Lectionary Commentaries for August 30, 2015
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Elizabeth Webb

In this text, Jesus addresses three different audiences: a group of Pharisees and scribes who raise the question of defilement, the crowd that is perpetually present, and the disciples who, true to character in Mark’s Gospel, don’t understand.

The message is delivered differently to each of these groups, but its essence is the same: our very selves are defiled, made unholy, not by what we take in, but by the corrosion of the human heart. Jesus’ three different versions of this message build on one another, thus enabling a fuller understanding of what is at stake: we must prepare our hearts, and thereby our selves, for the kingdom of God. This requires not worrying over what we “eat,” but how.

The first audience to whom Jesus speaks here are Pharisees and scribes “who had come from Jerusalem” (Mark 7:1). The writer of Mark’s Gospel often mentions apparently small details almost nonchalantly, in passing, seemingly on the way to a larger point. But these small details often make an even larger point, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Such is the case here. The fact that these Pharisees and scribes are from Jerusalem matters a great deal. For Mark, Jerusalem’s greatest significance is that it is where Jesus will die. Mark’s narrative is breathlessly hurtling toward Jerusalem, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus that will set the fulfillment of the kingdom of God in motion. By noting that these Pharisees and scribes are from Jerusalem, Mark is linking not only them, but this entire event, to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is because the kingdom is at hand (Mark 2:15) that it’s imperative that Jesus’ message is understood, right now.

The conflict between Jesus and these scribes and Pharisees begins with a question of ritual purity, although Jesus quickly steers the conversation in another direction. The Pharisees and scribes notice that some of Jesus’ disciples “were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them” (Mark 7:2). The text continues with a parenthetical explanation, that the Pharisees, “and all the Jews” (verse 3), follow “the tradition of the elders” by washing their hands thoroughly before they eat. The claim that “all the Jews” follow the same tradition is an overstatement; the mere fact that only “some” of the disciples did not wash before eating tells us that not all Jews followed the same practice. The “tradition of the elders” refers to oral interpretations of the Mosaic law, which the Pharisees and scribes consider authoritative.

As the parenthetical explanation continues, those who follow these traditions “do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it” (Mark 7:4). This phrase can also be read “when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they purify themselves.” Either way, the reference to the market is another example of Mark’s subtle way of calling our attention to what really matters. The passage immediately prior to this one, in which the sick are laid out “in the marketplaces” (Mark 6:56) for Jesus to heal them, demonstrates the in breaking of the kingdom of God in the world. As I discussed in my commentary on that text, in the economy of God’s kingdom, “many of the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). By linking Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees and scribes to the marketplace of chapter six, Mark is asserting that the order of God’s kingdom trumps all other orders, and is shifting the focus from questions of ritual purity to preparation for that kingdom.

Jesus knows, of course, that when the scribes and Pharisees ask why some of his disciples do not wash their hands, the question is not an innocent one. It is meant to indict Jesus. Asking why some of his followers “do not live according to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:5) is really accusing Jesus of not following the law himself, of acting as if he believes himself to be above the law. Knowing this, Jesus responds with a rebuke from Isaiah (Isaiah 7:6-7), which changes the direction of the conversation: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6b). Jesus calls them “hypocrites (Mark 7:6a),” because they “abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:8). This reproach is more than a condemnation of empty worship practices; it is a condemnation of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ distortion of tradition in order to circumvent the law. Jesus is not rejecting the law; in fact, he is rebuking them for their failure to uphold it.

Mark 7:9-13, which are not a part of the lection for today, clarify Jesus’ point. Jesus condemns the scribes’ and Pharisees’ use of Corban: a practice of willing assets to the Temple, assets that may no longer be used for the family’s, including elderly parents’, care. Such a practice, Jesus asserts, violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12), for it enables the denial of support to parents who are in need. The scribes and Pharisees are allowing people to circumvent the moral and legal imperative to care for their parents through the use of Corban, and are “thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on” (Mark 7:13).

Thus even with regard to the scribes and Pharisees, the issue at hand is not that of ritual purity, or even of what traditions Jesus’ disciples ought to follow (or not). The issue is the state of the human heart. Jesus brings up the matter of the heart with his quotation of Isaiah: the hearts of “this people” are far from God (Mark 7:6b). “This people,” it becomes clear in verse 14, includes not just the scribes and Pharisees. As Mark writes, “Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand’ ” (Mark 7:14). Jesus is speaking here to all who are gathered around him, including, presumably, the sick whom he had just healed and the people who had carried them to him. What they must understand is that it is not what you take into yourself that renders you impure, but rather “the things that come out are what defile” (Mark 7:15). Whatever your practice, Jesus is saying, whichever traditions you do or don’t uphold, these are not the things that, by themselves, get you ready for God’s kingdom. And you must be ready now.

