Lectionary Commentaries for September 20, 2009
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 9:30-37

Alyce M. McKenzie

This is the third week of our “What if?” approach to texts from Mark.

We’ve approached the encounter between the Syro-Phoenician woman and Jesus (7:24-37) and Peter’s encounter with him (8:27-38) through the lens of “What if” questions.

Between Peter’s confession in 8:29 and today’s text from 9:30-37, Jesus has been busy. He has been transfigured on a mountain before Peter, James and John (9:2-8), and he has healed a boy with a spirit when his disciples were unable to (9:14-29).

In today’s lesson (9:30-37), Jesus foretells his resurrection, chastises his disciples for arguing about who was the greatest among them, and points to a child as a model for discipleship.

Every text is a sandwich, with something before it and something after it. This text is the filling between two exorcisms. In the text before this, the disciples tried to exorcise a demon from a boy but failed, apparently because they didn’t pray (9:28-29). Jesus chastises them in harsh terms “How much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19). In the text that follows this, the disciples come to Jesus complaining that they had seen a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They whine to Jesus “We tried to stop him because he was not following us” (9:38). We didn’t give him permission; he didn’t have the right credentials, so how could he be a channel of healing?

Two “What if?” questions come to my mind when I look at this text in the context of what comes directly before it.
1. What if the disciples had prayed before they tried to exorcize the spirit from the boy (8:14-29)?
2. What if they had not been afraid to ask Jesus when they did not understand his prediction of his suffering and death? (9:32)

1. What if the disciples had prayed before they tried to exorcize the spirit from the boy? 
Would they have been able to be channels of divine healing and experience peace and joy? Would their spiritual understanding have increased? I don’t know. I only know what the text reveals: that their failure to pray is followed by their failure to understand Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death (9:30-32). This, after Jesus’ promise that “to you has been given the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mark 4:11). Failure to pray is followed by failure to understand something Jesus has promised them they have access to. “They did not understand what he was saying and they were afraid to ask him” (9:32).

2. What if they had not been afraid to ask him?
I suspect they were afraid to ask him because their priority was how they would look to each other if they did not understand. I became afraid to ask questions in algebra II, geometry, and trigonometry in high school. I lacked aptitude. I tried, but it did not come easily, or really, at all. I remember the feeling of just not understanding something, of feeling like everyone was getting it but me. I felt stupid and frustrated.

There was a ray of hope on the first day of geometry class in the ninth grade. We had a new, young teacher who waxed eloquent about the “beauty of mathematics.” I felt momentarily enthused and energized, but after about my second question, she got an annoyed look on her face. I stopped asking and just muddled through with an anxious mind, memorizing formulas rather than understanding their derivations, grateful for the C at the end of the year. Why did I become afraid to ask? Because I didn’t want to look stupid in front of the teacher and my classmates. I didn’t want to risk public chastisement. Apparently, my fear of how I would look in others’ eyes was stronger than my desire to understand the mysteries of mathematics.

What if the disciples hadn’t been afraid to ask? Sometimes I think the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is a little tough on the disciples. They are probably, like us, doing the best they can. He’s tough, but is he really the kind of teacher who would meet a sincere desire for understanding with annoyance and dismissal? Do we really need to be afraid to ask Jesus to help us follow him, understand to the limits of our human wisdom, and trust where it leaves off?

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the disciples remain at about the same level of understanding, or lack thereof. It was partly because they were afraid to ask. But I think it was partly because their burning question was not, “How can I better understand and live out Jesus’ identity and mission?”, but rather, “How can I be the greatest?”

What if lack of prayer led to lack of understanding and fear of asking for help? We may not understand the mystery of prayer, what it does and how it does it, but we all know what happens when we don’t pray. We all know that not praying leads to a cycle of scattered thoughts, bad decisions and actions we later regret. This seems to be what happened to the disciples in this text.  In the text from 8:27-38, we saw how Peter’s rebuke instigated Jesus’ teaching about the way of the cross. Here again, the disciples’ mistaken priorities call forth a clear teaching from Jesus. This time it is about who is greatest.

In looking at the text, it seems to me that the disciples’ argument has four roots:

  • fear that they have fallen in Jesus’estimation (9:19)
  • insecurity at their failure to heal the boy (9:29)
  • resentment toward one another as Jesus chastises them
  • eagerness to compete to regain his approval

If I were preaching on this text, I’d remember the disciples negative responses because the first letter of each one spells out f-i-r-e. The disciples could not put aside these heated thoughts so that they could understand what Jesus was trying to tell them.

