Letter writing, I fear, is getting to be something of a lost art. We hardly put pen to paper anymore, preferring the immediacy of email and text. And even that is made briefer by the proliferation of shortcut acronyms like the classic “LOL” (laughing out loud) and “ROTFL” (rolling on the floor laughing). The good news is that acronyms and emojis help us supply the emotions that we take for granted in face-to-face conversation. The bad news is that, as a culture, we may be losing our facility with written language.
Well, IMHO anyway. LOL. 😉
Usually, when we learn to write letters, we’re taught certain social conventions and niceties. We begin with “Dear so-and-so,” even if the person to whom we’re writing isn’t in the least bit dear to us. We end with “Sincerely” or “Yours truly,” even when the letter itself bends the truth. We do this because we’re supposed to. Hopefully, we mean what we’re saying, but even if we don’t, we do it anyway.
Most of the letters in the New Testament were written by the apostle Paul, and one gets the impression that he means every word he says. He also follows letter-writing conventions that are fairly consistent from one epistle to the next. He opens with a greeting in which he identifies himself and wishes the recipients well: “Grace to you and peace…” And he often ends by addressing an assortment of small details, passing along greetings from or to specific people, and a final benediction.
If we’re used to reading Paul, then the ending of the letter of James seems oddly abrupt:
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20, NRSVUE)
That’s it. Finis. The verses seem disconnected from what came before, and the ending reads as if something got left out. Maybe a page got lost between the desk and the envelope?
But even if the ending isn’t what we expect, it’s appropriate to James’ pastoral purpose. “Truth” is James’ word for the gospel, and echoes what he wrote near the beginning of the letter: God gave birth to us through the “word of truth” that we might be the “firstfruits” of the harvest (1:18). Continuing the agricultural metaphor, verse 21 adds that the “implanted word…has the power to save your souls.”
In other words, the language of the last two verses, with references to the truth of the gospel and saving souls, brings us back full circle to his opening themes. Note too that in between verses 18 and 21 are sandwiched two of the best known verses in all of James:
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. (1:19-20)
The evidence of the word of truth being firmly planted in us, the fruit of righteousness, is seen in how well we listen, how lovingly we speak, how well we manage our anger.
James thus ends the letter by reminding his readers that it’s all about the truth. And not just in the sense of an intellectual belief in a set of propositions, as in “faith without works” — it’s lived truth, embodied truth, the behavioral evidence of lives transformed by the gospel. People in the church had wandered from the truth in numerous ways, and James holds out the hand of fellowship, inviting them to come back. In fact, as we’ll see, he encourages the brothers and sisters to watch out for each other, to reach out in love to those who have strayed.
It’s a fitting conclusion to what is often a bracingly forthright letter. He doesn’t mince words in confronting error, but says everything in love.
I just wish he had closed with “Yours truly” — that is, in truth.