As is to be expected in Mark, the disciples don’t get it, so Jesus provides further explanation. In Mark 7:18-19, also not included in the text for today, Jesus shows that unlike food that simply passes through one’s system, that which is produced in the heart affects the whole person. “For it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21a). The heart is understood here as the center of human will and rationality, in addition to desire. It is the place from which all our intentions arise. Jesus offers a list of evil intentions that, while not comprehensive, certainly reveals the depth of corruption that the heart suffers. It must be noted that Jesus does not proclaim the heart to be utterly corrupt; this is not Augustine’s heart that cannot but choose evil. Good intentions also come from the heart. But Jesus’ three audiences need to hear this word, so that in this crucial time no one is distracted by extraneous arguments, but all are focused on preparing their hearts, and thereby their entire selves, for the kingdom of God.

By the end of the passage for today, Jesus has turned the whole notion of consumption that defiles on its head. While the list of sins in Mark 7:21-22 provides nothing unexpected (we see similar lists in Romans 1:29-31; Galatians 5:19-21, and 2 Timothy 3:2-5), it adds another layer of meaning to Jesus’ message. Each of these particular vices is, in some way, a sin of consumption. Adultery, theft, avarice, envy, pride — each of these springs from a desire to take, to grasp, to own, to devour. Here is something that this Markan passage and Augustine do have in common: the corruption of the human heart is rooted in desire baring its fangs. And this is why Jesus does not reject purity laws here. It turns out that our consumption (or lack thereof) does affect our hearts. If our desire for self-satisfaction is allowed to run rampant, we become insatiable consumers: of things, of course, but also of pleasure, of people, even of our own energy. (How good do you actually feel after spending a day binge-watching something on Netflix?) Practices like purity laws, therefore, are central to forming our hearts to desire in the right way: to desire as God desires. How do the practices in which we engage (or not) form our hearts to desire rightly, we who are living in the already/not yet of God’s kingdom?

First Reading

Commentary on Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Steed Davidson

Readers of Deuteronomy need to be prepared to travel through time and in the process experience the value of James Russell Lowell’s assertion that “new occasions teach new duties.”

The book of Deuteronomy invites its readers to hear Moses addressing them directly as if they are participants in the first crossing into the land. Yet at the same time the book reveals, intentionally or through sloppy editing, foreknowledge of events that happen after the entry into the land. Moses, the presumed narrator of the book, dies before the end of the book throwing off the concept of the book as authored by Moses. The transition from chapter three to chapter four leaves the reader expecting Moses’ charge to Joshua in the leadership succession forced upon Moses when he failed to negotiate a place for himself beyond the journeys of the wilderness (Deuteronomy 3:26-29). Instead, chapter four introduces what Richard Nelson calls, “reading instructions” for the book’s core legal requirements.1 These shifts and turns in time point to the complexity of the book that benefitted from multiple experiences of standing at the threshold of a do-over.2 Modern readers of Deuteronomy can therefore easily apply the insights of the book to their own second chances, the opportunities to hear again from Moses what God expects with this new occasion.

At the threshold of a reset, Moses repeats the importance of following the teachings he promulgates, collectively called “statutes and ordinances” for most of the book. The exact contents of these teachings are not as important as the necessity for following divine instructions to form a people worthy of the relationship with God. The idea of rules, laws, expectations, or even standards creates anxiety and fear for some persons. Some hear a call to perfection. Others sense failure before they even start. And yet others see this as an imposition on a relationship that should be liberating. These perceptions misunderstand how Deuteronomy characterizes the relationship between the people and God. These “statutes and ordinances” represent a gracious invitation into the relationship. Not simply commands issued from on high, these are teachings given through patient education to form the character of the people of God. These teachings bring life rather than perfection (Deuteronomy 4:1). Following them leads to life and importantly life in a space marked by freedom (v. 5). This collection of “statutes and ordinances” represent the wisdom of the years communicated to the people so that they may learn and benefit from the experiences of previous generations to enable life at a higher quality.

