James 4:1-12: Having delineated two types of wisdom, one full (false wisdom) of itself, boastful, selfish, the other peaceable, gentle, merciful, spiritually fruitful – a wisdom that sows justice and peace, the writer goes back to discuss the consequences of false wisdom.
False wisdom is a craving wisdom and creates conflicts and disputes. Cravings “are at war within you” – and the “you” can be both individual and communal in this context. The writer is asking that the readers look both within themselves at the cravings at war within, and within their community, at the way selfish people create disputes. “Conflict” here is used negatively, though it should not always be so defined. Conflict can happen when we have different ideas about our faith, our community, how to live as church and as disciples of Jesus Christ. That kind of conflict does not arise from selfishness and craving. It can, however, be made more difficult and even intractable, when we don’t deal well with our conflicts and allow our positions to become hardened, when we identify our position in a conflict with our identity. For more on the idea of craving, see the previous note on “desire.”
“You do not have, because you do not ask.” That seems simplistic. What’s going on? What is the writer trying to say – that we should not quarrel because we can get what we want from asking? Again, that is too simplistic. I think the writer is encouraging the reader to interrogate their cravings, their desires. Ask for what is good and wise, what will build up the community and what will help one mature in faith. “The world” often encourages other desires, other cravings. If it did so in that period of time, think of how much more it does in our day and time – advertising has multiple media, and the purpose of ads are to excite our desires, our cravings – even to create our desires and cravings. To get caught up in this world of insatiable desire is to drift away from friendship with God. It is to lose what is important in the never-ending pursuit to satisfy our desires.
James 4:5 claims to quote a Scripture text, but there is no known corresponding text in the Hebrew Scriptures. Verse 6 quotes Proverbs 3:34. Grace, given from God, is a power to query our desires. Humility is an openness to our own complexity and a willingness to question our cravings and our desires, to purify them so that we might seek God’s dream for our lives and our world. All the language about being a friend of God, of resisting the devil, of drawing near to God, can be understood as differing metaphors for questioning our desires and seeking to live more wisely, to live with the wisdom of God. To do so is to cleanse our hands and to purify our hearts – inner and outer metaphors. Recognizing how much suffering we may have caused by acting mindlessly on our cravings and desires leads us to lament and mourn - if not for our own simple failings, then perhaps for the failings of the human community which have caused such pain and suffering in the world. Of course, humans have also created great beauty, done justice, made peace. The writer of James knows both the grandeur and misery of the human condition and the world. He is encouraging readers to focus on God and God’s wisdom for their lives and the world.
The author’s advice gets more concrete in verses 11 and 12. Do not speak evil against each other. Be careful how you judge others. To be harsh toward others is a violation of the law and thus “speaks evil against the law.”
James 4:13-16: Two things seems to be happening in these verses, distinct but related. The writer is concerned with excessive preoccupation with making money and with arrogance that may come from success. Arrogance is folly. The writer also offers a meditation on the brevity of life. That should be an antidote to arrogance.
The epistle addresses what a Buddhist might call “contemplation of the transient nature of life.”… In the Buddhist context, contemplation of life’s transient nature brings a sense of urgency to our spiritual life. We may be aware of the value of spiritual practice, but in our daily lives, we tend to behave as if we will live for a long time. We have a false sense of the permanence of our existence, which is one of the greatest obstacles to a dedicated spiritual life…. Profound contemplation of life’s transient nature introduces a note of healthy realism into our life as it helps us put things in proper perspective. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 362-363)
While the theological context differs between the Buddhist and the Christian, the Dalai Lama’s words fit the Christian well, too. To put our lives in proper perspective and to live in a new way because of that perspective is Christian wisdom. When we know what to do and to fail to do it is the meaning of “sin.” It is to miss the mark of our calling as God’s people in Jesus Christ.
