Lectionary Commentaries for August 30, 2009
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Henry Langknecht

Three things right off the bat:

  • First, no jokes about how “no matter what Jesus says, you kids should still wash up before dinner.”
  • Second, unless you intend to really see it through and show how certain precious Christian traditions should be similarly condemned as hypocrisy or idolatry, resist the urge to use sermon time displaying your cultural archaeology homework on ritual cleanliness; the Word of God here is not about “keeping kosher or not.”
  • Third, this passage is pretty much all trouble/law. Begin your sermon prep with this question on your mind, “We are all driven to some of the attitudes and actions listed in verses 21-22 and so are defiled, what are God’s specific gracious remedies?”

And then a fourth thing: You know (and depending on how the reading is announced or displayed in worship materials the congregation also knows) that this pericope was constructed by omitting some verses from a longer Bible passage. I’m not going to quibble about those omissions, but I do want to note two effects.

Because the reading starts with a confrontation over defilement and then ends with Jesus teaching about real defilement, hearers are going to hear that this passage is about defilement. This is a homiletical challenge. We hearers will “get” that the sins listed in verses 21-22 are motivated by “evil intentions from our hearts” and are “bad.” But because “defilement” (i.e., ritual uncleanness) is not a prominent living concept in our culture, it’s hard to guess whether hearers will be gripped in their souls by the idea of “being defiled.” And the first omission (of verses 9-13) has the effect of intensifying this focus on defilement.

Jesus’ accusation to the leaders, which includes a quote from Isaiah, raises the overarching prophetic concern that God’s people are neglecting core issues of mercy because they are consumed with getting “human traditions” right. His tirade against Corban is a clear illustration; its omission tips the balance of the pericope even more toward “defilement.” (So, okay, I will quibble a bit: even though Corban is an alien custom to us, Jesus’ illustration still works to raise the prophetic issue about idolatrous priorities… even for us.)

With the second omission (verses 17-20), we miss hearing that the final teaching is directed only to the disciples. Because the teaching to the disciples in verse 20 echoes and then in verse 21 amplifies what Jesus has already said to the crowd, the edited pericope flows seamlessly. The effect though is to make the pericope sound more like a wisdom saying than discipleship teaching.

As I’ve already suggested, this pericope poses a challenge for contemporary Christian preaching because so much of its rhetoric deals with an issue we don’t feel in our bones. We can respect others’ religious concern for ritual purity and defilement, but from our post-resurrection, post-Paul (not to mention fully American) perspective of freedom, it feels quaint and archaic. Conversely, there are rich issues in the pericope that do resonate with us–mercy being eclipsed by narrow focus on “church craft”; human tradition elevated over God’s mission; and the naked truth about our evil hearts–but they are cloaked by all the pericope’s verbiage about defilement.

With all that said, when I’m sitting in the pew on August 30, I hope to hear you lead us into this text in one of these two ways:

1. Help us to understand which church traditions and practices we so busy ourselves with that we lose touch with God’s heart. To what would Jesus point and say, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition?” The success of this approach will rest on the preacher’s skill in handling this subtle nuance: the practice in question should be one we cling to not out of mere stubbornness, taste, or inertia but out of a desire to stay dutiful or “pure”–or perhaps we might say, “right with God.” (Maybe “right with God” language is our rough analogy to “ritual purity.”)

The payoff of achieving this subtlety will be a sermon that leads us to a deeper understanding of idolatry and self-righteousness. When the core commitments of divine law (mercy, justice, and even care for parents) are eclipsed by human teachings and practices, it means that we have chosen to determine for our own selves what makes us righteous (self-righteousness), so washing the fruit we buy becomes more important than giving fruit to the hungry. A preacher might profitably (and prophetably) help us to know when we have crossed the line from “mere hypocrisy” (cynically ignoring the practice of God’s law even as we proclaim it) into full-fledged idolatry and self righteousness (cobbling a twisted version of divine law that suits our needs and desires).

We have to take the text at face value and suppose that the Pharisees and scribes are guilty of hypocrisy as charged. But an imaginative gloss on the story might invent a religious leader, quick on the uptake, who replies to Jesus, “Yes, Jesus, of course we know that it is our actions that defile us. And we know that evil actions are motivated by unclean hearts. But these rituals that seem so arbitrary are part of a practice of community discipline that we believe helps to form and guard our hearts. It’s all very well and good for you to say, ‘You’re free! Eat whatever you want.’ But St. Paul himself will someday say in Romans 14, ‘If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.'”

