Lectionary Commentaries for September 20, 2015
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 9:30-37

Micah D. Kiel

Mark’s intercalations (also known as “sandwiches”) are well known (e.g., Mark 5:21-43).

Mark also places stories side by side as way of making a point that could not have been achieved without such juxtaposition. For instance, the disciples’ lack of insight into Jesus’ identity after the calming of the storm, causing them to ask, “Who then is this?” (Mark 4:41) contrasts with the next story, in which a demon knows Jesus’ identity (Mark 5:7). In the passion narrative, the soldiers mock Jesus with a chant of “Prophesy!” (Mark 14:65). The very next story, in which Peter denies Jesus, provides a direct fulfillment of something that Jesus had indeed prophesied a few verses earlier (Mark 14:26-31).

We are well justified, then, to begin thinking about this gospel reading by looking at how the adjacent episodes can be read together. This reading in Mark 9:30-37 has two distinct episodes, although they are clearly linked as events that happened while travelling in Galilee.

In the first section (Mark 9:30-32), Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for a second time (the first was in Mark 8:31-33). Although the disciples’ reaction by this point is unsurprising, they have no idea what he is talking about. Their fear precludes them from even asking. Fear is ubiquitous in Mark. Characters repeatedly fear Jesus (Mark 4:35-41) or some manifestation of the Kingdom of God associated with him (Mark 5:1-20). Fear, in Mark’s gospel, is the paired opposite of faith. For example, in the calming of the storm, Jesus asks the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). Jesus’ statement to Jairus about his dead daughter is similar: “Do not fear; just have faith” (Mark 5:36). Faith in Mark is not intellectual assent to a series of ideas or articles to be believed. Faith is more about what is in your gut, fortitude. In Mark 9:32 we see the disciples unable to ask Jesus about what confused them, which for Mark is emblematic of a lack of faith. In chapter 10 Jesus gives a third prediction of his death and resurrection, and fear will be the primary response once again (Mark 10:32-34).

The second episode confirms the disciples’ ignorance. Jesus asks them what they had been arguing about, and it turns out the topic had been who was the greatest. The fact that their time had been spent with apostolic jostling confirms just how hardened their hearts have become (an idea first suggested in Mark 6:52). Juxtaposing Jesus’ words about his coming suffering and their argument about who is the greatest is Mark at his ironic best and contributes to the continued depiction of the disciples and Jesus.

Jesus then describes what the kingdom of God is like, and how its “reality” is construed differently than any human reign. Those who are most honored in the Kingdom are the servants and those who are least. This idea has been shown time and again throughout the gospel; the kingdom breaks into the world in the least likely of places. The twelve disciples are constantly ignorant and afraid. Those who are successful are ostracized demoniacs and others who are possessed (Mark 5:1-20; Mark 7:24-30); bleeding women and dead girls (Mark 5:21-43); the sick (Mark 6:53-56); and those with disabilities (Mark 7:31-37).

This story in chapter 9 gives us another insight into what the kingdom is like — the reception of a child. The ancient world was infused with a strong sense of honor and shame. Those who were rich and powerful hoped to demonstrate their honor by the company they kept. At the same time, they could further curry favor and influence though highly respectable social relations.

Ramsey MacMullen, in his book, Roman Social Relations: 50 B.C. to A.D. 284, describes a sense of class in the ancient world that, although recognizable to us today, was of a scale that we might have a hard time imagining. The ancient world had no middle class. Most of the wealth was accumulated at the very top of the social structure, and the bulk of people found themselves poor. Within the elite world, honor was incredibly important. The components of honor and shame were common: “The upper classes emphasized, for everyone to notice and acknowledge, the steep, steep social structure that they topped” (MacMullen, 109). The rich wanted to associate only with other rich, they would intentionally insult and demean those who were slightly less rich, and hoped to accumulate favor with those who were above them.

Against such a backdrop, the words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel stand out. Saying that the way to gain honor is to receive those who are without honor goes against the logic of the ancient society. The Kingdom of God assesses and assigns value differently than the human realm. God will receive those who receive the child. This will give access to true power, the power of the one who sent Jesus.

