A: You told me several years ago that you wrote parts of the Letter of James yourself — specifically James 1:2-27, James 2:1-8, and James 3:1-18 — and that after your death your older brother James added the remaining verses to blunt the effect of your writings and make them more “pious.” Yesterday I was checking something in the Letter of James, and I couldn’t help smiling. What you wrote 2,000 years ago sounds an awful lot like what you said for the record last Wednesday. Do you mind if I put in a quote from James?

J: Knock yourself out.

A: Okay. Here’s the NRSV translation of James 2:1-8a, with a couple of changes in emphasis. Here goes:

“My brothers, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in God? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and becomes judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

J: You give them one little inviolable spiritual law to follow, and they argue with you until you’re blue in the face and dead in the ground. It’s 2,000 years since I said that, and a huge number of Christians still don’t get it — you can’t love your neighbour and keep your status addiction, too. You have to make a choice.

A: There are almost no Christians who believe you wrote these verses yourself. Few theologians pay attention to the Letter of James. It doesn’t have any real “Christology” in it. To them, it’s little more than a typical 1st century wisdom sermon. Martin Luther hated this letter because it seems to deny Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith.” Luther called it “an epistle of straw,” and would have had it removed from the Protestant canon if he could have.

J: There you go. More proof for the theory that Paul and I had very different things to say about God.

A: Tell me what you meant when you described the poor as “heirs of the kingdom.”

J: That goes to the heart of my teachings.

A: I know.

J (grinning): No point beating around the bush, eh?

A: Exactly my thought.

J: Well, I guess you could say that I was trying to be a good teacher. By that I mean I was doing my best to explain complex ideas in a useful, useable way. Good teaching often involves finding the right image, the right metaphor for the group you’re teaching. The right metaphor can open up doors in a student’s mind, help her find the connection between what she already knows and what she’s learning. You can try to invent new terms, new words for a complex idea. Scholars often do this. Or you can try to work with existing vocabulary and use it in new ways. I opted for the latter.

A: So you chose the word “kingdom” because of the symbolism attached to it at the time.

J: Well, here’s where it gets confusing. The word “kingdom” by itself was not the exact image I chose — not that word by itself, anyway. But, like all people, I was sometimes guilty of shortening things for the sake of convenience. The actual phrase I chose was “basileia ton ouranon” — Koine Greek for “kingdom of the heavens.” Eventually, when I was speaking or writing for my own community, I called it “the kingdom” for short. But by then it was understood what I meant.

A: Which was . . . ?

J: I was trying to express the idea that each individual person should think of themselves as a whole and complete entity, lacking nothing as far as God was concerned. A tiny kingdom of “selfhood” unto themselves. An inviolable kingdom. A worthy kingdom. A very small kingdom, to be sure, but one they had full rights over as its “sovereign.” It’s about boundary issues, really. Today’s teachers and psychologists use the phrase “boundary issues.” I used the phrase “kingdom of the heavens.” But it’s the same idea exactly. It’s the idea that your body and your mind and your heart belong to nobody but you. Therefore, it’s wrong to transgress those boundaries. It’s wrong for you to invade somebody else’s body, mind, and heart, just as it’s wrong for them to invade yours. It’s about human dignity, human worth. It’s about seeing each individual as, well, as . . .

A: As an individual?

J: Yes. It’s about seeing each individual as an individual, instead of seeing them as property or as a means to an end.

A: Status addicts. Psychopaths. Narcissists. People suffering from these disorders can’t see other people as they really are — as other people. They tend to see them as objects to be used.

J: That ideal — if you can call it that — was ingrained in the culture of my time. People were so used to hearing about “the chosen” and “the judged” in society that they weren’t questioning the wrongness of it. They had little mental framework, little understanding of the idea that slavery was a violation of the soul. Most of the people I worked with in my ministry felt like the proverbial dog who’s been kicked. The dog is at the bottom of a long list of people kicking each other according to rank. The dog has the least rank, so he gets kicked the hardest. That’s the mentality I was facing in Galilee.