James 5:1-6: At the end of the previous chapter, the writer spoke briefly of his concern for excessive pursuit of money. Here he takes direct aim at the problem. The language of the text indicates that the writer is addressing rich persons who are not a part of the community. The community of readers may have been more poor than rich. In any event, the author pulls no punches in writing a scathing indictment of those whose lives have been consumed by the accumulation of wealth. There are two problems identified. There is the inner problem that all the effort has gone toward things that in the end rot and become moth-eaten and rust. There is an inner death involved here. The other problem is that great disparities of wealth and poverty are usually indicative of injustice. Here the writer assumes that the rich he refers too have not only spent their inner spiritual resources on things that are transient, but they have also oppressed their workers. “Murder results from luxury purchased at the expense of the starving poor. There may be a reference to Sirach 34:26 – “To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood.”
The epistle is passionate in its advocacy of respect for the poor. In fact, it presents a severe critique of the conceit and complacency of the rich and the powerful. Some of these criticisms may have a certain historical significance, but they underlie an important spiritual principle, which is never to forget the fundamental equality of all human beings…. By criticizing disdainful attitudes toward the poor, the epistle persuasively reminds us of the need to return to a deeper appreciation of our humanity. It reminds us to relate to fellow human beings at a level of basic humanity…. For me what matters most is basic warm-heartedness. Certainly from the standpoint of mere humanity, there are no grounds for discrimination. In the language of the Bible, we are all equal in the face of creation…. So, if we truly related to our fellow human beings with a recognition of our fundamental equality, consideration of whether someone is rich or poor, educated or uneducated, black or white, male or female, or whether he or she belongs to this or that religion naturally become secondary. (Dalai Lama, Revelations, 363-364)
In a society that has often made the pursuit of wealth a sort of religion in itself, we should take these words to heart. In a world where the disparity between rich and poor seems to be growing, we should take these words to heart. As we take these words to heart, our lives should also change.
James 5:7-12: The writer changes subjects, though the transition makes better sense if one assumes that many of those reading this letter are among the poor who often suffer injustice at the hand of the rich who have mistreated them.
In light of the difficulties and challenges of life, be patient. Strengthen your hearts. The context for these words of encouragement is that the Lord will come soon to set things right. When patience wears thin, the result is often grumbling against others. The writer uses three examples to encourage patience – a farmer waiting for harvest, the prophets, and Job. The other context for these words of encouragement is the affirmation that God is compassionate and merciful, and God’s purposes are moving forward. Hang on with patience.
Throughout the letter, the writer has been concerned with appropriate speech as one important way to live faith wisely. As he begins to draw his letter to a close, he again takes up this topic, this time centering on the practice of swearing an oath. While the words can be a little confusing, the primary point here seems to be that one’s words should arise out of integrity of life. If you are a person of deep integrity, you don’t need anything else but your own word to confirm the truth of what you say. The writer remains concerned to align faith and action, heart and life.
James 5:13-20: The community of faith and wisdom should be a community of prayer and mutual care. When suffering, pray. When filled with joy, sing. The Christian life has both suffering and joy and needs prayer and song. When sick, gather elders who will pray and anoint with oil. Such prayer opens one to the healing power of God. It would be a mistake to assume that these verses guarantee physical healing. Healing may be different from cure. Nothing changes the fact that at some point all will die. At some time, cure will not happen, so to “promise” such is foolish. These verses are trying to say that the well-being of a member of the community of faith is a matter of concern to the whole community, and that prayer opens us up to God’s healing power, whatever form that may take.
The community of faith is also a community where God’s forgiveness becomes real. Here again, prayer opens us up to God’s healing forgiveness. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Elijah serves as an example of this proverbial saying.
The community of faith is also a community that seeks to restore those who have wandered away. People wandering away from the community of faith may wander into ways of life that are not real life but a living death. Bringing them back puts them in touch again with God’s way of life. Restoration “will cover a multitude of sins.” Again a wisdom source is referred to. Proverbs 10:12 reads, in part, “love covers all offenses.” “On this positive and healing note the letter of James… comes to a close” (People’s New Testament Commentary). To live Christian wisdom is to live in love – love that does justice, love that seeks healing and forgiveness, love that questions desire, love that creates community, love that pays attention to what is said and done.