James 3:13-4:8 New Revised Standard Version
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
4 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4 Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,“God opposes the proud,but gives grace to the humble.”
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
(Verses omitted by lectionary are in italics)
The Letter of James is widely considered to be an expression of Jewish wisdom literature (there is a similarity in style to the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon). Of course, this is a Christianized form, but it is rooted in the larger Jewish wisdom tradition. As such, James focuses on how we live out the life of faith. He asks the question, “who is wise and understanding among you?” (vs. 13). Then he offers his word of advice, if you are wise then live accordingly. You might say that James is concerned about orthopraxis. Now, according to James, there is more than one kind of wisdom. Different forms of wisdom relate to their point of origin. That is a primary concern in this passage. There is a divine form of wisdom and one that is earthly and unspiritual. The call here then is to embrace the wisdom from above which is marked by works of gentleness rather than being inspired by envy and selfish ambition.
One thing we learn from James is that he understands the world in which we live. He knows that it is filled with challenges and temptations that can lead us away from what God would have us do and be. So, here in our reading for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost James contrasts these two forms of wisdom, one divine and the other earthly. What we read here is an extension of what we read for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, where we hear James ask: “Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can saltwater yield fresh” (Jms. 3:12). This helps us understand James’ view of “works” in the Christian life. Works are, for him, the ethical life. This life is rooted in faith/wisdom. So, the form of faith/wisdom we embrace will determine the direction of our lives. The choice, apparently, is ours.
According to James, the way of divine wisdom includes these qualities: purity, peaceableness, gentleness, a willingness to yield, is full of mercy and good works, no partiality (that is a topic of chapter 2), and no hypocrisy. You can see some overlap with Paul’s fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). For those who embrace this wisdom, which is expressed by peace, they will see a harvest of righteousness.
So far all is good, but peace might not be the dominant experience in James’ churches. As we open chapter 4, James asks the reader about the conflicts present amongst them. We already know from chapter 2 that the congregations were dealing with issues of partiality for the wealthy and against the poor. Then in chapter 3, he addresses the dangerous use of the tongue. Now, having raised the question of the two forms of wisdom, one divine and the other earthly, he asks the reader where all of these conflicts come from. Now, for James, this is a rhetorical question. He already knows the answer. It is the “earthly” wisdom marked by envy and selfish ambition that leads them astray. These “qualities” lead to cravings that are at war within them. In making that comment, James seems to recognize that the members of these congregations are wrestling with these two forms of wisdom, with the earthly wisdom seemingly winning out. Thus, because they don’t get what they desire, they commit murder. When I read this I begin to wonder about the state of the early church. What is going on here? I understand a bit of envy and gossip and maybe partiality, but murder? At a minimum, their desire for things they cannot have leads to conflict and dissension within the ranks. Then James takes an interesting turn. He tells them that they do not have because they do not ask. What does James have in mind here? Is this a reference to prayer? Or simply a reminder that if we ask for something our spiritual siblings might be willing to share? Or could both be in play? Ultimately, they do not receive what they ask for because they ask wrongly, determined to spend on pleasure. Do you get the sense that this community is enticed by a hedonistic culture to join in its ways? Instead of following the ways of Jesus, do they follow the ways of some other god?
The lectionary invites us to skip over verses 4-6, which picks up the image of God being jealous of the affections of the people, or so it seems. We might not like this image, but if taken in context is it not understandable. That is, God cares enough to want to be in a monogamous relationship with the people of God. What James does here is draw on the concept of the marriage covenant, and in doing so he suggests that if God is faithful to the covenant, then should not the other part, whom he calls adulterers. James draws a firm line between God and the world. To be a friend with the world is to be at enmity with God. That is, if you want to be a friend of the world then you are an enemy of God. This sounds rather drastic. After all, doesn’t God love the world (Jn. 3:16)? So, what does God want from us? Should we, like the Amish, separate ourselves from the world? I don’t know many Christians who take that step. I haven’t. I live a pretty normal life in the world. Yes, I’m a Christian and seek to follow the ways of Jesus but I haven’t gone off into the desert to live as a hermit. Nevertheless, James draws on this image of God, the jealous husband to call the people back to living according to divine wisdom. This involves, so James tells us, by submitting ourselves to God, for as Scripture says: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Prov.3:34). Perhaps it’s the image of God being jealous, but these verses are omitted by the lectionary creators, but maybe we need to take note of them.
The reading closes out with verses 7 and 8a. Here we are asked to submit ourselves to God. I’m reminded here that the word Muslim refers to one who submits to God. So, James is inviting us to be Muslims, ones who submit to God. If we do this then we can resist the devil who will flee from us, if we submit to God and therefore stand firm. Yes, if we draw near to God (another way of saying submitting ourselves God) then God will draw near to us. As I read this, I sense that in James’ mind, God gives us room to choose our own, without coercion. We can submit to God and draw near, or we can keep God at a distance. The choice is ours. If we do not choose the ways of God, there will be consequences, as we see here in James’ letter. Now, if you like, you can stop here or continue with verse 8, which says something about washing our hands. In a time of COVID, it might be worth mentioning the value of cleansing hands as a sign of a pure heart. Ultimately, what James would have us do is embody Divine wisdom in the way we live our lives.