Pentecost 17: 20 September James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a
The wisdom of James continues with a challenge to the hearers not to embrace a polarising and fractious stance towards people. Many people who most want to be known as wise are anything but peaceable. History abounds with people who think they are right and are prepared to die or kill for their truth. On the other hand, James is not advocating that Christians become doormats. Clearly the writing itself shows that the author is assertive and prepared to challenge others.
The gentleness being advocated is not abdication of responsibility. It is an attitude which comes from a different kind of purity (3:17). That purity consists not in pure doctrine nor in pure anger, but in pure love. Notice how the author contrasts the two approaches in 3:15 and 3:17. Wisdom is about purity and purity is about wholeness, singleness, oneness. That oneness is held together by being full of compassion and produces genuine goodness towards others (3:17). There is no phoney-ness. The word righteousness (which also means justice and goodness) rightly belongs here. Rightness or righteousness is about being in right relationship with God and with oneself - and so also with others.
Notice that the author is not just giving a moral lesson about fractiousness and division, but addressing it at its roots. The image of fruit, used already in 3:12, reappears in 3:17 and in the image of sowing in 3:18. Wisdom comes from above (3:17). It is an echo of that Jewish tradition, first attested in Proverbs 8, that wisdom is like God's companion and makes visits to earth seeking people in whom to dwell. As such this wisdom is sometimes identified also as God's word and as God's Spirit. Christians drew on this image when they identified Jesus as the Word who came down to his own (see John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:15-20 and also Hebrews 1:1-4, which we shall be looking at in two weeks' time). Here in James the image is used as it was in the Jewish tradition: of wisdom. It was a way of speaking of how God comes to people.
All this means that the matter of whether you take a compassionate attitude towards people and behave accordingly is much more than a matter of doing what is right or being good. It is about embodying the wisdom which comes from God; it is about embodying God. Notice the the chief thing about God is being found in such compassion. The opposite leads to disintegration and chaos, as 3:16 suggests.
4:1-3 probes a little further. What drives people to be divisive and to write others off? What drives the need to put other people down, whether in physical acts of violence or through the kind of abuse we observe when people attack each other in all kinds of subtle ways, with and without words? Why is it that some Christians seem happy to hate, even though they will dress it up with some kind of justification? Where does this come from, that some people can sustain their identity only by destroying or diminishing the identity and worth of others? Is the ease with which this happens related to the way some people delight in seeing God like that (at least in the end) and counting themselves among the elect and others among the damned? Our theologies generate such attitudes so often without our knowing it is happening.
James puts it down to human cravings which are unfulfilled (4:1-3). One might expand it by saying that such people have embraced goals or desires which they believe will bring them satisfaction, but their goals are incompatible with good news for others and even for themselves. People have a notion of what brings pleasure, what will make them happy and anyone who stands in the way of that becomes an enemy. Such goals can sometimes sound very pious, but if they lead people to abuse or despise others, then you can be sure that the goals are misplaced.
It is not wrong to want pleasure. It is not wrong to ask. That is the part of the point of 3:3. The message of the good news assumes we have such desires and that they can be legitimate in themselves. After all, the good news is that there is a way where our desires, God's desires and others' desires - at least what God desires for them - can jell together into a peaceable unity. Christians who deny this and pretend that they are not engaging in a relationship with God partly out of concern for themselves, are playing games.
We are hearing another echo of the Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew tells us that Jesus encouraged people: "Ask and you will receive" (7:7) So ask! But know what you are asking for. The verses which the Lectionary omits, 4:4-6, reinforce the basic contrast between what "the world' thinks is desirable and what God says is desirable. The two are in conflict. Yet most Christians still buy into the popular notions of what we are supposed to desire. Since the advent multimedia we are being bombarded with messages about what we should be desiring. It is a subtle and often not so subtle hijacking of what need to be God's values in us. It is idolatry. Our author suggests that fractiousness arises out of people's pursuit of such goals, especially those that depend for their fulfilment on someone else either missing out or being put down.
Humility in 4:7, when read in the context of what precedes, means not piety playing games of pretending or being self-deprecating. Humility is about being genuine and not finding you have the need to establish your sense of worth by making others smaller than yourself. For that is pride. It leads to conflict with others, to division, fractiousness, war - at all levels. When we can stop doing that and start believing that our worth does not depend on building up our merits in competition with others, but in being genuinely ourselves, then we will be free to relate openly and generously towards others. When we do that, we are never far away from God (4:8a), because that is God's very nature: self-giving, choosing not to take up the whole space, giving space for others to be, evolve, and grow.
Gospel: Pentecost 17: 20 September Mark 9:30-37
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