Anxieties around the emphasis on obedience in this passage need to come to terms with Deuteronomy’s awareness of speaking to people who need structure and identity. Whether characterized by the wilderness of wandering after the domination in Egypt or the wilderness of exile, these “statutes and ordinances” provide the help of recovery and rehabilitation for a people who can easily slip back into old and comfortable but harmful practices. Moses’ address presumes the helplessness of the people and their need for something greater than the options they used in the past to offer them a more secure future. Obedience to the path, as God lays it out, invites the people to experience prosperity in the land that God offers them. To reduce this relationship of obedience to the crass economic quid pro quo of the prosperity gospel misses the point. Greed is never presented as a motivation for obedience. Rather a willingness to participate in formation, to be God’s people, to live by God’s standards, and to express the radical difference of identity that comes with belonging to the community of God’s people serve as the impulse to obedience. That the choice of obedience is more than simply responding to inducements of riches can be seen in the cited example of what happened to those who refused the path of obedience and followed instead the Baal of Peor (v. 3 cf. 3:29, Numbers 25). Precisely because the “statutes and ordinances” of God are far more demanding and call for a higher way of living than other values and options makes it necessary for Moses once again to speak to those who need a new start. This way requires critical change since it calls for a way of life that differs from what the dominant culture presents as natural. Christian antipathy to laws may focus attention upon the inevitability of failure that such forms of obedience entail. However, that these laws are presented in the context of a do-over indicates that faithful obedience rather than successful achievement of the laws marks the expectations in the relationship. Through Moses’ voice, God offers subsequent generations the gracious path of re-entering into the space of a thriving relationship.

The sermonic quality of the passage means flourishes seen here in the rhetorical appeal to greatness. Obedience produces a great a nation, a claim made in three different ways in three verses in the passage (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). This appeal to greatness carries with it also the appeal to a visible greatness. Obedience to the way of God not only makes the people great but noticeably great to the surprise and perhaps envy of other nations. The discourse at this point suddenly changes from a private matter to a more public one. Obedience is not simply a pious concern for the individual; obedience serves a public function of witnessing to the conspicuous worth of the way of God. In this passage, other nations will take notice of the different choices, values, and character of this people formed by God, seen here as “wisdom and discernment” (v. 6). The witness of the people will also beckon to the difference of their religious encounter — a power near at hand to save, to comfort, to grant a new start (v. 7). The witness of the people also testifies to a superior social arrangement that creates a community marked by laws described as just, in the Hebrew tzadîqim — promoting social solidarity (v. 8). The rhetorical force of vv. 6-8 directs the attention of those hearing Moses in their day to a vision of a restored people who can take pride in their obedience. Their obedience is not merely self-serving. Instead their obedience enables their restoration to perform the vital work of witness and the creation of community built upon “statutes and ordinances” that are good for the world.

The ideal community transcends time but can also be experienced in real time. This passage encourages a group of people to take advantage of the new opportunity that God gives to them to become worthy of that ideal community and to actively participate in sustaining that ideal community. The opportunity to do it again comes not simply to those who have fallen down but also to those who faithfully pursue this vision to repeat it from generation to generation. The challenge to avoid failure through forgetfulness or inattention to the transmission of the values of the community to the next generation points to the critical nature of routine obedience (Deuteronomy 4:9). The routine of obedience is not a good in itself. This routine of obedience works for promotion of the just community. Through obedience, those who follow God’s “statutes and ordinances” enact the vision of righteous community, conspicuously different in all the ways that the world today needs to ensure full thriving for all.


1 Richard Nelson, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 60.

2 See Walter Bruggemann, Deuteronomy. Abingdon Old Testament Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 50 for Deuteronomy as addressed to sixth century exiles.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Alphonetta Wines

Meetings are called to order. Calls for action are issued to correct problems of social justice. The ring of a cell phone is a call to conversation.

Believers are called to worship, pray, and sing praises to God. The words in the Song of Songs 2:8-13 are a call to love.

Each call is made in anticipation of a positive response. It is expected that the meeting will be conducted in an orderly manner, that social justice issues will be addressed, that the person who answers the cell phone will engage conversation, that believers will worship, and that the beloved will respond to the call to love.

The call to love is as old as humanity and as new as the morning sun. Whether expressed as a series of love poems in This is My Beloved by Walter Benton, set to a jazz background and read by Arthur Prysoc, a Bollywood love song video, or musings that love is “better than wine,” and “stronger than death” in the Song of Songs, it is clear that finding and expressing love is high on the list of human priorities.

The church has long been embarrassed by the unabashed sensuality in this series of love poems. As far back as Hippolytus and Origen “in the third century AD”1 and Calvin “among the Reformers,” the book has been interpreted to be an allegory that describes the love of God for Israel and the love of Jesus for the church. However, neither is the topic of these poems.

