Friday, October 19
Galatians 4:1-11: Not least among the striking features of this text is the apostle’s use of exactly the same verb to speak of the sending forth of both the Son and the Holy Spirit. In each case he says, exsapesteilen ho Theos—“God sent forth his Son. . . . God sent forth the Spirit of his Son.” This is a summary of how we know God: We know him because he has revealed himself by his sending forth of his Son and Holy Spirit.
This text of Galatians speaks of the sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit as two realities subject to distinction. In thus distinguishing them, Holy Scripture justifies our investigating each of them in distinctive (though not separate nor separable) ways. Let us, then, speak of each distinctly.
We may begin where the Bible does, with God’s revelation through his Son. How should we describe this revelation? Two adjectives that come to mind are empirical and historical.
In investigating the empirical aspect of God’s sending forth of his Son, we can hardly do better than to start with the Johannine literature. This theme’s most graphic text is found at the beginning of the First Epistle of John:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you. . . .” (1:1–3).
In this passage we are impressed by the sustained repetition of verbs expressing the sense experience of the Incarnation: heard, seen, looked upon, handled, manifested, seen, manifested, seen, heard. Later in the same epistle John proclaims, “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world” (4:14).
This sensual dimension of the Incarnation is likewise characteristic of the Johannine Gospel. Thus, the Lord says to the Samaritan woman, “I who speak to you am he” (4:26). And to the man healed of his blindness, “You have both seen him, and it is he who is speaking with you” (9:37). And to the citizens of Jerusalem, “ He who sees me sees him who sent me” (12:45). And to the apostle, “Have I been with you so long, and you have not known me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). All these lines illustrate the principle stated early in the Gospel of John: “No man has seen God at any time. The only-begotten God (monogenes Theos), who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him (ekeinos exsegesato)” (1:18).
Thus, in his incarnate Person, the Son is the living exegesis of the Father. The Lord must tell his enemies, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (8:19). So much is this the case, that no man has access to the Father except through the Son. On the other hand, God does not have, nor has God ever had, any relationship to this world except through his Son. Even in Creation, “all things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that was made” (1:3).
This Johannine accent on the empirical experience of the Father’s revelation in his Son justifies our speaking of the Incarnation as the divine entrance into the historical, categorical order. Theologically we may describe it as God’s unanswerable vindication of man’s empirical faculties that operate within the classical categories of where, when, quantity, quality, and so forth. Specifically, John’s emphasis on the visual, the auditory, and the tactile prompts us to speak of God’s fleshly intrusion into space.
When we speak of the historical, categorical order, however, we must regard more than the senses operating in space. We must also consider the memory operating within time. Those who saw the Son, heard him, and touched him did so, not only within the limiting confines of human space, but also in the living context of human time.
The Son did not reveal the Father to just anyone, after all. He made his revelation to the Jews, who had been especially prepared, during many centuries, for precisely that revelation. It was God’s historical, categorical revelation in his Son that brought that historical pedagogy of Israel to its defining fulfillment. According to the opening words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the defining truth of that history is the truth revealed in the Son “in the last of these days”—ep’ eschatou ton hemeron touton—“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to our fathers through the prophets, has in the last of these days, spoken to us by a Son, whom he has appointed heir of everything.” God’s revelation in his Son is inseparable from time, the experience of before and after, of tense and becoming.
The Synoptic Gospels contain a dominical parable that stands in striking parallel to this opening verse of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I cite it in the Gospel of Mark, where the Lord describes God’s activity in Old Testament history as that of a man sending his servants to the keepers of his vineyard, so that they might hand over the fruit of the vineyard. “Last of all,” says the text, “He sent his beloved Son”—huion agapeton . . . apesteilen auton eschaton. This Son is recognized, even by the wicked vine-keepers, to be the “Heir”(12:6f), the same word used in the foregoing passage from Hebrews. In both of these texts, history is interpreted solely with respect to eschatology, and eschatology is defined by God’s revelation in his Son.
In summary, in the revelation in his Son, God transforms the knowability of the empirical, historical, categorical order, and all of God’s speaking in history is determined by, and to be interpreted with reference to, his revelation in the Son. From the very first time that he uttered a human word, God started to become incarnate. By speaking this word in history, God transforms the knowable structure and content of history.
