The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on James 1:17-27

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 27, 2012

This post includes Fr. MacEvilly’s summary of all of chapter 1, followed by the notes on verses 17-27. Also, I’ve included his paraphrase (in purple) of the text he is commenting on.

A Summary of James Chapter 1~St. James commences this chapter, with the Apostolical salutation (Jam 1:1). He, next, exhorts the converted Jews, to whom this Epistle is directly addressed, to receive with joy, the different afflictions with which they were visited (Jam 1:2-3). He encourages them to practice the virtue of patience in all its perfection (Jam 1:4), and points out the source from which the true wisdom to understand, and practically conform to these admonitions, is to be derived, and the means of obtaining it, viz., Prayer; one of the conditions of which he mentions (Jam 1:4-8). He next alludes specially to the temptations peculiar to the rich and to the poor, and points out the remedies to be adopted both by one and the other (Jam 1:9-11). He points out the reward, in store for patient and persevering suffering (Jam 1:12).

He, next, obviates a difficulty which might arise from a false conception of his doctrine, owing to the different respects under which “temptations” might be considered. He says that, viewed in the light of seductions to sin, God is not their cause, but rather man’s own corrupt passions, which, when indulged, end in death (Jam 1:13-16).

Having pointed out the cause of moral evil, he next proceeds to point out the source of all good (Jam 1:17), and refers particularly to one great blessing for which we are indebted to God’s pure bounty, viz.—our regeneration and call to the faith (Jam 1:18).

He next delivers wholesome instructions regarding the government of the tongue(Jam 1:19-21), particularly in reference to religious teaching, and assails the fundamental error, then prevalent, probably deduced from a false conception of the words of St. Paul to the Romans, respecting the sufficiency of faith alone—an error, the refutation of which was one of the principal objects of this Epistle (Jam 1:22). He shows by an example the in-utility of faith without good works (Jam 1:23-24), and points  out certain works as necessary (Jam 1:26-27).

Jam 1:17  Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration.

Far from being the author of evil, it is from Him-the source of all light, physical or moral, natural or supernatural-every good and excellent gift, whether of nature or grace, alone proceeds, descending from his heavenly throne; and, unlike the great luminary, by which light is diffused throughout this earth, and in which there is daily change of position, in his apparent course through the heavens, and alternating vicissitudinous change of shadow, in his annual passage from tropic to tropic, in God there is no change in the distribution of his gifts; now dispensing good, again, evil. He, the ever unchangeable author of all good, dispenses to all who pray to him, with a liberal and plentiful hand.

Having shown the source and true cause of evil, St. James now points out the origin of all good. This comes “from above,” from heaven, where God in a special manner dwells, from whom “every best gift,” (in Greek, πασα δοσις αγαθη, every good giving), “and perfect gift” proceeds, by which it is implied, that not alone every good gift, but the very giving thereof, comes from God. Some interpreters say, that “every best gift,” and “perfect gift,” refer to the same thing, and are repeated for the sake of greater emphasis. Others make the former refer to all natural gifts, and the latter, which is called “perfect,” or superexcellent, to the supernatural gifts of grace. In this verse, two things are asserted, viz., that everything coming from God is good and excellent, which refutes the impious assertion of Simon Magus, afterwards more fully evolved by the Manichees; and secondly, that God alone is the source of all good, which refutes the errors of Pagan philosophy, afterwards revived by the Pelagians. “The father of lights ;” he is called ” father,” because the first source and author ” of lights,” which may regard the natural lights of the sun, moon, and stars. Light is emblematic of good, as darkness is, of evil, or “lights” may be understood of the intellectual, spiritual lights, whether of nature, grace, or glory; and from God, as their great source, proceed all the good gifts, represented by the light of the heavenly bodies, and the gifts of intellectual knowledge, whether natural or supernatural, actual or habitual. To him, then, we should have recourse, in order perfectly to understand these sublime paradoxes put forward by St. James, regarding the blessings of tribulation, and the joy they should cause in us (verses 2, 3), &c., and as father of all light and knowledge, he will enlighten our understanding to perceive them.

“With whom there is no change,” &c. The Apostle represents God, as a great luminous sun or body of light, diffusing his radiance and blessings throughout all creation; but, he removes from him all the imperfections of our present sun. He need not change from place to place, as our sun, who in his apparent daily motion, makes his place different at morning, noon, and night. To this, the word “change” most probably refers, which, in reference to God, means that there is no change in him, in reference to the distribution of his gifts, now dispensing good; again, evil. “Nor shadow of vicissitude,” which, in reference to the natural sun, refers to his annual motion, when he apparently moves towards the tropics, and from them; and according to his proximity or distance are the shadows cast by him, shortened or lengthened. It is to this alternate lengthening and lessening of the different shadows, that the Greek words for “shadow of alteration,” τροπης αποσκιασμα, refer. In reference to God, it means, that God is the constant and ever liberal source of good, not dealing it out at one time with a sparing, at another, with a liberal hand.

Jas 1:18  For of his own will hath he begotten us by the word of truth, that we might be some beginning of his creature.

And in confirmation and illustration of his being the unchangeable author of every good and perfect gift, we may adduce the fact, that of his free and gratuitous will, without any claim or title of justice on our part, he has given us a new spiritual birth in baptism, whereof faith, conceived from his revealed word of truth, is an indispensable condition; so that by our vocation to the faith we are become, in a certain sense, the choicest and first fruits of creation.

As an illustration of the good gifts conferred on us by God, the Apostle adduces that most excellent of good gifts, our spiritual regeneration in baptism. “Of his own will,” I.e., without any merits of ours; and hence, this was on his part a perfectly gratuitous gift. “Hath he begotten us,” which, most probably, refers to our spiritual birth in baptism, whereby a new spiritual existence was conferred on us. “By the word of truth,” may refer to the form of baptism; or, more probably, to the word of God, conceived through faith, which in adults is an indispensable condition, for receiving a new spiritual regeneration in baptism. The same idea is, very likely, conveyed here, as in Ephesians 5:26: “By the laver of water, in the word of life.” “That we might be some beginning,” in Greek, απαρχην, first fruits, “of his creature,” may refer to the members of the Church, who are selected by God, in preference to all other men, as his choice portion out of the rest of the mass of mankind. Others understand the words, of those who were first called to the Church and the faith; they were taken from the Jews, and they were the first fruits of such, as were, through their instrumentality in all future ages, to be associated to the Christian Church.

Jas 1:19  You know, my dearest brethren. And let every man be swift to hear, but slow to speak and slow to anger.

This is a gift of the excellence of which you are yourselves fully conscious, and for which, my dearet brethren, you must feel duly grateful. And let every person amongst you be ready and prepared to listen with docility to the word of truth already referred to, and be tardy in acting the part of teacher in giving utterance to it. And let each one control all feelings, and every expression of anger, into which those who have an inordinate pruriency for speaking and disputing with others are apt to fall.

“You know, my dearest,” &c. “You know;” in some Greek copies, it is ωστε
wherefore; in the Codex Vaticanus, ιστε, “you know.”

“And let every man be swift to hear, &c.” St. James now proceeds to deliver wholesome instructions regarding the proper government of the tongue, and the repressing of all feelings of anger. It is commonly supposed by Commentators, that St. James here refers to the abuse of the gift of tongues, accorded to many in the infancy of the Church, to which reference is made (1 Cor 14). The Jewish converts had an inordinate wish, after their conversion, to display the same power of speaking, which they exercised in the synagogue, to the confusion and disorder of the Christian assemblies. St. James cautions them against this abuse. “And slow to anger,” which a spirit of disputation is apt to engender. No doubt, the admonition of St. James here applies to Christians at all times, and recommends a due regard to silence on all occasions, together with a proper regulation of the tongue, and a restraint on the impulse of anger. The admonition conveyed in this verse, together with that subjoined in Jam 1:22, forms a theme whereon St. James dilates, up to chapter Jam 4:12, with the exception of a brief digression, at Jam 2:1-13.

Jas 1:20  For the anger of man worketh not the justice of God.

And first, regarding anger. The man who acts under the influence of anger, far from performing works consistent with real justice, by which we are justified before God, will, on the contrary, perform bad works, by which true justice is lost.

Inverting the order of treating the admonitions of the preceding verse, he first refers to anger. In the words of this verse more is conveyed than is expressed; by it is meant, that not only an angry man does not perform good works whereby “the justice of God,” i.e., true justice, is acquired and preserved, but that he performs wicked, evil works.

Jas 1:21  Wherefore, casting away all uncleanness and abundance of naughtiness, with meekness receive the ingrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

Wherefore, in order to live up to the new spiritual birth you have received (verse 18), and more effectually to repress anger, laying aside all uncelanness and defilement of sin, all impure and unclean affections, which defile the soul, but particularly the redundant affections of malevolence and malice, in the spirit of meekness, receive and foster the doctrines of truth already implanted among you, which alone can save you.

He now recommends them to live up to their new spiritual existence (verse 18); and in order thereto, they should avoid evil, by laying aside their vicious affections; and do good, by receiving the word of God with meekness, &c. (verse 21). “All uncleanness.” The Greek word, ρυπαριαν, literally regards the filth adhering to the body. Hence, some understand it of the sordid vice of avarice; others, of impurity. It more probably refers to sinfulness of all kinds, whereby the soul is defiled. “And abundance of malice.” In this is specified the viciousness in general, referred to in the preceding words. It probably regards feelings of malevolence towards our neighbour. This is a source of anger. In the word “abundance,” is conveyed an idea borrowed from agriculture. The husbandman carefully prunes away all superfluous and redundant weeds, whereby the earth is exhausted, and the good seed choked up; so they, too, should carefufly cut away all the noxious affections, of which human nature, in its present fallen state, is so prolific; which, like tares, choke and prevent the growth of the good seed of God’s word and grace in their hearts. “With meekness, receive the ingrafted word.” In the place of vindictive, revengeful desires, they should substitute a spirit of meekness, and in this spirit receive, or rather foster, the doctrines of truth, which, to distinguish them from those truths known by the light of reason, are termed “ingrafted.” In these latter words the Apostle inculcates the admonition given in the first part of verse 19, “be swift to hear,” &c.

Jas 1:22  But be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

But you should guard against contenting yourselves with merely receiving and hearing those doctrines of truth, without rediicing them to practice by good works, deluding yourself by false and sophistical reasonings on this most important subject.

The Apostle here enters on one of the principal subjects of this Epistle—viz., the refutation of the erroneous doctrine of the sufficiency of faith alone, a doctrine broached, even at this early period. “Deceiving yourselves.” The Greek word for “deceiving,” παραλογιζομενοι, means, adopting sophistical reasoning. The sophism by which the heretics, in the days of St James, as well as in modern times, deceive themselves, is founded on the difference of meaning between the “works, of the law,” without which St. Paul says (Romans 3), we are justified by faith, and the “works ” performed by grace and faith, which Catholics require for justification.

Jas 1:23  For if a man be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he shall be compared to a man beholding his own countenance in a glass.
Jas 1:24  For he beheld himself and went his way and presently forgot what manner of man he was.

(23) For the man that contents himself with merely hearing the word of God, without reducing to practice the precepts which it inculcates, may be justly likened to a person who views in a looking-glass his natural countenance.
(24) And who, after a merely cursory and careless view, goes his way, presently forgets what manner of man he was—what were the faults and blemishes he beheld—and pays no attention to wiping them off, thus deriving no profit from looking into the glass, and unprofitably squandering his time.

From this example, and from its applications (Jam 1:25), the necessity of good works is clearly inferred. Such a man, carelessly and hurriedly looking into the mirror (εσοπτρω), sees his countenance, but afterwards forgets to wipe off and remove the blemishes which the looking into the mirror may have disclosed to him. To such a person, the looking into the glass proves to be quite useless, of no service whatever; so it is with the man, who merely hears the word of God, without reducing it to practice. In the application of this comparison, the mirror is the word of God, which represents to us what we are, and what we ought to be. “The countenance of a man” is the state of his conscience; the defects in his visage, are the sins whereby the purity of his soul is sullied; to see one’s self in the mirror is to hear the word of God, and remark the difference there is between what we are and what we ought to be, according to the gospel; to forget the state of one’s countenance, is to forget the truths preached; and to neglect removing the blemishes, is to neglect wiping off by tears of repentance, the uncleanness caused by sin, in the soul. How many are there to whom the example of the mirror is perfectly applicable.

Jas 1:25  But he that hath looked into the perfect law of liberty and hath continued therein, not becoming a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work: this man shall be blessed in his deed.

Whereas, on the other hand, the man who shall have diligently and carefully looked into the law of the gospel, which, unlike the Old Law, perfects and justifies us, making us free sons of God, exempting us from servitude and from the yoke, “which neither we nor our fathers could bear” and shall continue meditating and reflecting on it, and, instead of hearing its precepts, merely to forget them again, shall faithfully reduce them to practice by good works; such a man shall be happy in following a course of this kind; that is, he shall receive the happiness of justification here, and of glory hereafter.

This is an application by contraries of the example already adduced- “hath looked into.” The Greek word, παρακυψας, means to look into narrowly and closely as is done by those who stoop down to obtain a closer view. “The perfect law,” i.e., the gospel law, which, unlike the old, “that brought nothing to perfection.” (Heb 7:19), perfects us by grace and justification; “of liberty,” exempting us from servitude and the fear of punishment, so that we can set all the menaces of the law at defiance, it makes us free sons of God, and not slaves of the synagogue; “and hath continued therein,” by making it the subject of meditation, day and night; “this man will be blessed, &c.” Hence, according to St. James, it is only on condition of not forgetting the precepts of the law, and of performing the works which it enjoins, a man will obtain the happiness of justice here and of glory hereafter. Can a stronger argument be adduced in proof of the necessity of good works for justification and eternal life?

Jas 1:26  And if any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.

Now, among the works necessary for this happiness is the government of the tongue; for, if any person looks upon himself as really religious, without bridling his tongue, thus deceiving his own heart, while persuading himself that piety is compatible with giving free reins to his tongue, such a man’s Christian faith and profession is vain, and of no use use to him.

“If any man think himself,” &c. In some Greek copies, if any man (among you) think, &c.; “among you,’” is omitted in the Codex Vaticanus. The Apostle, among the works required, reckons governing the tongue, and restraining it from detraction, rash judgments, self-praise, and other faults, to which persons, who have the character of piety, are liable. “Deceiving his own heart,” while endeavouring to reconcile two things perfectly incompatible, viz.: true religion and the unrestrained indulgence in the vices of the tongue—”this man’s religion,” i.e., his religious practices and profession, are of no avail to him. St. James, then, refers to those vices of the tongue, such as boastful, slanderous, polluting language, which are mortal and deadly sins. Is there any vice more common, than this shocking vice of the tongue, and withal, so little attended to, or scrupled?

Jas 1:27  Religion clean and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their tribulation and to keep one’s self unspotted from this world.

The religion which is pure and free from spot, not merely in the sight of men, who often imagine religion and piety to exist where it does not; but in the sight of God and our heavenly Father, dictates these acts of mercy; viz., to visit the widows and orphans, so as to relieve their wants and offer them consolation, and to preserve one’s self, as to body and soul, pure and immaculate from the vices of this wicked world.

Lest it might be imagined that the mere act of bridling the tongue, and not injuring our neighbour, would suffice; he now mentions some of the principal works in which pure religion is exercised. “Religion, clean,” in opposition to the vain and empty religion of the Jews, who regarded all its purity as consisting in certain ceremonies and legal purifications, “and undefiled,” in opposition to the impious and impure rites of the Pagans and Heretic —consists in “this,” or rather dictates the following acts; for, the following are the, actus eliciti, (as they are called) of the virtue of mercy, and only the, actus imperati, of religion, “to visit the fatherless,” &c., or, what comes to the same, to administer to their wants, and this is “pure religion,” since there can be no other than a pure motive in relieving such, there being no hope of temporal retribution in the case, “and to keep one’s self unspotted from this world,” i.e., from the vices of this wicked Avorld, principally luxury, avarice, and ambition; for, the great leading maxims of this world are, the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, &c.; the preserving of one’s self from these is “undefiled religion.” This proves the necessity of good works, since it is in the performance of them, “clean,” or pure religion consists.

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