This series of poems is about the joys, the ups and the downs, even painful longing when apart and violence against the woman by her community when she searches for her lover, of a relationship between two human beings who love one another. While the contemporary writer is likely to use different metaphors than those used by the ancient authors and compilers of the Song of Songs, words such as stag and gazelle are designed to compliment and entice the beloved.

I am reminded of a couple that I know. Married thirty years, they act like teenagers when they are around each other. I remember once when the husband had been away traveling for work as he often does. On this occasion, a Thanksgiving community dinner, they had not seen each other for several days. His eyes lit up and he hugged his wife with such tenderness that everyone could feel the presence of love in the room. Ask anyone in a happy marriage and they’ll tell you, there is nothing like it. Whether it is love’s first dawning or the seasoned love of having lived and loved for decades, committed lovers would have it no other way. 

This is one of only two biblical books, Esther and Song of Songs, where there is no mention of God. The poems are spoken by a man, a woman, and a chorus that periodically comments on what is happening between the two lovers. Unlike most books in the scriptures, the woman’s voice is clearly heard. In the intimacy and anticipation of love, her voice rings out in “close to 75 percent of the poems.”3

In Song of Songs 2:8-13 the audience hears her voice as she reminisces and anticipates love. Neither shy nor reticent, the onset of spring stirs her desire for the one who loves her. Frequent references to nature are an indication that both understand their love to be “in agreement with the goodness of God’s creation.”4 A glimpse of her beloved is all she needs to reflect on his voice calling her to love. Not once, but twice in these few verses, she imagines his voice inviting her to “come away.” Completely enthralled, later in verse 16 she affirms, “My beloved is mine and I am his.” 

In the same way that the book of Job presents an alternative view to retribution theology, perhaps Songs was included to counter the many references comparing the adulterous woman to Israel’s idolatry. What better way to make that contrast than a positive portrayal of an intimate relationship with the woman’s voice preeminent? 

In a day and time when music and movies simultaneously extol and exploit love distorted, abused, and taken for granted. In a day and time when there are women’s shelters to protect women and their children from domestic and/or family violence. In a day and time when human/sex trafficking rivals the drug trade for illegal financial gain. In a day and time when headlines daily affirm that women around the globe are kidnapped, raped, and disrespected. In a day and time such as this, we need to hear the Song of Songs.

We need to hear voices that speak boldly of true love. We need to be reminded of what love can be. Scholars tell us there was much debate whether to include this book in the sacred text. The text is richer and the world is forever blessed and grateful for those who won the argument for its inclusion.


1 Tewoldermedhin Habtu, “Song of Songs” in Africa Bible Commentary, ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 797.

2 Ibid.

3 Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, “Song of Songs,” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Hugh R. Page, Jr. et al (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 256.

4 The New interpreter’s Study BibleNew Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, ed. Walter J. Harrelson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 953. 


Commentary on Psalm 15

Esther M. Menn

What makes a good guest?

At summer’s end, when many people are returning from visits with family and friends, this is a timely question. There is an old joke that says a visitor and a fish smell the same after three days. Both stink!

But there are also guests who bring so much joy and contribute so richly to our well-being that they never wear out their welcome. We look forward to their coming and wish they would stay forever!

There are also instances when visitors become permanent members of a household. In our current economy, these arrangements are more common. We are no strangers to the dynamics of living closely together as guests and hosts!

Psalm 15 asks who would make a good guest in God’s home. The divine dwelling is identified poetically as a “tent,” recalling the tabernacle of the wilderness wanderings, and also as a “holy hill,” evoking the temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem: “O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (15:1).

In sacred spaces as fragile as a cloth structure or as solid as a mountain, God stays with Israel through changing times. What is more, God welcomes guests!

Psalm 15 has been viewed as a liturgical entrance rite (see Psalm 24:3-6), but gate-keeping is not its purpose. Longer term arrangements are at stake. What kind of person may “abide” as a resident alien in God’s house? The verb “abide” is related to the Hebrew word for the landless stranger (ger), whom Israel is charged to protect (Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 10:18). In Psalm 15:1, we are asked to think of ourselves as immigrants seeking God’s protection.

The second verb in verse 1, “dwell” (shkn), is also rich, since it can refer both to people settling down peacefully and to God’s encampment in the wilderness tabernacle (mishkan, literally God’s “dwelling place”) and on Mt. Zion (Psalm 135:21). This word choice suggests cohabitation of a holy place by human and divine occupants.

