Commentary on James 1:17-27
“Half a foot between knowledge and wisdom”: that’s the short and oh so very long of the situation in James. There is a gap between knowledge (knowing in my mind ideas about God) and wisdom (living and acting from the soul what I know of and about God in my mind). It was a critical gap in James’ religious community nearly two thousand years ago. And it is a critical gap now in so many of our religious communities.
Scholars consider the letter of James to be in the genre and lineage of wisdom literature, not epistle. While the first verse of this letter identifies James as its author, we do not know more about who he is. His audience is the “assembly,” or, in the Greek, “synagogue” of Jesus followers dispersed around the Mediterranean basin.1 James reads like a collection of sayings and teachings for a developing community of Christ-followers hoping to distinguish themselves from the world by how they live together.
James does not hold back in diagnosing the death-dealing ways of the world for the poison that they are. This wisdom literature from James is prophetic and provocative. Famously, Martin Luther gave James the side-eye, deeming it an epistle of straw for its emphasis on works rather than reliance upon faith in God for salvation.
Perhaps this is a season in which you, dear preacher, need to mind the gap between knowledge about God and living wisely as friends of God for yourself and your congregation.
Verse 17 names the good news for the preacher: God is generous with the gift of truth, the gift of wisdom. Wisdom is not hidden, requiring some decoder ring to discern its direction. If we truly desire to be wise, wisdom from God will come from another plane of existence to help us create an alternative community of care in this world. If we dwell in wisdom and allow it to take root in us, we will be more equipped to resist the cravings of this world that disrupt the self and community. As Ron Allen states in The Preacher’s Bible Handbook, the intention of this writer is “to call to mind a way of life” together for God’s purposes, even if many of the instructions seem aimed at individuals.
With its 59 imperatives in twice as many verses, James represents the Torah tradition of wisdom as it exhorts humanity toward freedom through wisdom born from on high rather than succumbing to passions and desires from within.
The selection for today (verses 17-27) reads like a collection of snapshots of quick proverbial lessons. Many a sermon is preached on being quick to listen and slow to speak. Many a sermon is preached on being slow to anger. Many a sermon is preached on being doers, not just hearers, of the word. And one more verse that inspires many a sermon is in this pericope: caution of the unbridled tongue. Should any of these lines of proverbs launch your sermon this week, do not lose track of the ideal all of these lessons contribute to, also included in this week’s pericope:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
To care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (verse 27).
We listen, we hold our tongue, we temper our anger so that we can do what God wants us to do rather than walk in the ways of the world unthinkingly. The world’s wicked ways are sprinkled throughout James almost like Wanted posters scattered through town in order for the community to stop criminal behavior in its tracks when it appears in their life together.
The image on James’ Wanted posters is this: worldly lust for money, wealth, and status. Such behaviors lead to actions that destroy the fabric of Christian community. In contrast, true religion hurries to help the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the ones on whose backs the rich grow their wealth (James 5:1-5).
We know that we aren’t supposed to lust after money and status. I know this to be true. But James holds up a mirror so that we can reflect on whether or not our actions betray what we know in our heads. So, we must mind the gap between knowledge and wisdom. What is it that keeps us from doing God’s word and desiring what God desires? Answering this question with honesty is how we get at what’s really at stake for ourselves and our people as we seek to follow Jesus, and not merely to know about him.
Sermons on James can incorporate the genre of this biblical text: paraenesis or advice. As we offer advice for living wisely as Christians together in our time and place, we must simultaneously expose the deadly half foot between knowledge and wisdom. For James, sins in that deadly gap are greed, selfishness, covetousness, and the pursuit of personal pleasure and comfort, no matter the cost to society. Is it any different for us in 2021? The challenges of James are timeless.
- Ron Allen, “James” in The Preacher’s Bible Handbook, Wesley Allen, ed. Kindle Loc 4871.