James the Less
Acts 1: 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
There are some of the apostles of our Lord for whom we can write pretty full biographies. There are others who are so unknown that it is difficult to write a single paragraph, for the Gospels are not the stories of twelve men. They are the stories of the One Man, and the twelve are simply background figures. Sometimes, when one of the twelve pops into the foreground, we get a closer look at that disciple, but for the most part they stay in the shadows while the spot light is on Jesus.
When the book of the Acts of the Apostles is written some years later, the spot light is on the Westward expansion of the Gospel and traces the work of men like Peter and Paul in that extension of the church. When the other apostles are noted they are only background figures.
So when we look at the apostle called James we only get glimpses of a figure in the background, with dim exposure. He never steps into the foreground in the records we have. He is never recorded as asking a question, saying anything foolish, doing anything remarkable. We have no story of how he first came to be called, we do not know his occupation. Of all the apostles we know the least about him. Our information is almost microscopic.
But you know that modern technology is a rather clever thing. A photograph that is unclear, and contains some detail that is obscure, can be enlarged and clarified and computer enhanced until that bit of minutia can be clearly seen. Well our friend James, after a bit of detective work and a bit of deduction, can be brought into clearer focus.
Just the Facts Ma’am.
On an old police-detective series on television, Dragnet, one of the characters, Joe Friday, was well known for his phrase, “just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” What are the facts about James?
Well we know who his father was. He is called James, the Son of Alphaeus. He is called that because there is another apostle called James, the Son of Zebedee and the two James must be differentiated.
But that is interesting because one of the other disciples is also called the son of Alphaeus. St. Mark tells us that Matthew the tax collector was also known as Levi the Son of Alphaeus. (See Mark 2:14) This may indicate that Matthew and James were brothers. But whereas James and John the sons of Zebedee are perpetually identified as brothers who hang out together, if Matthew and James are brothers, there are no clues that made them look like they belonged together. That is worth further investigation!
We also know who his mother was. A very interesting woman. Her name is Mary. We find her at the empty tomb, along with Mary Magdalene and Salome. (Mark 16:1) We also find her at the cross three days earlier. (Mark 15:40) She is obviously a woman of some courage and compassion. But even more remarkable we find that she has been a follower of Jesus from the time he was ministering in Galilee. (Mark 15:41) This is what Saint Mark writes about these three women, “They used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” She is a disciple of Jesus in her own right and has committed herself to serving him. So if she is Matthew’s mother as well as the mother of James then she has made a wonderful contribution to the Kingdom of God.
But there is another fact we know about James. He too is given a nickname. For when you have two Simons, they must be nicknamed to keep them straight. So one Simon is called Simon Peter. The other is named Simon the Zealot. When you have two Judases one is called Iscariot and the other is called Judas Thaddeus. And so with two James you have James Boaneges (James the son of thunder) and James who is nicknamed in the older versions, “James the Less.”
Now the newer versions change the word “less” to “James the Younger.” But I think that is being too politically correct. Can I give you his name in Greek, as it is found in the writings of St. Mark? He is nicknamed “Jacobos O Mikros”.
Now to this day the word “micros” is quite understandable. We use it in words like microscope, microcosm, microbe, microcephalus, and so the list goes on. In our usage it means very, very small.
In English then his name would be translated, “James the little” or “James the less”. In a more colloquial vein it might have sounded like “Little Jimmy” or “Shorty”. James son of Zebedee is called James son of thunder. James son of Alphaeus is called “The Micro”. It is noteworthy that the word “micro” is used of another man in the New Testament. Luke (19:3) tells us that Zacchaeus was short (mikros) of stature. The same word is used of children, “Whoever offends one of these little ones, these “micro ones” (Matthew 18.) The same word is used in Mark 4:31 “The mustard seed is less than all the other seeds.” The word means small or short or little. The best guess is that James is a bit on the short side.
Those are the facts.
The Two Brothers
But let us go beyond the facts. Let us try a bit of deduction. I want to return to the matter of Matthew and James both being the sons of Alphaeus.