After the first verse, the focus in Psalm 15 shifts abruptly to ordinary life. The rest of the psalm provides a thought-provoking answer to the question of who would make a good guest in God’s home (verses 2-5).

A series of descriptive verbs paints a portrait of the long-term visitor who would gladden God’s heart. What one does defines the person, whether acting for good or refraining from harm.

The NRSV paraphrases the masculine singular verbs in Psalm 15 by using the plural pronoun “those.” This translation is helpful because it is gender inclusive; however, it obscures the emphasis on each individual’s discernment, behavior, and speech. Every person makes a big difference!

Psalm 15 has a teaching purpose. It encourages us to think about how we as individuals, families, and communities are invited to live in God’s presence with joy and integrity. All the lectionary readings for this Sunday teach about values and behaviors (see for example, Deuteronomy 4:9).

The portrait of an ideal guest opens with a three-part summary of positive traits. The best guests are:

“Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak truth from their heart” (verse 2, NRSV).

Additional nuances of this beautiful orientation to the life of faith are captured by an alternative paraphrase. The ideal guest would be:

“The person who walks with integrity, does what leads to reconciliation, and acknowledges truth when making decisions” (verse 2, author’s translation).

“Walking” suggests that all we do is a lifelong journey in God’s company. What is “right” refers to the quality of relationships fostered by our behavior. The “heart” in Hebrew anthropology is the organ of deliberation and commitment to future action. Integrity, good will, and honesty are hallmarks of daily life with God.

Psalm 15:2 is comparable to the memorable verse in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV).

The following verses develop the principles summarized in Psalm 15:2. In verses 3-4 there is a special emphasis on speech (similar to James 1:19, 26). What we say matters! The lack of civility in politics, social media, and interpersonal exchanges makes this an enduring topic.

The ideal guest refrains from speaking ill of others and from spreading harmful gossip. Humiliating critiques are avoided (verse 3), since shaming can cause damage rather than constructive change. Preserving the reputation of others is important.

Positive speech about others should also be discerning. The guest portrayed in this psalm intentionally lifts up for public honor those “who fear the LORD,” who live according to God’s wisdom. By contrast, those with baser motivations are best avoided (verse 4).

Regarding another type of speech, the imagined guest keeps promises even when it is not in this person’s own self-interest (verse 4).

The final verse of Psalm 15 treats systemic economic and legal concerns (15:5). Not charging interest on loans means not profiting from the poverty of the most vulnerable members of society. A positive implication is that interest-free loans may assist a neighbor out of a crisis.

In the legal arena, rejecting bribes signals a commitment to fairness in the courts. The integrity of the legal system promotes justice for all.

The description of the ideal guest is not exhaustive, but it is enough to suggest a whole way of life. There is resilience and stability in being God’s guest. Like the firm mountain of Zion itself (Psalm 125:1), the person who stays close to God will not be moved. (See Deuteronomy 4:7 for another reference to nearness to God.)

This promise does not exclude challenges and profound experiences of loss. We only have to recall Jesus’ crucifixion and the recent shootings of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other Charleston Nine. Our daily lives as God’s guests are the holy ground from which we will never be shaken, whether we live or whether we die.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 1:17-27

A.K.M. Adam

These verses from the Epistle of James include the point that the epistle is best known for: “[B]e doers of the word, and not merely hearers,” just as next week we will read James reminding us that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

It’s tempting to fixate on the apparent contrast to Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone, although the contrast is less sharp than might appear to a casual reader. The theological substance of the passage, however, lies in its deep connections to the rest of James’s theology, and James expresses his ideas so circuitously that one can easily lose track of it.

Here and throughout the letter, James drives toward the point that our theological integrity — our whole-hearted, consistent, comprehensive devotion to God — requires of us a particular kind of life and character. As God the Father brought us into being in an act of perfectly free giving, so we — “a kind of first fruits of his creatures” — display God’s own changeless goodness and generosity by truthfulness, humility, gratitude, patience, steadfastness, and generous provision for those who depend on us. Earlier in the letter, James has criticized those who respond to God with only partial commitment (“double-minded [or ‘half-hearted’] man, unstable in all his ways”), echoing Jesus’ warning against setting one’s heart on earthly treasures, or against putting one’s hand to the plough and looking back. James understands the inclination to mix allegiance to God with practical concerns for oneself, but cautions his readers that such divided loyalties will not withstand the trial of hard times.

