Formations 09.02.2018: To the Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion

James 1:1-18

A postal worker delivers mail.

In the past week, my fiancée and I have spent more time than normal going through addresses. We’ve separated city, state, and zip codes from street addresses. When we saw unit numbers, we moved them to another column on the spreadsheet.

We noticed, though we likely already knew it, that it’s pretty easy to guess where these invitations will go. I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that addresses on otherwise unidentified state routes will more than likely take us out of the city. Meanwhile a numbered street with a separate apartment number is likely to take us into its heart. The better we know places, the closer we get.

I say all this because James begins with an address—“to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (v. 1).

This is an interesting address, one that might help us to read the letter more faithfully. Most simply, it affirms James’s sense that the church belongs to the larger Jewish community. But underneath lie dynamics of imperial domination and religious creativity.

The Dispersion, also known as the Diaspora, describes an experience in Judaism beginning with the Assyrian and Babylonian destructions of Judah and Israel. As people were separated from the Temple, they formed new institutions for faithful practice. Rabbis emerged as important leaders. Synagogues formed as places of worship. The Torah was canonized. After the exile ended, these dynamics continues as Israel worked to obey God amid Greek and Roman control.

As James addresses this letter to followers living amid these tensions, he addresses us too. In our free-church tradition, we confess that all churches are dispersed. No church can be established by the government. No church has authority over another.

But I suspect that we might also sense that some churches are more dispersed than others, that some churches are more established than others. I know I do. Reading James faithfully requires us to recognize these tensions.

It’s hard work. It demands close attention to our own congregations and to others. It means honesty when we might claim a false sense of persecution or hardship. It means humility to see that some brothers and sisters bear and resist persecution without our knowing.

James raises questions that might help us. Where are basic freedoms denied (1:25)? Where are widows and orphans (these days we might add families) distressed (1:27)? Where are the poor (2:2)? Where is justice denied (2:6)? Where are people murdered or made sick or overworked for greed (4:2)?

James, as Jesus’ brother, knew that God chooses certain addresses. Only there can we learn to be the dispersed church to which our tradition aspires.

Discussion

• What values, from the church and outside, do you struggle to hold together?
• How does your congregation relate to institutions of power? What challenges and opportunities come from these relationships?
• What believers in your community might you work with to better fulfill James’s vision of the church? What might these relationships require?

Reference Shelf

The Diaspora

For many Jews, matters such as Temple worship and the actions of Sanhedrin were but distant realities. The Exile had scattered Jews outside of Palestine. Those who returned to Palestine were a minority; most remained in their new homes. Eventually those Jews who lived outside of Palestine came to be known as Jews of the dispersion, or the diaspora. Such Jews struggled with maintaining their traditionally religion in the context of a foreign culture. Compromises were made at times, but the distinction between diaspora Jews and those in Palestine should not be overdrawn. To be sure, Jews in Egypt or in Rome, for example, took on a particular character. But communication between the Jews of Jerusalem and those of the diaspora served both as a unifying feature within Judaism as a whole and as a check on possible diaspora excesses. Furthermore, foreign influence was not limited to the diaspora; Greek influence in Palestine, which began in the Persian period and intensified after Alexander, had an impact on the development of Judaism in Palestine as well. Thus, Jews of the diaspora studied Torah, gathered together for synagogue worship, and even made pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In addition, since they could no longer read Hebrew, they produced the Greek translation of the scriptures known as the Septuagint (LXX).

Joseph L. Trafton, “Judaism,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 477–78.

Toward Solidarity

James’s concern is for the oppressed poor, the victims of an unjust world and of the faith community’s indifference; the letter repeatedly contrasts God’s estimate of the poor with the world’s devaluation of them. Since the church has adopted the world’s perverse perspective, the letter urges believers to embrace God’s valuation of the poor and to act with mercy towards the oppressed.

Though James (Gk. Iakōbos, lit. Jacob) was a common name among first-century Jews and Jewish-Christians, James is introduced without patronymic, epithet, or other qualifier; this James expected to be recognized immediately. Even if James, the half-brother of the Lord and leader of the Jerusalem church, was not the final author of this collection, he certainly remained the authority whose voice spoke for many early Jewish believers and who confronts us today with a somewhat different model of what it means to be Christian. The long English tradition of Anglicizing references to early Christians as Jameses rather than Jacobs has, intentionally or not, downplayed the Jewish roots of the church.

The author’s self-effacing designation is “a servant.” James may have wished to identify with the poor and marginalized in his audience. “Servant of God,” however, can be a prophetic title; so James may be cast as God’s champion on behalf of the poor and critic of their powerful, rich oppressors just as the earlier Hebrew prophets were. James stood in service
both to God and to “the Lord Jesus Christ” (one of only two unambiguous references to Jesus in the letter; cf. 2:1). Given the letter’s many links to the Gospel sayings traditions, James may have understood service to God precisely as that conduct demanded by Jesus teaching and by Jesus compassionate outreach to the downtrodden.

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 333–35.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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