Friday, March 18
Proverbs 27: Nothing is more burdensome than anger (verse 3). As the human soul (according to Aristotle) possesses no passion that is directly contrary to the passion of anger, we have nothing emotional in our constitution that directly counterbalances anger. We can only control it rationally, with no help from the other passions. Hence, anger is the passion most likely to get out of hand; it is also the passion that tends most to become unbalanced. Fortunately, unless deliberately cultivated, anger also tends to diminish over time. Otherwise, it would crush our spirits.
But suppose a state of constant anger, an eternal wrath, an ire without end. Suppose an anger that will not dissipate with time, for the simple reason that time is no more. Such would seem to be the quality of eternal damnation, the state in which a man is perpetually and without end crushed by his anger. He teeth will forever continue to grind and gnash in the endless darkness (cf. Matthew 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The anger of the fool, described in verse 3, is a sort of calisthenics preparatory for his coming state.
Verse 19 uses the metaphor of a visual reflection to describe the sensation of the heart finding itself mirrored in another heart. This experience accompanies certain intense friendships, such as that in which “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).
The chapter ends with maxims respecting the industrious and sustained stewardship of one’s resources (verses 23-27). The possession of family property, guaranteed by the provisions of the Mosaic Law, is regarded in Holy Scripture as a medium of tradition, binding each generation to those both before and after it. Property is supposed to be handed down in the family along with sound counsel for how to preserve and enhance it.
James 2:1-13: The message of this section is straightforward and unsubtle. James points to a common trait of fallen man, the disposition to cultivate favor with the powerful over the weak, to prefer the approval of the rich to that of the poor. James begins by noting the easiest, most immediate way of distinguishing between the two—their clothing. Because the wealthier man can afford better clothes, he is better able to honor his own body, prompting others to comply with that honor. As modern men sometimes say, “Clothing makes a statement.”
For James, however, who has just mentioned that true religion consists in care for the poor and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (1:27), such deference towards the wealthy is only another form of worldliness. The New King James Version calls this vice “partiality.” The King James’ rendering “respect of persons” comes closer to the sense of the Greek prosopolempsia, literally translated in the Vulgate as personarum acceptatio, “acceptance of persons.” This word means that distinctions are made, according to which some people are treated with greater honor and respect than others.
The thing chiefly to be noted about this prosopolempsia is that God doesn’t have any (Romans 2:11), and neither should the Church. A preference for the wealthy, even with the excuse that the wealthy are in a better position to aid the work of the Church, would seem to be the very antithesis of visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unsullied by the world. As such it has no legitimate place in the social life of the Church (verses 2-3).
Indeed, in many places in Holy Scripture it appears that God, if He can be said to have a preference, prefers the poor. He is called the protector of the orphan and the defense of the widow, and even the most casual Bible-reader will observe, from time to time, that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. In fact, God “chooses the poor” (exselexsato tous ptochous—verse 5) and makes them heirs of the Kingdom (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20).
If his readers need any further incentive to be freed from such worldliness, James reminds them that their own oppressors come from the ranks of the rich rather than the poor (verses 6-7; Amos 8:4; Wisdom 2:10). The Christian Church, in short, must side with the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, not with the wealthy, the powerful, and the oppressors.
What, finally, is called for is the love of one’s neighbor as one’s self (verse 8; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), for this is the standard by which we shall be judged (verse 12; Matthew 19:17-19).
Saturday, March 19
Proverbs 28: Among the characteristics of the righteous man is one not often mentioned in Proverbs, perhaps because it is too obvious—bravery (verse 1). The bravery mentioned here is the fruit of a righteous life, not the mere exertion of a strong will. Such bravery will be manifest in a variety of actions, not the least of which is the refusal to approve of wickedness or those who practice it (verses 4,21). Indeed, even the ability to recognize the difference between good and evil comes from being good; this distinction is lost on those who are not (verse 5).
