Saint James The Apostle


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(July 25) 

Grant, O merciful God, that as thine Holy Apostle Saint James, leaving his father…
For the Epistle
Acts 11:27-12:3a
Matthew 20:20-28

Saint James the Apostle or “The Greater”, not to be confused with James the son of Alphaeus (cf Saint Philip and Saint James’s Day), nor with James “The brother of the Lord”, was probably the elder brother of John and son of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40). Called with his brother from their family fishing boat, (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:19; Luke 5:1-11) and confirmed in Apostleship (Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13), he became one of the select group of four (with Peter, John and Andrew) and more often three (with Peter and John) who acted as Jesus’ confidants. He was present at the revival of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:28) and was close to Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37; Mark 14:33). He is not mentioned in John; some say this is accounted for by the humility of his Evangelist brother. The brothers were apparently fiery, which led to their nickname “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), exemplified by their castigation of a rival (Luke 9:49) and by their calling down fire on Samaritans (Luke 9:49-54).

In today’s Gospel James’ mother, Salome, asks that the brothers should flank Christ in heaven; this is put into their own mouths in Mark (10:35-45). On the surface this is a preposterous request for, as Jesus notes, the mother and brothers do not really know what they are asking. Yet they surely have a case: the family have made great sacrifices in following Jesus as at least three of them have left home; the brothers are, after Peter, Jesus’ leading lieutenants (although where they propose to seat Peter in heaven is an interesting question); and at the time of the question they are no doubt convinced of their own future loyalty. As matters turned out, James was the first Apostle to be martyred, by order of Herod Agrippa “with the sword” in 44 AD (Acts 12:1-2), having apparently been the first Bishop of Jerusalem ([passage=Galatians 1:10; Galatians 2:9). The account, so to speak, had been squared.

The question of the Zebedee family prompts us to ask what we are entitled to expect. On this point Jesus is clear in dealing with the incident; he says that those who are considered least on earth will be greatest in heaven and that service is the means of salvation. On other occasions he makes the point even more graphically: the rich will find it much more difficult to gain entry to heaven than the poor (Matthew 19:24); and, much worse, there is more than a hint that the virtuous will find entry more difficult than the sinful (Luke 5:31-32; 18:24). This is a particularly uncomfortable prognosis for those of us who are, in spite of our protestations, rich compared with our predecessors and those who live in the developing world; it is also a warning to those of us who feel spiritually comfortable, set in our ways, strict in our observance and busy with church administration. What is it all for if we are to be balked at the last?

The first part of the answer is that how rich we are lies in our own hands. There is a strong argument for being prudential, for taking proper care of those for whom we are responsible, but that does not mean that we are entitled to build up wealth for the sole purpose of passing it on to our successors who might build further; the national aversion to inheritance tax is salutary. Further, the fact that the poor give a larger percentage of their income than the rich both to charity in general and the Church in particular, ought to prompt a much deeper self examination.

The second part of the answer is that in trying to understand apparent sinfulness, we are apt to judge people on their conduct, on outcome. This kind of judgment is, technically, a prejudice because it is made on the basis of ignorance; we do not know the trials God asks each of us to face, the resources each of us is granted and the motivation for the course of action we take. What Jesus is saying is that the obvious sinner—the stereotypical extortionist of prostitute—is much more likely to be conscious of falling short than the person who is subtle and self-deceptive. This is not simply an individual problem as our society is much harsher on poor people who commit “blue collar” crime than rich “white collar” criminals. Worse still, perhaps, most of us are almost oblivious of the power we exercise individually and collectively and equally oblivious of the powerlessness of the poor and oppressed.

All of us need periods of reflection to put ourselves into perspective and an increasing number of us are using our increasing affluence to enjoy religious tourism in such places as Compostela. It does not matter that there is no evidence that James ever went there; what seems to count is the accumulation of piety in a confined space, the thought that so many others have made pilgrimages to worship God and examine themselves. Unlike James, we are only leaving our jobs to follow Jesus for a few days but that at least should help us to throw off the complacency that wealth and power almost inevitably bring. Hardly any of us are likely to be called upon to make the sacrifices which James made; but the se shell should remind us that each of us has some sacrifice to make.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Given that they made sacrifices for Jesus that most of us would not make, how unreasonable was the request of the Zebedees to flank Jesus in heaven?
  2. How can we work out what we should give to the poor?
  3. What do you understand by Jesus’ statement that sinners will find an easy passage to heaven?
  4. In view of its pilgrimage status, does it matter that it is highly unlikely that James ever travelled to Spain?
  5. Explore the concept of pilgrimage.

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