Lectionary Commentaries for September 30, 2018
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 9:38-50

Philip Ruge-Jones

This story comes as Jesus heads toward Jerusalem.

Throughout Mark 8-10, Jesus struggles to turn the disciples’ thoughts from human thoughts to God’s thoughts. The disciples have great difficulty getting to where Jesus is leading them. Peter tried to protect his friend from the danger ahead, and Jesus called him Satan. The disciples argued among themselves about who was greatest and Jesus called them to welcome children. Remember last week when he held that toddler in his arms? Our story picks up there and we have no indication that Jesus has set aside the child.

A conversation not followed

John speaks up for the first of two times in Mark’s gospel. On both occasions, John addresses Jesus as “teacher” and immediately demonstrates that he has not followed Jesus’ teaching. The second occasion will be when Jesus predicts his upcoming passion for the third time, and John together with his brother will turn away from the prediction again to pursue their own greatness. That second John-speech shares many traits with the one assigned for today. In the first part of the story (which we heard last week), Jesus is holding the toddler in his arms and exhorting his disciples to attend to them if they wish to pursuit greatness. John interrupts him — “teacher” — without any sign that he has heard this and steers the conversation away from hospitality and compassion. John seems to be king of the non sequitur.

Multiple responses

The speech patterns in Jesus’ reply suggest surprise and frustration. Jesus has to take several runs at explaining John’s error. No one verbally interrupts Jesus for clarification as they often do. Yet, as we overhear Jesus’ response we sense that Jesus sees how little the disciples are following his argument. He offers multiple responses to explain all that is wrong with John’s censure of the exorcist.

First, Jesus emphatically states not to stop him. Then three gar clauses in rapid succession point out the problems with John’s assumptions. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) drops the middle “for” which could have connected the multiple attempts to teach those who prove unteachable. My own translation would be, ““Don’t stop him, ‘cause there is no one who will do a work of power by my name and very soon after be able to pronounce misfortune on me, ‘cause all who aren’t against us are for us, ‘cause all who offer you a cup of water based on a name, because you are under the anointed one, I tell you, this is the way it is, they definitely won’t lose their reward.”

Returning to the child

Because the lectionary separated what Jesus says about the toddler he holds from John’s non sequitur, Jesus seems to be one who makes a leap to a new topic. But actually Jesus is bringing the attention of the disciples back to his teaching about the child whom he still holds in his arms. He told them of the importance of welcoming the little ones; now he warns of what will happen if they act hostilely toward the same.

Just as Jesus took three runs at John’s confusion in the hopes of straightening him out, here he takes several runs at explaining the perils of acting scandalously toward the little ones. Unlike the three random responses to John, these come across as carefully thought out. This is where Jesus was headed prior to John’s interruption. Close repetition holds the argument together as Jesus talks about the cost of harming children. (Late manuscripts tried to make the parallels even more emphatic by using the language of verse 48 after each warning. The use of more trustworthy, earlier manuscripts leads the NRSV to omit verses 44 or 46.)

The repetition serves to drive home Jesus’ warning vividly. Similar to the response to the exorcist issue, Jesus begins with a clear and unambiguous statement. Those scandalizing the little ones who trust deserve to sleep with the fishes. Then Jesus states three times that losing a scandalizing member is preferable to gaining a place in the eternal fire. This echoes the warnings in Mark 8 about losing oneself in order to find oneself although the metaphor has become very concrete. Hands, feet, and eyes are lost so that one’s self is not.


A bridge between the unquenchable fire discourse and Jesus’ final point is made by first linking fire to being salted with fire, and then linking that salting with salt and its proper functioning. Jesus calls the disciples to have salt among themselves. In order to be sure they are following this time, Jesus moves out of metaphor and speaks plainly (perhaps again responding to the puzzled look on their faces): be at peace with one another. In the journey toward Jerusalem, peace among themselves has proven and will prove to be a continual challenge.

The sacrament of children

When seen in the narrative flow, this text warns of missing Jesus’ call to care for the little ones. Inattention to the little ones imperils one’s life eternally. Children are portrayed as those who practice that key marker of discipleship: they trust or believe in Jesus (verse 42). When Jesus held the toddler in their midst Christ declared the child a sacrament of God’s presence and his own: ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’ (Mark 9:37).

This story warns us to pay attention to the children who give us access to the presence of God. We are to do all within our power to protect and care for them within the community of faith and without. Sometimes we do damage to them actively. But just as often we, like John, simply lose track of those whom Jesus has put in the center of community. We become distracted by competition or our own status. Jesus calls us to be a community of peace where trusting children are cherished.