Although prosperity is the expected fruit of a good, wise, and industrious life (verse 19), this is not invariably the case. Ultimately, it is not prosperity that is essential, but the righteousness that would deserve prosperity if life in this world were perfect (verses 6,11). Indeed, Proverbs warns against the inordinate desire for prosperity (verse 22), and no man may seek prosperity to the neglect of the poor (verse 27; 29:7).
The worst fate that can befall a nation is to be ruled by a fool (verses 2,15-16; 29:2), and the biblical histories of Judah and Israel prove the point.
James 2:14-26: This section contains James’ response to an erroneous interpretation of St. Paul. The latter apostle, in fact, seems often to have been misunderstood by some early Christians (1 Peter 3:15-16), a misfortune of which Paul himself complained (Romans 3:8). The problem of misinterpreting Paul continued, moreover, well into the next century (cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.13.1), and some believe it is still with us.
Here in James it appears that Paul was misunderstood with respect to justification through faith. Paul had by this time written Galatians. Against the Judaizers, who taught that Christians must observe all or part of the Mosaic Law, Paul’s letter to the Galatians insisted that the works of the Mosaic Law (circumcision, the dietary rules, and so forth) were not required of those who committed their lives to Christ in faith. Some of Paul’s readers exaggerated this teaching to imply a theology of justification “through faith alone”—ek pisteos monon (verse 24). According to this theory, no works of a man are necessary for his justification. All human works are superfluous for justification. James goes here into some detail to refute and condemn such a notion.
James observes, first, that a hungry man is not fed by my faith; I must actually do something to feed him. A naked person is not covered nor warmed by my faith; I must act in order to clothe him. A faith without such activity accomplishes nothing. It provides no advantage, to the needy man or to myself—“What does it profit?” (Ti to ophelos, verses 14,16), asks James.
We observe here that James does not contrast faith with works. He contrasts, rather, a living, profitable faith with an empty, dead faith. For James, then living faith is giving and not merely receiving, active and not solely passive. A faith that is not “lived” is not real faith; it is, at best, a religious preference, perhaps only a faint religious opinion. Salvific faith is a matter, says James, of faith and works.
The demons, after all, who are fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6), can be said to have faith, inasmuch as they believe in the oneness of God. Such “faith,” however, is of no avail to them (verse 19). A devil that believes in God is no better off than an atheist who doesn’t, and a person who believes but doesn’t act on that belief has no advantage over either. “Faith alone” of this sort is the lot of the damned.
James next turns to Holy Scripture for examples of saints justified by their works. The first is Abraham, whom Paul himself had invoked in the Epistle to the Galatians (chapters 3-4). Although Abraham, living earlier than Moses, had not observed the works of the Mosaic Law (and, consequently, was justified apart from those works), he never imagined himself exempt from the obligation of “works,” in the sense of obedience to God’s will and command.
Abraham’s faith, thus, “worked with (synergei) his works” (verse 22). This text lays the down the principle of the biblical doctrine of “synergism,” according to which both God and man must “work together” with respect to justification. Our works, according to James, are the animating spirit of our faith (verse 26).
Especially striking here is James’ interpretation of Genesis 15:6 (“And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness”) as “fulfilled” (eplerothe) in Genesis 22, where Abraham obeys God’s injunction to offer Isaac in sacrifice. His emphasis here is very different from that of St. Paul (Galatians 2:16; 3:6-12,24; Romans 3:28), though the latter too agrees that faith “works through love” (Galatians 5:6; 1 Corinthians 13:2).
James’s second example is Rahab, the Canaanite woman that received and protected the two spies sent by Joshua. She too had faith (Joshua 2:11), but she actually did something with it. She acted on it. Her faith was alive, so it was able to save the two spies. By her deeds, therefore, as much as by her faith, Rahab and her household were “saved” (Joshua 6:22-25). Consequently, the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:31) lists Rahab among the heroes of the faith, and she became a popular figure among the early Christians (Clement of Rome, Corinthians 12).
