James Guides us to
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father
is perfect. –Matthew 5:48
Patrick J. Hartin proposes that the point of James is to instruct
the community to strive for a spirituality of perfection. For
modern audiences, both the words spirituality and perfection
need explaining. It is clear that James is talking about action,
not some private community of prayer. Indeed Hartin would identify
the central message of James to be in 2:18: I by my works
will show you my faith (Hartin 94).
James is calling us to spiritual perfection. According to Hartin
spirituality is faith: not just the believing part of faith, but
also the living out of those beliefs. James is teaching us that
works are the method for perfecting belief.
Perfection is a difficult word. In today’s world
we think of it as beyond improvement or without fault.
Nobody’s perfect is our excuse for mistakes, but
is also a basic concept of our culture. Not only is it impossible
to be perfect, it’s not a good idea. But this is
not the first century concept of perfect. In Hebrew thought
the world is used for the animals selected for sacrifice—they
are without blemish. Basically, a perfect goat or lamb
is completely goat-like, or lamb-like.
People can also be perfect, both Abraham and Noah are
identified as such. Yet their stories do not hide their idiosyncrasies,
or even what we would call imperfections. What Abraham and Noah
have is complete devotion to God, complete righteousness, a mature
faith. Matthew 19:21 suggests that the rich young man, a devout
follower of the law, must sell his possessions to be perfect.
This is similar to James’ concept of perfection: a single-minded
focus to God’s way, a turning away from the world’s
way, and thus, giving up of the world’s riches. Perfection
then is complete and wholehearted devotion to God, lived out in
Hartin suggests that James is instructing us in how to be perfect.
Perfection, for James, starts with faith in the one God. His monotheism
is absolute, and he presents this image of unity as essential
for Christian living. God is our model. Give up double-mindedness
and the ways of the world; keep an unwavering faith in God’s
way. And then, to complete, or to perfect that faith,
we are to live it out—in our works. We are offered the example
of Abraham, whose faith was brought to completion by the works
(James 2:22) that he did.
And so our faith should be demonstrated by our actions. We find
perfection to the extent that we live the law. We are complete
when we live with integrity, we are whole when we show concern
for the poor, and we find perfection in a life of authentic prayer.
A spirituality of perfection is about living out our faith fully,
with single-minded attention. Here is Hartin’s outline of
how James would teach us to be perfect:
- Perfection through enduring trials (James 1:2-4, 12-15; 5:7-11)
- Wisdom as Horizon for Perfection (James 1:5-8; 1:17; 3:13-18;
- Perfection and the Law (James 1:25; 2:8-12; 4:11-12)
- Faith perfected through works (James 2:22)
When read as a guide to the perfect spirituality, James is calling
us to a new ideal today. The text demands unwavering faith, but
also action on every part of that faith. Perfection is a word
we are afraid of, but one that James argues we must grasp fully
so that we might become mature, complete, and yes, perfect Christians.
Patrick J. Hartin, A Spirituality of Perfection: Faith in Action
in the Letter of James (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press,