Seldom read, often misunderstood

Martin Luther described the Letter of James as “a letter of straw.” While he wanted it removed from the Canon of Scripture, his followers would not allow it. In practice most Protestants do not read it because it is seen as promoting “works” rather than salvation by faith alone.

Scholars often thought of it as a response to St. Paul, especially his letters to Galatians and Romans. Current scholarship favors the idea that the Letter of James is older than Paul’s writing. It represents a closer connection to the Jesus tradition, reflecting a use of his teachings in a very familiar manner.

The letter is more a treatise than a letter. The only element of a letter is the greeting to the church spread through the world. Catholics will call this an encyclical. The style is like Wisdom literature from the Old Testament. James, believed to be the Brother of the Lord, uses this for a prophetic exhortation to be totally faithful to God.

The idea he uses is being of one mind. A person who is of two minds is placing the concerns of the world on a par with the concerns of God. Like the Old Testament prophets, he calls this adultery because it means you are being unfaithful. He gets right to the point when he says “let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.”

For James, faith without works is empty. If you have confessed faith in God, then your actions in everything should reflect that faith. We recognize the idea that actions speak louder than words. He illustrates that with his admonition about the power of the tongue. With our tongue we profess our faith but often with that same tongue utter profanities and untruths. The power of our prayers is diminished by our two-mindedness.

James warns us about being attached to things of this world. Envy is a deadly sin that does not know what is truly good for us. Consider Eve who is tempted to desire “the knowledge of good and evil.” She was better off with what God gave her, the knowledge of good. The serpent led her into a two-mindedness that distracted her from what God told her.

Read the Letter of James and listen to the prophetic voice speak to your heart and mind. Do not be two-minded but remain faithful totally to faith in God.​

Father Patrick Toner is pastor at Saint Joseph Catholic Church, 140 West Ave., Plain City. He can be reached at or 614-873-8850.