Sunday, March 20
Proverbs 29: Here are more maxims about the blessings of wise government (verses 2,4,8,14) and the curse of its opposite (verse 12), along with warnings about unnecessary contentions (verses 9,22). As we know from the wrangling of partisan politics, these two concerns are not unrelated (verse 8). A wise society requires not only righteous citizens, but also prophetic visionaries (verse 18; cf. Hosea 12:11; Isaiah 29:7) and wise and righteous rulers. These latter, it is hoped, will come from the ranks of truly humble men (verse 23), self-controlled individuals who know exactly how long to hold their tongues (verses 11,20; James 1:19). Alas, we are forewarned, they will not be respected by the wicked (verse 27).
These latter are described as having stiff necks (verse 1), a metaphor for the stubbornness of the scofflaw (Exodus 32:9; 33:3,5; Deuteronomy 9:3). Stiff necks, however, may get themselves broken. There is no parity between the fear of God and the fear of man (verse 24). The latter leads to compromise and infidelity. The only way to avoid this fear of men is to cultivate the fear of God.
James 3:1-12: James begins by warning of the more severe judgment that awaits teachers, who must answer, not only for their own offenses, but also for the conduct of those badly influenced by their teaching. This more severe judgment, warns James, will make a person cautious about becoming a teacher (verse 1; Matthew 5:19; 23:7-8).
This attention to teaching—since teaching involves speech—prompts James to turn his concern to the moral life of the tongue. He had earlier introduced this theme by the exhortation, “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak” (1:19).
Although each of us fails in many ways, says, James, the description “perfect man” may be ascribed to someone who places adequate moral restraint on his tongue (verse 2). In elaborating this theme, of course, James is heir to the Bible’s Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 15:1-4,7,23,26,28; Sirach 5:11—6:1; 28:13-26).
To illustrate his point about the moral control of the tongue, James provides a series of analogies to the tongue—small objects either of great import or capable of potentially massive harm: a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, the small flame that causes a great conflagration (verses 3-6). A seemingly small thing is capable of things vastly greater than itself. So is it with the tongue. By its proper mastery the entire moral life is brought under discipline.
Left unrestrained, however, the tongue is able to create great spiritual harm, inflaming “the course of nature,” becoming thereby “the sum total of evil” (ho kosmos tes adikias). Wild animals, James continues, are easier to tame than the tongue, which is an “uncontrolled evil, full of death-bearing poison” (verses 7-8).
Examples of such poison are the curses that the tongue pronounces against human beings made in God’s likeness, the same tongue that blesses God Himself (verse 9). How can this be? How can good and evil proceed from a common source?
James’ rhetorical style here is subtler than at first it seems. In his explicit pronouncements he appears to despair of a man’s controlling his tongue: “no man can tame the tongue.” This would almost seem to be his thesis. Yet, despair on this point is the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, James’ analogies convey the opposite impression, and it is this impression that he leaves with the reader. After all we do manage to master the horse by means of the bit. We are able to govern ships by means of the rudder, and a flame, while it is yet small, can normally be controlled. Even as his sentences seem to despair of the project, then, James’ metaphors indicate that this moral endeavor is, in fact, quite manageable.
Monday, March 21
Proverbs 30: This chapter contains the first of the book’s three final collections of wisdom maxims, a collection called “the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh.” The Hebrew text further identifies Agur and Jakeh as “of Massa,” the same place in northern Arabia (Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30) as King Lemuel in the next chapter. Agur, the son of Jakeh, is not called a king, however, nor is he otherwise identified. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he must have been a figure of some renown among the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was intended, requiring no further introduction.
What we have in this chapter is a philosophical discourse delivered by Agur and recorded by his two disciples, otherwise unknown, named Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1). Ancient history from places as diverse as China, India, Egypt, and Greece provides other examples of such discourses given by masters and transcribed by their disciples. One thinks, for instance, of the “Deer Park Sermon” of Siddhartha Gautama.
Unlike Siddhartha, however, whose recent enlightenment (Bodhi) enabled him to discern a relentless Chain of Causation in existence and to devise an ascetical system for dealing with it, Agur of Massa confessed himself completely bewildered by the whole thing: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have knowledge of the Holy One” (verses 2-3).
