THE LETTER OF ST. JAMES
Riches and The True Source of Sin
In the previous section I stated that one of the major themes in James deals with "pilgrimage" or "being an exile in this world." What is interesting is that this is not only a major theme in the writings of James; it is also a major theme in the writings of Peter (1 Pet. 1:1) and John (John 17:16). It is easy to see the reason this theme would permeate the writings of all three of these men: they associated very closely with each other during their lifetimes. Peter and John were among the 12 original disciples. Later, these 2 along with our author James formed the great triumvirate of the great mother church in Jerusalem. Naturally they got their teachings from Jesus, but it is no wonder that a major theme in the writings of one would appear in the writings of the other 2. In this lesson and the next we will look at what it means to be a pilgrim, exile on earth with regard to 2 more elements: sin and worship.
At first it seems strange to clump these 2 topics together: the true nature of sin and the true nature of religion. Actually they are closely related. Worship, in the NT sense, is much more than just going to church, stoking up the choir, and everybody getting emotional. True worship, true glory to God consists in righteous living. Jesus stated: "By this is My Father glorified [worshiped]: that you bear much fruit and so prove to be My disciples" (John 15:8). This lesson explains the reason many Christians do not live a life of worship to God; in the next lesson we will see how to live a life of genuine worship.
WEALTH CAN SERVE AS A MAJOR TEMPTATION TO SIN (1:9-11)
It is by no accident that James, the stepbrother of Jesus and who therefore grew up with Jesus, would focus on wealth. Jesus spoke more than any other NT speaker on the issue of wealth. With the exception of the sections on prayer and fasting, nearly all of Matt. 6 in the Sermon on the Mount focuses on a person's attitude towards wealth--and that is just one passage. The only difference between James' and Jesus' treatments of the subject is that whereas Jesus is dealing with wealth in general, James appears to addressing the problem of wealth or lack of it as it is causing great harm not only in society but also in the church.
As was dealt with in the introduction to James, the situation in Israel at the time of James' writing is that of a real hostility between the poor and the wealthy, especially the wealthy landowners who have the support of the Romans. There is a lot of tension brewing which will eventually erupt in the cataclysm of 70 AD, tension which could lead many in the church to fall into grave sin.
Today, many resent that they have less than those with more, even though those with less in America today are some of the wealthiest people in the history of the world. Take this issue of the wealth gap, though, back to the first century and you see a legitimate cause for discontent in the first century. What is to be the Christian's response to this cruel gap in wealth in which there is no hope for those who are poor to move up out of their poverty? Revolution? Hostility towards the government?
But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position; 10 and let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.
What high position does the poor have, especially the Christian poor? "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven" (Luke 6:20). Now this startles many Christians, especially in the USA because of the wealth Christians have enjoyed here. We immediately jump to Matt. 5:5 and interpret Luke 6:20 in light of Matt. 5:3 ("Blessed are the poor in spirit"). Why though not interpret Matt. 5:3 in light of Luke 6:20? It is better to accept both and not choose one over the other. The heavenly kingdom to which Christians belong reverses the values of this world.
As a general rule, the truly poor in spirit are the ones who are normally truly poor in finances. Poverty has just beaten down their pride. They have come to realize that the only way they are going to make it in life is for Christ Himself to be their all in all. The fact is that He will be their all and all, and that will make them rich beyond all measure. Paul claims: "But I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 3:8), this spoken by a man who had everything you could want for in his day before he gave it all to follow Christ. We smile at such rank sentimentality, but the fact is that Paul was serious about this...and so was St. Francis of Assisi. The poor, especially the Christian poor, are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
We need to be careful about interpreting what we see as ultimate reality, especially in the spiritual realm. Too often we interpret spiritual reality in terms of what we see. I am financially poor on earth; therefore, I am cursed. I am finally rich on earth; therefore, I am blessed. Not necessarily so in either case. The people on the Titanic went to bed April 14, 1912 thinking they were the most blessed people on the face of the earth because they were traveling on the world's most luxurious passenger liner. By the next morning about 2/3 of them would be dead from hypothermia or drowning. On April 14 they were cursed even though they thought they were blessed. A young man named Michael is shivering out in the cold rain. He is practically abandoned by everyone. He thinks his life is cursed. Little does he know how really blessed he is because a lady by the name of Leigh Anne Tuohy is about to drive up beside him and take him home to change his life forever. In the spiritual realm, reality is not what you see. It is what God has said. And God has said that the poor are blessed. For that reason the poor can glory in their high position: their ultimate destiny is assured and more glorious than we can imagine.
