The Wisdom of James: Hearing and Doing

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I am, and have long been, been a student of history. My father went back and forth in his library selection from fiction to nonfiction and usually the nonfiction was something biographical or historical, which makes sense given that he studied it in college. So, I found myself at first, reading histories of wars and the lives of generals and officers, as I emulated him. You know, exciting stuff for an elementary school boy. But I began over time to gravitate to the spaces between the wars, the spaces of time when there was peace and people went about life in a normal way. I read about inventors and their inventions, writers and books, musicians and their compositions. Eventually I went on to study religion and religious history and found there is as much intrigue in the church as outside of it. One such story of these intrigues has to do with the English King Henry II and Thomas Becket, once chancellor turned archbishop.

The story begins with Becket, born December 21, 1118 (almost my birthday). The son of a merchant who may once have been a low-ranking knight, Becket grew up in the London community known as Cheapside. Thomas began his education at Merton Abbey before studying in Paris. Following his education, he went to work as a secretary, first with Sir Richer de l’Aigle and then with his kinsman, Osbert Huitdeniers, who was the highest ranking judicial official in London. Around the year 1141, Thomas entered the service of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, and in that household, he won his master’s trust and confidence, eventually becoming the most trusted of all his clerks. Theobald recognized his abilities, used him in making delicate negotiations in business and law, and after allowing him to go for a year to study civil and canon law at Bologna and Auxerre, ordained him deacon in 1154. After having several positions conferred on him, Thomas was made the Archdeacon of Canterbury.

During this time, Henry II became the undisputed king of England, this following after King Stephen’s death. It was suggested that Thomas, with his skill and aptitude for business, law, and political dealings, become the chancellor. The two became close friends and confidants, some saying that, they had but one heart and one mind and they behaved like two schoolboys at play. Such was their relationship until the death of Archbishop Theobald. Henry II had it in mind to make the church and the state one by appointing Thomas as both archbishop and chancellor, thereby having someone who could be swayed in civil and ecclesiastical matters.

Thomas Becket was ordained a priest on June 2, 1162 and made Archbishop of Canterbury the following day. King Henry probably saw this as a watershed moment, church and state office combined into one, both under the control of his closest friend. But something happened to Thomas after we was made archbishop. He began to take the vows as a clergyman seriously and by the end of the year had rid himself of all the wealthy trappings of his office as chancellor and resigned the post.

Henry was hurt and infuriated. After everything he had done to elevate this simple merchant’s son from Cheapside to one the highest offices in the land, Thomas chose the church over the king. Back and forth the arguing and posturing and debate for the better part of seven years, most of it while Thomas was exiled in the protection of the King of France and the Pope. Eventually, Thomas returned to England, celebrated by his flock and his fellow clergymen. But not for long.

As Thomas returned, the King was more irritated than ever. Speaking to a group of knights whom the king held in confidence, he said something that they interpreted as an order to kill Thomas. One biographer claims the king said, will no one rid me of this troublesome priest? Some think it was something else, but the knights took it at face value and Thomas was killed at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral, leaving the faithful to morn him and eventually, the church to canonize him and make him a saint.[1]

T.S. Eliot wrote a version of these events into a play called, Murder in the Cathedral. In the play, the story is condensed to those few days before Thomas’ death. During this time, Thomas faces four tempters who offer him ways of dealing with the situation before the knights come to take his life. After the final tempter has gone, Thomas says,

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:

Temptation shall not come in this kind again.

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.[2]

Have you ever had this kind of temptation? Ever been in a position when it would have been easy to do something good but do it for the wrong reason? I think if we haven’t we can certainly think about it, certainly imagine situations where we could be tempted to do something good but do it because of some ulterior motive.

When I was reading our scripture passage the other day, a line that jumped out at me, be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.[3] In other words, Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear![4]  For St. Thomas Becket, he chose to not only be a hearer of what was right but a doer of it as well, choosing to be a loyal servant of the church over his friendship with the king.

James makes a point to talk about hearers and doers and to make a strong distinction between the two. A hearer is one who simply is aware of something from having heard it.[5] Right this moment you are hearers of this sermon, literally you are practicing being hearers as we speak. It requires nothing of you other than to be present and listen to what I am saying.

James apparently was writing to some who were hearers of the Word (the living truth of Jesus’ life and ministry) who had experienced this through the Holy Spirit. For us, the only way to truly hear and really understand is through the spirit. To be a true hearer, I believe one must have the Spirit of God as translator and teacher. The people James is addressing this to seem to have been those who could hear the Spirit but unfortunately, had deluded themselves into thinking that was enough, that nothing more was required of them beyond hearing and understanding.

From what I have researched, a doer is more than just someone who does things. If you look at the Greek word for doer, it means someone who brings something into existence or brings it to life.[6] In this case, someone who has heard the word (or the living truth as taught and lived by Jesus) and is now trying to bring that into being, bring it to life. It is the person that has, through the Holy Spirit, heard the teaching of Jesus and has seen the life of Jesus, and is now trying to emulate that life. It is more than just having the knowledge or wisdom of being a disciple; it is living into, embodying the life of Jesus to the point that Jesus can live through us to continue the ministry started in Galilee long ago.

This begs the question: are we hearers or doers? James talks about how people who are hearers only, are like those who walk past a mirror, see themselves, and then forget what they look like. In the first century, most people rarely saw a reflection of themselves, unless they happened to pass a piece of shiny metal or a pool of water. Even then, the reflection was a poor likeness. For James, hearers are those who see who they are but can’t keep the image in their mind because they walk away too quickly and forget. In the same way, those who hear the Word of God but fail to put it into practice are seeing the truth of the word as it is but simply walking away and forgetting about it.

This is not enough. We are called to doing, to embodying Jesus and his message in our time and place. We are called to be Jesus to one another and to those around us that we may not forget what it is to live out the life of Jesus and his message. We are called to being Jesus to a world that has gotten glimpses but is forgetting what they have seen. We are called to do, not just listen.

For Thomas Becket, being a doer was costly. It cost him a friendship with the king. It cost him power in the kingdom. And eventually, it cost him his life. Was it worth it? I think St. Thomas would say so. Because Thomas, as a doer, was emulating someone else. He was emulating Jesus and Jesus’ willingness to live into a life of truth and wholeness while sharing that with those around him. It is a willingness that all doers should strive for. The important question is: is it worth it for us to be doers, here and now and from now on?

One point: Hearing is not enough. We must bring to life what we know.


Arndt, William F., F. Wilbur Gingrich, F. W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Dibelius, Martin. A Commentary on the Epistle of James. Translated by Michael A. Williams. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Eliot, T.S. Murder in the Cathedral. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1935.

Hulme, William Edward. “Mind your tongue: reflections on Christian conversation.” Word & World 6, no. 3 (1986): 249-255.

Perkins, Pheme. First and Second Peter, James, and Jude: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Witherington III, Ben. Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James, and Jude. Downers Grove/Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Wright, N.T. The Early Christian Letters: James, Peter, John, and Judah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

[1] and

[2] (Eliot 1935, 44)

[3] James 1:22 (NRSV)

[4] James 1:22 (MSB)

[5] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 39)

[6] (Arndt, et al. 2000, 842) also

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