the People of God should not alienate us from reality. It is not an ideology but fullness of life. The People originates from the Word, it is guided and inspired by it. First, the Word must be heard and listened to; then, it must be put into practice. As a consequence, a Christian witness is born. The People’s meaning of life comes from the Word. The Word generates faith and provides motivations to and uplifts our everyday life.

Oratio

To live “in the world” but without being “of the world”. This is a sublime project we are called to fulfil all the time, both as individuals and as a People.
Lord, help us and Your holy People to stay down to earth. Only if we are ‘part of the soil’ we will be able to become leaven, raising the whole humankind towards You.
Only if we are “honest citizens” (St John Bosco) we will be able to be part of history and to be protagonists of history.
Let nothing, O Lord, rule over us or enslave us, so that we may experience here, down on earth, the Heavenly realities (from the Liturgy).
Makes us free from everything and from any kind of slavery. Do not let the joy deriving from the use of material things lead us into thinking that to possess is “good”, because it is useful. Everything is relative. And we are in relation with You.
We will be therefore “good Christians” (St John Bosco), true disciples, consecrated to Your Name, witnesses to charity, as we shall live in faith and hope. Please help us not to believe that we ‘own’ Your Word, but help us to welcome it always as a pure gift: only then, given that Your are sowing it Yourself in us, You will make it grow and bear fruit.

Contemplatio

The People of God I belong to is neither founded on laws nor on ideology, neither on statutes nor on constitutions, but on the Word that convokes, calls, exhorts, prompts us, and shows us the way, marking out our path.
It is also founded on my life, my will, my energy. And it is not ashamed of my vulnerability.
The People is not born as the company of the ‘holy’, but as the company of those who share a unique and personal relation with Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit lets unity come to the surface from diversity.
The Word is sown and makes us grow. We have to be mindful of ourselves (keeping a tight rein on our tongues; putting the Word into practice): the People of God lives thanks to the children’s trust and liberty.