2. Help us to push back (reverently) against Jesus’ digestive dualism by both complexifying our notion of ingestion and contemporizing our idea of defilement. Jesus says “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile” but no recovering addict whom I know would say that ingestion and the formation of the heart are unrelated. It is a cliché and also true to say that in our culture we use food and mood-altering substances to self-medicate for spiritual issues–emptiness, pain, boredom, anxiety. The issue here is not ritual defilement but rather such effects as our guilt or shame at our own indulgences and our powerlessness over them (our self-defilement, if you will).

This next homiletical prompt will require a “spiritualization” of the pericope that may not be comfortable for all. Even if our “spiritual hearts” are immune to contamination from the preservatives in Pringles; our souls are indiscriminate and relentless consumers, imprinted and formed by everything to which they are exposed.

In this respect many things “outside a person” can defile: the banality of the twenty four hour news cycle or Gilligan’s Island reruns; the depersonalization of internet pornography or endless new games of WordTwist; the romanticizing and sentimentalizing of human life experience for the manipulation of economies. These things do not move cleanly through our various tracts and systems and out into the sewer. Rather they flatten us, desensitize and anesthetize us, they skew our perspective and sense of proportion and thereby deform the very “hearts” from which evil intentions come.

My plea earlier was that you begin your sermon prep by asking, “What are God’s specific gracious remedies to our defilement?” Perhaps a starting place is to rejoice that God creates in us new hearts and right spirits within us.

First Reading

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

Sara M. Koenig

Psalm 119:97 proclaims: “Oh, how I love your law!”

This statement may seem strange to many Christians, especially those of us for whom the law has been contrasted with grace and described as something negative, oppressive, or obsolete. We cannot hear “law” without hearing “legalism,” and we throw them both out indiscriminately.

Through a study of Deuteronomy, we discover this mindset to be mistaken and perilous. Christians would do well to re-capture the awe with which the Israelites approach God’s law. The word torah, often narrowly translated and understood as “law,” includes a fuller definition of “instruction” or “teaching.” A Jewish blessing connectstorah with eternal life, saying, “Blessed is our God, who has…separated us from them that go astray, and has given us the Torah and planted everlasting life in our midst.”1  Such an understanding of torah is what we find in the lectionary text in Deuteronomy. The “law” itself is a sign of God’s presence, and even shares his attributes: life-giving power, wisdom, and understanding. Approaching the law in this way, Christians can better appreciate what it means for Jesus to be the incarnate word (John 1:1), the final “nearness” of God, the embodiment of wisdom and understanding (Colossians 1:15 ff.), and the fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5: 17).

The book of Deuteronomy (from the Greek deuteronomos, literally, “second law”) consists of a series of speeches given by Moses to the generation of Israelites who are about to enter into the Promised Land. In many ways, the lectionary text for today may be understood as a microcosm of the entire book of Deuteronomy, as it consists of injunctions to follow the law, as well as motivations for doing so.

The theological center of the passage appears in verses seven and eight. Note the parallel structure in the following rhetorical questions:

  • What great nation is there that has gods near to it like the LORD our God? (verse 7)
  • What great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances righteous as all this law? (verse 8)

The answer to these questions, of course, is “none!” The Israelite nation is incomparably great because it is so closely connected to its God. God is in the midst of the people (verse 7). The nation is also incomparably great, because it is so closely connected to its torah. The righteous law is also in the midst of the people (verse 9). The parallel syntax suggests that God’s nearness and righteousness are closely connected to the law’s nearness and righteousness. Patrick Miller sees this idea confirmed in Deuteronomy 30:11-14, where the language of nearness reoccurs. In that passage, “It is the commandment that is near, not God. What is happening is that the commandment, the law, is almost a surrogate for God. The righteous laws being written on the heart and being kept are in some sense a manifestation of the presence of God. God draws near in the law that God gives.”2

If God draws near in the law that God gives, then we can expect the law to produce the same things that God produces. According to our Deuteronomy text, it does. As God gives life, so the law gives life. In verse 1, Moses urges the Israelites to listen to the statutes and ordinances he is teaching them. Why? “In order that you may live and go and inherit the land.” In verse 2, Moses explains that nothing is to be added to, or taken away from these commands. The law shares God’s attribute of completeness and wholeness.