While our modern society is different from the ancient one, there are several similarities and core anthropological dynamics we ought to consider. We seek status through cars, clothes, houses, titles, and electronics. When the Apple Watch was released, it was revealed that it came in aluminum, stainless steel, and gold versions. This is a piece of electronics that will be obsolete in 2 or 3 years. The only conceivable need for a $10,000 gold version is status, to proclaim to the world that money can be spent with no correlation to value. Actions we take every day may have ramifications on “the least” that we might never consider. Taking seriously the vision of the kingdom of God here in Mark’s gospel might cause us to consider those with whom we socialize, what food we eat, and whether we ought to water our lawns — decisions about which can impact the least among us.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20

Amy Merrill Willis

According to tradition, Jeremiah is “the weeping prophet.”

It is an apt nickname for this figure whose preaching is always filled with emotion. In an oracle that appears two chapters before this passage, the prophet, speaking for God, says, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9:1). The prophet’s weeping continues in a series of laments found throughout chapter 11-20. This passage, Jeremiah 11:18-20, is the first of these and shows how the prophet earned his nickname over and over.

Jeremiah’s laments, which include 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; and 20:7-13, reflect both the personal and public catastrophes that the prophet endured and the deep sorrow occasioned these catastrophes.1 As Babylonian power encroached on Judah in the years following 605 BCE, Jeremiah witnessed the complete and utter disintegration of his society. Indeed, Jeremiah seems to have understood, more clearly than most, Judah’s predicament. In order to prevent a dire future, he urged complete acquiescence to Babylonian dominance. Jeremiah’s message of judgment was validated by the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but not before he was imprisoned, accused of treason, and nearly executed.2

The Book of Jeremiah has a complicated history of composition and editing, and the laments (or the confessions as they are sometimes called) may not be original to Jeremiah himself. Even so, this does not change their effect on the reader. Whether spoken by Jeremiah or placed on the prophet’s lips by a later writer, they show the reader the anguished inner-workings of God’s servant. The confessions reveal a prophet who is faithful to his calling even as he is wracked by distress because of that calling.

Jeremiah sings the blues

Readers might expect such emotional expressions to be free-flowing, unpredictable, and unique, but in fact many artistic presentations of sorrow and sadness have a set pattern or structure. In this respect, the lament is a poetic form that one may compare to contemporary songs. Take, for example, the rhythm and blues genre, a contemporary style of music that artists use to express dismay and difficulty. Rhythm and Blues music often follows a song pattern called AAB in which the first two verses are similar to each other, both musically and lyrically. These verses often express hardship or pose a question. With the third verse, however, there is a transition to a response that provides musical and thematic resolution.3

Jeremiah’s laments are not unlike the blues song. They follow an artistic pattern that involves repeated expressions of hardship leading to a poetic transition in which the prophet expresses trust that God will vindicate him in some way. The prophet’s speech is followed by God’s response in vv. 21-23 (which is not part of the lectionary reading). By the end of the passage, there is a sense of emotional resolution for Jeremiah, even if only temporary. Although Jeremiah’s poetic expression is not exactly the same as singing the blues as we know it, this pattern is well-established in biblical literature. Jeremiah’s confessions are very similar to the laments found in the Psalms (see Psalms 3-7).4

Cause for complaint

Jeremiah has good reason to complain. In this passage, he begins by declaring the disturbing news, which the Lord had revealed to him, of the plot to assassinate him because of his apparent lack of patriotism (see also 18:18). Jeremiah’s sorrow, and perhaps anger, is directed toward his fellow residents of Anathoth (v.21), but also toward God. It was God who called him into service, placing him in harm’s way, and such a calling is irresistible (see 20:7-9). Jeremiah declares that he bears no culpability for this catastrophe. Like the sacrificial lamb, sacrificed because it is pure and faultless, Jeremiah’s life has been forfeited because of his undiluted faithfulness to God’s purposes (v. 19). Indeed, the image suggests that Jeremiah’s life might be required in order to turn the people of Judah back toward God.