First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Terence E. Fretheim

These verses stand near the beginning of part II of Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness, having just departed from Mt. Sinai (10:11-36:13; see Exodus 15:22-18:27 for part I).1

The entire book of Numbers is set in a journey through the wilderness (‘In the wilderness’ is the Hebrew title for Numbers). When you are reading Numbers, think journey — journey through the wilderness of life.

This wilderness setting presents problems and possibilities for shaping a community identity for the newly redeemed people of God. The period of wandering is a necessary buffer between liberation and landedness for the sake of forming this identity. Such a process does not unfold easily for Israel or for God. The people have been taken out of Egypt, but it proves difficult to take Egypt out of the people. The familiar orderliness of Egypt seems preferable to the insecurities of life lived from one oasis to the next. 

The introductory note in 11:1-3 introduces a pattern in both form and content for several episodes that follow: murmuring; judgment; cry (of repentance); intercession; deliverance. God’s anger is provoked because of the people’s complaining and the fire of the LORD, perhaps lightning (see Exodus 9.23-24), consumes outlying areas of the camp.

The coherence of 11:4-35 is difficult to fathom, perhaps reflecting different traditions. Yet, good sense can be made of the awkwardness. These verses interweave concerns about food and Moses’ leadership. The lectionary text focuses on the leadership issues and, except for the introductory note in 11:4-6, eliminates the texts having to do with the provision of food in the wilderness (11:7-9, 17-23, 31-35; see 20.1-13). I will comment on the entire text.

In 11:4-15, the “rabble” (non-Israelites, Exodus 12.38), joined by the Israelites’ and their nostalgia for Egyptian food, despise God’s gifts of food (verses 6, 18) and deliverance (verse 20). Complaining has become a pattern of life. Nostalgically recalling the (mostly vegetable) diet typical for Egyptians, they cry out for fish. God’s gift of manna, which corresponds closely to a natural phenomenon in the Sinai Peninsula (see Exodus 16:14-21), was not thought to provide the strength they needed (though it was tasty and choice). This amounts to a request for the Exodus to be reversed.

In response to God’s anger (11:10) and in language typical of lament psalms, Moses complains that, given what the people have become, God has mistreated him. God has placed too heavy a leadership burden on him (see Exodus 18:18), and provided insufficient resources. Moses uses striking maternal imagery for God: God has conceived and birthed this people (see Deuteronomy 32.18; Isaiah 42:14; 66:13) and hence God should assume the responsibilities of a wet nurse and see to the people’s nourishment. Moses should not have to carry this burden alone, implying that God is negligent. Feeling caught in the middle, Moses asks for either relief or death.

A lively exchange between God and Moses follows. God replies to Moses’ complaint in two respects:  (1) God will share the spirit given to Moses with others, who will help to bear the burden (see verses 16-17, 24-30); (2) God will provide the meat for which the people have asked (see verses 18-23, 31-35). 

(1) As for burden-sharing (see verses 16-17; 24-30), Moses obeys God and gathers seventy elders around the tent (in the center of the camp). God shares Moses’ spirit (ruah; not quantitatively understood), which had its source in God, with the elders, and they prophesy.  Such a charisma was given to various leaders, both within and without Israel (24:2; 27:18; 1 Samuel 10:5-10), and it was transferable (see 2 Kings 2:9).

Unlike Moses, however, they prophesy only once, but may assume some ongoing burdens (see 16:25). Even two elders who remained in the camp (Eldad and Medad) receive a share of God’s spirit. Despite efforts by Joshua to stop them, Moses refuses any protection of his authority or restriction of the divine word to established channels (see 12:1-16). Indeed, Moses wishes that all God’s people could receive this charisma!

(2) As for food provision (see verses 18-23; 31-35), God declares that they will indeed get meat.  But it will be so much (a month’s worth!) that it will become loathsome. Moses responds by wondering how meat can be found for so many people (only soldiers are counted; see 1:46).   God responds with a rhetorical question (verse 23): in effect, God’s hand is not “too short” (see NRSV footnote; no general statement is made about divine power; see Isaiah 50:2; 59:1) to provide this amount of food. God will show that his word is good.

