When Less is More
Lutherans have historically celebrated St. James the Apostle on July 25th. The St. James we celebrate today is not him. This James was head of the Jerusalem church, brother of Jesus and not the one martyred in Acts 12. He is sometimes identified with the one Mark calls James the Less, and sometimes less is more.
Being the brother of Jesus seems a lot more. Think of it. This James came from the same womb as Jesus did. This James is half-brother of God. This James grew up with Jesus. Jesus was his older brother. He played tag, hide and seek, and threw rocks in the water with Jesus. When Joseph started teaching Jesus the carpentry trade, James cried because he was too little.
Sometimes less is more and sometimes less is way too much. As an adult James the Less wasn't a believer. John 7:5 tells us flatly, "Not even His brothers were believing in Him." They thought He was off His rocker. In Mark 3 Jesus' mother and brothers came "to take custody" of Jesus "for they were saying, He has lost His senses.'" James isn't at the cross as his brother is crucified for crimes He didn't commit, so Jesus has no family member to commend the care of His mother too.
James the Less was not even the least of Jesus' followers. He was more of an unbeliever. He was done with a living Jesus and now with a dead Jesus, but the risen Jesus wasn't done with Him. We read in I Cor. 15 that the risen Jesus specially went to get both Peter and James. It says He appeared to Peter, then the 12, after that He appeared to more than 500 at one time, then He appeared to James. After the Ascension, we find James in the upper room with the church. Acts 1:14 says, "These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers." In Galatians 1:19 Paul says he went up to the church in Jerusalem and didn't see anyone but "James, the Lord's brother." In 2:9 Paul refers to him as a pillar of the church and in the first reading you heard James as the presiding officer of the Jerusalem council say, "It is my judgment"
However, more than all this, more than James the Less being a half-brother of Jesus, is that Jesus has a human brother. This points to the reality and the totality of the incarnation. If you did a DNA test on them, it would show they are related. Jesus really was, in the words of Hebrews, made like us in all ways except sin. Because Jesus has a brother that other fact of Hebrews is driven home: We have a high priest able to sympathize with our weaknesses; we have One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are. The only difference is He didn't sin. Brothers fight, squabble, and plot pranks. Jesus didn't sin in any of this but He knew the full-blown temptation of it all.
The question that hangs over James the Less, and could possibly be why he hasn't been on our Church Calendar, is James the Less more legalistic? You've read his Epistle; you've thought that too, admit it. Paul is the one who emphasizes saved by grace through faith, James is the one who so emphasizes that faith apart from works is dead that it is heard as works are needed to make faith saving. The case convicting James the Less of legalism is thought to be more convincing because of the Galatian incident. That's where Paul had to rebuke Peter for compromising the Gospel, and he says Peter's sin was touched off by the "coming of certain men from James." However, James the Less gives more details in Acts 15:24, "We have heard that some from us to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed youunsettling your souls."
The controversy was about whether non-Jews also had to keep the laws given to the Jews to be saved or was faith in Christ enough? James after listening to both sides decides the question based on grace. He says that no stumbling blocks are to be put before the Gentiles coming to the faith, but for the sake of their weaker Jewish-Christian brothers they should regard some specific Jewish laws food polluted by idols, by improper killing, or by blood the same way they regarded laws against immorality. Now you can't think this was burdensome to the Gentiles because they didn't. When they got the letter from James the Less they were more jubilant. Acts 15:31 says, "When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its comfort."
It's the same with James' Epistle. In his opening sentence, he states his purpose. That the dispersed people of God literally "rejoice." If you don't come away from James with "pure joy" as the second sentence says reread it. You're missing something.
Likewise, there is more to James the Less than apparent legalism. Historically, he was called the Bulwark of the People, their protector and defender. How? 4th century church historian Eusebius refers to a 2nd century account of James telling how, "He was in the habit of entering alone into the temple and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel" (II, XXIII,6). Church history gave him the nickname "Camel Knees."
