This letter, which was accepted as canonical from the second century onward, is attributed to James, the son of Cleophas and of Mary, the Blessed Virgin’s sister or cousin. To distinguish him from the other James, the son of Zebedee (cf. Matt. 10:2-4), this James is called “the less” and, also, “the brother (= cousin) of the Lord” (Matt. 13:55).
From the Acts we know that he enjoyed great authority in the church of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-19). Paul describes him as one of the pillars of the Church (Gal. 2:9) and gives him a prominent place among those to whom our Lord appeared after his Resurrection.
James the apostle was, then, bishop of Jerusalem until his death in the year 62. He wrote his letter around the year 60. In it he shows himself to be steeped in the Old Testament and in the teachings of Jesus deriving from the Sermon on the Mount; and he passes these on in a document of high literary quality. As he himself says, he is writing to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion” (1:1), that is, to Christians of Jewish origin scattered throughout the Greco-Roman world.
He seeks to encourage them to bear persecution bravely and to practice the Christian virtues, especially patience in the face of trial (1:1-12) and control of the tongue (1:26; 3:1-18), for, as we well know, prudence in speech prevents many sins, whereas uncontrolled talk can lead to further lack of self-control and even to speaking badly about one’s neighbor behind his back, thereby committing sins against charity and even against justice.
James also gives great importance to care for the poor and humble, advising Christians not to give preference to people who are well-to-do or have a high social position–the reason being that Jesus Christ was no respecter of persons, and Christians should imitate him. Our Lord loves both poor and rich, educated and uneducated. He gave up his life for everyone. We should not grade people according to their position, much less according to external appearances (2:1ff), for a person’s quality is something that derives from his union with God: The more humble and understanding he is, the more honor he deserves.
The apostle energetically criticizes the rich (5:1ff), that is, ambitious and greedy people, who not only do not use their wealth properly but defraud laborers of their wages. They make wealth their main objective; they show no pity to their poor neighbor and do not even give him what justice demands. People like this seem to be very fortunate and privileged, but in God’s eyes and in their own conscience they are the ones to be pitied. James’ denunciation in 5:1ff is very direct and hard-hitting.
All this ties in with the central message of the letter: “Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17), for “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). Ever since the time of Luther, who discredited this letter because it did not fit in with his doctrine of faith without works, many people have tried to make out that it is at odds with Paul’s teaching “that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith” (Gal. 2:16, Rom. 3:20).
But the contradiction is only apparent, because from the context it is clear that James (who knew the letter to the Galatians) is talking about the “good works” which Jesus recommended in the Sermon on the Mount, for “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father” (Matt. 7:21). Paul, on the contrary, is referring to the Old Covenant, which he regarded as superseded, and he is taking issue with these Judaizers who made out that Christians had to keep the observances of the Mosaic law if they were to attain salvation.
Paul and James, then, are at one. Paul shows this when he speaks of “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6); and in Romans he is even more specific when he says that God “will render to every man according to his works” (Rom. 2:6).
Faith it is that brings us to know God and love him. Therefore, knowledge of the truth should never be a cerebral thing: It should be something practical, something that helps us love God and our neighbor as ourselves, which implies a daily effort to do God’s will and keep his commandments.
Finally, the letter contains a very interesting passage about the sacrament of the anointing of the sick (5:14-15), as indicated by the Council of Trent. James here promulgates a sacrament instituted by Jesus.
As Vatican II puts it, “By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the people of God by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], 11). Thus, as a result of anointing and prayer the sick person will be saved–and will be healed, if that is God’s will, and any sins he has committed will be forgiven.