On the other hand, James exhorts the rich to glory in their humiliation. Jesus had earlier said that it is near nigh impossible for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:23-24). And we want to be rich? That's insane. This doesn't mean that the rich cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, but it is near nigh impossible.
If the rich person has a problem realizing the precarious state he is in, he needs to remember that his wealth is illusory and transitory. St. James says that our wealth can be blown away as easily as the flower is blown away by the scorching east desert wind, the Sirocco. On a fine Israeli morning, the rose is in full bloom. Suddenly from the eastern desert, a violent dry wind blows in, scorching everything in its path. Within a few hours, all that is left of the rose is a brown stalk.
In 2008 we got a real taste of how illusory wealth is. Within just a few days 40% of America’s wealth evaporated. People who thought they were going to get to retire now felt that they would have to work until the day they died. The riches of the next world, the world to come, are the only riches which will last forever. The poor have just as much access to those riches as the rich; because of their humility, they probably have greater access to it. As pilgrims we are to base our lives and our value system upon the value system of the next world (our home), not upon the value system of this world (which is not our home).
THE TRUE CAUSE OF SIN (1:12-21)
Life is rough for the first-century Christians. Many are falling into unbridled patriotism. As Jews, they correctly viewed themselves as God's chosen people. As a result, they believed that the Roman oppression of the Jewish people was contrary to God's will. As David had driven the infidel from Israel one thousand years ago and as Judas Maccabeus had driven the Greek out of Israel over 200 years ago, so now God surely wanted His people to take up arms and drive out the Romans. If they sinned, it was not their fault. Surely, because they were victims, the fault lay with the world in which they lived or perhaps even with God.
Such a theological approach can be justified in a superficial way. Christianity along with Judaism claims that a great and powerful God exists. This God is all-knowing and is all-powerful who can see the past as well as the future. Even a casual look at the OT reveals God to be in control of human affairs; therefore, it there is sin, then surely God is somewhat responsible for that sin.
Or, to put it another way: "If God is in control, then why do sin and evil exist in the world?" Many biblical scholars throw up their hands and just claim that the answer is beyond us. Without giving the fullest explanation, James does give us wonderful insight into the true cause of sin.
God Is Not The Problem (1:13)
Whatever is the cause for sin, according to James that cause cannot be God. Along with Peter (1 Pet. 1:16) and John (1 John 1:5), James claims that God is so good that temptation and evil cannot have come from Him. God is so good that according to James He cannot even be tempted. Could God sin if He wanted to? Yes, especially since He is all-powerful and can do whatever He wants to do; however, because He is perfect, there is absolutely no desire within Him to sin. Sin is foreign to Him; it's just not on His radar; as a result, there is nothing is God for sin and temptation to latch onto.
It reminds me of a young lady who decided she wanted to major in women's studies at college so that she could help women in third world countries. When somebody asked her if she was a lesbian, she responded with genuine horror. It was hysterical to see her response. She was so horrified even at the thought, not because she was anti-lesbian but because she liked boys that much. That lifestyle just wasn't on her radar because she was a straight female. The same applies to God. He is so perfect that He won't sin because sin just simply isn't in His constitutional make-up; it isn't even on His radar.
We Are the Problem (1:14-15)
Next, we normally reason that if God is not the problem, then surely Satan is the problem. Satan is definitely a problem; however, he is not the only problem. According to James the primary problem lies with us. Yes, Satan may tempt us; however, he also tries to tempt God, and yet God does not succumb to temptation while we do. There is nothing in God for Satan to latch onto; however, there is something terrible within us onto which Satan can. That terrible something is our own fallen human, sin nature. Like Pogo once said: "We have seen the enemy and he is us!"
According to St. James sin results whenever we are carried away by our own lusts. James uses the imagery of fishing and reproduction to illustrate his point.
Some will claim that James is referring to our "desires" as being the problem. The problem is not desire; Christianity in fact is based upon desire. There are 2 issues with desire though which can produce death. First, the way we fulfill our desires. The desire for joy is healthy and commendable; murdering people to get joy is evil. Second, our desires are too weak. Some claim that the problem is that our desires have gotten too strong. Again, that is not the problem here. According to C.S. Lewis, our desires are not too big; they are too small. As a result we sell out for lesser fulfillment of those desires.
The problem then is that our desires have been perverted by settling for lesser things. When we do not act like pilgrims with our gaze fixed on heaven, when we do settle for the things of this world instead of for the things in the next world, a deadly process takes place. The perverted desire gives birth to sin, and that sin matures to bring about death. It is like the perverted desire is a parasite which one day finally destroys the host, you.