When it comes to James the Less, he's neither more nor less in accordance with Jesus's words that it's enough for a slave to be like His Lord. And that's how James describes himself. Though half-brother of God, James says he's literally a slave' of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." How different the church today would look if we all had this view of following Jesus. Instead of picking and choosing where we would like to "serve," we would realize that "slaves" don't pick and choose but work wherever their Lord places them.
That's an aside. I want to talk more about James the Less. Do you know what a big deal it is for a sibling to consider himself a slave or even a servant of his brother? If not, you either haven't any siblings or haven't raised kids. "You're not the boss of me," is spit with such venom, you'd think it would poison the other. "I'm not your slave," is rejected with even more acrimony. How does one raised in the same home as Jesus, who was a steadfast unbeliever in the face of miracles, Gospel preaching, and sacrificial dying go from less of a brother to more of a slave?
The same way any of us go from unbelief to belief. By grace. Christ lived the perfect life you cannot and died the damned death you have nightmares and even day terrors about. He rose from the dead and appeared to James. Jesus appeared to James no more or less than He has appeared to you. He has preached to you the same as He preached to James, "My brother all your sins, all your unbelief, all your disowning of Me, are all forgiven. I can't remember them anymore, and you are to forget them." Mercy shown to one who knows he deserves judgement has a life-changing effect. It drove James the Less more and more to church to pray, to beg on behalf of others for their forgiveness.
Of course, the Devil absolutely hates that. Remember how the Devil took Jesus to the top of the temple and dared Him to jump if He was the Son of God since the angels were assigned to protect Him? James was taken to this same place by the fifth son of the High Priest Annas, the man who orchestrated the betrayal, conviction, and crucifixion of Jesus (Ibid, 21). He had James put on the pinnacle of the temple to denounce Jesus. Instead James confessed that Jesus sits in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven (Ibid. 13). This was less than the Jews wanted, and so they gave James more. They threw him off the temple. He doesn't die, so they stone him, and here is where James the Less became much, much more.
Here is where James the Less becomes more of a lesson for today and less of a figure of the past. We are to respond to James' preaching from the temple the way the crowd did below. Many said, "'Hosanna to the Son of David." And that's how we do respond in the Communion liturgy. We cry "hosanna, hosanna" which means "O save now" and we refer as James did to the One who comes in the name of the Lord to save us.
That sort of faith changes you. After he was pushed off the temple and they were stoning him James the Less said more than Jesus was the Christ, "He turned and knelt down and said, I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do'" (Ibid. 16). It is enough that James was like, neither more nor less than his half-brother, in his prayers for those persecuting him. This is the most important lesson to take away from the life of James the Less.
And you ought not to think this is some obscure tale of church history. Granted Eusebius is writing 300 years after James, but he is quoting a man who lived only a 100 years after James. Granted they are both Christians, but we have the non-Christian Josephus, a contemporary of James, recognized by secular scholars as a first-person historian of Jesus' times. He refers to James "the brother of Jesus who was called Christ" and how he was stoned at the plotting of the Jews (Antiquities, XX, 9, 1).
James the Less through whom your Lord speaks was a historical person who went from unbelief to belief, from leaving his half-brother to die alone to believing his risen half-brother was the Lord who forgave Him, from living in unbelief to dying in faith with the Gospel on his lips. If Jesus could have that much mercy on James the Less, He can and does have even more for you. For James' life teaches us that where sins are more, grace is not less but more. And that grace works far more than faith. It works joy.
When James says, "Consider it pure joy when you face trials," that's not commanding you to do something. It indicates what you actually do. Literally, "You consider it pure joy when you face trails." Yes, God saving you for Christ's sake from your sins, from your devils, and from an evil death enables you to consider it literally all joy' when you literally fall into' various trials. How can this be? Ask James the Less when you get to heaven. He can tell you more. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Our Lord, Martyr (20161023)