The UNflashy Faithfulness of St. James the Less

“St. James the Less” by Fr. George Leonard Shultz

A reflection on St. James the Less inspired by the oil painting of Fr. George Leonard Shultz (1896 – 1971). This same reflection was published in the Times-Standard on Saturday April 30, 2022 as “St. James the Less’ Unflashy Faithfulness”

Because the name “James” was so popular in the first century AD, scholars often debate about the identity of the apostle known as James the son of Alphaeus. Was he the same person who wrote the Epistle of James? Was he the same James who served as the first bishop of Jerusalem? Or was he James the brother of Jesus?

According to Herbert Lockyer who informed Fr. George Shultz in his paintings of the apostles, the only conclusions we can make about this James is that he was one of the 12 apostles and that his father’s name was Alphaeus. Since Matthew’s father is also named Alphaeus (Mark 2:14), Lockyer and others suggest that Matthew and James may have been brothers.

Fr. Shultz seems to highlight this possibility in his paintings since Matthew and James are the only two apostles in his series that feature pairs of pedestrians in the background behind stoned archways. However, unlike the people in the background of Matthew’s portrait (which I wrote about on Oct. 3, 2020), the people in the background of James’ portrait are silhouetted figures almost obscured by shadows. This obscurity of people in the background underscores the general obscurity of this “background disciple,” who became known in the early church as “James the Less,” because he was less well known than the other James, the son of Zebedee a.k.a. James the Great. Although some suggest that he was called “The Less” because of his smaller stature, there’s no doubt that he was and still is overshadowed by James the Great, who is considered one of most famous of the 12 apostles.

When people think of an apostle named James, they are most likely not thinking of James the Less. Similarly, if you were to look up my name on Google, you would have a hard time locating me since “Daniel London” also happens to be the name of a relatively popular actor. So, according to Google, I’m Daniel London the Less.

James the son of Alphaeus represents all those “behind-the-scenes” disciples who are faithful, but not famous. He represents the vast community of disciples who pray, worship and serve God faithfully but don’t have millions of followers on Instagram. He represents the disciples who, like the silhouetted figures in the background of the portrait, keep moving forward step by step and day by day, even when no one seems to notice and even when shadows seem to darken the path. Moreover, James the Less represents all the disciples today who have continued worshipping loyally with their faith communities under the long shadow of the pandemic, despite online services, mask wearing, social distancing, vaccine requirements, Zoom meetings and more.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached about praying and serving the community not for the purpose of achieving fame and glory but because that is what faithful disciples do (Matthew 6:1-18). James the Less understood and embodied this teaching perhaps more than any other apostle. His unpretentious life calls forth unflashy faithfulness in us; and when it comes to popularity and fame, may we, like James, be content with less.

The Rev. Dr. Daniel DeForest London serves with Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka.

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