Jeremiah indicates that he has been unaware of both God’s plans and the men’s schemes; both have been hidden from him (v. 19).5 Indeed, the prophet often comments on God’s plans and God’s knowledge as being something elusive, something that he himself cannot discern with his limited knowledge. Like so many people who live in the midst of personal and public catastrophe, Jeremiah perceives that his world doesn’t really make sense anymore — nothing happens according to the way it should. When Jeremiah reports the hidden speech of the men of Anathoth, men who should be his neighbors rather than his enemies, he hints at this incongruity and cognitive dissonance. The men say about Jeremiah, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit … ” (11:19). The curious image of Jeremiah as a tree may be an ironic reference to Psalm 1 and its assertions of traditional Israelite piety: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked … They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit its season.” According to Psalm 1, Jeremiah might expect his faithfulness to God to yield a life of blessing instead of being the cause of his undoing, but he lives in a world that no longer operates according to those traditional expectations.

Moving from complaint to trust

Part of what makes the lament such a powerful artistic medium is that it can give expression and structure to chaotic and overwhelming experiences. The work of mourning over catastrophe and loss is hard work, emotionally speaking, especially when others refuse to recognize the loss and the validity of the sorrow. There is the danger, however, that the experience of such intense personal and public catastrophe can trap a person in debilitating and inescapable sorrow. The structure of the lament works to name the sorrow without ensnaring the individual in unrelenting grief. Thus, the lament moves from grief toward some kind of resolution. In the case of Jeremiah, the lament transitions to an expression of trust. Jeremiah asserts with confidence that God knows what is hidden from others and will judge evil deeds with righteousness (v. 20). God will set the world to rights.

As welcome as this turnaround may be for preachers and congregants, a note of caution is in order. Jeremiah’s expression of trust is accompanied by a call for retribution and vengeance, and God’s response in vv. 21-23 promises that this retribution will, indeed, take place. Much of Jeremiah’s confession can model an honest and intimate anger with God that can be restorative to those who have been faithful in bearing heavy burdens. Jeremiah’s desire for retribution, however, should probably not be affirmed as a model to follow. The preacher may want to dialogue further with the text at this point and re-direct Jeremiah’s assertion of trust in a more constructive direction.

Jeremiah’s confessions can sound harsh and doleful to contemporary ears especially in Christian contexts that insist on always being optimistic or in contexts that place a high value on unquestioning submission to God. But the one who is willing to sit with and listen to the prophet’s pain may find rich resources for faithful living.


1 Philip Johnston, “’Now You See Me, Now You Don’t!’ Jeremiah and God,” in Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar (ed. John Day; London: T&T Clark, 2010), 290-308.

2 For further reading on the importance of Jeremiah’s and God’s weeping, see L. Juliana M. Claassens, Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 18-40.

3 John Moxey, “A Guide to Song Forms—AAB Song Form,” Songstuff.com. Web. N.P. Accessed 5/2015.

4 R.E. Clements, Jeremiah (Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 79-83.

5 Johnston, “’Now You See Me, Now You Don’t!’ Jeremiah and God,” 297.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31

Wil Gafney

The Lectionary parsing of Proverbs 31 is unfortunate; without the opening verses the context is lost.

The book is a collection of proverbial sayings; those in chapters 30 and 31 are from apparently non-Israelite sources. According to the text itself, a woman, the unnamed mother of the unknown King Lemuel, composed the familiar poem describing a desirable woman. The description of woman the Queen Mother seeks as a royal match for her son may reflect how she sees herself. At one level the text is a royal woman’s articulation of the characteristics she wants in a daughter-in-law. At other levels the text is part of the often patriarchal, always androcentric scriptures.

A close reading demonstrates that the woman being described is much more than a housewife on steroids. She is entrepreneurial and by no means limited to a domestic sphere. (The ancient Israelites did not divide the world in that way in any case.) She is industrious and generous. She is a craftswoman and a wise woman. She is caring, considerate, and attentive to the needs of others. Above all she is a God-fearer. She exhibits so many idealized character traits that she is more archetype than woman. The text does not present itself as descriptive of real women apart from the prospective mate. Yet this text is revered by many Jewish and Christian readers as presenting a wifely ideal. It is recited or chanted by many men or families to wives and mothers on Shabbat (Friday evening). It is the subject of Women’s Day sermons, marriage retreats, and women’s devotional literature. It is also critiqued for the domestic (perhaps better, domesticated) portrait of that same ideal.