The food comes in the form of quails (see verses 31-35; Exodus 16:13; Psalm 78:26-31), carried into the camp on a wind (ruah) from the sea, the Gulf of Aqaba. The quails cover the ground for miles to a depth of two cubits (about three feet); the least gathered was ten homers (probably sixty bushels). Before they had finished eating, God’s anger was provoked and a plague (related to the food?) swept the camp.

The reader should beware of both ‘rationalization’ and supernaturalism in interpreting wilderness stories such as this. The provision of water and quails is not to be divorced from a recognition of nature’s God-given potential. God is not creating something out of nothing here; neither water nor quails materialize out of thin air; water courses through rock formations and quail fly through this part of the Sinai Peninsula. God works in and through the natural to provide for his people. Even in the wilderness God’s world is not without resources.

Israel’s time in the wilderness is finally shaped by God’s extraordinary patience and mercy, and the divine will to stay with Israel in this time of adolescence. No divine flick of the wrist is capable of straightening them out without compromising their freedom. If God wants a mature child, the possibility of defiance must be risked. But it soon becomes clear that the process of maturation will take longer than a single generation. 


1 Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 30, 2012.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Cameron B.R. Howard

In the language of literary analysis, chapter 7 is the climax of the book of Esther; in the language of reality television, it’s the “big reveal.”

Esther reveals to the Persian king that Haman has plotted to kill her and her people: all of the Jews in the kingdom. Of course, the reader already knows that Haman is the instigator of the planned genocide. The reader also already knows that Esther is Jewish and that she is willing to risk her life to intervene for her people; she faced her greatest danger in chapter 5, when she dared to enter the king’s inner court unsummoned (see Esther 5:11-16). What, then, is revealed to the reader in this passage? What new information do we learn, and what tensions are resolved?

In chapter 7, our eyes are on the king. Will he intervene to stop Haman’s plot? He is the one who signed off on it, and he is the one with the power to interrupt it. Yet, we also know that the king is both ridiculous and inept! The king is portrayed satirically throughout the book: he has difficulty reading situations, he is unable to make his own decisions, and he overreacts to small-scale problems. For example, when the king’s wife Vashti refuses to appear before him at his party, he is enraged, but he acts neither independently nor proportionally (see Esther 1:10-20). Instead, he consults seven advisors, who decide that the queen’s disobedience of the king will have repercussions throughout the kingdom, and that, in addition to stripping Vashti of her title, a formal decree calling for wives to obey their husbands must be issued.

Upon hearing Esther’s account of Haman’s plot, the king is enraged (again), and Haman is terrified. In Esther 7:7-8, which are omitted from the lectionary, we learn that the king stomps out to the garden, while Haman “stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther” (7:7). When the king comes back inside, he sees Haman prostrate on Esther’s couch, and we notice once again that the king does not understand how to read a situation. He believes Haman is trying to sexually assault Esther, and it is for that reason he condemns Haman, not for his plot against the Jews. While the defeat of Haman is the “correct” outcome, the king reaches that outcome erroneously.

It is both puzzling and unfortunate that the lectionary leaves out verses 7-8, because in these verses the extent of the king’s incompetence comes to light.1 The events of chapter 7 reinforce that the book of Esther is not only the tale of one woman’s heroism, but also a commentary on the experience of post-exilic Jews living in Diaspora under foreign rule. The king seems oblivious and prone to excess, and his methods appear arbitrary, yet his decisions have devastating consequences for his subjects. This dynamic is perhaps best summed up in Esther 3:15, just after the king’s edict for the annihilation of the Jews has been released: “The king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Susa was thrown into confusion.” For the king and Haman, the edict is just another paper to sign, while for the people in their charge, it is a calamity. The book of Esther portrays the fears and complexities of living as a Jew in a foreign land, and it wrestles with how to survive and thrive under rulers who are at turns capricious or hostile.

So what is a Christian preacher to do with an Old Testament lesson that satirizes an ancient and foreign king, provides the backstory for a Jewish festival (Esther 9:20-22), and contains no direct mention of God? One option would be to reflect on the genre of satire itself as part of Scripture. The book of Esther reminds us that throughout the Bible, the machinations of politics and imperialism are not tangential to the experiences of people of faith, but rather shape deeply their everyday engagement with God. This phenomenon is especially clear in the work of the prophets, who often address kings and rulers directly, and who portray foreign powers as instruments of God’s judgment.

