Commentary on James 5:7-10
The language in this passage might, at first, sound a bit foreign to contemporary Christians, especially those living in urban settings in North America or Europe.
In these contexts, we know little of the patience of the farmer who “waits for the precious crop from the earth” (James 5:7). We are more used to being, as the Black Eyed Peas sing, the “Now Generation.” Things have to come to us, and they have to come fast.
Similarly, for part of Christianity at least, the coming of the Lord, the parousia, is not at the center of preoccupations. Concerning an attitude of waiting patiently for the return of the Lord, some Christians prefer to adopt what can be termed a “present eschatology.” Basing themselves on New Testament witnesses such as Paul or John, they believe that the kingdom of God has already come and that it is our responsibility to enact it here and now, taking care of the underprivileged and of the earth, striving to create a more just and more peaceful society. If we encounter this section of James and find it a bit out of touch with our reality, how can we still hear this passage?
Historically, the content of the passage can be clarified in light of the events that shaped the early consciousness of the nascent Jesus movement. As the gospels and Paul also show, first century Hellenistic Judaism testifies to a strong apocalyptic consciousness. There were several messianic movements, and the followers of Jesus participated in these general messianic expectations.
At the same time, especially around and after the first Jewish war (66-70 CE), the Christ-believers encountered suspicion both from the Roman authorities and the Greek population established in towns around the Roman empire. As a result, a call to strength and endurance would not be surprising. It was almost an expected feature in Christ-believers correspondence. In that context, the prophets who James quotes as examples (James 5:10) are good models: despite the potential opposition of authorities, the prophets were called to transmit the word of God and to exhibit perserverance and strength in the face of persecutions.
Interestingly though, when James presents a concrete example of a biblical figure symbolizing endurance, he does not turn to the prophets but to Job (James 5:11). With this reference, we might be able to see how this text introduces questions that are at the heart of our understanding of life and of God. In that sense, even if we may no longer relate to the language used in James, we are able to understand the deep questions that underlie the language of the passage.
Ultimately, this passage is about our understanding of God’s relationship to our world. When it asks for endurance, patience, and perseverance from its addressees, it answers a question that continues to preoccupy human beings, namely, why do innocent and just people suffer? Or, to put it differently, can one expect justice in this world? In theological language, this question touches on theodicy and God’s justice.
Job presents one possible answer to that question, an answer that was compelling enough to the author of James that he used it as a foundation for his exhortations. In Job, we encounter a certain vision of God and his relationship to the world. The story of Job is well-known, and as James indicates, its principal character, Job, displays almost superhuman endurance and faithfulness. Job is a wealthy man who looses all of his possessions but remains faithful to God and eventually receives everything back. His faithfulness is based upon the conviction that God is ultimately just and that since he, Job, is innocent, at the end, God will reward him.
In order to bring this about, however, Job does not wait in silence. Rather, Job requests a hearing from God, convinced that God will agree with his position: “I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn that he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge” (Job 23:4-7).1
Job believes he can not only talk about God, but that he can also talk to God.2 The result, however, is a bit disorienting. In fact, God does not give heed to Job at all. Rather, God buries Job under questions, mostly rhetorical, and shows Job his proper place.3 In the end, Job realizes that “God’s ways are not his ways and that he has no business questioning God’s motives or methods.”4
In this conclusion, Job comes close to an understanding central to another Wisdom book, Qoheleth. In both cases, God is depicted as distant, with purposes and motives human beings cannot fathom. However, as Kaltner and McKenzie write, “Job, though, doesn’t think of God as some aloof, mysterious presence, but as a dialogue partner who responds to human needs and requests. … Job knows something Qoheleth doesn’t: God hears and pays attention.”5
In the light of the story of Job, we return to the passage of James with perhaps a bit more wisdom. Using a language that might sound distant and removed, James asks his addressees to consider God as in charge, as paying attention. In the same ways as some things remained a mystery for the world of the first century and were expressed in the mythical language of the parousia and the final judgment, some things remain a mystery to us, and we might sometime be in need of a mythological language that could remind us that we do not have all the answers and that, sometimes, we even need to be reminded of how to ask questions, about life and about God.
1 As quoted in John Kaltner and Steven L. Mc Kenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible (Winona: Anselm Academic, 2012), 148.
2 See Kaltner and McKenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible, 148.
3 Kaltner and McKenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible, 148 count almost sixty questions in the four chapters that constitute God’s answer to Job.
4 Kaltner and McKenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible, 149.
5 Kaltner and McKenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible, 149.