Such a sentiment makes Agur resemble Socrates more than Siddhartha. Socrates, we recall, once identified by the Delphic oracle as the world’s wisest man, spent his life trying to prove the oracle wrong. Socrates finally concluded, however, that the oracle must be correct because he discovered all reputedly wise men to be just as ignorant as himself, except that they were not aware of being ignorant. Socrates concluded that it was as though the oracle had declared, “Among yourselves, oh men, that man is the wisest who recognizes, like Socrates, that he is truly nobody of worth (oudenos axsios) with respect to wisdom.” Socrates and Agur, then, both associate the quest of wisdom with a humble mind.
Whatever his resemblance to that wise Athenian, nonetheless, Agur more readily puts us in mind of the Psalmist, who confessed to God, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like a beast before You” (Psalms 72 :22) and “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (138 :6).
Whereas the philosophical humility of Socrates was spawned of epistemology—that is, the accepted limitations of the human being’s ability to know—that of Agur was inspired, rather, by cosmology; he considered the sheer vastness of the varied things to be known: “Who has ascended in heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” (verse 4) Agur’s are the sorts of reflections we associate with God’s final answer to Job (Job 38-39).
With scant confidence in his own intelligence, then, Agur began the quest of wisdom by trusting in “every word of God” (kol ’imrath ’Eloah), which word he described, exactly like the Psalmist, as “pure,” seruphah (verses 5-6; Psalms 17 :31). He then turned to prayer—the only explicit prayer in the whole Book of Proverbs—in which he begged God for a modest life, free of falsehood. The life that Agur craved from on high would be neither wealthy nor poor, in order to avoid both arrogance and desperation, either of which might lead him into sin (verses 7-9).
Agur did not think very highly of his contemporaries, whom he described as disrespectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsible, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of themselves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Augur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of maxims based on the number four: four things that are never satisfied (verses 15-16), four things too hard to understand (verses 18-19), four things the world cannot endure verses 21-23), four small but wise animals from whom men can learn useful traits (verses 24-28), and four things “which are stately in walk” (verses 29-31).
Agur’s was, in short, the simple, observant philosophy of a humble man, content to live in this world by the purity of God’s word and a prayerful reliance on God’s gifts, offending the Almighty by neither the food he put into his mouth nor the words he caused to come forth from it.
James 3:13-18: Perhaps following up his comment about the dangers of teaching (verse 1), James goes on to contrast two kinds of wisdom, one demonic and the other godly. These two kinds of wisdom are distinguishable in three ways:
First, they may be distinguished by their immediate fruits. Like faith, says James, wisdom is manifest in its works. Demonic wisdom is marked by bitter envy (zelon pikron) and contention in the heart (eritheian en te kardia), boasting, and lying against the truth (verse 14). Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is manifest in “good conduct and works in the meekness of wisdom” (verse 13). That is to say, a truly wise man is a humble man, readily distinguished from the arrogant, contentious blusterer who is full of himself. Both the Gospels (Matthew 5:5; 11:29) and the Epistles (2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:23) commend the spirit of meekness. Not all meek people are wise, but all wise people are meek.
A second difference between the two kinds of wisdom is found in their differing origins. Evil wisdom is earthly, animal, and diabolical (verse 16). It is the wisdom of death. It comes from below, not from above. Godly wisdom is “from above” (anothen—verses 15,17).
Third, these two types of wisdom are distinguished by where they lead. The wisdom of envy and strife leads to confusion and “every evil work” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20). Godly wisdom, however, leads to purity, peace, gentleness, deference, mercy, sincerity, and reluctance to pass judgment (verse 17). We recognize here some of St. Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
James’ teaching on wisdom, then, is of a piece with his teaching on faith. If a person claims to have faith, let him show his works. If someone claims to be wise, let us see his works. The truth is always in the deeds, not the talk.
