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Proper 17B 2nd Reading

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James 1:17-27

The Book of James is the New Testament’s only full-document specimen of Wisdom Literature. James takes its place in the canon with the other wisdom texts: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Biblical Wisdom Literature seeks to understand God and God’s relation to the world from what can be observed in the world: the created world, common sense gleaned from everyday social interactions, and family life. Wisdom’s conviction is this: God is creator of all, and therefore a fair portion can be discerned about God by paying close attention to the design God gave the world. This enterprise has its limits, as the sharp critiques in Ecclesiastes and Job demonstrate, but it is also important to remember that Wisdom Literature does not begin with the created world and extrapolate from it to God. Rather, it begins with the theological conviction that God is creator and that God has created the world to be intelligible—God’s world makes sense. Exploring that sense with one’s senses is a worthwhile endeavor. To be sure, James bends Wisdom Literature in a Christological direction. It is no mere neutral observation of the world; it has a decidedly Kingdom of God perspective. James, after all, is the brother of Jesus, and much of this “practical wisdom” carries the same kind of impracticality that the Sermon on the Mount does (James actually echoes the Sermon more than a few times; e.g. Matt 7:24-27::James 1:22-25; Matt 7:1-5::James 4:11-12). The ethics James encourages in the letter are derived less from the natural world and more from the Christ’s transformation of the world through the coming of his eschatological kingdom (1:18; 2:1, 8, 12-13; 5:1-6, 9), though James does employ several memorable images drawn from nature.

This background portrait of James as Wisdom Literature, as well as the two topics in this Sunday’s Lectionary texts, might suggest a rather, stoic and drab portrait of God’s work in the world. An unchanging God (1:17) and a call to slowness of speech (1:19-20) might inspire a stable, quiet picture of Christian life, one that avoids disrupting the status quo. In fact, the opposite is true, and the radicality of James’s vision of what God is up to in the world truly shines forth in this section. Discipleship is for James the call to follow Jesus in costly ways that are deeply transformative both of the Christian and the world she inhabits.

This Sunday’s reading begins with James sounding as if he is at his most metaphysical, speaking of God’s immutability, God’s unchanging nature. While the confession that God does not change arbitrarily is an important one in Christian theology, the picture James paints here is not of a static, Unmoved Mover, untouched by a distant creation. Rather, James declares God as an active and dynamic presence in the world, as a perfectly generous giver of good gifts. God gives and produces the good at all times and in all circumstances (compare Rom 8:28). The unchangeableness of God is not so that God can float in some kind of stasis, instead it’s that God always and only works for good in the world. There is no shadow side to God. God does not bestow blessing to some and visit calamity upon others, either purposefully or arbitrarily. Rather, as Jesus says in the Sermon, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45).

James’s vision of God is of light and goodness. As the sun can only give forth light and heat, so God can only work God’s good purposes in the midst of God’s creation. This is dynamic unchangeableness, not static. As one of my teachers frequently prayed in class: “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.”[1] God gives gifts that dramatically transform the world, like an earthquake that fractures the status quo. Part of that transformation is the church itself. Using decidedly feminine imagery, James declares that God gives birth to us through God’s unchanging goodness. The church is made to be a kind of “first fruits” of God’s creation. The church is the community at the epicenter of God’s seismic gift-giving, seeking to embody God’s goodness for the sake of the world. James is here offering his own rendition of the fairly consistent New Testament conviction that the church exists and acts in the present as the rest of creation will in God’s ultimate future (see for example Philippians 2:5-11).

James then moves to practical wisdom regarding speech and action. On a surface level, a call to slowness of speech, restrained anger, and eager listening might be construed as an encouragement toward quietism. Don’t rock the boat; don’t speak up; just let it be. However, this would be a mistake because James’s reflection here is actually a call to activism. A restrained tongue and anger allow one to more readily hear God’s transformative word (“he gave us birth by a word of truth”). Once one has heard the word (“welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”) it is vital for the person to act on it (“but be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves”). To be quick to speech and anger is to block access to the divine transformative word (“your anger does not produce God’s righteousness”).

Those who are quick to listen are those who understand deeply who God is making them to be. Rather than looking into a mirror and immediately forgetting what they look like, they look intently into the “perfect law, the law of liberty” (elsewhere James calls this the “kingdom law,” James 2:8, my translation) and know that law, that transformative word of God is what makes them who they are. And they act from this fundamental identity. They become “not hearers who forget, but doers who act” (1:25). This is why receiving the word with meekness does not make one a quietist, but rather an activist.

For James righteous activity is in accordance with God’s character as transformative gift-giver, it is a first fruits of what God will ultimately do to redeem and transform all things (1:18; 5:7-8). Using the word “Father” as he did at 1:17, reminds us of God’s unchanging character as the “Father of lights.” Religion that this Father accepts and approves does two things: takes care of widows and orphans and keeps oneself unstained from the world’s value system (see 2:1-13; 4:1-4). This ancient word from the pen of James may be a timely word in our current political and Evangelical atmosphere in the United States. The marriage of Christian witness with a political value system that treasures power has stained the witness of the church and exacerbated rather than relieved the distress of orphans and widows through things like family separation policies for undocumented immigrants. Perhaps the transformative kingdom activism to which James bears witness can call followers of Christ to a better form of life in these troubled times. Perhaps we can again begin to imagine what it might mean to be God’s first fruits transformed and given birth by a word of truth.

[1] “Morning Prayer and Praise,” in The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 876.

Ryan Hansen

Pastor, Church of the Nazarene

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