What is missing in the lectionary pericope is verses 3-5, which recount the Israel’s history at Baal Peor, where the Israelites yoked themselves to foreign women and the gods of Moab (cf. Numbers 25:1-13). Moses explains, “The Lord your God destroyed from among you everyone who went after the Baal of Peor, while those of you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today” (verses 3-4). While this may not be a very palatable text, it makes the point strongly that there is death to those who do not follow God, and life for those who hold fast to God. Note how easily, then, the author switches between talking about the life-giving law and the life-giving God.

Verse 6, where our text picks up again, explains that keeping the statutes and ordinances will demonstrate the Israelites’ wisdom and understanding to other nations. The wisdom and understanding of God will be evident to the other nations as the Israelites obey the law. Verse 8 tells us that the statutes and ordinances referred to in verse 1 are equated with the torah, which is described with the adjective, “righteous,” probably referring to the social righteousness of these laws.3

The final verse of the passage, verse 9, ends with Moses urging the Israelites to be watchful and keep the commandments. They must not forget but must make them known to subsequent generations. Christians, who are the spiritual descendents of the Israelites, have access to the righteous torah: it has been made known to us. Moreover, this passage encourages us that the commandments are not secondarily important, but “the righteous commandments and the keeping of them is the way that God is somehow known and found in the midst of the community.”4

Christians must decide whether we too are heirs of this command. Jesus was called “Rabbi” by his disciples, who were students of his interpretation of the law. It is therefore highly unlikely that Jesus calls us to dismiss the law’s life-giving power, wisdom and understanding. Far more likely is that if we study Deuteronomy and learn more about the law, it will bear witness to those around us (the other nations) and we will learn to love Jesus more.

1The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 696.
2Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy. (Louisville: John Knox Press, date?), 56.
3Ibid., 55.
4Ibid., 57.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

“What in the world is this doing in the Bible?”

It’s a not an uncommon reaction to a first encounter with the Song of Solomon (or, as it’s known from the Hebrew title, the Song of Songs). A love song between a man and a woman full of lush and sometimes erotic imagery hardly seems appropriate for Holy Writ.

But here it is, in our Bible and in our lectionary readings. “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag….My beloved speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away'” (Song of Solomon 2:9, 10).

Modern readers are not the only ones to be startled by the content of the Song. Its inclusion in the canon of Scripture was a matter of debate among rabbis in the first century CE. Some considered it little more than a drinking song. The matter was settled by the great teacher and mystic, Rabbi Akiba, who said, “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5).

Early and medieval Christians shared this high opinion of the Song. Origen wrote homilies and a ten-volume commentary on it. In the Middle Ages, the Song was the subject of more commentaries than any other Old Testament book. Bernard of Clairvaux, in the twelfth century, wrote eighty six sermons on the Song (and did not even get past chapter 2)!

What is it about this book that has inspired such enthusiasm through the centuries? Modern scholars are almost unanimous in viewing the Song as a celebration of sexual love between a man and a woman. For Jewish and Christian interpreters of previous centuries, however, the Song described the mutual love of God and Israel or Christ and the Church.

Both interpretations can be supported by the text. At its most basic level, the Song of Solomon is indeed a celebration of human love. It consists primarily of dialogue between a pair of lovers, a man and a woman. There is no explicit narrative plot in the book. The scenes are connected instead by similar motifs and themes: passion, descriptions of physical beauty, memories of past encounters, and longing for the lover’s presence.

The text selected for this Sunday (the only passage from the Song that is included in the Revised Common Lectionary) begins with the woman describing her beloved as a gazelle leaping over the mountains. Then the man speaks, and the imagery is lovely indeed: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; / for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. / The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.”

It is worth noting that the Song describes a love marked by fidelity and mutuality. The lovers are faithful to each other. They have eyes for no one else: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16; 6:3). “My vineyard [the woman], my very own, is for myself; / you, O Solomon, may have the thousand” (8:12).

Likewise, the lovers share a mutual ardor for each other. The woman is neither shy nor submissive; in fact, she speaks more than the man. In a reversal of the punishment of Eve in Genesis 3:16 (“your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”), the woman in the Song declares, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.”1  As Ellen Davis has argued, the Song reverses the curses of the Garden of Eden, including the rupturing of the relationship between man and woman.2  There is a mutuality about this love that repairs that rupture and places the lovers back into the Garden. (And, indeed, the Song is overflowing with images of lush gardens and abundant fruit; no thorns or thistles here.)

