Today’s reading is drawn from James 1:9-11, James 2, James 5, and James 1:27.
Since James has been primarily read from the point of view of the “faith and works dichotomy,” many readers fail to pay attention to a very important concern of the epistle—the relationship between the rich and the poor, and the book’s denunciation of the abuses of the economically powerful against the poor and powerless. In many ways, the book’s teaching concerning the preferential option for the poor (e.g., 1:9–11; 2:5), solidarity with the weak and the oppressed (1:27; 2:1–26) and condemnation of the luxurious life of rich oppressors (5:1–6) is silenced by a kind of reading that is not attentive to issues of justice.
James, regarded as a leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15), addresses the epistle to the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” This refers to the early Jewish believers pushed out of Judea because of persecution (cf. Acts 8). As scattered migrants or refugees their life was difficult. They were marginalized and hence could easily be subjected to many forms of discrimination by the economically and politically powerful. In a way, this epistle is like a letter of a Filipino pastor to Overseas Filipino Workers scattered around the globe and exposed to many forms of abuse. Judging from chapter 2, this discrimination was also happening inside the community of faith. Even in church services, the wealthy are given preference over the poor, even though the rich are the ones persecuting the community.
James offers the message that God has taken the side of the poor, choosing them to be his heirs. He says that God has already begun to judge their oppressors. Because of this, the poor are encouraged to be proud of their new status before God (1:9–11), to be actively patient in facing their trials and to be confident of the future (chap. 5). At the same time, the rich people are reminded to be humble (1:10–11), to apply the message of the word (2:8–9) to their lives, to avoid trusting in their riches and to be just in their treatment of their laborers (5:1–6).
James calls the believers toward a life of social justice, a radical life that is shaped not by the utilitarian and oppressing powers of the world but by the liberating gospel of Christ.
— Noli Mendoza, Philippines (Excerpted from the book introduction to James)