Their focus on their reputations, a priority each of them held inside, comes to the surface in an argument over who was the greatest that would make them all look small (9:33-37). It turns out that to be great is not to impress crowds with displays of healing, or to try to become the teacher’s pet of a Teacher who refuses to play favorites.

I’ve heard sermons on this text that make the point we have to become children to be great. They conclude by encouraging us to focus on our inward lives, on becoming more pure, more innocent, more humble, more spontaneous, more trusting.

It turns out that to be great is to be focused on something quite other than oneself. It turns out that greatness lies in welcoming one who is not viewed as great by the culture, the child, the one who is beyond the circle, who needs a welcome.

So here is the final “What if?” question. What if we actually did that?

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20

Frank M. Yamada

How are the faithful to respond in times of pressing difficulty?

The Hebrew Bible contains many rich traditions to address such questions. In this passage, the prophet Jeremiah offers a lament or complaint to God. His prayer addresses the conflict that is intrinsic to his calling to proclaim the word of the LORD to Judah, a community that persistently resists his message of judgment. The lection from the First Testament resonates with the themes from this week’s Psalms (Psalm 54 or Psalm 1 in other lectionaries), which address the different destinies for the righteous and the wicked, the faithful and the unfaithful.

The gospel text from Mark 9:30–37 also pairs nicely with this complaint from Jeremiah since it emphasizes Jesus’ prediction of his future betrayal at the cross and his current frustration with the disciples’ lack of understanding. These verses from Jeremiah 11 provide the preacher with a rich theological resource for addressing the life of prayer in the context of injustice.

Jeremiah 11:18–20 is the first section of a larger prayer that extends to 12:6. This is the first of six laments in the book of Jeremiah. The other five are 15:10–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–13; and 20:14–18. These painfully wrought poetic texts also are known as the confessions of Jeremiah. The lament or complaint is the most prevalent form of biblical prayer in the Bible. Through it a person or community seeks to confront the harsh realities of life–sickness, persecution from enemies, slander, the threat of death, or national tragedy. The petitioner also simultaneously addresses the God who is the very source of these difficulties.

The lament form is composed of five elements:
1) an invocation of God (“How long O Lord?”)
2) a description of the psalmist’s predicament
3) a plea for help
4) an affirmation of trust in God
5) a final vow to praise

The biblical laments do not necessarily contain all of these elements. However, the movement from lament to trust is typical, though there are some psalms that end in dislocation without positive resolution (for example, Psalm 88). The theology that informs these prayers is different than our contemporary culture of complaint. In ancient Israel, the lament is an act of faithfulness. It is how the righteous pray in the face of injustice. The anger that is expressed in these prayers can be alarming to modern church-goers.

One must remember, however, that the complaints were not self-absorbed prayers of discontent. They were set within the context of public or family worship. Therefore, lament is a faithful individual or communal response to adversity. It confronts both life’s harsh realities and the God who is sovereign over all aspects of our existence, including our suffering.

Jeremiah 11:18-12:6 divides into three parts:
1) the first complaint (11:18–20)
2) the LORD’s response and vindication of the prophet (11:21–23)
3) the second complaint (12:1–6)

The first section summarizes Jeremiah’s situation and is followed immediately in verses 21–23 with the LORD’s vindication of the prophet against those who oppose his message. The second complaint in 12:1–6 frames Jeremiah’s difficulty through a familiar theological dilemma in the Hebrew Bible, that is, the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. The LORD initially commissioned Jeremiah to proclaim a difficult word of judgment to Judah and the nations (Jeremiah 1:4–10). Therefore, this particular lament must be viewed within the broader context of the prophet’s vocation. It is a faithful response to suffering that is tied to Jeremiah’s identity and obedience to the LORD’s calling.

Verse 18 begins the first complaint with a summary statement of illumination. The LORD has revealed the intentions of the wicked to Jeremiah. Thus, the prophet sees his difficulties through God’s perspective, enabling him to recognize that his opponents seek to do him harm. This brief recognition, however, does not alleviate the suffering that he encounters.