The Song celebrates faithful human love. For that reason alone, it could be argued, the Song deserves a place in Scripture. In a culture saturated with sexual images but sorely lacking in prominent examples of lifelong faithful love, this text celebrates love between a man and a woman that is marked by mutuality and fidelity. A sermon on such a topic (preached at weekly worship, and not just at a wedding) would be a gift to most any congregation.

But such an interpretation of the Song does not exhaust the possibilities inherent in the text. Pre-modern interpreters saw in this poetry a description and celebration of the love between God and Israel/the Church. Such an interpretation can look to other biblical passages for support. The metaphor of marriage for the relationship between God and God’s people is attested in several biblical books. It is a relatively small step to see the Song as an extension of that metaphor, describing in more detail the extravagant love of God for God’s people and (at last) the faithful love of the people for God.

The language of the Song itself seems to hint at such an interpretation. Davis suggests that the superscription “the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s” (1:1) may be meant to evoke the Holy of Holies, “Solomon’s other ‘superlative achievement,’ that place of ultimate sanctity and deepest awe.”3  Rabbi Akiba’s comparison of the two, made after the destruction of the Temple, may be taken very literally. “Though the visible Temple be destroyed, through the medium of the Song, it is still possible for those who pray to enter the presence of ‘the King’.”4

Likewise, in what is perhaps the most famous passage of the Song, the woman says, “love is strong as death, / passion fierce as the grave. / Its flashes are flashes of fire, / a raging flame” (8:6). The phrase, “a raging flame,” is more literally translated from the Hebrew, “a flame of the LORD.” The divine name is linked with love at this key point in the text.

It is also worth noting that the word for “passion” can be translated “jealousy” or “zeal” and is used often (though not exclusively) in the Bible for talking about God’s passion for Israel and Israel’s (or the individual Israelite’s) devotion to God (see Exodus 20:5; Numbers 25:11; 2 Kings 10:16; Psalm 69:9; Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 37:32; Zechariah 8:2). Davis notes especially the similarity to Deuteronomy 4:24, “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”5 

Though such connections with other biblical texts do not necessitate a theological interpretation of the passage, they are suggestive of such an interpretation. Jews and Christians through the centuries have found in the Song inspiration for reflection on God’s love and reflection on Christ’s passion for the Church. A sermon on such a topic can draw on a rich tradition of interpretation.

Divine love and human love are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Human love, at its best, can be a glimpse, a reflection, of God’s love. The Song of Solomon, with its distinctive biblical voice, gives the preacher a good opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the joy of both kinds of love.

1The Hebrew word translated “desire” occurs in the Old Testament only three times. The author of the Song, by using this rare word, is referring back to the Garden of Eden, where the relationship between man and woman was first damaged.
2Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000). I am indebted to Professor Davis for much of my interpretation of the Song.
3Ibid., p. 240.
4Ibid., p. 241.
5Ibid., p. 298. Davis pays close attention to the Hebrew text of the Song and offers many helpful insights about its possible allusions to other biblical texts.


Commentary on Psalm 15

James K. Mead

The opening verse of Psalm 15, asking who can be admitted to worship at the tabernacle/temple, makes for a daunting introduction to this “entrance liturgy” psalm.1

On one level, such questions may seem as remote to us as those asked of grail seekers at “the bridge of death” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or even the three tests of lethal cunning in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They strike us as being from a time and place far removed from the welcoming, seeker-sensitive churches of today. Followers of Jesus, whose faith is shaped by New Testament assurances of divine acceptance in Christ, might even be mildly dismissive of the exclusive tone of this Israelite psalm.

