shrubbery and tree trunks reflected in a spring, in springtime

Study Notes – James 4 1-10

Our study for Sunday, January 13 is James 4:1-10. James, in my experience, has been a favorite of youth Bible studies, despite its reputation with Martin Luther of being “a right strawy epistle.” Luther seems to have thought it put too much emphasis on “works,” and Luther wanted to put the emphasis on “faith.” There are reasons for thinking that controversy might actually be a little beside the point for the book of James. In any case, our part of the book of James deals with different issues, with people’s priorities and what it takes to find genuine success in life. Here are my notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: There are differing views on all the aspects of this book. Traditionally, it’s been attributed to James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jerusalem church, but there are reasons to think it would be better attributed to a different author, possibly a secretary or a disciple of that James. (Here is a summary of those arguments by Peter H. Davids.)

Traditionally, we’ve thought it was a late composition, and was maybe even directed specifically at ideas that surface in Paul’s letters, maybe even Romans. Lately, people have started to give it an early date, maybe even earlier than any of Paul’s letters. We used to think it was written mainly to a Jewish Christian audience, but perhaps we ought to read its address to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion” as a reference to the entire church.

The upshot of all this seems to be that, while we can’t say “it could be anything” (it’s not a gnostic gospel, for instance, or a prophecy), there is some question about the circumstances under which the book was written, and the purpose of the book. What is clear from the text itself is that it’s a book of moral exhortation, that urges its readers to hold to some specific standards of conduct and the attitudes that go with them. In that way, it fits the genre of wisdom literature as well as the form of Greek letters of moral exhortation.

While some people read James as a loosely organized book of sayings, almost like Proverbs, if we read the book as a whole, it gives the impression of arranging its material so as to build on and circle around and reinforce its themes: care for the poor and for equality in the church, humble obedience to God’s commands, purity of heart and practice, and the management of conflict.

Our text comes near the end of the book, after the author has already introduced the themes of wisdom (1:5), humility vs. riches (1:9; 2:1-13), peace and its relationship to righteousness (1:19; 3:13-18), walking the walk (1:22 – “be doers of the word and not hearers only”) and purity (1:26-27).

[From all of this, a reader might get the impression that the author is thinking about the kind of internal problems that can arise in an organization when people lose sight of the main, common goal and begin pursuing their self-interest. That is, a temptation common to organizations of a certain age in all times and places, at least arguably. In my book, this would make James, whoever he was, wise indeed.]

Parts of this text show up in the lectionary as part of the epistle for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost in Year B (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8). The last part of chapter 3 does seem to be the immediate context for our reading, as it sets up the contrast of the “wisdom from above” with the anti-wisdom of “bitter envy and selfish ambition” that is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” The negative side of that contrast is expanded in 4:1-10. When we are later told to “resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” (4:7) this particular lure of the devil – the lure of bitter envy and selfish ambition – seems likely to be the one we’re meant to think of.

CLOSER READING: The word translated conflicts in v1 is literally “wars,” the Greek word that gives us our word “polemic,” warlike or attack speech, and the external wars are attributed to internal wars fueled by cravings or desires.

Whether members of the church were literally murdering each other (v2), or “merely” insulting each other and calling each other names (compare Matthew 5:21-25) might not be the issue. What are we ourselves more likely to do?

You do not have, because you do not ask is a favorite saying these days, especially in “prosperity gospel” circles, so it might be worth noticing that the very next clause points out that asking “wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” is probably going to take the wind out of my sails if I’m trying to pray up a bigger house or a fancier car. Unless it’s for the glory of God, maybe.

The lesson plan for this week wants to make this a lesson that has something to do with love, which makes verse 4 the most important, because if there is any love in this text, it’s the “friendship with the world” – literally, love of the world – that makes a person an enemy of God. James calls those who pursue friendship with the world adulterers, the strongest possible condemnation of people who abandon their legitimate relationship (with God) for the sake of a more enticing one (with “the world” – in this context, “the world” seems to mean something “caring about riches or position”).

It’s James’s use of the spousal metaphor – familiar from Hebrew scripture, as a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel – that gives meaning to God’s yearning for the readers’ spirits (v5).

On that reading, verses 7-10 take on something of the flavor of reconciliation after a break-up, in the context of an ancient world model of happy marriage. In particular, it shades the language of drawing near to God, and God’s drawing near to you, with that quality.

The language of submission or obedience might raise its perennial difficulties for some of us (like me), just because of its long and painful associations with arbitrary, punitive, injurious, and oppressive exercises of authority. People who love the world enough to want to exercise that kind of authority themselves seem to like to draw on instructions like this to back up their positions. So, once again, I run through the litany of responses to this language: God is not that kind of authority; when we know that someone has our best interests at heart and is actually good at securing them, it is in our best interest to follow their instructions – the way we comply with or “submit to” doctor’s orders or our piano teacher’s instruction to practice our scales, that is, in a way that makes good, rational use of our autonomy as opposed to just acting like we’re not supposed to have it; this is not an instruction to submit to people who are claiming to speak for God but aren’t; that whole fire drill. Maybe I wouldn’t have a problem with this language if it weren’t for people who misuse it. Except for the problem I have with not ever wanting to do things I don’t want to do even when I know perfectly well they’re good for me, like exercise.

James’s point really seems to be: you’re submitting to someone/something no matter what; so, don’t submit to the devil of bitter envy and selfish ambition; submit to God.

Verses 7-10 read like a call to repentance – that is, the lead up to the instruction to humble yourselves puts that action of humbling in the context of a reversal of values. What had been a cause for laughter and joy needs to be rightly perceived as a cause for sorrow (v9).

Once we have our priorities in order, then God will raise you up (v10). Of course, we know that God’s idea of raising people up does not always look like raising up in the eyes of the envious and ambitious. But what we count as exaltation all depends on who and what we love.

shrubbery and tree trunks reflected in a spring, in springtime

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