Proverbs 31:10 has been translated in many ways: Who can find a virtuous woman? (King James Version) A good wife who can find? (Revised Standard Version) A capable wife who can find? (New Revised Standard Version). There are two primary issues in translation that shape the interpretation of the text. The first is the status of the woman since Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “woman” and “wife.” (All wives are women but not all women are wives meaning that isshah can always be translated “woman” but not always “wife” which must be inferred.) The text never uses the common word for husband (ish), but a more hierarchal term, master/lord, (ba‘al) perhaps owing to its royal context. The second issue is the character of the woman, which is the heart of the piece.

What is that essential character trait? A few more translations might help. Early English translations included “strong” (Wycliffe) and “honest faithful,” (Geneva). The Douay Bible preserves the (Latin) Vulgate and (Greek) Septuagint manuscript tradition with “valiant” while the New English Septuagint has “courageous.” The Greek text has andreian, “manly.” What all these translations are struggling with is the original Hebrew word, chayil, with a primary meaning ranging from “military might/power” to “(physical) strength.” Its plural form designates warriors or an army. Translations that erase this woman’s physical strength and power create a construction of stereotypical “femininity” that is not present in the text. When the same word occurs in v 3 referring to the man, translators broadly agree translating it nearly unanimously as: Do not give your strength to women … As a general rule, Biblical Hebrew adjectives do not change meaning when applied to people (or animals or objects) of different genders.

I translate v 3 as: Do not give your warrior’s strength to women … and v 10 as: Who can find a woman of warrior strength, to demonstrate that the Queen Mother is seeking a woman for her son who will match him strength for strength. Other language in the text also points to her physical strength. Verse 11 says she provides her lord, (also “master” or more rarely “husband”) with “spoil” as in spoils of war taken by military might and, v 15 says that she rises while it is night to take “prey,” both physical feats of strength and skill but significantly softened in most translations. A second word for physical strength occurs in verses 17 and 25. The emphasis on physical strength extends to metaphorical strength as a secondary virtue along with but not in place of physical prowess.

The descriptive rhetoric culminates in verses 29-31. What makes her a woman of warrior strength? Verse 29 reveals that other women have indeed demonstrated warrior strength using the same word, chayil. But the woman the Queen Mother describes exceeds and excels them all. She knows and fears the Lord. Virtually everything else in her description is dispensable. While the royal framework may mitigate against adoption of the text by “commoners” its preservation speaks to its value to generations of hearers and readers.


Commentary on Psalm 54

James K. Mead

It’s difficult for folks involved in ministry to come up with the right words for every prayer we offer.

Whether that was the case for the worship leaders and congregation of ancient Israel is hard to say, but with Psalm 54 they have left us with a prayer that remains shrouded in uncertainty over the precise problem behind the words, the specific voice in which the prayer is spoken, and the essence of the message the prayer communicates. Such a dilemma fills scholars with uncertainty, but as Brueggemann and Bellinger state, it is the general language that “makes the prayer more germane to various settings and generations in life.”1 In keeping with this wisdom, I want to unpack the potential this uncertainty has for proclamation.

The poet’s original circumstances. If you consulted the commentaries, you know that this is one of a small number of psalms whose heading relates the prayer to circumstances in David’s life, in this case, 1 Samuel 23:19. The fact that the editors of the Psalter made this connection is an important snapshot in the history of the psalm’s interpretation, but it is an interpretation nonetheless. Modern scholarship has suggested a variety of settings: a king asking for deliverance from enemies, an accused person seeking vindication in a legal proceeding, or an individual representing the congregation in a Temple service.2 The crux of the matter has been the word which the NRSV translates as “insolent” (v. 3) but which others have rendered as “foreigners” or simply as “estranged ones.”3 This translational flexibility works to our advantage. Whether we are beset by a specific unjust person, wrestle with xenophobia, or we are assailed by estrangement from those most dear to us, we share with the ancient poet the fear that peace will not come to our relationships. To be sure, we can over-interpret our experiences of estrangement theologically, making every source of our trouble into an enemy of God.4 That’s why I find it so fitting that the poet places the affirmation, “God is my helper,” at the literary center of the poem.5 Keeping that focus, we find that God not only helps us with danger and discord; God helps us interpret those times accurately and wisely.