In verse 19, Jeremiah’s trust in the LORD makes him vulnerable in the face of hostile opposition. He is like a lamb being led to the slaughter. His enemies seek to kill him while the prophet is still in his prime years–a tree that is ripe with produce in its fruit-bearing season. The wicked desire to cut him off from the “land of the living.” However, their schemes will not prevail over the LORD of hosts, who is the righteous judge and who tries the human “heart and mind” (verse 20). The LORD’s narrative trumps the plans of Jeremiah’s opponents. In God’s court of opinion, Jeremiah will be vindicated, because he has committed his ways to the LORD.

In times of distress, the confessions of Jeremiah teach us to turn to the grounding of our being, the one who calls us from the womb. The LORD is sovereign over all of human life, both in times of blessing and adversity. There will be times when living into a prophetic witness will require the faithful to stand in opposition to those who benefit from or are deeply attached to the existing order of things.

In such situations, resistance will be fierce. Speaking truth to power demands much from prophets both ancient and modern. The confessions of Jeremiah remind us that though others may scheme to do harm to those who proclaim truth, ultimately, it is God’s ways that will prevail. Lament provides the worshipping community with access to the ultimate power and authority, inviting those who suffer in the face of injustice to lift their complaint to heaven. This ancient form of prayer suggests that, when things go wrong, God expects the faithful to question vigorously the very one who judges both heart and mind. Indeed, it is Jesus who teaches us to pray through the words of an ancient lament, as he faces his enemies on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” (Psalm 22:1, KJV).

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Proverbs 31:10-31

Brent A. Strawn

Proverbs 31:10-31 is the famous poem celebrating the “capable wife.”

It is often cited in praise of wives and mothers, and is among the most popular and familiar texts from Proverbs. Of course, “popular” and “familiar” does not necessarily mean “clear” and “without interpretive difficulties”” One of these difficulties, to be sure, is that Proverbs is a patriarchal text and chapter 31 is certainly no exception. Preachers might appropriately worry that 31:10-31 is a masculine commendation of women and “woman’s work.” Such a concern is not unfounded.

Verse 10, for instance, seems to begin oddly and ambiguously, if only because it apparently suggests that a capable wife is hard to find and yet the poem immediately proceeds to praise one. This one (woman), that is, may be the “ideal” that one (man) cannot find. But even if she is difficult to find, it’s no wonder why: she’s working hard! And working hard everywhere (verses 14, 16), on everything (verses 15a, 16, 18a, 19, 24a), for everybody (verses 12, 15b, 20, 21b, 24b, 27a) — from dawn (verse 15a) to dusk (verse 18b) no less! Again, preachers might well worry that 31:10-31 depicts an idealized woman only from a patriarchal perspective.

These concerns are real, but there is more to say about the passage. And yet, while there is more to say, that should not undercut the preceding concerns. Some churchgoers will also worry about 31:10-31; others will not. Some will know they should worry; others will refuse to worry. Part of the preaching task, at least according to Emerson, is “to convert life into truth… life passed through the fire of thought.”1  Part of the truth about life is the patriarchy of the ancient world — including the biblical world. Part of passing that life through the fire of thought is to think critically and theologically about such patriarchy, including such patriarchy in the biblical world. Such a task is not restricted to the clergy in seminary classrooms, but is one for the priesthood of all believers, whether male or female, if they are to be thoughtful and faithful Christians in the contemporary world.

Passing the life of the biblical world through the fire of homiletical thought reveals more, however, than just worries about patriarchy in Proverbs 31:10-31. In fact, close attention to the biblical world and the specific wor(l)d of Proverbs reveals two important things about the “ode to the capable wife.”

1. Not all of the hard work of this hardworking woman is adequately or accurately described as “woman’s work” — not now and certainly not in the patriarchal world of antiquity. The wife in Proverbs 31 is not in the kitchen scrubbing dishes and biting her tongue! While she clearly takes care of her husband (verses 11-12) and household (verses 15, 21, 27) and excels at domestic activities (verses 13, 15, 19, 22) she is quite active outside the home as well. She is a successful businesswoman, considering a field and buying it (verse 16a), and is a viticulturist to boot (verse 16b). She is an entrepreneur who works late into the evening (verse 18), who plans ahead (verse 21), and who is not idle (verse 27). She knows how to dress for success (verse 22) and how to sell goods for a profit (verse 24). Her work compares favorably to merchant marines (verse14), and one suspects that the reason her husband is well known (verse 23) is because of her, not vice versa!