These reflections bring us to God’s revelation to us in the Holy Spirit. For the purpose of this inquiry, it is neither possible nor necessary to examine this theme in all its amplitude, for Holy Scripture tells a good many things about the mission of the Holy Spirit. I propose, rather, to consider the mission under one aspect only. Namely—the Holy Spirit’s transformation of man’s knowledge, a theme developed in both the Pauline and Johannine sources of the New Testament.
We may begin with St. Paul, who addresses this matter in the Epistle to the Romans, in a passage strikingly similar to the Galatians text that we have already seen: “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship, by whom we cry out ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself bears joint witness to our spirit that we are children of God” (8:15f). We observe in this text that the Holy Spirit bears witness, not only to who God is, but also to who we are—not only to God as Father, but also to us as his children. The Holy Spirit testifies, not only that something is so, but also that Someone is such-and-such in regard to us, and we in regard to him. It is the personal knowledge of the relationship between God and ourselves. We now know God, because we now stand in a different relationship to God as his children.
Likewise in the Corinthian literature, St. Paul speaks of the wisdom conferred by the Holy Spirit. Thus, of those things that the eye has not seen and the ear has not heard, he says, “God has revealed them to us through his Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. . . . Even so, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches . . .” (1 Cor. 2:9–13).
This instruction of the Holy Spirit is directed to the person and activity of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that gives “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), so that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same icon from glory to glory, as by the Lord of the Spirit (apo kyriou pneumatos)” (3:18). This is the meaning of Paul’s assertion that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). The Holy Spirit not only tells us to proclaim “Jesus is Lord,” he also grants us the vision to see the glory of that lordship. We proclaim only what we see.
Saturday, October 20
Luke 12:49-53: A crisis has been mounting. Jesus already observed that His disciples now form only a “little flock” (verse 32), not a massive movement of repentance. Moreover, He has already enjoined vigilance upon them (verses 39-42), coupled with a warning (verses 45-48). It is clear that our Lord and the disciples stand at a critical threshold. In spite of the angelic proclamation of peace (2:14), Jesus can assert that He did not come to bring peace (51), in the sense that His message, critical of habitual ways of men, was certain to provoke animosity and invite rejection (verse 52).
There will be, therefore, a first of testing (verse 40), as John the Baptist had earlier foretold (3:16-17). Indeed, in the present text Jesus seems to remember His baptism by John (3:21), because He now uses the metaphor of baptism in the context of this fire of judgment (verses 49-50). Whereas John had prophesied that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” Jesus Himself, according to the present passage, has “a baptism to be baptized with.” This image refers to His impending sufferings (cf. Mark 10:38), concerning which He feels “constrained until it be accomplished.”
Was our Lord becoming a bit impatient to do what needed to be done? Doubtless there were days when He did, notwithstanding the terror presented in that prospect (22:42). Nothing about the time of His Passion, however, was within Jesus’ power to determine. While He knew that it would come to pass by “the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), He was obliged to wait for the plot of His enemies to be worked out. It would happen soon enough (cf. 22:2-6). Meanwhile, our Lord would be “left hanging,” a long and monstrous foretaste of His hanging on the cross. In this passage He shares these feeling with His disciples.
It is the physician Luke, professionally sensitive to concerns of psychology, who records this inner experience of turmoil in the incarnate Word.
Sunday, October 21
Galatians 4:21-31: It seems significant that the covenants of God with Abraham and David are each ushered into history by an account of a barren woman. Thus, Holy Scripture introduces the covenant with Abraham by telling of the barrenness of Sarah, and the narrative of the Davidic covenant is introduced by the story of barren Hannah. It is not surprising, then, that the account of barren Elizabeth should introduce the story of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ is, after all, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).
St. Paul, moreover, explicitly appeals to the story of barren Sarah in order to illustrate the Christian covenant. He writes, “it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic” (verses 22-24).
The Greek word translated by the NKJV as “symbolic” is allegoroumena, which literally means “things said in allegory.” This is our first instance of the work “allegory” in Christian thought, where it properly means the New Testament meaning of the Old Testament text. Indeed, this is why Paul brings up the subject of barren Sarah—her historical and symbolic relevance to the Christian covenant.
Paul’s insertion of this image into his exposition of the Christian covenant prompts us to reflect more in detail on what the story of ancient Sarah means to the Christian mind. Perhaps we may summarize these reflections under three headings: frustration, humor, and faith.