A: You were facing an uphill battle trying to persuade your students that they were worthy of God’s love and forgiveness — just as worthy as the priests in Jerusalem.

J: It’s not easy to overcome the conditioning of a lifetime. They weren’t inclined to believe me. These were people of faith. They didn’t want to anger God. They wanted to show God their obedience and faith. They were suspicious of me for a long time.

A: What turned the tide?

J: In the end, it was about trust and compassion, I guess you could say. I stuck to my guns. I did what I said I would do. I wasn’t a hypocrite — that alone earned me a lot of trust. I treated people fairly and respectfully the way I thought God wanted me to. Stuff happened.

A: Stuff happened? Like what stuff? What happened?

J: Oh, you know. Healings. Changes. Stuff like that.

A: You mean like healing miracles? That kind of stuff?

J: Well, yes, if you want to get right down to it, I suppose you could describe it that way.

A: Healing miracles began to take place, and the people around you — the poor and disadvantaged of Galilee — began to notice.

J (nodding yes): [Nods without speaking]

A: Were you the source of the healing miracles? Did you yourself heal them?

J: No. Never. No human being has that kind of power, that kind of ability. Healing miracles, when they take place, come from God. Only from God and God’s healing angels. I was only a facilitator, if you will. A human being people could see and touch with their own senses. My job was to reassure them, comfort them, encourage them to trust. The actual healing was God’s work. And I said so. Loudly. As often as I could. I never claimed to be a chosen prophet, and I yelled at anybody who tried to call me the Messiah. I clearly understood that my role — my task as a human being who’d been given many advantages during my youth — was to help people feel okay about receiving God’s love and comfort and healing. If I was helpful in my role as a physician — suggesting teas and salves and other sorts of medical treatments — it was only because God was guiding me in my work. I listened carefully to what God’s healing angels were saying (that’s where it’s handy to be a practising mystic), and I did what they suggested to me. I wasn’t being “forced” to listen to my angels. I wanted to listen to my angels, and I wanted to trust their advice. That was my choice — my own free will. They’re damned smart, and they had some wonderful healing suggestions.

A: Can you give any examples of their advice?

J: Gosh. They had tons of medical insights. Things like, “Tell that woman she has to eat orange vegetables.” Of course, they knew — although I didn’t — that orange vegetables contain Vitamin A, important for normal vision. Two thousand years ago, that was a miracle. They warned me, as well, about the dangers of lead. Lead was used in those days in many practical ways because of its low melting point and malleability. “Stay away from food vessels or utensils made of lead or pewter,” they said. Good advice, that.

A: And pewtersmiths have stopped making pewter with lead.

“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mark 1: 40 – 45). Photo credit JAT 2016.

J: The most important thing my angels taught me, however, was to ignore the standard Temple teachings about illness and healing. To be honest, my angels had nothing nice to say about traditional purity laws. They told me it was okay — by that I mean medically safe — to ignore the “do not touch” laws about skin diseases, bodily fluids, and dietary restrictions. My angels said to me, “Touch, touch!” So I touched. I looked in people’s eyes when they were sick. I held their hands. I told them their angels were with them. I told them God was with them. Any physician worth his or her salt will know what this means to a frightened patient. The relationship between physician and patient is integral to the healing process.

A: So you took the healing process away from the designated Jerusalem priests and put it into the hands of God. You made the healing process both more scientific and more compassionate. Which somehow led to more miracles.

J (nodding yes): Um hum.

A: I can just imagine how furious the priests would have been that people were getting better from eating carrots instead of from giving sacrifices at the Temple.

J: The fact that I was descended from priests on my mother’s side didn’t help the situation any.

A: They must have been very upset when they started to hear rumours about your healing ministry — a son of priests performing unsanctioned healings outside the Temple precincts.

J: That would be an understatement.

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