The book of Esther’s satire takes a less direct approach, using humor to expose the empire as a farce, and confronting its violence with ridicule in order to mitigate its terrors. Of course, the book of Esther does not provide a guidebook for finding moral responses to state terror; the victories of the “good guys” in Esther are as excessively violent as the plots by the “bad guys.” Rather, in its darkly ironic reversals of fortune — Haman is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai, for example — Esther highlights the absurdity of violence and the intractable dysfunction of empire.

For preachers, the genre of this text is important to hold at the center of its interpretation. Satire functions very differently than the law or the prophets, Proverbs or Psalms. It comments on the ways things are, taking aim at the powers of the world. Satire within Scripture embraces humor, even macabre humor, as a way to cope with a world marked by brokenness. If we are to learn a lesson from Esther, perhaps that lesson lies not in the content of its plot, but rather in the mode of its storytelling. Maybe what we learn from Esther is not about whether to meet violence with violence, but rather that we should counter our fears with humor, with laughter.

After all, there are countless other passages in the Bible that witness boldly to God’s action in the world. Esther, on the other hand, witnesses to the power of a good story to give us hope. Rather than succumbing to despair, Esther — like the carnival-esque festival of Purim it inspires — encourages us to meet terror with ridicule. Satiric storytelling is not the only response to oppression we can or should muster, but the book of Esther reminds us it is indeed a valid response, one that helps us hold fast to our conviction that the grace-filled power of God ultimately will overcome the destructive powers of this world.


1 It is certainly the case that intergenerational worship contexts require careful consideration of what details to include when children are in the room. However, given that forced concubinage and genocide are already prominent topics in Esther, eliminating these two verses does not suddenly make this story child-friendly.


Commentary on Psalm 19:7-14

Rolf Jacobson

C.S. Lewis called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”1

The song employs beautiful imagery, playful poetry, and elegant prayer-petitions. For the pastor who opts to preach on the psalm this week, most of the challenge will be to get out of the way so that this gorgeous song can ring. (The same challenge is true for the cantor who arranges the psalm to be sung or chanted this week.)

The Psalm as a Whole: The Root Metaphor of Speech
The first task for the pastor or cantor will be to decide whether to use the whole psalm or just the assigned verses. Unfortunately, the Revised Common Lectionary assigns only the latter half of the psalm. The division of this psalm into two halves follows a now outdated interpretation of the psalm. In the middle of the last century, many interpreters viewed this psalm as comprised of two (or three) unrelated poems. This was the case for several reasons:

  • In the first section (verses 1-6), the focus is on creation, the genre is similar to a hymn, the poetry is flexibly fluid, and the generic name for God (El) is used.
  • In the second section (verses 7-10), the focus is on God’s Torah (translated in the NRSV and NIV as “law” but “instruction” would be better), the genre is similar to a wisdom psalm, the poetry becomes consistently formal, and the proper name of the LORD (YHWH) is used.
  • In the third section (verses 11-14), the focus shifts to the “servant” who speaks the psalm, the genre is similar to a prayer, the poetry becomes more informal, and the proper name for the LORD (YHWH) continues to be used.

The noted scholar A. Weiser went so far as to write, “Why these … dissimilar psalms were united in one single psalm cannot any longer be established with any degree of certainty.”2 The lectionary’s choice of only the second half of the psalm is informed by this older view.

But most current interpreters hold that the poem is a coherent whole. The root metaphor of the psalm is speech:

Part I (verses 1-6) Creation’s Speech — praise for God
Part II (verses 7-10) Torah’s Speech — instruction of humanity
Part III (verses 11-14) Servant’s Speech — prayer to God

Clint McCann has summed up the psalm’s message thusly: “Psalm 19 intends to teach.”3 The first part of the poem teaches that the heavens tell us that there is a God. The power of the creator can be known about through the paradoxical, unspoken speech of creation: “There is no speech, nor are there words; [the heavens’] voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (verses 3-4).

But the second part of the psalm teaches us who God is and what God wills. The Lord’s Torah — we would call it Scripture — is a word that we can actually understand and gives us words to follow.

The Assigned Verses: “The Torah of the Lord is Perfect”
As already mentioned, the poetry and focus of the psalm change beginning with verse 7, which is the first verse in the psalm’s second section. The focus shifts to the “Torah of the Lord.” The poetry becomes rigidly regular. Each of the lines in verses 7-9 is constructed identically: noun + YHWH + adjective + participle + noun.4

Each phrase begins with a synonym for the Torah of the Lord — Torah, decrees, precepts, commandment, fear, and ordinances — are a reference to the word of God revealed in the Scriptures. Torah is not here “law” in the legal sense, but as “instruction” in a more holistic sense. This section of the poem celebrates what God has done and continues to do through the Scriptures. God revives the soul, makes wise the simple, enlightens the eye, endures forever, and is altogether righteous.