First, let us recall Sarah’s frustration. She wanted a son, and she was willing to do just about anything to get one. We all know the story of her attempt to use ancient Middle Eastern adoption laws to have her handmaid act as her surrogate. We recall how she urged Abraham to father a child with that servant, Hagar. We also remember that the arrangement did not work out very well.
This should not have been surprising. God alone gives life, and human life in particular is not just a matter of biology. Sarah stands in history as an excellent example of those who tried to take the place of God with respect to their offspring. In the case of Hagar, this was very much a “planned pregnancy.” Forgetting that children are a gift and a blessing from God, Sarah contrived to impose her own will on the order of nature in order to achieve what she wanted. “Planned parenthood” is a very bad way to start raising children, because it treats those children as the products of a human strategy instead as precious gifts from the creating hand of God.
She stands, then, as an early example of all attempts to produce human life by medical contrivances, to overcome human barrenness through artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and all other mechanical attempts to produce a baby, to make a child as a merely human product, something other than a pure gift from God.
In Sarah’s case, the entire enterprise backfired, of course, and after the birth of Ishmael her life became more frustrated than ever. Eventually Hagar and her baby were driven out into the desert, where Ishmael became the father of the Arabs. That is to say, things did not turn out as the mother of the Jews had in mind. The God that brings good out of evil, however, had His own plans, and this consideration brings us to our second point.
Second, let us consider the humor of Sarah. We recall the famous scene where Abraham and his wife showed hospitality to the Three Strangers in Genesis 18. We remember well the promise that God made to them at that time: “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” Sarah, 89 years old at the time, was listening to this conversation behind the flap of the family’s tent, and when she heard the divine promise, says Holy Scripture, she laughed.
Really, what else could she do? The whole idea was so preposterous. I suspect that most of us, in such circumstances, might giggle a bit. The Lord, however, was very serious on the matter, so He inquired of Abraham, “”Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
Sarah herself was rather embarrassed by the whole episode, and not a little frightened, so much so that she denied having laughed. The Lord, however, who knows all things, even a giggle behind a tent flap, answered her, “”No, but you did laugh!”
For all that, there is nothing in the Sacred Text to suggest that the laughter of Sarah was a moral failing. She was reprimanded, not for laughing, but for denying that she had laughed. One suspects that her laughter was in some measure a sign of her humility. It probably indicated that she did not take herself too seriously. Perhaps it is the case that Sarah should have laughed more often than she did. If she had laughed at herself at earlier periods in her life, perhaps she would not have been so hard on Hagar and Ishmael. Perhaps she would have been less critical of Abraham himself.
Third, let us consider the faith of Sarah. If we had only the Old Testament by which to reflect on this point, we might doubt that Sarah had much faith. Fortunately, however, we have the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (11:11).
Indeed, the faith of Sarah illustrates something truly essential to the very nature of faith—it accomplishes what is humanly impossible. Sarah did not regard the prospects of bearing a child at age 90. On the contrary, “she judged Him faithful who had promised.” That is to say, she trusted the fidelity of God to do what He has promised to do.
Hagar’s childbearing was a physical thing, says Paul. It was “according to the flesh.” Sarah’s, on the other hand, was “according to promise.” Faith is always “according to promise.” It is beyond all human guarantees, because it is rooted in God’s fidelity to His word. He is a God that keeps His promises. Thus Paul concludes his argument in Galatians, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.” Like Sarah, we live in the expectation that God, in fidelity to His word, will always keep His promises.
Luke 12:54-56: Up to the present point in this chapter Jesus has spoken to His disciples. Indeed, He has addressed them as a group distinct from the crowds, calling them a “little flock” (verse 32), and He had begun by warning them against the “hypocrisy” of the Jewish leaders (verse 1). Now the Lord turns His attention to the “crowds” (verse 54).
The crisis soon to arise, warns Jesus, is not only for His disciples and Himself, but also for the Chosen People and their leaders (cf. Matthew 16:2-3). However, these latter, being hypocrites (verse 56), are unable to discern the signs of the times. Consequently, they fail “to interpret the present time,” the current kairos that is full of impending significance.
Using the one to explain the other, Jesus draws a distinction between space and time, nature and history. Those whom He addresses area able to interpret the meaning of space and nature, the western cloud and the south wind, but the imminent events of time and history are lost to them. A cloud arriving from the west come from over the Mediterranean Sea and brings rain (cf. 1 Kings 18:44), whereas a southerly wind, arising from the Negev Desert, carries with it the dry heat.