One tradition tells us that James belonged to the Zealots as did the man called Simon the Zealot. These men were super patriots of Israel. These were men who hated Roman domination, and were always looking to overthrow the foreign occupation force.
If this tradition is true, then we meet with one of the great hurts in the family of Alphaeus & Mary. They have two sons who are polar opposites. Matthew is a Tax Collector and James is a zealot. One cooperates with Rome and gets rich as one of their tax collectors, while the other brother works against Rome to bring about its down fall. One man is classed as a villain by the community, along with other shady professions such as prostitutes – immoral and indecent. Whereas the Zealots were the heroes of many who saw in these zealous men the hope of Israel. They were as difference and as opposed to each other as members of the French resistance and Nazi collaborators!
I can imagine the home life whenever these two brothers happened to visit their parents as the same time. There would be a clash of humongous proportions. It must have been an electric atmosphere filled with tension that cut be cut with a knife when they were in the same vicinity.
But something happened to this divided family. Perhaps the mother was first. Maybe she heard the words of the strange Galilean and found healing for her own bruised heart, and she told each of her sons, separately of course, about the man Jesus. Perhaps she brought her sons into his company and then followed Jesus, grateful for what he might do to get these two strong willed men on the same side.
Perhaps Matthew was the first to find a new future and left his job that had proven so distasteful to his family, and when Simon saw the transformation in his brother, came himself to investigate who Jesus was. And a mother is grateful for the reconciliation of her two sons.
It is interesting to note that Jesus paired up the disciples in two’s, and later would send them out two by two. James and John the two sons of Zebedee are paired for they are brothers in every sense of that word. But James the Short and Matthew the ex-publican are not paired up. They may have to learn how to be true brothers, and that may take time. Brotherhood is not forced upon them, but as they share life with Jesus, they find themselves more and more sharing life with each other. Jesus Christ is the great reconciler of broken relationships.
Unity in Diversity
Of course these two brothers are simply a microcosm of the entire twelve. Twelve men so different! How could they ever coexist? How could they work together when temperamentally they were so diverse? The answer is found in someone and something big enough to enable them to put their differences aside. Jesus, and their allegiance to Him, and to that which he had come to do, was big enough for them to let them submerge their differences. And as time went on and the grace of God did His work, these 12 apostles began to function as a team. Soon mystic and rationalist, activist and thinker, patriot and traitor found themselves of one heart and one mind fulfilling one mission, serving one Lord.
And these two brothers are not only a microcosm of the first twelve followers, they are a microcosm of the entire church of God and every local congregation. What unifies a congregation like ours? It is not our musical taste buds. It is not our social standing. It is not our ethnic or cultural back ground. It is not our economic position in the community. It is not our education or our hobbies. We come through life holding different political views. We even hold various theological viewpoints that collide from time to time. Temperamentally we are different. We hold together the hyper-sensitive and the insensitive. We find ourselves in company with people that we would not normally choose as friends because we have so little in common.
Then what is the glue that keeps us together? The very same glue that brought two brothers together and kept a dozen men together – A common allegiance to God, and to His Son Jesus Christ, and to the great cause of being His people in the world. We too have one thing in common that makes us able to live with diversity at every other level of life.
Of course, if we get the focus off Him, then disunity will take place because we often have as little in common with each other as these two brothers. If we get our eyes off being workers together with God, and try to defend our own petty interests or stress our differences, then disintegration is inevitable. It is why the Apostle Paul will plead with every congregation he writes to, to be unified and to be of one heart and one mind.
Someone has suggested that unity in a church can be likened to a triangle. Jesus is at the apex. Any two members of a church are at the base of the triangle, quite distant from one another. But as we travel up our leg of that triangle getting closer to Jesus Christ, we will find ourselves getting closer to each other. Jesus is the glue that holds any two of us in relationship. James the Less and Matthew the Publican find themselves brothers again because they found themselves focused on Jesus Christ and the work He gave them to do. May that happen to all of us.