Stop a moment. Pause briefly and linger on the promise here.

The Bible is such a part of Western society that we often fail to appreciate the means of grace that Scripture is. The psalm offers poetic testimony that invites both church and synagogue to realize the miracle that we hold in our hands. And it does this by offering promises about what the Word does (revive the soul, make wise the simple, enlighten the eye, and so on).

Even the laws of the Bible are to be treasured as gracious gifts from God. Aren’t you glad that God has told you how to live? The psalmist is! And the psalmist is overjoyed to be part of the people that God has blessed with the laws and promises of Scripture. As Deuteronomy puts it, “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (4:7-8)

The poem then offers two (literally) golden metaphors for the Word. It is more desirable than refined gold. It is sweeter than the golden honey of the honeycomb. (Warning: At the children’s sermon, you probably should not have the kids go all Winnie-the-Pooh and dip their hands into the “hunny” pot as an illustration of this psalm. But it would be funny … unless you are my pastor.)

A Prayer for Forgiveness
Lest some Christian reader be tempted to the crypto-Marcionite conclusion that Psalm 19 teaches some sort of “works righteousness,” the poem closes with a prayer for forgiveness.

Yes, the Torah of the Lord is perfect. Yes, its laws are a gracious gift from the very God who created us — they show us how to live and they offer pictures of what it means to love the neighbor.

As the psalmist knows, “in keeping them there is great reward” (verse 11b). Reward here doesn’t mean that God miraculously rewards those who keep God’s law. Rather, reward here means that good things come in the very earthly keeping of the laws — don’t steal and you stay out of prison, don’t kill and you won’t be executed, and so on.

But, as the psalmist also knows that perfect obedience is beyond human capacity. The psalmist knows that no one “can detect their [own] errors.” Therefore the psalmist prays, “Clear me from hidden faults” (verse 12).

A Final Word
The psalm ends with a prayer that many preachers use for the start of their sermon: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The use of this prayer in connection with preaching begs us to wonder if even our proclamation of God’s word needs God’s forgiving, gracious blessing.

Are there “errors” in our sermons? I am sure that there are in my sermons — and not just grammatical mistakes. Surely from time to time (and perhaps every time) my proclamation of the gospel includes heresy.

Are there “hidden faults” in our preaching? Absolutely — especially my own. Not just slips of the tongue. Surely from time to time (and perhaps every time) my explanation of the law includes immoral or unethical conclusions.

But this, too, God — our Rock and our Redeemer — has redeemed.

Thank and praise God.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Sept. 30, 2012. Quotation from C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1986), 63.
2 Artur Weiser, The Psalms: A Commentary, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 197.
3 McCann, “Psalms,” 751.
4 The pattern is broken slightly in the last part of verse 9, which brings the section to a fitting climax.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:13-20

Robert Hoch

Whenever I think of James’ picture of the poisonous tongue (James 3:1-12), I think of the way human gossip works, or the way, in small groups, we will speak uncharitably about others, our neighbors or so-called friends.

It seems like a preeminently churchy sort of text, where we spend a lot of time talking, often to no good end and maybe to some evil ends. Slander, malicious talk — or just talk that only begets more talk — that’s deadly, according to James. Maybe we conclude that speech is antithetical to James’ conception of community: “Be doers of the Word!” (James 1:22a). Indeed, when we last heard James address the topic of human speech, it was not encouraging.

According to James, the tongue, so seemingly small, produces massive disasters: “A forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire” (James 3:5b-6a). Of all the creatures of the world, the tongue alone refuses to be tamed — “it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8b). The speech that flows from the tongue is like well-water contaminated with salt; it cannot produce potable water (James 3:12).

And, yet, according to James 5:13-20, there are forms of speech that produce good things. A positive view of speech in James may surprise us because we don’t often associate this letter with speech. However, in James 5:13-20, James exhorts the community to form itself in non-abstract speech acts, including gathering for prayers among people who know pain, or offering songs of praise, and sharing confessions of sin, that the community might be reconciled, that it might actually and physically exist. Not least, he says, remember the stories of your ancestors as you face your own trials and tribulations. Elijah was just like us! In other words, speech that is peaceful, pure, gentle, and just contributes to the restoration of actual community.

