Pentecost 14: 2 September James 1:17-27
James is a collection of exhortations, loosely linked together, but presented in the name of James, the brother of Jesus, who became the head of the Jerusalem church and was known for taking what others (like Paul) would have seen as a very conservative attitude towards the Jewish Law, i.e. the Law of Moses as set out in the first five books of the Old Testament. At some points the advice could easily come from another branch of Judaism, but every now and again distinctively Christian emphases also appear. It stands in the tradition of writings which offer wisdom, like Proverbs and Sirach (in the Apocrypha).
1:17-18 declares that all good gifts come from God and God is reliable. Why emphasise this? Possibly because just a few verses earlier (1:9-11) the author has challenged the notion that richness in this world counts for something. It doesn't. All that counts is what God gives. What God gives elevates the lowly (1:9). This is very challenging. It confronts our dominant lifestyle. 1:18 takes this further by stating that we belong to a new order of reality. It uses the language of giving birth. God, like a mother, has given birth to us. It is the same language familiar to us in the expression, "born again" or "born from above" in John 3:3 and in Paul with the idea of "new creation" (2 Cor 5:17). It implies a complete change of being. The old way of being - which included hankering after wealth - is left behind. "First fruits" also plays with the notion of wealth. The first born inherited wealth. We inherit a new kind of wealth. At the same time the idea of the "first fruits" also indicates that this transformed reality is to encompass others, all of God's creation! The true gift we should treasure probably includes "the Spirit" and "wisdom". Wisdom was already the focus in 1:5. This writing, itself, illustrates what the author means by wisdom: knowing how to live the way God wants us to live.
1:19-21 is advice about how we respond to people. It is an aspect of wisdom. Listening is an art. It is also a deliberate decision to leave space for others to be and not to feel we have to fill in the gaps or exercise some kind of control. This includes situations of conflict. It is sound advice that some people have a very strong need to be heard, especially when they might want to say things which could evoke our anger. Often if only we take the time to listen, to hear whatever is being said, we would already take the relationship a step further. We would be saying to the other: I take you seriously. I care enough not to want to push you away with my explanations, defences, my anger. 1:20 astutely observes: anger does not serve God's goodness well. God's goodness/righteousness is about getting relationships right. When anger rules, right relationships are really difficult. When anger is heard and expressed as a means of moving beyond it to what the real issues are and not as an act of violence, then relationships have some chance. This is not just about techniques of survival or strategies about "how to win friends and influence people". It is, as 1:21 indicates, a matter of letting God's word, God's own communication, become part of our way of relating. Salvation is about a process of letting ourselves become whole as we take in what this good news really means. It's good news for us - and certainly for those around us!
James is good at attending to practicalities. 1:22-25 confronts self indulgent religion, 1:26-27, even more so. There is something attractive about hearing the word. The word, here, means doubtless "the word of truth" in 1:18 and, for James, also includes the Law, as 1:25 indicates. James is suggesting that it is possible to enjoy being a hearer, maybe even a believer, and not integrate what we hear and believe into our daily lives. This transition does not happen automatically. There is a time lag between when our ideas change and when our behaviour changes - in many areas of life. Frequently we can find ourselves acting in ways that are not consistent with what we now know, because our behaviour is still based on assumptions which we have in our minds long since given up. You have to work at ensuring the process happens. It is about integration and maturity. Some people keep reverting to childish patterns of behaviour under pressure, because they have never really addressed their defaults file, even though intellectually they very well know that such behaviour is inappropriate. Religious ideas are no different. James suggests that such hearing only is like looking at oneself in the mirror. It is very self indulgent. It goes nowhere.
The right way, the blessed way, is to engage the word in a manner which leads to change and to keep the process going. Notice that the word or law is being understood within an overriding framework which emphasises not restriction, but freedom. This is consistent with the denial of distinctions between rich and poor which we find in 1:9-11. Rather than seeing God's law as a set of rules, it sees God's law as a call for justice which gives birth to something new. It is freeing. It must not be reduced to the slogan, practise what you preach, as if it is simply a matter of putting rules into practice. It is something much more: a way of hearing which hearkens and through which we are changed and in which we also take responsibility for the change process by keeping ourselves fed with what evokes the change, namely the values and insights of scripture.
1:26-27 is an attack on a certain kind of religious lifestyle which is also well represented in Christianity. People haven't connected the divine grace which approaches them from God with the divine grace which wants to flow through them to others. It is the same divine grace, the same Spirit. Where this process has been blocked or has not been fostered, then we will still be holding people at bay with words. They can include words of anger. The bridling of the tongue is a graphic image drawn from horse riding which is about taking responsibility for the way we communicate. This author has no room for spiritualities which do not affect the way we relate to others. That is not just about avoiding bad things; it is about relating to people in a way which leaves them space to be, which respects their being, which listens.
1:27 grounds our spirituality. True holiness is not so much absence of bad things, as presence of compassion, especially for the most needy in society, represented here typically for the biblical tradition through orphans and widows who were too often left in poverty to their own devices. Keeping oneself undirtied from the world is not about avoiding engagement where we get our hands dirty. It is about refusing to surrender to the dominant values of society, even when they are called "Christian". In the context of James this relates especially to wealth and to the way we treat people.
Gospel: Pentecost 14: 2 September Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
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