Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 1:17-27

[To see the first pass, along with an explanation of what these passes are about, click here.]

[To see the entire lesson, click here.]

One More General Comment
Behind James' letter, meant to circulate among first-century Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin (James 1:1), is his concern over nasty debating that, in his view, is keeping these early believers from living out their faith in Jesus Christ. "Quit trying to score debating points," James is saying. "Live for Jesus Christ, the Savior Who died and lived for you!"

Start of Verse-by-Verse Comments

17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

(1) Two major ideas lay behind this verse, ideas already presented in the opening verses of James:

First: Wealthy believers
can't claim to be more blessed than the poor and the poor can claim to have as high a station in the Kingdom of God as their wealthy counterparts. James 1:9-10 says:
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.
This runs contrary to much conventional ancient Jewish thinking, as reflected in the response of Jesus' first disciples in a famous exchange:
[Jesus said:] "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19-24-26)
The disciples' incredulity reflected a cultural notion among first-century Jews--and probably among twenty-first century people of every religious and ethnic group--that wealth was a sign of particular favor from God.

"Not so!" said Jesus. Those who are wealthy may derive so much comfort, ease, and status from their wealth and if they allow it to happen to them, become so insulated from reality, that they are effectively addicted to it, incapable of letting some other God, even the God of the universe, be the King of their lives.

In the Kingdom of God, wealth is entrusted to some so that they can share it with others. (See here.)

One of the themes of the Bible is that God is the great leveler, bringing down the haughty wealthy and lifting up the humble poor.

In the Old Testament, a post-menopausal woman named Hannah asked for a son. God said yes to her prayer . She dedicated that son, Samuel, to God's service. (Samuel became God's last great judge and the one who anointed Israel's first two kings, Saul and David.) When Hannah gave her son to God, she prayed:
"...My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”
Hannah saw the gift of her son as one more example of God's penchant for raising up the lowly and bringing down the mighty.

Her words were echoed many hundreds of years later in the response of another unlikely mother, a virgin, pregnant with the Savior in the world, God-in-the-flesh, Jesus. Mary of Nazareth famously told her elder kinswoman, Elizabeth (another post-menopausal woman, she the mother of John the Baptist):
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)
And we get a sense of what God's purpose in bringing down the haughty and lifting up the humble is from the words of the prophet Isaiah, later cited in Luke's Gospel to describe John the Baptist's ministry of preparing the world to receive the Savior Jesus: it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6, see also Isaiah 40:3-5)
God levels the playing field between the high and low, the wealthy and the poor, and the powerful and the powerless, not because He prefers anybody over another. God loves all people equally. But He lifts the lowly and brings down the lofty for the same purpose: to allow all to see Him and His love.

Wealth and poverty, both, can be obstructions to seeing and experiencing God's grace in Jesus Christ. God reaches past them to love all people, to call them to freedom from deriving identity either from riches or resentment of those who possess riches, so that all belong to Him and live in loving community with each other. This is why among the very first Christians, we're told that a strange system was established:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
This is more than enough for today. I'll go to the second major idea which underlies this opening passage and present more verse-by-verse comments in my next pass at this interesting lesson, I hope.

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