Tuesday, March 22
Proverbs 31: Although Proverbs several times encourages a young man to pay attention to the teaching of his mother (1:8; 6:20; 15:20), verses1-9 of this chapter—wisdom from Lemuel's mother—are the only example of maternal teaching explicitly contained in this book. And, on reading this material, one has the impression that it is not much different, on the whole, from the instruction that a young man received from his father. There are warnings against lust (verse 3) and drinking alcohol (verse 4), along with an exhortation to take care of the oppressed and the poor (verses 5-9).
The final twenty-two verses of Proverbs (verses 10-31) form an acrostic, the verses all beginning with the sequential letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The theme is the good wife, a blessing often remarked on throughout this book (5:15; 11:16; 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; cf. Sirach 7:19; 26:1-4,13-18). Here, however, the ideal wife is elaborately described in terms of her industry, economics, stewardship, discipline, labor, charity, wisdom and piety.
James 4:1-10: Having spoken of the great evils that come from an undisciplined tongue (3:2-12) and having listed the contentions characteristic of demonic wisdom (3:13-16), James comes now to those strifes that destroy peace of soul.
This section breaks into two parts. In the first, James analyzes the source of this spiritual problem (verses 1-6), and in the second he prescribes the proper remedy (verses 7-10).
The source of these strifes, says James, is found in the inordinate passions that dominate the worldly heart. The word he uses for “passion” may more correctly be translated as “pleasures” (heonai, from which the English expression “hedonist,” or pleasure-lover). Strife, says James, is the expression of untamed and unsatisfied desires (verse 2).
Nor can these desires, being inordinate, be satisfied through prayer, because such a prayer is as disordered as the desires themselves (verse 3). The problem is deeper. It is friendship with the world, and the world is the enemy of God (verse 4). We recall that Jesus would not pray for the world (John 17:9). Prayer based on friendship with the world, therefore, is of no avail with God.
(We may note that the “scripture” quoted by James in verse 5 is not readily identified. It is possible that he is simply citing some ancient variant of a biblical text that has been lost in the transmission of the manuscripts. It does seem, however, that the “spirit” in this text means man’s natural spirit, not the Holy Spirit.)
The sole resolution to this dilemma, says James, is repentance and the acquisition of humility (verse 6). God is favorable to the humble, whereas He actively resists the proud. This notion from Proverbs 3:34 was apparently a common teaching in early Christian pedagogy. We also find it developed in a passage that closely resembles James here; namely 1 Peter 5:5-7:
“Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘ God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.”
God never resists the approach of someone who desires to draw nigh unto Him. No sigh of repentance goes unheard. No tear of compunction falls unnoticed. On the contrary, He gives His grace to the humble, and mourning and weeping are the activity of the repentant spirit (verse 9).
This is the repentance proper to the foot of the Cross, described by the poet Sidney Lanier in 1882:
“Tell me, sweet burly-bark’d man-bodied Tree
That mine arms in the dark are embracing, dost know
From what fount are these tears at thy feet which flow?”
Wednesday, March 23
Mark 2:13-17: It is at the waterside that Jesus summons Levi. This new disciple, because he collects taxes on behalf of the hated Roman overlord, belonged to a class of citizens odious to most Jews (except the Herodians, who favored Roman rule), and especially to Israel’s rabbinical leaders, identified here as “the scribes and Pharisees.”
Moreover, when Levi invites all his friends to a party, so that they may meet Jesus, Jesus shows no concern at all for the scruples of those who oppose such things. He comes to Levi’s house and enjoys what appears to have been a jolly good time. It was from this occasion, apparently, that Jesus’ enemies tagged Him as a party-goer (Matthew 11:18-19) and a friend of sinners.
The Lord nowhere disowns this latter label. Indeed, He is certainly the friend of sinners. After all, He has demonstrated that He knows exactly what to do with sins, and in the present scene He gathers the sinners unto Himself as special objects of His mission (verse 17). To the shock of the Pharisees, He insists on being the sinners’ friend who suffers and dies to redeem them, and one of the great ironies of the Markan gospel is that Jesus’ enemies are the very ones who make this redemption possible.