Such things the people know from long experience; they are familiar with how to read nature. They seem far less familiar with history, however, or they would apply to its current period the same level of discernment that enables them to interpret the signs of imminent weather.
Both nature and history, after all, give indications of pattern and periodic recurrence. In the case of their present history the indications were unmistakable. Throughout the centuries the Chosen People had been instructed by their relations to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Greeks. How is it that they seem so clueless with respect to the Romans? Those crises of olden days were correctly interpreted by the biblical prophets, who bequeathed to Israel a godly insight in the proper understanding of history. Israel has evidently failed to learn the lesson. Hence its rejections of Jesus (verses 49-53).
In the present text, moreover, it is clear that Jesus did understand Israel’s impending crisis, and in this respect He appears here as the heir of the prophets, calling the Chosen People to repentance in face of the disaster soon to befall the nation at the hands of the Romans.
It was in the context of that impending judgment that Jesus understood His own vocation. Israel’s rejection of His message led directly to the nation’s downfall and colossal displacement in history. The signs of this catastrophe, said Jesus, were plain for all to see.
Monday, October 22
Luke 12:57-59: The foregoing verses have struck a note of true urgency. A crisis is imminent, and how does a sane man prepare for a crisis? If he can, he will try to avert it.
The Lord gives a simple illustration. If a rational man knows that a creditor is about to take him to claims court, he will use what time he has—for these matters do take time—to “settle with him,” in order to avoid the judicial process. The latter, after all, is hard to undo.
In the social context of this parable a debtor could be incarcerated for his debt, thereby losing the opportunity to pay. In such a case, payment of the debt would have to be redeemed by the debtor’s family and friends. It takes much longer to accomplish, and meanwhile the debtor sits in prison.
How much easier, says our Lord, to deal ahead of time with the creditor. After all, the latter wants only his money; it is not to his advantage that the debtor should go to jail.
Israel, this parable says, still has a limited time to make good, to “settle” with God, so that it will not be obliged to pay “the very last copper.” This Creditor, once again, has nothing to gain by the punishment of the debtor. God is not honored by anyone’s being lost. Israel’s failure does not bring God glory. Indeed, He is entirely merciful and prefers forgiveness to sacrifice. It is high time for Israel, while history is still “on the way,” to make its peace with this creditor, but time is running out, and disaster is already discernable on the prophetic horizon. The barren fig tree has another year, as it were (13:6-9).
Tuesday, October 23
Luke 13:1-5: The lessons of the previous chapter stressed the necessity of repentance in advance of the historical judgment soon to be visited on Israel. Whereas the verses immediately before (12:57-59) and immediately after (verses 6-9) emphasize the shortness of time left for decision, the present pericope underlines the grave consequences of not repenting.
Here we have no parable but a couple of contemporary tragedies that convey the necessity for repentance.
First, Jesus is told of the incident in which Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had recourse to violence in order to repress a sedition of Galileans (verse 1; Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 18.85-89; The Jewish War 2.169-177). Were those that perished in that incident worse than anyone else? asks Jesus. Certainly not!
The example is particularly telling, inasmuch as Pilate represented the authority of Rome in the Holy Land. This story implies to the Jews what sort of treatment they may receive at the hands of the imperial forces, which the Lord of history is about to employ as a scourge on an unrepentant people. In the case of Israel too, the divine judgment willfall swiftly and without remorse (verse 3).
The second incident (verse 4), which is unrecorded outside of the Gospel of Luke, conveys the same message. Those that perished in the collapse of the tower were not sinful beyond their compatriots. Yet, destruction had come upon them quickly and unawares. The message is the same: Repent now, and do no delay!
Wednesday, October 24
2 Chronicles 11: Because the stories about the northern prophets in the Books of Kings are so colorful and memorable (Michaiah, Elijah, Elisha), one may too easily suppose that the ministry of the prophets, at least until the eighth century, was concentrated mainly in the north. The present chapter of Chronicles, however, which narrates the prophetic intervention of Shemaiah (verses 2-4, paralleled in 1 Kings 12:21-24), is a first argument against that supposition. Second Chronicles goes on to tell of other active prophets in the south, prior to the eighth century, accounts not found in the Books of Kings. This list includes stories of Azariah ben Obed (15:1-7), Hanani (16:7-9), Jehu ben Hanani (19:2-3), Zechariah ben Jehoiada (24:20-22), and the anonymous prophet sent to King Amaziah (25:7-9). According to the Chronicler (21:12-15), even Elijah the Tishbite intervened in the south by way of a letter (21:12-15).
