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4th Sunday after Easter: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Our look into the first reading for Sunday’s Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo of the Roman Rite continues with the Epistle for the 4th Sunday after Easter which is from the Letter of the Apostle St. James. This is one of the “Catholic Epistles,” non-Pauline texts, along with 1 and 2 Peter – the second of which we’ve been occupied for the last few weeks – 1, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. They are “Catholic” because they were written to anyone reading them rather than to a specific community, such as Paul’s Letters to the people of Corinth. James starts in 1:1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion…”. The “dispersion” is also called the Diáspora, from the Greek διά (dia), “between, through, across” and the verb σπείρω (speirō), “I sow, I scatter.” Hence, διασπορά (diasporá) is “a scattering around.” Note the different syllabic emphasis between the Greek and how we say it when speaking English. The bottom line is that James was written for wide circulation anywhere Christians, Jewish Christians especially, might be.

Who was the author, James? We have two Apostles Jamses, the Greater and the Lesser, “Big” and “Little.” It is probable that James the Less was either short, or younger than the other Apostle James, or both. James the Greater was the brother of John, both being Sons of Zebedee. The author of James is James the Lesser. He was a son of Alphaeus and a relative of Christ. Matthew’s father was also named Alphaeus, so it is possible that Matthew and James the Less were brothers. He is called “brother of the Lord,” but “brother” can and does mean extended family, cousin in this case, his mother being not Mary, Mother of Jesus, but Mary wife of Clopas who was at the foot of the Cross with Mary, mother of Jesus (John 19:25). Clopas was, according to the ancient writer Hegesippus, the brother of Joseph and father of Simeon who became the second Bishop of Jerusalem. James the Less, however, was chosen to be the first Bishop of Jerusalem. It is said that he was very austere and prayed so much that his knees were like those of a camel. In 64 AD he was accused by the Pharisees, stoned, and when that didn’t do it, killed with fuller’s clubs. His relics are venerated in the Roman Basilica of the Twelve Apostles and his traditional calendar Feast, with St. Philip, is coming up on 11 May. His Novus Ordo Feast is 3 May, just as I write this.

One of the main points James will make in his letter is about the necessary coherence between belief, identity and action, outward behavior. Let’s see the reading, which you might read aloud:

[Dearly beloved:] Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave birth to us by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for human anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

As Peter stressed, there are ways to lose the perfect gift from above that Christ won for us. Do not forgive others and you will not be saved. Stick to wickedness and you will not be saved. Forgive and embrace the Word.

We can walk through this pericope, this cutting of Scripture for use in the Mass.

What first strikes us is that we have a description of gifts. In your handmissals or in what you hear read from the pulpit, you might hear “every good gift” or “best gift” (pasa dósis agathé) and then every “perfect gift” (pan téleion dórema) which is “from above.” We might take the good gifts (from above) to be the natural gifts of, first and foremost, our intellect and will, but also life itself, food, health, means of living in this worldly life, etc. Every perfect gift (from above) could be the gifts of grace, habitual and actual, and the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, along with the sacraments and the Church which are necessary for our eternal life. These gifts are from “the Father of lights,” which again might be distinguished as the lights made at the time of creation as well as the spiritual lights that come from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the illumination that comes from the Church. Christ is, of course, the “Light from Light” who enlightens and enlivens. As in the Prologue of John’s Gospel, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v. 4).

James goes on, “there is no variation or shadow due to change.” God is, of course, unchanging in His very nature. Were God to be variable, He wouldn’t be God. Also, this seems to reflect, to use a light image, John’s Prologue: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Shadow and change are juxtaposed to light and perfection.

This has implication for us, who are both His images and His members, Christians: “In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave birth to us by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” He “gave birth” to us through the “word of truth.” As earthly children resemble their parents, so spiritual children of the Father brought into sonship in Christ must resemble God. How can we be perfect and like God? By our also being “unchanging,” in the sense at least of persevering in prayer and good works, forgiving when wronged.

There follow some of the practical conclusions of this line of thought. James gives excellent advice about being, “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Such wisdom in so few words. In the confessional I have often remarked to penitents, and I apply this to myself, that we could avoid a lot of sins by keeping our mouths shut. We could avoid sins by not immediately assuming bad will or, even if something is done to us out of bad will, maintaining our God-given-from-above reason. We can also avoid provoking others to sin, which is a serious failure of charity on our part.

We might linger for a moment over that “anger” point. James wrote, “human anger” which in Greek is orgé andròs, the “anger of man.” Again a contrast with what is natural, merely, and what is more perfect, the way God can be angry and the sort of anger which Christians are to use, over and above merely human anger. Psalm 4:4 says: “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” In Ephesians 4:25-27:

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

Again, Ps 4:4, but together the time imagery of the bed, sunset, and the conclusion of a day, for the night and its darkness is when the Enemy of the soul can go to work. Note that Paul roots angry, acceptable anger, in truth, but truth in communion with each other, connectedness, which implies charity and the desire for the other’s good.

There is a phrase attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, namely, that “the virtue of hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage: anger with the way things are, and courage to change them for the better.” C. S. Lewis wisely noted that an anger that causes one a dark pleasure is false, as in “the fact that one feels entirely righteous oneself only when one is angry. Then the other person is pure black, and you are pure white.” This is not, of course, the path to truth or righteousness. Pope St. Gregory the Great said: “We must beware lest, when we use anger as an instrument of virtue, it overrule the mind, and go before it as its mistress, instead of following in reason’s train, ever ready, as its handmaid, to obey.”

We are called to use anger properly, at the right time, for the right reason, in the proper measure. To suppress being angry when one ought to be is also wrong. Such a challenge should leave us wary and humble and, certain, repentant about our past failings concerning expressions of anger and their fallout, including the provocation of others, not to conversion, but to sin.

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