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The Wisdom of James (3)

May 12, 2009

James invites his tiny Jewish Christian communities to see the Christian life as the way of wisdom.  Under great pressure to conform to a reality shaped, formed and controlled by others they resist and it gets them into trouble. Scot McKnigtht points out that James is urging them to face their abuse with some courage and faith and to see through the exploitation, which they were incapable of openly resisting, to something they could get out of it. So he tells them to face the trials with “joy.”

2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything

When James speaks of joy he is not speaking of that happy face we tend to want to put on. He is not the runaway best selling author of “Become a Better You” and he has no suggestions in aiding you in the discovery of your best self within. The joy James is talking about is not so much a positive outlook as a deeply grounded confidence in God, which is something very different than American optimism, rooted as it is in the individual self’s ability to make something of circumstances.  Paradoxically, it is confidence in God which, because of God, leads into that willful, steely determination to make the best of a bad situation, that grows into a confidence in the final justice of God, and creates the kind of people who are morally mature. There’s a huge difference between a biblical sense of hope, which is anything but a mental trick, and the postive-thinking gurus like Joyce Meyers who propose positive self-talk as a way of changing one’s  mental outlook. Instead of looking deep within for the spark within, James urges his folks to look through a situation to see God, to see God’s work, and to see that God will eventually bring justice. (We are to understand James 1:2 in the light of James 5:1-6 and 7-11.)

What James says in 1:2-4 is very tight and compact.  It is not unlike the rose bud which has hidden within itself the full bloom which is to come later. This is another way of saying that James says everything now that he is going to say later. He delicately opens his argument up like a blossom, steadily revealing unfolding layers of hidden meaning until finally each pedal of the flower is presented in full glory. This is how James is writing.

3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

“Here is why,” McKnight says, “James urges his fellow [Jewish Christians] to see through the situation to the final result.” Being Jewish and Christian placed them in dangerously precarious circumstances, very difficult to navigate, living  as they did on the fringes of their own Jewish culture and in a Roman dominated world: not only were Jews held in suspicion, but a Jewish Christian had it doubly difficult. They were looked upon with suspicion by Jews and Gentiles. Given that this was the situation the temptation for the Jewish Christians was to strike back with violence (cf. James 1:20 and 4:1-2); James urges them to strike back with patient endurance because of what it would do for character. Again, the source of their strength is “God [who] has poured out his love into [their] hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given [them].”

“Here is that gem” says McKnight, “if taken to heart would so greatly help us in our own suffering: James takes the long haul view of suffering. He’s not a wimp; he’s an aggressive, active pastor who knows that God will bring justice  and, in that situation, they were to take it on the chin with their heads held high and endure the suffering.”

So are they victims? Absolutly not!  James is suggesting a subversive resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. Though mistreated and exploited they have a strong and unbeaten confidence in God. It is only a matter of time before they are vindicated. God will bring justice. It seems to me that what James is saying sounds a lot like Paul who wrote: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  Eugene Peterson translates Paul this way, “Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” This makes sense only if what we believe is true. If the alternative reality in which Christians live, shaped and formed and controlled by the Lord Jesus, is true and not that world formed by the interlocking network of powers – political, economic, social, cultural, religious, spiritual, ideological – that have turned their backs on Creator and creation in the service of evil, then we truly can let go and let God.

“It is unwise “,”says McKnight, “to think that James’ only strategy in every moment of suffering was just simply to take it on the chin. We might discern that we are to “fight back” by protest, or boycott”, or addressing our congressional representatives, or working  personally to change  or establish law.

Remember Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus. She was part of a minority community that had taken ten thousand steps toward subversive resistance. They knew how to take it on the chin.  She practiced the steps a thousand times herself when finally on that bus she was able to take the next step by refusing to step to the back. To everybody else her actions appeared to be the unthinking and spontaneous actions of one individual. To those trained up in the way of her community, as she was,  Rosa Park’s stand was just another skillfully acquired step on the long road of patient endurance toward maturity. 

James point is not so much the strategy, whether it be protest or boycott or whatever. His point is that they see through the situation to what God will make of them through the situation.

James sometimes sounds a lot like his brother Jesus . In Matthew’s gospel Jesus reveals reality as it truly is and not as we percieve it. And it is shocking!

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-12)

It is interesting to consider how Jesus responds to violent domination by the Roman occupiers of his homeland and the exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful. “He’s not a wimp; he’s an aggressive, active shephard of the sheep who knows that God will bring justice.” He sees the foolishness and folly of open rebellion. He will not have his gospel message be hijacked by violent revolutionaries since the real enemyJesus was engaging in battle was Satan and not Rome. He offers instead a subversive way of resistance against overwhelming odds.  It is the way of wisdom.

“I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:39-48)

Given what the brothers James and Jesus say, what do you think is Christian wisdom in the face of violent terrorism? If the terrorist mind is closed and the only intent is to win the argument by any means, including killing the innocent and most defenseless, then how does the Christian respond?

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