In the previous section of James’ letter to the scatter churches he reminds his readers that true allegiance to Christ & His Kingdom starts in the heart, not merely in external acts of obedience. When we find ourselves divided & in conflict, it is our own hearts that are reflected. We are to be as faithful as a lover & as devoted as a slave. For sin is as much (if not more) about failure to do what is good than simply being bad.
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.”
It might be easy for us to look at this rebuke and distance ourselves from it, just as we so often do when reading Jesus’ rebukes of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. However, we must be aware that while the dynamics of our relationship to the poor is not as directly apparent (as in the case of a land owner hiring workers), we are just as guilty of this kind of treatment of the poor whenever we participate in and/or benefit from economic or social systems that profit through the abuse & exploitation of the poor. James, like Jesus, is speaking directly to us, pointing to the very real blood on our hands. Jesus told us that where ever our treasure is, so there is our heart also (Matt 6:19,20). This not only calls us to question the false treasures we hold in our hearts, but also to ask what treasure, then, would Christ have us embrace?
This kind of misplaced treasury is not only the result of greed (though it certainly is a significant source). We are in danger if we only expect that such explicitly selfish motivations can sully the heart. Like the two men who passed by the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan, the reasons for making these choices can often be grounded in solid, logical & socially expected reasoning. When we allow self-protection (be it economic, social or spiritual) to keep us from fully following the self-sacrificing example of Christ, our hearts have gone astray.
“Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!”
For those who are victims of the kind of injustice mentioned previously, James reminds us that we are to persevere. While we do not allow people to commit injustice without responding, the nature of that response has been transformed by Christ’s life, death & resurrection. After all, the weapons we are called to us to battle injustice are not those of the world, but are patience, peace, grace and love (to name a few). In a culture of immediate gratification (where loading website, delayed a matter of seconds, can make us angry), this call to patience is timely & difficult. While we do the work of sowing seeds (good deeds), we must learn to wait for it to bear fruit in God’s season (faith).
Because the seeds we sow are meant to take root in the hearts of men, our expectations for others will be immediate and central. Thus, the need for patience becomes especially clear. All of us know that it is in relationship with others where our fuse is most often the shortest. Yet we must remember Jesus teaching to withhold judgment, unless we face the same standard we hold to others and cannot possibly meet. Before the true Judge, we are all so far into sin that relative to one another we see that we have no right or authority to cast judgment.
“Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”
Here we see Jesus final Beatitude reiterated explicitly by James. We must not only find comfort in our suffering, but take joy in it as well, for the godly women & men before us also suffered. And it is Christ Himself that we most identify with, humbly and unworthily joining in His suffering by His grace. Where does the comfort & joy come from? From the promise of eternal blessings & freedom from suffering & death? Of course, this is significantly a part of God’s promise. Yet, in citing Job, James seems to be suggesting that even on this side of death God will comfort & bring joy to us, making us inheritors of His Kingdom. This is not a “prosperity gospel”, as the previous verses make abundantly clear, but rather a reminder that our Father in heaven will provide for needs, forgive us our sins and give only good gifts to His children.
All too often we respond to suffering & trials in our lives with impatient complaining, selfish bickering & pointed accusations of blame against something outside ourselves, by it people or circumstances. If we truly believe in the compassion and mercy of God, and in His promise of comfort and provision, then we must learn to abide in His sustaining presence. We must learn to celebrate the gifts of grace, hope and love, which far out shine the temporary sufferings of the immediate. These graces are so powerfully an example of God’s unmerited love for us that we should be inspired to extend that same love and grace and hope to each other and the world.
Here I must make a word of caution, one reinforced by my recent visit to Haiti. For many in the world, this suffering surpasses by significant degrees the reality of suffering that most of us in the West live with. While this truth remains true regardless of context, we must be careful that those of us with (relative) privilege, power and wealth do not dismiss (or worse, rebuke) the cries of the suffering from the truly poor & suffering. Their cries for justice should bring to our hearts James’ rebuke to the wealthy. It is not for us to remind them to persevere in their suffering from the comfort of our own privilege. It is a lesson they are learning from within their own circumstance far better than we could teach them.
“Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.”
Here we see the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:33-37 (another reference to the Sermon on the Mount, further proving that it was a guiding source for the early Christian community). In this admonition to not take oaths or swear to something, James is again reinforcing the importance of a faith proven by deeds. For it is when our character is openly above reproach, both in our righteous behaviour and in the humility of our repentance in the face of our sin, that our word requires no oath. After all, if we swear oaths at certain times, does it not suggest that our words should be suspect in the absence of such oaths?
This reminder is especially critical for those who are living in the midst of suffering. When we begin to use oaths and/or use the name of God for our own ends, not only do we sully our own character, but we sully the name of God as well. It is to God that we are to pray for what we need, trusting in His provision. It is to use His name in vain to invoke it for any purpose not His own. We are especially not use such oaths to bargain with God, promising Him especial obedience if only He will intervene. Are we not His servants already & in entirety? How arrogant is it for us to bargain with what isn’t our own! What an insult to offer to God, in exchange for our obedience, what is already His! Again we see the importance of guarding our tongue, as it reflects the nature of our hearts.
Throughout the book, the theme has been repeated again and again. We are not our own, but His. Our lives, both in the convictions of our beliefs AND the practices of our lives, must be uncompromisingly submitted to Christ alone.