Indeed, the sentiments of verse 17 and verse 25 go far beyond both home and market: they are worthy of the mightiest of warriors (cf. Psalm 77:15; 83:8; Ezekiel 30:22; Nahum 2:1). It should come as no surprise, then, that the word “capable” (ayil) in verse 10 is the same word translated “strength” in 31:10 and “excellently” in 31:29. All three translations are apropos for this most amazing woman.

But this woman does more than simply succeed in business or at domestic duties. She is no uncaring tycoon: instead, she “opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy” (verse 20; in Hebrew, the last phrase is the same used in verse 19a, thereby linking her provision for the poor to her other skills). This woman is also far from silent. She speaks with wisdom and the “teaching of kindness” (literally, the torah of hesed) is on her tongue (verse 26). Her strength, that is, appears to be as much moral as it is physical (cf. 8:14).

2. The last observation leads directly to the second important item. Within the world of Proverbs, the capable wife looks quite a bit like Woman Wisdom. She, too, is strong (compare 8:14 with 31:17, 25) and opens her mouth with wisdom (1:20-21, 24; cf. 31:26). She, too, “laughs at the time to come” (31:25; cf. 1:26). Indeed, the opening nine chapters of Proverbs present the student of wisdom as a son, listening to the instructions of his father (1:8; 2:1; etc.). Peppered throughout are speeches by Woman Wisdom (e.g., 1:20-33) who is to be desired rather than the temptations presented by the Strange Woman/Dame Folly (see 2:16-19; 7:10-20; 9:13-18).

Although it is not a narrative, one can “read” the rest of Proverbs as a story about this child who has been instructed at home by his parents about the ways of wisdom and folly. Proverbs 31:10-31 see this child out into the “real world,” far from home, and into all kinds of areas and subjects, without giving up on the quest for wisdom. In such a “story,” 31:10-31 can be seen as a picture of the child of chapters 1-9 back home, all grown up and “done good.” Most (!) important among the good and wise things he has done is “marry up.” His wife bears striking resemblance to the earlier depictions of Woman Wisdom; she incarnates, as it were, Wisdom. The son of Proverbs 1-9 has learned well and has chosen wisely.

The connections between the capable wife and Woman Wisdom might suggest another explanation for the picture in 31:10-31: that portrait may be a sapiential and mythological ideal as much as a patriarchal one. That is, this is no “real” woman, but Woman Wisdom. Only she could possibly work that hard!

1Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address (1838)” www.emersoncentral.com/divaddr.htm; accessed May 27, 2009).


Commentary on Psalm 54

Fred Gaiser

Why the passion of this psalm?

Why its sharp, even repellant characterization of the enemies? Why the joy and generosity of its resolution? Because of what the psalmist sees to be at stake here: nothing less than God’s name and the pray-er’s soul! Both of these fundamental realities are of utmost concern to each of the primary protagonists in the prayer: God and “me.”

To be sure, “soul” does not occur in the standard English translations of the psalm, no doubt because of the danger of misunderstanding the Hebrew nephesh as something like a disembodied essence unrelated to the harsh realities of this world, but in the Hebrew text the term occurs twice: nephesh, soul, self, breath, life–everything that makes “me” me. In the psalm, the enemies seek my “life”/”soul” (verse 3); but God upholds my “life”/”soul” (verse 4). This is the message of the psalm in a nutshell: something/someone wants to destroy me–all that is me; God wants to uphold me–all that is me.

We can understand how another, an enemy can destroy our lives or our health or our reputations, but how can the enemy destroy my soul, my “me”? Holocaust author Elie Wiesel helps us understand that in his description of a forced journey to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Jews, the victims, are crammed into a cattle car with no provisions whatsoever. As a result, when a German workman throws in a piece of bread, the men inside, in a desperate attempt to get at the crumbs, “threw themselves on top of each other, stamping on each other, tearing at each other, biting each other. Wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes.”1 Now, the victims become victimizers, and the enemy has done the unthinkable: in the process of killing people’s bodies, it has killed their souls as well.

To understand the possibility of such horror is to understand the passion against the enemies in this and other psalms: these are agents of chaos, uncreating the world God has made and is in the process of redeeming. When God saw that it was not good for the new human to be alone, God made a partner, a helper (Genesis 2:18), so that each could serve, enrich, enhance, support, and protect the other. Biblically speaking, that’s what humans are for.