On another level, however, the response provided in the remaining verses of Psalm 15 forces even twenty first century readers to ponder how we reflect the psalmist’s expectations. We share more common ground with the biblical author than we might imagine, at least insofar as the psalm does not prescribe ritual acts of self-consecration; rather, as Derek Kidner writes, “the Lord’s reply searches the conscience.”2

A helpful way to think about Psalm 15 as a resource for worship and preaching is suggested by a Ronald Clements essay.3  Whatever may have been the original setting and function of questions about “abiding in Yahweh’s tent” and “dwelling on Yahweh’s holy hill” (verse 1), the current form of the psalm unites the liturgical interests in the question with the ethical instruction of the answer. Therefore, what may initially seem to be an expression of Israelite piety concerned with ceremonial acceptability now moves the hearer to contemplate the connection between one’s worship and one’s choices in the world. The questions of verse 1 are, after all, addressed to God, not to worshipers; they function rhetorically as an opportunity to challenge God’s people to adopt a “way of life that shows wholehearted respect for the torah of the Lord God.”4

Ritual, Righteousness, and the Decalogue
The Hebrew Bible as a whole represents the tension felt in Israelite society over the relationship between the worship one offers to God and the actions one takes with respect to neighbor. No single text in the Old Testament ever completely resolves this tension, though a strong case can be made that the prophetic witness certainly directed Israelites away from legalistic ritual toward obedience to God’s word in general (1 Samuel 15:22, “surely, to obey is better than sacrifice”) and concern for social justice in particular (Isaiah 1:11-17; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).

Moreover, the Ten Commandments themselves exhibit what Clements calls a “marriage between cultic duty and moral demand.”5  Rather than replacing concerns for ritual holiness, therefore, Old Testament theology invites Yahweh’s worshipers to celebrate their relationship with God from within a life that exhibits love of neighbor. This is certainly part of the thrust of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel lection for today (Mark 7), as well as in James’s instruction about “the law of liberty” in the epistle reading (James 1:17-27).

Preachers will find some commentators suggesting links to the Ten Commandments, insofar as certain ways of structuring Psalm 15’s content, lead to a list of ten behavioral admonitions. The connection is attractive and offers interesting homiletical possibilities, but the arguments for any direct influence between the Decalogue and the psalm are not compelling. One might hold out for a mild echo of the Ten Commandments, but the psalm’s content moves in a different direction from the Decalogue’s interests;6  and it may be that the psalm’s structure provides more than one accurate interpretation.7 

Regardless of the number of distinct statements, the economy of language is stunning, with only fifty three Hebrew words compared to the NRSV’s one hundred and two words. The psalmist wanted a memorable and trustworthy guide for social conduct, and sermons can present the psalm as a living portrait of the kind of life Moses called for in the Old Testament lection for this Sunday (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9). Observing Yahweh’s words will indeed display Israel’s “wisdom and discernment” to all the peoples (Deuteronomy 4:6).

Wisdom Instruction and Community Life
What then shall we do with the specific claims the psalm places upon us? Overall, we affirm that the instructions of verses 2-5 are not conditions for entering worship but descriptions of living in a community guided by wisdom. The active participles in verse 2 (the walker, the doer, the speaker) reinforce this notion by emphasizing qualities of continued practice, not achieved righteousness.

Of particular concern are what people do with their speech (verses 3-4) and how they handle their money (verse 5), but these are not stated as general principles as they might be found in the Book of Proverbs. They are instead contextualized in terms of the effect our words and finances have on “friends” and “neighbors” (verse 3). Even when other persons are not mentioned by name, their presence is implied as the recipients of an oath (verse 4) or a loan (verse 5).8

To bring the message full circle, the psalm is describing the kind of community within which God dwells. When the psalms were being collected in the post-exilic era, many diaspora Jews would never experience Temple worship. Psalm 15 encouraged them that communities of honesty and justice, wherever they may be, were themselves dwelling places of God.9  In this regard, verse 1 of the NRSV, with its translation “dwell,” misses the nuance of the Hebrew verb sākan, which might be translated “to tabernacle.” For Christians, this concept evokes the confidence that it is not merely we who dwell with God but God who has chosen to “tabernacle” with us (John 1:14).10 

1See P. Craigie on Hermann Gunkel’s form-critical designation, in Psalms 1-50 (Word Books, 1983), 150. This classification is only partially reflective of the psalm’s final form and function.  The psalm may not, in fact, have ever been about entrance requirements. 
2D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 1973), 80-81.
3R. Clements, “Worship and Ethics: A Re-examination of Psalm 15,” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible (JSOT Press, 1999), 78-94.
4Ibid., 90.
5Ibid., 84.
6W. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1991), 5:149-150.
7P. Miller, Interpreting the Psalms (Fortress, 1986), 44-45.
8The text of v. 4c is problematic, but the sense given it by the NRSV (“stand by their oath even to their hurt”) is sound.
9Clements, 90-93.
10M. Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 55.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 1:17-27

Craig R. Koester

This Sunday is the beginning of a series of readings from the book of James.

