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James 4: A Challenge Worth Taking

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Beloved:
Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly,
to spend it on your passions.
Adulterers!
Do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God?
Therefore, whoever wants to be a lover of the world
makes himself an enemy of God.
Or do you suppose that the Scripture speaks without meaning when it says,
The spirit that he has made to dwell in us tends toward jealousy?
But he bestows a greater grace; therefore, it says:
God resists the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.

So submit yourselves to God.
Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
Cleanse your hands, you sinners,
and purify your hearts, you of two minds.
Begin to lament, to mourn, to weep.
Let your laughter be turned into mourning
and your joy into dejection.
Humble yourselves before the Lord
and he will exalt you.

This reading from the letter of James is sometimes rather difficult to hear. Obviously, Luther didn’t like hearing it at all, and in many ways rejected the very harsh tone that seems issue from James’ mouth. He’s very frank and almost the rhetorical opposite of Saint Paul.

And at the same time, I plead for all of us, including myself, to give James a chance. Because James is the head of the Jerusalem church. And so he’s really speaking to a Jewish audience who is very accustomed to listening to lessons of Torah. Lessons of the law. They are used to a high degree of exhortation and admonishing people to do the good to respect Torah, to live according to Torah.

He has taken that style and applied it to respect the teachings of Christ, to live according to the teachings of Christ. It’s almost black and white. He just puts it out there in this very starkly Jewish way.

It’s got almost a pharisaical ring to it, honestly. And yet at the same time it’s definitively Christian. Now, of course, this stands as Luther pointed out all too well, and so did the council of Trent in response to Luther. (They all agreed in one point.)

St Paul’s rhetoric is a very different kind of rhetoric, right? It’s a rhetoric of conviction. It’s a rhetoric of logic. It’s a rhetoric that’s trying to convince people to move more closely to Christ. It’s a rhetoric that is focused on the interior attitudes, which was Jesus’ whole emphasis, right?

Gentle heartedness, meekness, humble heartedness, being poor in spirit, being zealous for souls, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, which of course includes compassion and forgiveness of others. If we get the interior attitudes right, then out from us will come behaviors that correspond to those interior attitudes of purification of the soul.

How to Interpret James’ Style

James though, being a good Jewish rhetorician, focuses right in on the behaviors. He zooms in like an Exocet missile. And because he does that, there is a tone of, “you got to do it or it’s curtains for you right now.” It’s almost a fear-inducing kind of a rhetoric. Which was part of the Jewish teaching program before Jesus.

Because of this rhetoric a lot of people get turned off by James. But I think the way to read James is that he is giving me a challenge to stay on the road. He puts it so starkly, and he’s trying to really exhort us to do this.
Don’t take it as “Oh my gosh, if I fail, I’m doomed.” That’s the wrong way to read James. Don’t let it induce a fear that I’m just not living up to things. I’m not serving the poor enough. I’m not doing X or Y or Z enough. Don’t look at it that way. Look at it as a challenge to try to do better.

The idea of trying to be perfect can be the worst enemy of the good. I think everyone here knows that cliché. The main thing we want to do is NOT to become perfect. It’s not to go out and become Peter Claver overnight. It’s to try within the scope of our lives to respond to those issues that we can so easily ignore in a society where people’s materialistic needs are taken care of by church organizations, Catholic charities, governmental organizations, all kinds of nonprofit organizations that are around us.

We often forget that we need to take care of people on all kinds of levels. So when I hear these challenges of James, I say, “Can I do better in trying to meet the temporal needs of somebody, even if it’s just seeing a beggar on the road or somebody who’s down and out?”

“Can I do better in trying to help people who are almost spiritually destitute? They have nothing? Can I do better in serving those people? Can I do better?”

But it’s not easy to tell when you can help someone and when, prudently, you should leave them to God and focus elsewhere. You have to ask how to balance these things and so forth. And I think what James does for me as he puts me into a creative tension, a sense that I’ve got to challenge myself to do better.

And so don’t avoid hearing the word of James. You don’t have to get into a rejection mode or a fear mode. Don’t get into an “I’ll never live up to the expectations of God” mode. Don’t look at it that way at all. Look at it as a challenge.

Can I do better at what James is talking about? Just a little better. If so, Lord, help me to do that. If I could do a little better there. And that just puts a whole new picture on James. He’s kind of that guy who’s going to be the gadfly.

He’s going to poke you, like my Jewish dissertation director, Dr. Paul Weiss, who I remember with great fondness, and of course he’s always telling me, you know, all these lessons, you know, but they’d be just stark and blunt: “Kid, don’t lead with your chin. Somebody’s going to hit it.” Or “Kid,” he’d say, “your rhetoric is too forceful. First you hit your opponents. Then you knock them down. Then you jump on them and bite them. You can avoid this. You can do it in a polished way instead.”

And of course I looked at that and thought, those challenges, they’re not bad. They’re really pretty good if we take them in the right spirit to just try and make the improvement to do what we can and avoid perfection becoming the enemy of the good.

Amen.

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