Given all these accounts of southern prophets narrated only in the Chronicler, it is curious and ironical that the story of Shemaiah in this chapter is the only part of the chapter that is found in Kings. It is followed by three accounts that are not told in Kings.
First, there is a list of the cities fortified by Rehoboam on his southern flank against attack from Egypt (verses 5-12). This system of defense, well known to archeology, is sometimes called antiquity’s Maginot Line.
Second, the Chronicler tells of northern Levitical families that remained loyal to the government and Temple in Jerusalem (verses 13-17). Because of Jeroboam’s persecution of them, these families fled south for asylum, and the schismatic king of the north appointed non-Levites in their place (1 Kings 12:31-32; 13:33). One is disposed to speculate that the Chronicler himself may have been a descendent from that group, but in such a case we would expect a record of actual names here in the text.
Third, there is a detailed account of Rehoboam’s apostasy in the south (verses 18-23). This defection of Solomon’s son had to be particularly distressing to the northern Levites who had fled to the south in fidelity to the Davidic covenant and the orthodox worship in the Jerusalem Temple. Their disappointment is perhaps more readily understood if we think of certain contemporary Christians conscientiously driven from one church to another, only to find the second church just about as unfaithful as the first. In the case of these Levites, moreover, the move involved uprooting their families from lands they had cultivated for more than two centuries. (Taken from P. H. Reardon, Chronicles of History and Worship, Conciliar Press 2006).
Thursday, October 25
Psalm 37: If we think of prayer as speaking to God, Psalm 37 appears at first to challenge the very notion of the psalms as prayers, inasmuch as not a single word of it is explicitly addressed to God. It speaks about God, of course, but never to Him, at least not overtly.
This psalm is also strangely constructed, even if the construction is rather simple. It is one of those twelve psalms built on what is known as an alphabetic acrostic pattern—that is to say: starting with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, each new line (in this case, every other line) of the psalm begins with the next successive letter of the alphabet. Thus, if one looks for some sort of logical or thematic progression in the course of the psalm, he may be mightily disappointed. The arrangement of the psalm’s ideas is determined only by something so artificial and arbitrary as the sequence of the alphabet, so the meditation does not really progress. It is, on the other hand, insistent and repetitive.
It is obvious at once that Psalm 37 has close ties to the Bible’s Wisdom tradition. If it were not part of the Psalter, we would expect to find it in Proverbs or one of the other Wisdom books. It appears to be a kind of discourse given by a parent to a child, or a wise man to a disciple. It is full of sound and godly counsel: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . Trust in the Lord and do good . . . Cease from anger and forsake wrath . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way,” and so forth. Such admonitions, along with the psalm’s allied warnings and promises, are stock material of the Wisdom literature.
So how does one pray such a psalm? To begin with, by respecting its tone, which is one of admonition, warning, and promise. Surely prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to God, and this is a psalm in which one will do more listening than talking. It is a psalm in which the believer prays by placing his heart open and receptive to God’s word of admonition, warning, and promise.
One may likewise think of Psalm 37 as the soul speaking to itself: “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him . . . But the meek shall inherit the earth . . . The little that the righteous has is better than the riches of many wicked . . . The Lord knows the days of the upright . . . The Law of his God is in his heart,” and so on. The human soul, after all, is not of simple construction. The great thinkers who have examined the soul over many centuries seem all to agree that it is composed of parts, and sometimes these parts are at odds one with another. This mixture of conflicting experiences in the soul leads one to utter such petitions as, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is one part of the soul praying for the other.
In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, reminds the other, cautions the other, encourages the other. And this inner conversation of the human spirit all takes place in the sight of God, the Giver of wisdom.
This inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked do seem, on many occasions, to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.
Our psalm is at pains to insist, however, that this prosperity is only apparent, in the sense that it will certainly be short-lived. As regards the workers of iniquity, “they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb . . . For evildoers shall be cut off . . . For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be . . . For the arms of the wicked shall be broken . . . The transgressors shall be cut off together.”