Although Martin Luther made critical remarks about this book, calling it an “epistle of straw” in his preface to James, the book retains a significant place in the canon of Scripture. The author is traditionally identified as James, the brother of the Lord (James 1:1; cf. Galatians 1:19), though this is disputed. More important is the basic perspective the author brings to Christian proclamation. The driving questions concern the shape of Christian life.

The author is aware that people sometimes confine their understanding of faith to a simple series of truth claims–something limited to their heads or their words. For James, this is inadequate. Throughout this letter, the faith that counts is the faith that is actually operative in a person’s life. People might say they believe one thing and yet do something completely different. Therefore, James will insist that true faith is whatever is actually operative in your life. Faith that is not active is not faith at all. And in this, James agrees with both Paul (Galatians 5:6) and Luther.

The passage for this week explores at least two questions. The first is, “Who is God?” The response that James presents is pure gospel. God is identified by what he gives. Every perfect gift comes from above, the gifts come down from the Father of lights (James 1:17a). The author will later turn to questions about human giving, but will not do so without speaking first about God’s giving. The people to whom James writes are those who have received life from God. Without this, there would be nothing further to say, since people have something to give precisely because they have received from God.

God is called the Father of lights, with whom there is no shadow or variation due to change (1:17b). This recalls that God is the Giver because God is the Creator. In the beginning he brought light into being and put all the particular lights in the heaven (Genesis 1:3, 14-17). What is more, this Creator or Father of lights has no “shadow side.” For American audiences, this distinguishes God from the Force depicted in Star Wars. You may recall that the Force is said to be an energy field comprised of all living things; and the Force has a dark side. The lives of major characters in Star Wars are shaped by whether they draw on the bright side or the dark side of the Force. In James, however, God does not have this kind of dark side. And God is not simply an energy field that people tap into at their will; God is the Giver who conveys life to them by his will.

God does this by his word of truth, which in this context is the gospel. The word of truth is God’s creative agent. It gives birth to new life in a person (James 1:18a). Birth language is life language. It points to a life that has a bodily dimension, yet this new life is not limited to the beating of the heart or breathing of the lungs. It means new life in relationship with God. James says that those who are given new birth become a “first fruits” (1:18b). In biblical tradition, the first fruits are the first ripe sheaves of grain or the first fruits that appear and ripen on a tree. They are signs of a greater harvest yet to come. And the first fruits were regularly offered to God as a sign that the entire harvest belonged to God. To be a first fruit is to belong to God, to be claimed by God, to be wanted by God.

The second question James considers is, “Who are you?” It would seem as if the question was answered by what has already been said, yet James recognizes that people do not necessarily live as the people they are in God. In 1:22-24, he speaks about a lack of correspondence between hearing and doing, between who one is and what one does.

He asks us to picture ourselves standing in front of a mirror. We are to pause there as James asks, “Do you see who you are?” Ordinarily, standing in front of a mirror might mean that we see ourselves as thin or overweight, blemished, disheveled, wrinkled, or scarred. But that is not what James is getting at. Instead, we are to think about ourselves in light of what has just been said. Do you see you who are? You are someone who has been blessed by God’s gifts, someone who has been brought to new life through God’s word–a person who is a first fruit, set aside as someone who belongs to God.

What happens when you forget who you are? Life typically takes another course. If you forget how much you have been given, why would you give anything to others? If you forget how much you have received, then life is reduced to a quest to get what you can while you can. You may find the situation of the orphan and the widow to be regrettable (1:27), but conclude that this is the way the world is, and you need to get what you can while you can. Or what if you forget that God’s word has given you new life, bringing you into renewed relationship with the God who made you and wants you as his own? If you forget what God’s word gives you, then what you do with your words seems to matter little (1:26).

So James says, “Look at yourself again, in the perfect law of liberty,” and tell me what you see (1:25). The law of liberty is the law of love that is mentioned in 2:8. And the law of love brings liberty–it is freeing–because love both frees us and constrains us. To know that one is loved is the most freeing thing imaginable, even as this same love holds us in a relationship of love. This is where we see ourselves, James says. Look into the law of love. This is who God creates you to be. Is there some reason you don’t want people to know who you are?