But when the other rejects the God-given vocation of helper, that other becomes, in the language of the psalms, enemy–one opposed to God’s intended relationships among God’s beloved human creatures. When that happens, the psalmists cry out, as here (verse 4), for God to take the role of “helper” (‘ozer–same term as in Genesis 2:18), to put right what the other-become-enemy has torn asunder.

Thus, the psalm’s cry against the insolent and ruthless enemies (verse 3) and apparent gloating over their defeat (verse 7) is not so much personal vindictiveness as the psalmist’s fervent prayer that God restore the way things ought to be. Good really should triumph, and evil really should be defeated. People really should help one another. The Bible cries out for that from beginning to end, and God’s people continue to pray that it be so. Such prayer does not permit a self-righteous identification of myself as invariably good and others as unmistakably evil; it calls upon God to uphold my life, to be my helper, my companion, even my significant other, in order that I might find myself on God’s side against whatever turns out to be opposed to that, to be the helper God intends me to be. Finally, in Christ, such prayer will call upon God to defeat also anything within me that stands in the way of God’s good plans for God’s world.

This is why God’s name is at stake in the prayer. In a poetic inclusio, the psalmist prays at the outset to be saved by God’s name (verse 1) and then gives thanks to God’s name at the close when God has acted (verse 6). A victory of the “enemy”–anyone or anything opposed to God–would call God’s name into question. Just as my “soul” is all that is me in the Bible, we might similarly so that God’s “name” is all that is God. Though God’s name is not itself God, the name stands for God and signifies God’s presence. God gives Israel God’s personal name (Exodus 3:13-15) to announce who God is, to proclaim God’s promise, and to permit the kind of relationship that enables calling the other by name.

That relationship has been disturbed in the psalm. The pray-er is in danger, under personal attack. God’s promise of deliverance and redemption of God’s people is in jeopardy–if only because “I” am God’s person and “I” am in mortal peril. The passion is evident in the psalm’s opening words, where the Hebrew word order is: “God, by your name save me…God, hear my prayer….” The outburst, twice, is “God…”–no preliminaries, nothing intervening, straight to the source. The psalm is about God even before it is about “me,” for God in God’s faithfulness (verse 5) is at least as invested in my well being as I am–indeed, as my maker and deliverer, even more so.

Such imploring of God to be God–to be God for me–is what the psalm is about, and it is the mark of faithful prayer throughout the history of God’s people. The petition is not: “God, I have determined what is right and wrong, and I ask you to get on board”; it is rather, “God, my world, your world, is in disarray, and I ask you to make it right, to make me right.”

Then, of course, I will bring my “freewill offering” (verse 6; see Leviticus 7:16; Deuteronomy 12:6)–not as the fulfillment of a bargain, but in the freedom and joy produced by God’s restoration of me and the world, returning it to the order God wills. Hosea understands the relationship precisely, using the same term as Israel’s “freewill offering” to God (nedabah) to describe God’s decision to “love them freely” (Hosea 14:4). God’s free grace and our free response marks the world God chooses. All of that is in jeopardy in the psalm. No wonder the psalmist cries out; no wonder, God, in faithfulness, responds.

This plea to God from distress and proclamation of God, “the upholder of my life,” might be taken farther: working from the superscript’s ascription of the psalm to David, the tradition can read the psalm as the prayer of God’s anointed. With that background, the preacher can move to hear this as a prayer of Christ, praying in, with, and for us in our distress.

Such a Christological reading of the psalm would be in the tradition of Luther and Bonhoeffer and add another dimension to the sermon. Still, that moves beyond the clear first meaning of the psalm. It is a possible, but not necessary reading.

1Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Avon, 1969) 112.

Second Reading

Commentary on James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a

A.K.M. Adam

This week’s epistle reading explicitly connects James’ interest in mindful speech with his concern for community harmony.

James has already addressed the right use of communication in 1:13, 19, 26, 3:1-12, and shortly after the end of today’s reading, 4:11. This consistent emphasis on ordering our communication to knit us more closely to others, rather than to alienate, finds its goal in a passage that spells out James’ call to live a life of integrated spirituality, with words, actions and sentiments that all correspond with the character of God.

