< September 23, 2012 >

Commentary on James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a


After several chapters of warnings and vivid illustrations of the consequences of living contrary to the plan of God, James moves in this passage to describe the good life and give some positive guidance for pursuing it.

We see here some of the clearest parallels between James and other wisdom literature with which we are familiar, both in the Hebrew Bible (especially Proverbs) and the literature of other cultures worldwide, both ancient and modern.

In fact, James uses the language of "wisdom" in verses 13 through 17, contrasting true and false wisdom by means of catalogues of character traits that exhibit first false, then true, wisdom. As in much wisdom literature, the implied question the text addresses is, "How can I live the good life?" And, like much similar literature, the answer lies in the paradox that the good life cannot be found by seeking it directly; rather, when one seeks wisdom, the good life will follow.

While catalogues of vices and virtues were commonplace in ancient wisdom literature, and James's lists bear many characteristics in common with other wisdom lists, it is worth looking more closely to see how James shapes his teaching on wisdom by means of his lists. False wisdom, James claims, comes from jealousy and selfish ambition, traits that lead people to believe that they are better than others and that they have nothing to learn from other people.

Those who imagine that they are above others are, according to James, actually below them, in that the "wisdom" they practice "does not come down from above, but is [in a downward crescendo!] earthly, unspiritual, devilish" (verse 15). Inappropriate actions cannot help but follow. True wisdom, by contrast, is open to others. It is "pure, ... peaceable, gentle, willing to yield" (verse 16). Themes from earlier in the book underlie these lines of thinking: false wisdom talks incessantly, but true wisdom listens. False wisdom blathers on about faith, but true wisdom goes quietly about faithful acts.

James's special emphasis, then, is that wisdom cannot be found unless it is pursued in a spirit of meekness. Meekness is necessary for wisdom, which in turn leads to the good life. What a countercultural message for our own day, in which so many seem to believe that "the good life" cannot be realized unless one is important, a recognized leader in one's field or one's community!

The saying in 3:18 does not completely belong with what precedes it, nor does it connect clearly with what follows. Too, the phrase "harvest of righteousness" is unusual in James's vocabulary; we might have expected instead "harvest of wisdom." It was probably at first an isolated saying, picked up by James here because it does a good job of summarizing the way of life he has been describing. Peace encompasses those who practice it; those who sow peace will reap its harvest, and they will be blessed with righteousness. It is, I think, appropriate to hear the echoes of the Beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God" -- that is, the righteous ones who belong to God.

I have a button that says, "I can tolerate everything except intolerance." I am reminded of that sentiment when, at the beginning of chapter 4, James seems to decide that he must deal contentiously with contentiousness. Even-handed language about the humble and peaceful pursuit of wisdom falls away as he briskly confronts those whom he perceives as behaving improperly toward others.

James makes use of an economic illustration. Scarcity of desired goods leads to an increase in demand, and increased demand leads to disregard of other persons, even to the extent of war. As any economist knows, one way to solve the problem is by increasing supply; but to seek to increase supply by asking God for what we need is futile until we remove ourselves from the economic way of thinking altogether. We receive what we need by no longer seeking it for our own benefit. We only gain when we give away.

So what is it, exactly, that we crave and cannot have and fight over, that we forget to ask for, or ask in vain because we ask selfishly? Cannily, and in keeping with the style of wisdom literature, James sidesteps the "what" to focus attention on the "how," our attitudes and actions. Many groups of readers, in various eras and vastly different circumstances, can see themselves reflected in this portrait.

[James's language grows even more intemperate in verse 4, when he uses the metaphor of an unfaithful wife to describe people's disdain for God's ways. The image is, of course, not foreign to Scripture, appearing as one of Hosea's main tropes, and in Ezekiel and Isaiah as well. Still, there is plenty to preach here without involving ourselves in the difficulties of such an image.]

The final section of our passage consists of short, pithy sayings, a series of imperatives that, taken together, describe the Christian life. (The series continues through verse 10, but we can make a case for stopping after the first three statements.) The idea of "submission" is, of course, familiar in the NT; in various passages Christians are told to submit to one another and to the governing authorities, and some members of Christian households are told to submit to other members. Here, though, the demand for submission is to God alone. No other authority, human or divine, is in view.

Similarly, the ideas of resisting, fleeing, and drawing near are common in Scripture (the verb "draw near" here is the same as in the Gospels, "the Kingdom of God has drawn near"). Yet the ideas that the devil will flee when resisted, and that God will draw near to people who draw near to God, are James' alone. Once again, James creates an imaginative word-picture, a mini-parable, that sets the human being between two opposing forces: God and the devil. Remarkably, James assigns movement between these two forces to human prerogative. There are two ways: the choice between them belongs to us.