BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve done a lot of work with James recently, so we will likely remember off the top of our heads that:
- James is one of the “general” or “catholic” epistles – something people always mention, probably mainly to explain why we aren’t asking exegetical questions about the particular church it was addressed to;
- we call it an epistle even though it doesn’t have classic letter form – in particular, it lacks a typical conclusion, which is a glaring omission if you read the whole book through at one sitting, and which means something, presumably, but what it means is not entirely clear;
- there are questions about which specific early church James wrote the letter, which relates to whether we think it might have been written in the late 60s CE or as late as 85 CE or so, which might matter for what specific issues we think the letter’s recipients might have had on their minds;
- it reads like “wisdom literature,” and uses the looping repetition of major themes to structure its discussion of how to live as Christians.
The theme of treating the poor and needy with justice, which looks a lot like meeting concrete human physical need as a community, is one of those recurrent themes. That’s linked to the distinction between rich and poor that surfaces in our text for Sunday.
The book of James is short. My recommendation is to read over the whole book, again, to get a sense for how this part of the text fits in to the overall presentation. The author has started out in chapter one encouraging a search for wisdom, which we might remember is related to discernment and practical action, and telling people to ask God for it. In the course of that instruction, he lets us know that God is generous and giving, and that doubting – disputing within oneself, dickering – is a bad thing. Then he moves on to urge everyone to rejoice as they become more and more equal, as the lowly are raised up and the rich are brought low.
Enduring temptation is good; generosity is a gift of God’s, who is generous; we need to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger,” and doers of the word, practicing pure religion, that is to say, caring for “orphans and widows in their distress” and not being stained by the world.
That brings us to our text.
Our text will then lead into the famous question about what good is it if you say you have faith and don’t have works, and then on to the rest of the letter, including the major problems associated with saying things period – “the tongue” being a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” – and with disputes and conflicts and riches and worldly living (“murder” and “adultery”) and sins of omission of every kind (James 4:17).
This text is in the lectionary for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Mark), where as it happens it coincides with Mark’s version of Jesus’s back-and-forth with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-37), which is also a kind of wisdom text, and with some appropriate verses from Proverbs 22, and some appropriate Psalms, and a few verses from Isaiah about justice, making for an interesting set of possibilities.
CLOSER READING: The first verse is more of an instruction and less of a question in Greek: “Brothers [and sisters], do not with partiality (favoritism) hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” would be a clunky way to translate it. But from that I can see why the translators of the NRSV made it into a question! Because as a sentence, literally, it could sound like there is a faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ that we can have either with or without partiality. The way we could have a burger with or without onions. But in reality, James seems to mean that the faith of the glorious Lord Jesus Christ isn’t the kind of thing that you can have with partiality, really, any more than you can have a burger made of tofu, really.
The word translated “acts of favoritism” in verse 1 is related to the verb translated “show partiality” in verse 9, and both of them are built on the word for “face,” literally “take face.” Which is, literally, what Leviticus 19:15 also says not to do when it comes to the poor and the rich. Probably not a coincidence, especially since James quotes Leviticus 19:18 – “love your neighbor as yourself” – right here, and just got done talking about faces in chapter 1, in connection with this “royal law” (James 2:8), this “law of liberty” (James 1:25, James 2:12) in illustrating the point about being doers, not merely hearers, of the word.
The word translated “royal,” by the way, is related to the word for the “kingdom” that the poor are heirs to and that has been promised to those who love God. That is, the kingdom of God. That is, it’s kingdom law.
[Which sounds like James is saying that the law of the kingdom of God is the law of freedom.]
In verse 8, the word for “fulfill” is related to the word James uses elsewhere for “mature” or “complete.” Which is the whole point of this instruction – to get the listeners moving towards maturity, completion, and away from self-deception.
In the specific example of showing partiality James describes in verses 2-4, the words “sit at my feet” are literally “sit under my footstool,” which conjures up an image of someone not even willing to take his/her feet off the ottoman and let that poor person sit down. That’s cold.
The mention of “blaspheming” the name in verse 7 makes me wonder whether James might be referring specifically to conflicts that have arisen within the communities that the early Jewish Christians split off from. That doesn’t seem altogether far-fetched. It would resonate with some comments in the gospels, too, about “the Pharisees” being “lovers of money.” There might be some first century “class consciousness” specific to the early Jewish Christian community that links all of that. But that’s pure speculation on my part.
It seems curious that when the law and transgressions come up the examples James gives in verse 11 are “adultery” and “murder.” But he may be prepping his readers to react more strongly to the charges of adultery and murder that are coming up in chapter 4. This may be what he means by being “convicted” by the law in verse 9, an experience that sounds suspiciously like what people mean these days when they say they’re “calling someone out” on something, like being a closet hater.
The word for making “distinctions” in verse 4 is the same word James uses in chapter 1 for having doubts – and remember, someone with doubts ought not to expect to receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-8). It’s two senses of this same word, clearly; but the author is using that relationship here to rhetorical effect. The word is also related to judgment – which is coming up in the next few verses.
The author is playing on these different nuances of the idea of judgment, I think, to drive home the point that the listeners’ [our?] human judgment needs to mirror God’s wise and generous judgment when it comes to how they [we?] are living their [our?] lives, because there is another judgment coming up.
In verse 13, though, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” I have always just read “triumphs” as another word for “winning” there. “Triumph” does mean that in English, although it’s usually used about a BIG win. In English, it also has the meaning of “the processional entry of a victorious general into ancient Rome.” [I checked this in the dictionary.]
The word in Greek, though, is literally “exults over, boasts.” As in, gloats.
I have learned this less than a day after our daughter’s boyfriend demonstrated “a Fortnite dance” for us. A “Fortnite dance” is [I have this on his authority] a computerized avatar dance of triumph over a slain computerized opponent’s avatar. And it’s a vivid example of the kind of triumphing mercy is doing over judgment here.
Once seen, never unseen.
I will never be able to read James 2:13 the same way again.