What God Produces (1:16-18)
Whereas the perverted desire within us can produce death, God wants to produce the exact opposite within us. What God produces is based upon who He is. God is good and therefore produces only good things. God is the Father of Lights. When James claims that in God there is no shifting shadow or variation, he means that God is not like the constantly changing constellations in the heavens. Rather God is like the north star, fixed permanently in His goodness by bestowing good things upon His creation constantly, continuously.
So what is this good thing that this good God is wanting to produce? "In the exercise of His will, He brought us forth (literally "birthed us") by the word of His truth that we might be the first fruits among His creatures." James is referring to his step Brother's teaching that God sent Jesus to give us a new birth, so that we might literally become sons and daughters of God (John 3:3, 5; 1:12). Rather than trying to kill us like sin tries, God wants to give us life, the life He and His unique Son enjoy.
Two more things about this passage. First, this new birth comes by means of God's Word (Peter says the same thing in 1 Pet. 1:23-25). Although God's Word includes the Bible, it is more than just the Bible. The primary meaning of "the Word" here is the word about Jesus, the gospel message about Jesus. It is this word which transforms us into sons and daughters of God whenever we respond positively to that word.
There is another word, though, which produces life. According to the Protestant commentator Martin (Word Biblical Commentary), because James is linking the word to a new birth experience, James is referring to the word spoken over the person at the time of baptism. That word operating through baptism does not finish God's plan for that person, but according to Martin, it begins it.
Second, we become "the first fruits among His creatures." By saying that we are the first fruits, St. James is saying that the transformation of humans is the first stage of God's transformation process. Now I don't know if other creatures go to heaven. Maybe they do; maybe they don't. However, Christians are not going to be the only ones who will enjoy what God is doing through Jesus. Jesus claims: "I am making all things new." One day God will radically resurrect the entire universe just like He is going to resurrect us. Right now we have already tasted that resurrection when the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead came to live in us. We are the first of the resurrection process but not the last. All the universe will share in the glory that God is about to bestow upon us because of what Jesus did for us 2,000 years ago (Rom. 8:18-25).
This Gift from God is a Continuing Process (1:19-21)
Instead of being the author of evil, God gives good gifts. In fact He uses His word to give us the good gift of a new birth, a birth which transforms us from being mere mortals to being sons and daughters of God. Developing this thought further, James first tells us that we should be quick to hear. Hear what? God's Word, of course. This statement is not a mere aphorism, a proverb, telling us to speak less and listen more. This verse falls right in the middle of James' discussion about being birthed by means of God's Word. We need to listen to what God is saying to us, primarily through the message about Jesus (the gospel) and then through the Bible itself. (He will go back to this in a moment.)
Being quick to listen to God's Word implies that we should then be slow to speak. You can't hear God when you are speaking all the time. As Zeno the founder of Stoicism claimed, "We have two ears and one mouth, therefore we should listen twice as much as we speak."
In addition to this, we are not to let emotions get the best of us. No matter what we are feeling--anger, fear, our feelings are not to dictate our actions. God's Word and God's Word alone should be dictating what we do.
Recently I was sharing with some friends about an adventure God was launching in my life. I explained to them that I was naturally fearful and didn't have much faith. THOSE WERE MY FEELINGS. What I then did was to decide to act like I did have faith. Suppose I had faith, what would my next step be? That was so liberating. I didn't have to feel faith; I just had to live it. That is what James is commanding us to do. Reject a lifestyle based on feelings; live it on the basis of what God says. (The same applies to feelings and love. Even if you don't feel love, do the things you would do if you were feeling love.)
Why don't we let anger and fear, etc. dictate our lives? Because they do not produce the righteousness of God in us. The reason God has re-birthed us into sons and daughters of God is that we might live the same kind of life He lives, a righteous life. These negative emotions don't produce that life of God; only faith in Christ and His Word produce that life within us. As a result we are to put aside all filthiness and wickedness, and in humility let the Word which has been implanted in us in baptism and which lives in us have its way with us so that our salvation might be completed.
James in this verse is alluding to his step Brother's parable of the Sower and the Seed, in which the Good Sower (Jesus) is planting the good seed (His Word) in our hearts. The seed wasn't just simply planted in the soil. It was expected to bring forth fruit. Yes, James knows that the process of salvation has begun in the life of the Christian. Here he is pointing to growth in salvation which will be completed only in the future. In the meantime the same word which saved us and which has been planted in our hearts should be allowed to dictate our lives so that we might grow in that salvation. So much of the rest of James tells us what kind of life that Word, that seed, will produce in us.