Commentary on James 3:13—4:3, 7-8a
Today’s lection continues the discussion of teaching and wisdom that James begins in 3:1 and which ends in 4:12.
The entire section focuses on how people in the community of faith interact with each other. Last week’s portion of this section focused specifically on speech. In today’s lection, James turns toward the contrast between wise leadership and the behavior that can tear a faith community apart. However, today’s lection oddly omits James’ explanation of this contrast, his assertion that “friendship of the world constitutes enmity of God” (4:4). This contrast between “the world” and God underscores much of James, especially this passage.
The first iteration of James’ contrast between “the world” and God occurs in James 3:13-18. On its own, this portion of today’s lection may be understood as a meditation on the contrast between godly and worldly leadership. The attributes of a godly leader are laid out in James 3:13: evidence of works borne out of good conduct that are done in the gentleness of wisdom.
The description of the leader as “wise and understanding” echoes the description of the leaders of the tribes of Israel in who would take over from Moses (Deuteronomy 1:13, 15). It also describes the entire people of Israel, insofar as they observe the commandments of God (Deuteronomy 4:6). Since the works of such a leader are to be done in “the gentleness of wisdom” (James 3:13), James proceeds to describe the qualities of this heavenly wisdom, or “wisdom from above” (3:17): “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, reasonable, obedient, full of mercy and of good fruits, impartial, sincere.”
In short, according to James, godly leaders make peace (3:18). We may hear, in these words, Jesus’ teaching that those who make peace — or the peacemakers are called children of God (Matthew 5:9), even as both God (Isaiah 45:7) and Christ (Ephesians 2:15) make peace. Moreover, as part of their work, these godly leaders plant a fruit of dikaiosyne, a word translated as either justice or righteousness.
In Proverbs, this fruit of justice or righteousness grows into the tree of life (Proverbs 11:30). Thus, godly leaders led by heavenly wisdom restore even the heart of creation itself. James, here, invites meditation on godly leadership. How do we, as Christians, through prayer and attention to the will of God, exercise such leadership? How do we encourage such attributes in our leaders and future leaders?
In contrast to this leadership informed by holy wisdom, James describes a community that practices jealousy and resentment (3:14). These attributes lead to rebellion and ungodly actions (3:16). What’s more, they lead to conflicts among the community, conflicts that grow out of these internal and communal desires (4:1-2). A perceived lack underlies these emotions.
Although James does not specify, the community desires something it does not have, and this leads to conflict. James then begins to diagnose the problem. First, he says, you don’t have because you don’t ask. And then, as if to respond to rebuttal, he explains, “you ask but you do not receive because you ask for things wickedly” (4:2-3).
However, the set lection ends just before James’ diagnosis reaches its climax in 4:4 “Friendship of the world is enmity of God.” At the heart of this communal jealousy, resentment, rebellion, and conflict, James sees a desire to befriend the world, read as the world outside of the community — possibly the pagan, Gentile world in which his communities are dispersed (1:2). Understood in this way, James invites a reflection on worldliness and godliness.
Most of the time, Christians live both in the world and in the community of faith; this lection asks us to consider where our loyalties lie, and how we know. Here, musings on symbols of status and prestige, whether the latest smart device or footwear, might be apropos. So also might discussions about prayer: how and why we pray, and what we pray for.
James ends this passage with a series of recommendations for those caught up in worldly wisdom rather than godly wisdom. These begin where the lection ends: “Therefore, be subject to God; but resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you” (4:7-8a). Taken with 4:8b-13, these verses issue a call to repentance, to turning away from the jealousies and resentments of the world at large, toward the peaceful leadership of those full of godly wisdom. From what worldly so-called wisdom might James be calling the church to repent? What might it mean for the church, once more, to draw near to God?