James 4:11-17: In this section James give two practical applications of his teaching about submission to God. This teaching is opposed to two sins by which man attempts to usurp the place of God—first, with respect to other men, and second, with respect to the future. Both other men and the future lie outside our ability to know for certain, and the man who pretends otherwise is attempting to take the place of God.
Man must know his limits, especially his limits about what he can know. Proper epistemology, then, is simply a form of humility. Now there are two things a man cannot know: First, someone else’s heart. Second, the future.
First, true submission to God is incompatible with passing judgment on, or speaking ill of, our brother or neighbor. The one who does so sins against the Law, the Law here evidently understood as the law of charity. Therefore, the man who maligns his brother brings the Law into disrepute. The person who does this is not a doer of the Law but a judge thereof (verse 1). The one ultimately offended by such behavior is the Lawgiver and Judge, whose place is usurped by the man who passes judgment on his neighbor (verse 2).
This enormous sin of presumption lies totally at variance with James’ counsel to “submit to God” (verse 7). The judging of one’s neighbor is an expression of pride, which God resists (verse 6).
James then goes to a second practical expression of submission to God; namely, reliance on God’s will for the future. Highly presumptuous is the man who imagines himself in control of his future (verses 13-14). His fortunes may change like the air, says James; his life is no more than a vapor.
A proper attitude toward the future prompts a man to treat his plans somewhat hypothetically—namely, with the proviso, “if God wills.” This hypothesis, sometimes called the conditio Jacobaea, places a man’s soul in the correct posture of humility and submission to God (Acts 18:21; Romans 1:10; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 16:7; Philippians 2:19,24; Hebrews 6:3). It means that a man does not make his plans like an atheist (God did not exist) or a theist (God neither cares nor interferes). Neither the atheist nor the theist can really “submit to God.”
Thursday, March 24
Mark 2:18-22: Whereas the Lord’s enemies had earlier complained of His eating with sinners (2:16), in the present story they are bothered by the fact that His disciples are failing to keep the Jewish weekly fast days.
We know from the Mishnah and the Talmud that devout Jews regularly fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, two days equally distant from the Sabbath, to commemorate the forty days fast of Moses on Mount Sinai (the first of those being a Thursday and the last a Monday). Indeed, the Pharisee in the parable boasted of observing that discipline (Luke 18:12).
In response, Jesus does not denigrate the importance of fasting but directs the structure of the fasting observance to His own person, explaining that His presence with the disciples is sufficient warrant for their not observing the fast (verse 19). Then, aware what His enemies are even now plotting against Him, He foretells His coming death, “when the Bridegroom will be taken away.” Then, says Jesus, fasting will be appropriate. “They will fast on that day,” He declares, in our earliest reference to the traditional Friday fast that Christians maintain to give weekly honor to the Cross of their Lord. By the year 100, and perhaps decades earlier, the Christians added Wednesday as another weekly fast day (the day on which Judas sold Him — Mark 14:1,10), so as not to be fasting less than the Jews did (cf. Didache 8).
James 5:1-12: His manifest familiarity with the Old Testament prophets prompts James to dwell on the causal relationship of greed to many and grievous social evils. Indeed at the pen of James the word “wealthy” becomes nearly a synonym for “unjust,” and those thus described are sternly warned and summoned to repentance.
Since it is very difficult to believe that many wealthy people were among those who first heard read this epistle of James (2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28), this section of the epistle is reasonably regarded as a warning to those who are not rich but would prefer to be. Perhaps the latter number formed a majority of James’ readers. It seems obvious that more people love wealth than have it. This preference for wealth over poverty, because it is nearly universal, prompted the Apostle Peter to ask, “Who, then, can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25)
It is the love of wealth, after all, not the wealth itself, that is spiritually dangerous, and a preference for wealth opens the door to the love of wealth. The very thought of wealth, then, because it is an attractive thought, is already freighted with moral and spiritual peril.
As we observed earlier, James fears that a preference for wealth over poverty is readily translated into a preference for the wealthy over the poor (2:1-4), and this fear is apparently what inspires the harshness with which James speaks here of the wealthy. From the very beginning of this epistle, in fact, James has emphasized the danger of riches (1:9-11). This danger is found everywhere, because a preference for wealth is widespread among men.