The suffering lot of the just man is likewise temporary and of brief duration. He need only wait on the Lord in patience and trust: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit your way unto the Lord, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass . . . But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord will help them and deliver them; He will deliver them from the wicked and save them, because they trust in Him.”
This, then, is a psalm of faith and confidence in God, without which there is no Christian prayer. It is also faith and hope under fire, exposed to struggle and the endurance that calls for patience. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), and “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope . . . But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24, 25). Our psalm is a meditative lesson on not being deceived by appearances, and a summons to wait patiently for God’s deliverance. (Taken from P. H. Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Conciliar Press 2000)
Friday, October 26
James 1:1-11: The first verse of this epistle indicates already that James was an authority recognized outside of the Holy Land. The churches addressed here—“the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”—were apparently of a Jewish makeup, and they looked to this first Bishop of Jerusalem, the Lord’s own kinsman, as their spiritual father. In this sense, James is not only our first example of a bishop; he is also our earliest model for a patriarch.
In this connection let us recall that the Apostle Paul, when he wrote of those whom he consulted at Jerusalem, named James first, before Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). It is worth observing, likewise, that this same sequence—James, Peter, John—is identical to the order in which the epistles of these same three men appear in the New Testament.
James, in a series of apparently unsystematic exhortations, begins with patience, prompting the careful reader to recall that St. Paul too, when he commenced his description of Christian love, began with the succinct thesis, “Love is patient”–Charitas patiens est in the Vulgate. James’ word for “patience,” hypomone–verses 3,4) will later appear when James speaks of the example of Job (5:11). He begins and ends this work, then, on the need of patience in the time of trial (verses 2,12,13,14).
The English reader, as he reads “when you fall into various trials,” may not suspect the skillful play of sounds in James’ original Greek: perasmois peripesete poikilois. In fact, James displays such verbal flourishing right from the start, going from “greetings” (verse 1) to “all joy” (verse 2)–chairein pasa charan.
The theme of rejoicing in times of trial is a common one in the New Testament (Matthew 5:10-12; Acts 5:41; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). This active attitude toward the experience of trial, as distinct from a merely passive endurance, brings about a kind of perfection, an ergon teleion (verse 4), perfection being a quality of great interest to James (verse 17,25; 3:2).
Those who attain unto perfection “lack nothing” (en medeni leipomenoi–verse 4). What a man may “lack” (leipetai–verse 5) first of all, says James, is wisdom, a gift that he may obtain through prayer to the generous God. This sudden mention of prayer and wisdom may not seem at first to fit the context of patience, which James has already introduced. The author is inspired here, however, by the Wisdom Scriptures, where wisdom is attained by prayer (1 Kings 3:5-9; Wisdom 9:10-18) and the patient endurance of trials (Wisdom 9:6; Sirach 4:17).
James’ mention of prayer leads to a consideration of faith and constancy (verse 6), because the prayer of faith is contrasted with wavering and hesitation. The expression used for wavering and hesitation here is diakrinomai (verses 6,7), the middle voice of a verb meaning to make judgments. The use of this word suggests that the contrast of prayerful faith is some kind of inner debate, perhaps a bewilderment about the efficacy of prayer itself. The same contrast between the inconstancy and the prayer of faith, using the identical words, is also found in the sayings of Jesus (Matthew 21:21; Mark 11:23).
Such hesitancy and inner debate produces a “man of two souls”–aner dipsyhos (verse 8). This metaphor, which appears to be James’ own invention (the fragment in Philo seems not to be authentic), became common in early Christian literature. James’ adjective is found numerous times in Clement of Rome, Pseudo-Clement, Hermas, Origen, and later Christian writers, along with the corresponding noun dipsychia (“double-soul-ness”) and verb dipsychein (“to be double-soul-ed”). Such a person, animated sometimes by fervor toward God and at other times by friendship with the world, did not love God with his “whole” heart. He was certainly “unstable in all his ways.”
James next introduces the contrast of wealth and poverty (verses 9-11), which will become a notable theme in the entire epistle (1:27; 2:1-7,15-17; 4:10,13-16; 5:1-6). As we shall reflect in the next chapter, this sense of poverty and riches is not theoretical in James; it pertains, rather,to the concrete life of the Church, the one place on earth where the poor can expect to be treated with honor. Indeed, as James suggests here, it is also in the Church that the rich man will receive salutary instruction on the transitory nature of wealth, and in this instruction he too will be honored (verse 10).