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Proper 20B 2nd Reading

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The letter of James is a tightly wound document—nearly everything that James discusses in the letter is introduced in the first chapter. The first chapter functions in many ways as a kind of thesis statement for the whole document, and therefore it is important to take our cues as readers from what James writes there. This is certainly the case with this Sunday’s reading from the letter, so it is beneficial to make the connections between this text and what James says in chapter one.

James begins by encouraging those who seek to be wise to demonstrate their wisdom by their actions. He has already tackled this subject in depth in chapter two, but this also echoes what he writes in the introduction of the letter: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (1:22). Those who welcome God’s instruction by hearing and responding are “blessed in their doing” (1:25). The NRSV obscures a connection between these two sections. In the first chapter, James instructs his hearers to welcome the word with “meekness” and here in chapter three their works are to be done with “gentleness.” Both words are the Greek prauteti. Acting with meekness or gentleness in the world is made possible because God is a generous giver of good gifts (1:17). God’s economy is one of abundance and sharing, not one of scarcity and securing for oneself. Those in tune with the wisdom of God’s economy, those who understand how the Creator has made the world to be, can live generously and free from anxiety. However, those who do not live according to the wisdom of the gift-giving God, covet anxiously, crave ambitiously, and act cruelly toward others.

James takes on this craving and envy in what he says next. To crave and to seek to secure one’s own goods and status at the expense of others is to live diametrically opposed to God’s wisdom—it is “devilish” (3:15). It is disordered in every way and is not capable of producing God’s righteousness (1:20). Living this way does not display God’s intention on earth as it is in heaven. But those who are in tune with God’s generosity can live otherwise: they can be “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (3:17).

James addresses this envious lust in the first chapter as well. There he demonstrates that disordered, envious desire is the mother of sin and death (1:13-15). Rather than seeking to expand one’s territory and enrich one’s accounts, those with low status should rejoice, for God’s generosity cares for the poor and lowly (1:9, 27), and brings to nothing the rich (1:10-11). The wise know that they do not need to grasp and climb and pull others down, because God is generous and gives to those who ask. Thus, the wise can live peaceably, or as James puts it, “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (3:18). The idea of a harvest of peace is conceptually related to the idea that those who live according to God’s wisdom in the world are a “first fruits [of the harvest] of God’s creatures” (1:18).

James demonstrates that the craving for self-satisfaction leads only to ruin and the opposite of what God intends for creation (4:1-3). It becomes apparent that there are two world-systems to live by, two ways of measuring value and success, two ways of being in the world. The lectionary reading does a disservice by excluding 4:4-6, which are integral to James’s discussion of envy and craving. It is not simply individual actions that are the issue; it is entire systems of value and measurement that are opposed to each other. There is God’s way and there is the world’s way (4:4). In opposing “friendship with the world” and “friendship with God” James is not suggesting that Christians should shun non-believing friends and neighbors, or encouraging some kind of sectarian mindset. Rather, the idea of friendship here should be understood in its Greco-Roman context. Aristotle suggested that “friends hold all things in common.” Therefore, to be a friend with “the world” meant that you shared everything in common with its system of values and measurement. To do this excludes the possibility of friendship with God, that is, holding in common God’s ideals and intentions for creaturely existence. One system encourages self-absorption; the other system frees one to live generously. One cannot do both at the same time.

Those who try to live both at the same time are called adu