The poem’s literary form. While few question that the psalm fits the category of individual laments, there is uncertainty about whether the tone of its last verse is more fitting for thanksgiving psalms: “For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.”6 If the crisis described in vv. 1-3 has passed, then perhaps even the petitions of vv. 1-2 are simply rehearsed for the sake of the congregation feeling the psalmist’s earlier desperation. What difference does this debate make for interpretation? We might, as Artur Weiser did, judge the poet harshly for this, suggesting that the conclusion shows he hasn’t let go of his suffering “to give himself up wholly to God, trusting him absolutely.”7 Several scholars disagree with Weiser for using the New Testament to critique the psalm’s outlook. For example, McCann sees a more “theologically significant” analogy to the Christian experience of the “already” and “not yet.” 8 We can rest in God’s victory over evil as well as in our deliverance from its power while still acknowledging that “those who live to harm others will eventually have to face up to how they have chosen to live their lives.”9 And this tension, it seems to me, is not all that different from Psalm 54’s outlook.

The psalm’s theological message. In spite of the uncertainties about form and setting, we can be in no doubt of the poet’s conviction about the solution to his problem: the “name” and the “might” of God (v. 1). These are not two unrelated aspects of God, but after the fashion of Hebrew parallelism “the name carried something of the essential nature and power of God.”10 The psalm also reinforces this point by using “name” to create closure around the psalm’s content: “Save … by your name” (v. 1) and “give thanks to your name” (v. 6). Furthermore, the actual names — “God” (‘elohim), “Lord” (’adonai), and “Lord” (yhwh) — are used for a total of six times, three in each half of the psalm.11 I suspect that a church whose worship is informed by the common lectionary and follows a traditional liturgy is likely to reject an excessive use of the names of the God in songs, prayers, and sermons. Although I share that reticence, I don’t want my preferences to make me forget that this psalm taps into a deep current of biblical theology. The ancient Deuteronomists thought of the Temple as “the place for God’s name” (e.g. Deuteronomy 12:4-14; 1 Kings 8:27-53), and the earliest followers of Jesus healed and preached “in his name” (Acts 3:6; 4:12). Indeed, it is “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). While the psalmist trusts God to vindicate him in the face of opposition, he does not use God’s name as a weapon against them. For our poet, the name of God is to be used in prayer and praise. May it be so for us.


1 Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 246.

2 For an introduction to these options, see Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, WBC (Waco: Word Books, 1990), 46.

3 Beth Tanner, “Psalm 54: Leveling the Field,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 469.

4 Brueggemann and Bellinger, 248.

5 There are 49 Hebrew words of the psalm (not counting the superscription), making “helper” (‘ozer) the 25th and central word.

6 See J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon: Nashville, 1996), IV, 894.

7 Artur Wesier, The Psalms, OTL, trans. H. Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 416.

8 McCann, 895.

9 Tanner, 472.

10 Tate, 47.

11 Richard J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 258.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a

James Boyce

The big and essential question that engages the preacher and the hearer in this reading is announced in its opening verse: Who is the wise person? And what’s to know?

Actually the reading is simply continuing the reflection on true and false wisdom that encompasses this central portion of the epistle of James. As usual the answer that comes is ostensibly simple and direct: good works are the mark of one who possesses wisdom. In so many words, you will know wisdom by its fruits. As usual, the author of James’s theology is practical and down to earth.

Precisely because wisdom’s insights are so practical — about “doing” things — readers with a “religious” interest are often prone to shun its insights or to cast aside as not particularly theological. But that is the way of wisdom. Its insights are indeed very “theological, “ i.e. they are about God and God’s relation to us as the creation. Wisdom assumes that because wisdom is the supreme gift of God to humans, reflection on the religious life and what it means to live in relation to God is always going to be very practical. The gifts of God have an immediate and very practical purpose — they intend and point to a fullness of life exercised in a disciplined love and care for the neighbor. Spirituality is not a matter of escape from this world, but it is to be exercised and most visible in a healthy life of interaction with the day-to-day affairs of this world.

A missing center

For the careful reader it will be important to risk sneaking a peek at what the lectionary has chosen to omit from the reading. The omitted verses 4-6 of chapter 4 are a foundational key for the reflections on wisdom and true spirituality in this section, and in some ways point us to the theological heart of the epistle of James as a whole.

Verse 5 appeals to scriptural tradition for its assertion that it is of utmost significance (“it is not for nothing that scriptures says … ”) that “God yearns for the Spirit that he has caused to dwell in us.” The capitalization of “Spirit” is mine, not in the NRSV text. In the original language the word “spirit” is never capitalized and thus it is often difficult to determine to what “spirit” reference is being made, the Spirit of God, the human spirit, or some other spirit. If James has often been criticized for lacking any clear confession of Jesus Christ as the Word of God, or any clear acknowledgement of the presence of the Spirit in its theological frame. Then such a reading would argue otherwise. Just as the Word is present and assumed in the “word of truth” and the “implanted word” of James 1:18 and 21, so the Spirit of God would be assumed in this talk of God’s yearning presence over the creation.

But there is yet what seems to me an even more promising alternative reading. In the original of verse 5 there is also no word “God” in the text as in the NRSV translation. In fact the subject of the verb “yearns” is unclear. However, the grammar of the original makes it quite possible that “spirit” is not the direct object but rather the subject of the verb here. Thus my preference would be to read: “(God’s) Spirit yearns over that which he has made to dwell in us.” If this were not enough, compelling support is to be seen in the following verse, where the author goes on to assert that this Spirit of God continues to give even more (greater) grace to those who in wisdom live and walk humbly before God.

In sum, at the heart of this reflection on true and false wisdom stands the conviction and confession that wisdom is a sign of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, and a confirmation of the ongoing grace of God that is at work in those who seek to be faithful in the exercise of “pure religion” (to use James’ language from James 1:27).

Wisdom as practical gift

As noted in last week’s comments, to the mind of James the gift of wisdom is intensely practical. He has already stated that its presence is to be seen in the good works that it produces. And now (verses 14-18) the practical “consequences” of true and false wisdom are exposed. False wisdom is to be seen in selfish ambition, envy, and boastfulness. That is to say, it is self-centered and inward looking, “earthly,” “unspiritual,” and “demonic” to use James’ language (James 3:15). The true wisdom that comes from above as God’s gift, on the other hand, is marked by a practical purity that is evidenced in qualities of peacefulness, gentleness, willingness to yield to the other, mercy, and other good fruits that are devoid of partiality and hypocrisy. Not surprising nor a matter of apology that these qualities sound very much like what common sense would identify as goodness. Because that is the way of wisdom. It is a summation all that common sense would identify as the marks of wholeness in human relationships, as the very best of God’s gifts in creation. Nor, interestingly, should it be surprising that these qualities sound very much like those qualities that Paul in his letter to the Galatians identifies as the “fruit” of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).

Dealing with conflict

We might imagine that it is only we moderns for whom conflict is a problem. But James lifts up as one of the greatest of the gifts of wisdom its capacity to lead humans to peaceful resolution of conflict. (James 3:18). Furthermore, in what seems only too modern in theme, James identifies our difficulty in satisfying our insatiable wants and desires for things as the root cause of the inevitable coveting and cravings that lead to conflict, disputes, and eventually to outright war (James 4:1-3). In ironic reversal, it is then our repeated experience that what we might see as feeding the end goal of our pleasure, becomes instead the harbinger of death (James 4:2).

Learning to pray rightly

Of course, for James, the answer to these conflicts is to learn what the gift of wisdom has to offer in its taming of these excessive desires. James argues that this learning has to do with our learning how to pray rightly. Confidence in the good gifts of God means that we will pray with confidence for the expression of those gifts within ourselves — and then know with confidence that God through the Spirit stands ready to grant our requests.

Nearness to God

This is what I think the nearness to God that James is talking about in James 4:7-8 has to do with. To pray rightly is to imagine a “friendship” (James 4:4) with the very creator of “every good gift” God’s gifts have the ability to center our lives in good works that flow from God’s indwelling Spirit. In our human relationships it is much easier to walk the daily journey amid the sometimes difficult decisions and choices we are called to make when a close friend or a broader community of encouragers and supporters surrounds us. So the same is true when we live in a relationship of nearness and trust in a God who continues to supply us with wisdom and every good gift of creation. In the presence of One whose Spirit yearns over us we can imagine that we will not be left to drift in a state of “double-minded” incapacity (James 4:8; see also James 1:5-8). Instead we will be inspired to the exercise of wisdom in humility — in making the fine choices that are “born of wisdom” (James 3:13) and which lead to the kind of “harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18) seen in peaceful human relationships.