Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Beside the figure of James “the Greater,” son of Zebedee, whom we talked about last Wednesday, another James appears in the Gospels, who is called “the Less.” He also forms part of the list of the Twelve Apostles chosen personally by Jesus, and is always specified as “the son of Alphaeus” (see Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).

He has often been identified with another James, called “the Younger” (see Mark 15:40), son of a Mary (see ibid.), who could be the Mary of Clopas who was present, according to the Fourth Gospel, at the foot of the cross together with the Mother of Jesus (see John 19:25). He too was from Nazareth and was probably a relative of Jesus (see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3), and, following Semitic custom, was called his “brother” (see Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19).

Of this last James, the book of Acts underlines the pre-eminent role he played in the Church of Jerusalem. In the apostolic council held there after the death of James the Greater, he affirmed together with the others that the pagans could be received into the Church without first having to undergo circumcision (see Acts 15:13). St. Paul, who attributes to him a specific apparition of the Risen One (see 1 Corinthians 15:7), on the occasion of his journey to Jerusalem actually mentions him before Cephas-Peter, calling him a “column” of the Church the same as Peter (see Galatians 2:9).
Afterward, the Judeo-Christians considered him their main point of reference. To him in fact is attributed the Letter that bears the name James and is included in the New Testament canon. He does not present himself in it as “a brother of the Lord,” but as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).

There is a debate among scholars over the identification of these two personages of the same name, James the son of Alphaeus and James “the brother of the Lord.” The Gospel traditions have not preserved for us any story about either one during Jesus’ life on earth. The Acts of the Apostles, instead, show us that a “James” carried out a very important role within the early Church, as we already mentioned, after the resurrection of Jesus (see Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18).

The most prominent action he accomplished was his intervention on the question of the difficult relationship between Christians of Jewish origin and those of pagan origin. In this he contributed, together with Peter, to surmounting, or better, to integrating the original Jewish dimension of Christianity with the need not to impose on converted pagans the obligation to be subjected to all the norms of the Law of Moses.
The book of Acts has preserved for us the compromise solution proposed precisely by James and accepted by all the apostles present, according to which the pagans who had believed in Jesus Christ should only be asked to abstain from the idolatrous custom of eating the flesh of animals offered in sacrifice to the gods, and from “sexual immorality,” a term that probably alluded to disallowed marital unions. In practice, it was a question of adhering to only a few prohibitions ― ones considered very important ― of the Mosaic legislation.

In this way, two significant and complementary results were obtained, both still valid: On the one hand, it recognized the unbreakable relationship that links Christianity to the Jewish religion as its perennially living and valid matrix; on the other, it allowed Christians of pagan origin to keep their own sociological identity, which they would have lost if they were obliged to observe the so-called ceremonial precepts of the Mosaic Law: From now on, these were no longer to be considered obligatory for converted pagans. In essence, it initiated a praxis of reciprocal esteem and respect that, despite subsequent regrettable misunderstandings, sought by its nature to safeguard all that was characteristic of each of the two sides.

The most ancient information on the death of this James is given to us by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In his Jewish Antiquities (20, 201f), written in Rome toward the end of the first century, he tells us that James’ end was decided with an illegal initiative by the High Priest Ananus, son of the Annas mentioned in the Gospels, who took advantage of the interval between the deposition of one Roman procurator (Festus) and the arrival of his successor (Albinus) to decree his stoning in the year 62.

To the name of this James, besides the apocryphal Proto-Gospel of James, which exalts the holiness and virginity of Mary the Mother of Jesus, is particularly linked the Letter that bears his name. In the canon of the New Testament it occupies the first place among the so-called catholic letters, addressed, that is, not to one particular church ― such as Rome, Ephesus, etc. ― but to many churches. It is a rather important writing, which insists a lot on the need not to reduce one’s faith to a mere verbal or abstract declaration, but to express it concretely in good works. Among other things, he invites us to constancy amid trials which we should accept joyfully and to trusting prayer to obtain from God the gift of wisdom, thanks to which we reach the understanding that the true values of life are not to be found in transitory riches, but rather in being able to share one’s goods with the poor and the needy (see James 1:27).

Thus the Letter of St. James shows us a very concrete and practical Christianity. Faith must be carried out in life, above all in love of neighbor and particularly in commitment to the poor. It is against this background that the famous phrase must be read: “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). At times this statement of James has been contrasted with Paul’s affirmations, according to whom we are justified by God not in virtue of our works, but thanks to our faith (see Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28).

The two phrases, however, seemingly contradictory in their different perspectives, in reality, if well interpreted, complement one another. St. Paul opposes the pride of man who thinks he has no need of the love of God, which goes before us; he opposes the pride of self-justification without grace as a sheer and undeserved gift. St. James speaks rather of works as the normal fruit of faith: “The sound tree bears good fruit,” says the Lord (Matthew 7:17). And St. James repeats it and says it to us.

Finally, the Letter of James exhorts us to abandon ourselves into God’s hands in everything we do, always pronouncing the words: “If the Lord wills it” (James 4:15). He teaches us not to presume to plan our lives in an autonomous and selfish way, but to make room for the inscrutable will of God, who knows the true good for us. So, St. James is always a timely teacher of life for each one of us.

(Register translation)