In this context, this morning’s reading stakes out some of the difficult terrain on which the readers are called to cultivate their piety. James cares particularly about the ways we characteristically speak; precisely because speech is so easy, so immediate, and so very hard to control, James sees it as the test case for genuine faithfulness. You cannot, he counsels us, casually insult your neighbor (who is, like you, made in God’s own image) and presume to be approved by God. You cannot give voice to God’s wrath out of your own irritation at another. By the same token, our merely listening to divine teaching without putting it into effect shows that you have not benefited from God’s commands; you remain a half-hearted, unstable semi-believer. Like someone who gazes admiringly in a mirror, your self-understanding always requires booster shots of another peek, another day, whereas the one who looks into God’s commands for self-understanding can perceive an enduring standard of who we are and should be. The integrity of our inheritance from the Father, of our identity and our self-image depends on truthful, consistent regard for others.

Since James expresses this in tangled prose, the sense of this morning’s lesson may escape casual listeners (and readers). He first affirms God’s creating Fatherhood, characterizing God as “Father of lights” (probably referring to stars) in contrast to Desire, which (in James 1:14f) conceives and bears Sin, which in turn gives birth to Death. Whereas desire corresponds to fluctuation and instability (like the phases of the moon, or solar eclipses, or even daily darkness), the celestial God is unchangeably, reliably light; where desire seeks its own interest, God offers “every good gift and every perfect present” to creation. So James presents a cosmology in which the variability and transience of the world of desire, sin, and death represents an opposite option from the enduring, unwavering truth of God’s living way, and our divine genealogy should align us with God’s characteristics rather than the unreliable, ephemeral characteristics of a world governed by desire.

From these cosmological premises, James seems to change the subject to human conduct. His exhortation here, though, is not a departure from the point he made in the previous verses: we, as first-fruits (or “a down payment,” or “first installment”) of God’s truthful word, should by all means conduct ourselves as such. If we crowd our weedy lives with the rank growth of anger, foul language, insult, and falsehood, we make our souls an inhospitable field for cultivating the word that is implanted in us by virtue of our alignment with God and truth. Our mercurial emotions and self-important speech align us with the mortal, earthly power of sin and death; by patient humility, though, we make room for God’s own saving word to come to expression in us. James urges us to live in ways congruent with our cosmic origins in God and truth.

At this point, we should pause and note that James uses “the logos” in ways that sometimes seem to imply a connection with “the gospel” (for which “the word of truth”, as in v 18, functions as a synonym in Ephesians 1:13 and Colossians 1:5), and at other times to make a connection to the Torah as the true expression of God’s way, the perfect law of liberty. Alternatively, one may take the very many clues that point to deeply Judaic theology and culture as the environment for James as a warrant for understanding “the logos” as the Torah, the specifications of the kind of life God wills for humanity — that is, it is a word which, if we live by it, makes us free. The letter also may show influence from Stoicism, which deploys “the logos” in its own sense (and which would help clarify some of the cosmology and the reasoning from the natural world in chapter 3). While some readers will see the connection to the vivifying word of the gospel (James 1:18), which gives freedom according to the teaching and pattern of Jesus as king (v 25), James does not give explicit grounds sufficient for upholding a clear-cut, conclusive definition of “the word” in this letter. It may be best to approach James’s usage as a sign that these usages are not sharply distinguished for him — that the Jacobean logos shares aspects of all three.

James foresees that one might take the patience and humility that he commends to us as a warrant for mere passivity. Contrariwise, he instructs his readers that truly to hear the word, truly to live in the regal liberty of the word, involves actually putting it into effect. He uses the perplexing metaphor of the mirror to contrast a superficial, transient acquaintance with our nature (how many of us have glanced into a mirror to check our hair or our attire, then had to look again right away because we had not retained the perception from that first glance?) with the abiding, true self-knowledge that comes from hearing and practicing the law. James’s goal, here, is not simple adherence to Torah (or any law), but the kind of ingrained habitual knowledge that comes from repetition and practice.

James closes this part of the letter by drawing together two of the examples he has cited earlier. Glib pieties do not suffice purify the heart of a believer; if one thinks oneself secure simply for praising the Lord and carping at sinners, one has not made spiritual progress but is half-heartedly trying to hold on both to God and to sinful desire. If, on the other hand, you reliably provide for the needy and live in a way that bespeaks unwavering allegiance to God, that gives the surest sign that you are living a “pure and undefiled” life that exemplifies the characteristics of your celestial Father.