Scot McKnight begins his commentary with these words: “In teaching the letter of James, one should walk to the front of the room and write these words in big letters on the chalkboard: Read James! Under that the person needs to write: First, read James in light of James!” (1). What McKnight means is that discussion of the letter of James has been dominated by its relation to Paul. McKnight says that the letter of James should be read and appreciated for its own sake. McKnight’s love for the letter of James is obvious and it gives life and vitality to his commentary.
While I agree that James should be read and appreciated for its own sake, the relation between James and Paul on the doctrine of justification is still an extremely important issue. For a thorough discussion of the relation between James and Paul on justification, see the recent senior thesis at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary by Nathaniel Walther, “Does James Disagree with Paul on Justification?”(http://essays.wls.wels.net/handle/123456789/51).
McKnight believes that James was writing to people who were poor and being economically oppressed. It does indeed seem that a good number of James’ addressees were very poor and oppressed. In 5:4, James says, “Look, the wages you failed to pay your workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you!” Here James is likely addressing rich unbelievers who refused to pay the poor Christians their wages. But McKnight takes this insight a little too far. It causes him to interpret a few passages too narrowly. For example, when James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of various kinds” (1:2), McKnight interprets those trials as economic trials. McKnight says: “This commentary will propose that 1:2-27 is a single unit addressed to a specific audience: the poor messianic community that is being oppressed by persons in positions of power” (68). He adds:
“Furthermore, if one scans James one finds that the kind of persecution he has in mind in this letter has to do with economic injustice and oppression. It is unwise to narrow words when such narrowing is not shaped by contextual evidence, but it is also unwise to broaden terms when the texts do not permit that. In ‘trials of any kind’ one might think that James has any and everything in mind, but the text is not this general.” (75-76)
McKnight does not give enough weight to “of various kinds.” James wants to include other trials besides economic oppression.
Another example of interpreting a passage too narrowly occurs in McKnight’s comments on 1:19-20. When James says that “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires” (1:19-20), McKnight comments: “James worries that the messianic community is being tempted to use physical violence and verbal abuse against the rich to establish justice” (138). While this may have been one application of what James says, I still think that James meant his commands in a more general way.
On the other hand, I do appreciate McKnight’s emphasis that the Christians were facing gritty, real-life poverty and oppression. James’ advice to them is to endure and to “be patient until the coming of the Lord” (5:7).
A few times James mentions “murder.” In 2:11 James says, “If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder you have become a lawbreaker.” In 4:2 James says, “You desire but do not have, so you kill.” McKnight leans toward interpreting “murder” in these verses as literal murder: “If one factors into the word ‘murder’ James 1:19-21; 4:1-2; and especially 5:6, one could infer that James has in mind actual murders and violence occurring in the [Christian] community on the part of some hot-headed people who are seeking to establish justice through violence” (217). I agree that 5:6 (“You have condemned and murdered the innocent one”) leans in the direction of physical harm. By withholding the wages of poor workers who needed to be paid in order to buy food, the rich landowners were putting their lives in jeopardy. But the rich landowners of 5:1-6 are probably not members of the Christian community. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that some of James’ addressees would contemplate actual murder. But I still think that if actual murder were going on in James’ congregations, he would have spent more than a couple of verses addressing it. When James says “You desire but do not have, so you kill” he likely uses “kill” in the same sense as 1 John 3:15, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” This makes sense in light of the fact that in 3:1-4:1 James is addressing quarreling in the Christian community.
Moving to the discussion on faith and works, James says in 2:22 that Abraham’s faith “was made complete by what he did.” I appreciated McKnight’s comment here: “Faith finds its intended shape when it is working; the idea is something being brought to its full realization, its divinely intended design and form” (252). One is reminded of Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Of course, this verse comes right after Ephesians 2:8-9, which says that we are saved by grace and not by works.
McKnight points out similarities between the letter of James, the Magnificat of Mary, and the teachings of Jesus (62). Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:20,24). James says, “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail for the misery that is coming upon you” ( 5:1). James also says, “Believers in humble circumstances should take pride in the high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation – since they will pass away like a wild flower” (1:9-10). Mary said, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). This is intriguing because Mary, James, and Jesus were all in the same household. It should also be said that neither James nor Mary nor Jesus were against rich people. Rather, they counseled rich people to find their true treasure in Christ Jesus and to use their wealth to share with those in need.
In summary, I didn’t always agree with McKnight’s exegesis of individual passages, but this commentary stimulated my thinking and helped me to grow in love and appreciation for the letter of the James.
Scot McKnight (PhD, University of Nottingham) is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary. He is author of The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others and The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited.