The theme song from the original CSI always captured my attention. With poor hearing I expect it was a few years before I figured out exactly what all the words were…but the lead in; “Who are you…” always sucked me in—“Tell me, who you are…I really want to know”. Of course, almost predictably, they found out who the “who” was by end of show.
It’s not quite that easy with the Book of James.
When it comes to the “who” of a passage or section of scripture, “who” many times represents the idea of culture. If we don’t understand who was going to be receiving a particular letter or parable or prophecy, then it’s hard for us to build a bridge from then to now, from that culture to our culture.
As we must always remember, scripture was written for us not to us. In addition, a teaching of scripture can’t me now what it didn’t mean then.
Most NT letters are addressed to a specific person, people group, or “church”. Unfortunately the Epistle of James doesn’t appear to have a specific group in the crosshairs. Whoever is receiving this teaching is simply referred to as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” or the “twelve tribes dispersed abroad” (NASB). Now there are some things we might gather from that description:
- Date – this may tell us that those scattered aboard are Jewish Christians undergoing persecution either prior to (most likely) or after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. If James’ death occurred in the early 60s and this letter, in its present form, was circulating at that time then we have a good idea of date. It’s early. So early, in fact, it could be the first NT epistle written—even preceding Galatians. However, if the letter consists of sermon notes from James collected and put into a final form and circulated later, then the letter could be as late as the 80s or 90s.
- Who – even though it’s addressed to the “twelve tribes” and since the twelve tribes have not been in form or function for centuries, the reference may simply be a euphemism for Jewish believers dispersed throughout the region. Though not agreed to by all biblical scholars, this is the safest position and one that makes the most sense.
- Why – a bit of research shows us that over half of the 108 verses in the Book of James are in the imperative indicating James’ challenge and necessity of making changes in thought and behavior on the part of his audience. As James made clear, it’s nice to believe something, but unless that belief is expressed in moral and ethical behavior, it means nothing.
The idea of being “dispersed abroad” can help us try to wrap our arms around what circumstances Jewish believers found themselves in; places that were unfamiliar, cultures that were different and often threatening, and having found themselves in the minority with little or no influence on what goes on around them. (Is any of this sounding familiar to you?)
Now let’s try to put this in perspective. Those people “dispersed abroad” aren’t expats who have decided to move to another country in order to live a simpler and less cluttered life. This was not an early HGTV episode of “Caribbean Life”. These are people forced from their homes, their country, and their culture because they believe in the Messiah. Once in a strange land they find everything is different. They have no influence. They live in a culture that not even remotely resembles the one they fled. How they practice their faith is often ridiculed and attacked making them hesitant to express their faith and perhaps even waver in their faith. To survive they do what some of us might do or at least think about doing; go-along-to-get-along. Consequently their behavior has faced a head-on collision with what their faith should look like.
THAT is what James is addressing: belief that stands in stark contrast to behavior.
Take a minute and put some real-life flesh on these bones. You’re in a college classroom praying with friends. Before you know it, over one hundred of your friends in Christ are dead. “I could hear my friends still praying loudly and calling the name of Jesus Christ. Others were screaming…” said one survivor of the massacre in Kenya.
Right now, at least in the United States, there’s minimal exposure to that kind of violence. At least we like to think so. But what if?
Dial it down several notches. In your workplace it’s frowned upon to show or express any type of religious expression. How do you adjust your life to accommodate that environment? Or would you need to do anything different at all?
Both scenarios could be within the scope of those now living “dispersed abroad.” How did they cope? Apparently, James indicated many were discounting their faith having adopted the culture and lifestyle of those around them. They were whittling down their faith to mere “belief” without any expression of that belief in how they lived. In many respects it came down to choice.
We all have the right to choose. However, we don’t have the right to choose the consequences of our choices. At times those consequences are not pretty.
What choices are you making? Really….
Who are you?