James signals his concern about community harmony with the question in 4:1: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” Here James takes it as granted that his addressees experience dissension. Although this may be a strictly hypothetical query based on general experience, when it is read beside other passages in James, one gets the sense that the letter envisions a congregation in which richer and poorer participants find themselves at odds. Thus in chapter 2, James cautions the community against favoring the wealthy members and disregarding the poor, while the rich members “oppress you,” “drag you into court,” and “blaspheme the excellent name [of God?]” (2:6f).

James clearly sympathizes with the poor in this situation; they have been chosen by God to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, whereas James exhorts the wealthy to “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to them” (5:1). James’ warnings against boasting and in favor of lowliness (1:9-11, perhaps 3:5, 4:6-10, 4:13-16) resonate with this concern as well. Since James does not describe any specific persons or incidents, we ought not assert too definite a setting for these cautions, but they would fit perfectly in a situation in which wealthy members of the congregation were exercising their social power and riches in order to dominate poorer members. To such circumstances, James articulates a forceful rebuttal, with Scriptural warrants and dire eschatological warnings.

The lectionary begins this unit with the encomium of peacefulness in 3:13-18. James uses these verses to bind together claims to be wise with the stipulation that wisdom reveals itself in action, just as “faith” does (2:14, 17). James binds true wisdom to peaceable behavior and willingness to yield. Belligerence and contentiousness evince a worldly determination to win, rather than a faithful determination to build up harmony, gentleness, and mercy.

The theological value of patience and gentleness are not obvious to the most prominent streams of contemporary culture. Politicians — with keen attention to their constituents’ sympathies — outdo one another in adopting bellicose poses toward enemies, and partisans decry compromises that might alienate their core supporters. Church bodies regularly take their conflicts to secular courts without even a trace of self-conscious penitence for resorting to state power to resolve ecclesiastical problems. Behavior that most congregations take as self-evidently necessary, James condemns as antithetical to heavenly wisdom.

Would James suggest that disciples stand idly by while evildoers perpetrate such wrongs as slavery or genocide? Clearly not, since he himself excoriates the sins he sees afflicting his neighbors. But James emphatically does not justify the use of violence or coercion in support of godly purposes; like Jesus, and Paul, James repudiates the use of unholy means to attain allegedly good ends. Instead, James articulates a theology that refuses to sacrifice the personal righteousness that a disciple manifests in honesty, chastity, mercy, and faithful trust in God in order to attain social righteousness. Indeed, James warns that our struggles to prevail in worldly conflicts lock our loyalties to the sinful structures themselves, engendering self-congratulatory satisfaction with a world that is passing away.

But naming the truth isn’t mere “passivity,” and refusing to litigate or “win” isn’t a counsel of despair or complacency. Truth-telling entails acknowledging our own frailty and fallibility as integral aspects of identifying and condemning others’ misconduct. In the context of James’s theology of integrity, the exercise of coercion (whether by physical violence, state power, or even organizational process) in itself falsifies the claim that one is representing God’s will. The (violent) compulsion to attain victory over adversaries very quickly entangles us in lies, brutality, self-exculpating rationalization, and the boastful sense that God is on our side, against their side.

Thus the lectionary’s exclusion of verses 4-6 and 8b-12 (not to mention 4:13-5:12) eviscerates James’s rhetoric. James specifically warns against “friendship with the world” not because he mistrusts the goods of creation, but because he recognizes the all-too-human tendency to elevate temporal goods to divine status, and to misattribute our own judgments to God’s authority. In teaching this way, James actually stands up for the poor and disenfranchised, who do not have access to the full repertoire of worldly machinations that operate the engines of power.

One may not be rich, or important in the world’s eyes, but everyone has the capacity to adhere to truthfulness, peaceableness, and mercy. Our refusal to stoop to the violence that characterizes our oppressors, though, aligns us with God’s own power; and our willingness to endure hardship rather than shed blood or pass judgment aligns us with “prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

The kind of unshakeable integrity that James describes is the furthest thing from passive acceptance of evils; contrariwise, the arduous commitment to persevere in the perfect freedom of a disciple who loves heavenly wisdom more than earthly power requires determined activism. This commitment to the truth will oblige disciples to make themselves inconvenient to the wealthy players of power games; in this, James echoes the characterization of “the righteous one” in the Book of Wisdom (2:12-20), who “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions” (and possibly alludes to Jesus as the Righteous One in 5:6). If (as Martin Luther King Jr. taught) the arc of the moral universe is long, James reminds us that we should patiently follow, anticipate, and bear witness to its curve, rather than forcing it to bend according to our specifications.