Maybe the kind of speech recommended in James 5:13-20 is the antidote to the double-minded speech of James 3:1-12. The latter, he will say, comes from below while the former comes from above. For James, there is a clear line of demarcation between the two. You know the difference by what they, respectively, produce. Wisdom from below produces division, disorder, and rancor; the other, wisdom from above, is pure, peaceable, and gentle — it produces a harvest of righteousness for those who make peace (James 3:16-18).

Speaking of speech that produces rancor rather than a harvest of righteousness … a recent article by Yale historian, Timothy Snyder, criticizes the “happy talk” that heaps praises the so-called connectivity of the internet: “… the Internet has not spread liberty around the world. On the contrary, the world is less free, in part because of the Web.” According to Snyder, the intelligence of the internet (or its tongue) is not merely a parallel or rival to its human counterpart. The “tongue of the internet” isn’t so much used as it is a systemic user; we are not consuming its products, but instead, through myriad interactions, algorithms, and data bases, we are the product that is being manufactured and ultimately consumed.

It may not be too much to say that the Internet is a rival creator, that would make us in its own image. Snyder argues that the rise of the Internet coincides with what he calls Fascism 2.0:

Traditional fascists wanted to conquer both territories and selves; the Internet will settle for your soul. The racist oligarchies that are emerging behind the Internet today want you on the couch, outraged or elated, it doesn’t matter which, so long as you are dissipated at the end of the day… The Internet creates a sense of ‘us and them’ inside a country, and an experience that feels like politics but involves no actual policy.1

He acknowledges instances in which the Internet has, in fact, fostered community organizing. Nevertheless, he argues that those who use the internet in this way are actually undermining the Internet’s systemic logic. Moreover, when communities (like churches) use the Internet to organize actual movements — read human movements that join disparate people in acts of solidarity with the exploited — political leaders may call those involved on the ground “paid actors” or “professional protesters” rather than concerned human beings assembling together to create a better community: “In the age of the Internet, stretching one’s legs with strangers is a frightening political act.”2

It seems that James exhorts the community to engage in precisely those kinds of “frightening political acts” — and with James it isn’t merely the feeling of politics but its actuality, the flesh and blood (often awkward) expressions of community that seek to reflect the radical love of God. What other purpose could we assign for the warning against showing partiality in James 2:1-13? Where else do we find this issue? In the gated communities of privilege? Or in the grinding poverty of exclusion? James envisions something wildly out of sync with the segregated ways of worldly wisdom.

What is the source of this alternative existence? Like the prophets of Israel, the writer envisions the alternative community of faith as one forged in the image of God. The writer mentions Christ only twice, once in the greeting (James 1:1) and as a warning against partiality (James 2:1). According to Luke Timothy Johnson, James writes for the formation of intentional community in the image of God — and he is rigorous in supplying a theological warrant for the practices and politics of community, with 24 explicit references to God (theos, pater, kyrios) out of 108 verses. And these references to God supply the driving force for the moral action being recommended.3

How do our speech-acts as a community formed in the image of God reflect God’s speech (for example the mirror analogy of James 1:23-25)? Reading James’ instructions on speech in community suddenly becomes almost revolutionary in its implications. It is deceptively simple.

If someone is suffering, let them pray. If someone is happy, let them sing songs of praise. If someone is sick, ask the elders to come and anoint them with oil and pray for their healing. Confess your sins to one another. Be reconciled. Be renewed. Be whole. Learn from people like Elijah, who was just like us, and whose prayers were powerful and effective amid natural and political droughts. Restore one another to the community forged in God’s image. In other words, our theological language is meaningless apart from the way our language fosters the whole human experience, including the testimony of those the powers call orphans, widows, and immigrants.

James might say that testifying alongside those who are robbed, deported, or discriminated against is a profoundly theological act. We are organized indeed! One experiences a kind of simplicity in testimony of this kind. And likewise, the church born of this testimony, reflects a form of God-shaped humanity which flourishes, against the grain, in contexts of exile.


  1. Timothy Snyder, “Fascism is Back. Blame the Internet” in The Washington Post (21 May 2018) accessed on June 12, 2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/21/fascism-is-back-blame-the-internet/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9244fcf96b24.
  2. Timothy Snyder, “Fascism is Back. Blame the Internet” in The Washington Post (21 May 2018) accessed on June 12, 2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/21/fascism-is-back-blame-the-internet/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9244fcf96b24.
  3. Luke Timothy Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 245-8.