So much is this the case that Christians have long regarded the voluntary renunciation of property a kind of “perfection” of the Gospel life (Matthew 19:21), a regard that gave rise to monastic life. Such a renunciation has at least the effect of rendering less likely the fearful judgments to which James refers in these verses.
For James, as for most people, expensive clothing is the clearest sign of wealth and is worn for precisely that reason (verse 2; Isaiah 4:16-26; Acts 12:21; 20:33; Horace, Letters 1.6.40-44). Alas, this interest has not diminished on the earth. Even today James would lament among Christians the same distressing preoccupation with sartorial extravagance, fashion clothing, designer labels, and similar vanity. All these things pertain to worldliness, which is the enemy of God (4:4).
Resources spent on fashion clothing are better conferred on the poor, James indicates, because this conferral will clothe the believer himself against God’s final judgment on man’s social history (verses 4-6).
In the next section (verses 7-12), which follows his reference to the final judgment, James pursues two lines of thought simultaneously, alternating his attention between two themes that have to do with that judgment. On the one hand, there is an exhortation to patience while we await the final judgment, and on the other hand we ourselves are warned with respect to that judgment. James goes back and forth between these two ideas.
In exhorting believers to the exercise of patience, James appeals to two sources of instruction: nature and history. First, with respect to nature, he holds out the example of the farmer, who must steadfastly await the time of harvest. The farmer does not immediately reap the fruits of his labor but must persevere until the Lord provides the fruit, which will not come until the time is ready (verse 7). Similarly the believer must hold fast in the face of persecutions (verses 4-6), as well as the many other difficulties common to human life (verses 12-14,19).
Second, with respect to history, James appeals to the example of the lives of the biblical prophets, among whom he singles out Job, the classical just man who is tried in faith. “We count them blessed [makarizomen],” he says, “who endure [hypomeinantes].” James is resuming here a theme he introduced earlier, the blessedness of the man who is put to the trial: “Blessed [makarios] is the man who endures [hypomenei] temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (1:12). Job appears, then, as James’ example of the “blessed man” who endured.
The second aspect of the final judgment, for James, is that of a salutary warning to Christians themselves, and in this regard he cautions us in two matters:
First, we must be cautious how we treat one another: “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”
Second, we must be cautious how we speak of God. All forms of swearing, for example, must be excluded from the Christian’s vocabulary. God’s name must never be taken lightly and irreverently in our speech: “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.”
In both cases, we observe, James appeals to the coming judgment as a motive for circumspection.
Friday, March 25
The Incarnation: The soteriological intent of the Incarnation was expressed very early in the Epistle to the Hebrews. According to this source, the Incarnation provided God's Son with the means of suffering and dying in obedience to His Father. Commenting on Psalm 39 (40), the author wrote with respect to the Incarnation, "Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: / 'Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin/ You had no pleasure. / Then I said, Behold, I have come/ -In the volume of the book it is written of Me- / To do Your will, O God'"(10:5-7). That is to say, the obedience of Christ was to fulfill and replace the various sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, and for this task the Son obviously required a body.
Moreover, the Son needed this body in order to suffer and die for the human race. Thus, commenting on Psalm 8, this author described in what way the Son became man for our salvation. "We see Jesus," he wrote, "who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone" (2:9).
In order to "taste death" in obedience to the Father, then, the Son assumed our flesh. In order to die as an act of sacrifice, he had to share the mortality of our flesh. Hebrews goes on to say, "Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."
In sum, two aspects of the soteriology of the Incarnation are especially to be observed in treatment of the theme in Hebrews. First, God's Son assumed our flesh in order obediently to die in that flesh. Second, His death in the flesh meant the destruction of the devil, "who had the power of death." According to Hebrews, then, God's Son took flesh in order to die, and He died in order to overcome death and the devil. This line of theological reflection—Incarnation, death, victory—continued throughout Christian history, combining with other biblical themes along the way.