Third Sunday of Advent

The eschatological condemnation of the rich for their avarice and exploitation is already a done deal

spring in wilderness
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December 11, 2022

Second Reading
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Commentary on James 5:7-10

A central theological and pastoral thrust of Advent is the correlation between God’s impending endgame and our ongoing lives in the present. This correlation resonates throughout the letter of James both in terms of how human conduct in the present will impact divine decisions in the future and how God’s eschatological plans are to shape and mold current Christian attitudes and action. This dual interplay between divine future/human present culminates in the negative and positive injunctions within James 4:13-5:11 (wherein our text presents the positive side of the divine future/human present interrelationship).

To fully appreciate James’ direct words of pastoral encouragement to his Christian audience in 5:7-10, it is important to understand his condemnatory tirade in 4:13-5:6. The “you” plural addressees used throughout 4:13-5:6 (and at whom James targets his invective) are no longer the members of “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1) whom James has been addressing since the letter’s opening. Instead, James now paints this particular group as the rich (4:13; 5:1,2,3,5) who arrogantly claim that they can control their prosperous future (4:13,16) just as they have oppressively controlled their affluent present (5:4-5). Rather than being in control of their future, James informs them that their lives are but a transient puff of smoke that is about to be made to disappear (4:14b). Likewise, they and the wealth they have accumulated through exploitative and fraudulent practices in the present are destined for eschatological retribution (5:1-5 as the climax of the divine condemnations of the rich presented earlier in 1:10-11; 2:6b-7). Thus, these verses present the extreme negative side of James’ correlation between present human conduct and future divine decisions.

In 5:7a, the use of the expression “therefore beloved” (NRSV; literally “therefore brothers” which is one of the letter’s seventeen uses of the Greek word “adelphos” which for James helps cement his familial solidarity with the letter’s audience) marks a transition whereby James is once again directly addressing the letter’s true audience. They are the righteous ones who have been the victims of the oppressive practices by the rich (5:4,6; also see 2:6b). Instead of trying to curry favor with the rich while ignoring the poor (2:1-7), James’ audience needs to learn the negative and positive implications of the imminent “coming of the Lord” (literally “the Parousia of the Lord” in 5:7,8). 

On the negative side, they need to pay attention to the impending eschatological doom of the rich because of their current evil actions and avarice. On the positive side, Jesus’ impending coming both calls for and empowers their patience (stressed three times in 5:7-8a). In this way, the expression “until the coming of the Lord” marks not only the extent of their need to be patient but also the goal of their patience. To underscore this period of patience, James utilizes an agricultural illustration in verse 7b (paralleling his use of agricultural examples in 5:4-5). Their patience in anticipation of the Lord’s coming is comparable to the farmer who patiently waits for the ripening of his precious crops which are dependent on the rains at the beginning and culmination of the growing season. Indeed, in his Greek James drives home the applicability of this analogy by introducing it with an emphatic “Behold!” in verse 7 (captured nicely by the King James Version) and through the use of “You also be patient” in the opening of verse 8a.

The New Revised Standard Version translation of the imperative in verse 8b, “strengthen your heart” is a bit too ambiguous and does not fully capture James’ directive here. James is calling on his audience to firm up the commitment of their inner resolve to God and God’s ways akin to his directive in 4:8. The reason they are to firm up their inner resolve is precisely because the Lord’s Parousia has drawn near. The thrust of James’ language is not so much that the Lord will come but that the Lord is already in the process of coming. This sharpens and intensifies the so-called “already/not yet” theological outlook in James. Not only are they already living in the end times (in other words, the “last days” noted in 5:3), but Christ’s eschatological coming (replete with its ultimate condemnations against the rich and blessings for the stalwart) is now unfolding. No wonder James is calling for his audience to firm up their resolve and commitment to God.

The imminence of Christ is reinforced in verse 9a when James declares that the Judge is standing at the doors. Final judgment is at hand and about to break into the human realm. Recalling what was claimed in 1:10-11; in James 5:1-4, the eschatological condemnation of the rich for their avarice and exploitation is already a done deal. By not engaging in backbiting and squabbling with other members of the community (recalling and reinforcing James instructions on communal harmony in 3:13-18; 4:1-3,11-12), believers will not come under such condemnation (5:9a echoing 2:13). The implication is that our resolve and commitment to God in light of the divine future also promotes internal harmony in the present.

In 5:10, James offers the example of the prophets who suffered with patience because of their resolve to carry out their God-given vocation of speaking the Word of the Lord. In similar fashion, while James’ audience currently suffers under the oppressive hand of the rich (2:6; 5:4-6) they await the Lord’s coming in patient anticipation and commitment to their God-given vocation which James established throughout chapters 1-4. Though not in the lectionary’s boundaries, 5:11 adds perseverance to the important character traits needed amidst present hardships (using the example of Job’s endurance) as they look to the goal of God’s purposes and plans.

Through both his warnings and assurances regarding the certainty and imminence of God’s endgame, James seeks to move us toward the divine future with renewed patience, perseverance, and resolve. Because the future is in God’s hands, we live in its anticipation in our present.