Thursday, August 31, 2006

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

[To learn what this is about, click here. To see the previous pass at the lesson, click here.]

(Continuing) 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) Yesterday, I said that, "two major ideas lay behind this verse, ideas already presented in the opening passages of James." I explored the first one in the previous post.

The second big idea in the background behind this verse is that God will provide Christians with the wisdom needed to resolve their differences. As this book unfolds, you see that James, while not using the same terminology, agrees with Paul that the Church is "the body of Christ." Any conflict that divides the Church divides its witness. But more than that, because Christians belong to an indivisible eternal community, any harboring of bitterness toward sisters and brothers in the Christian community is an act of spiritual suicide, denigrating us all, eroding our relationship with Christ, and imperiling that relationship and the effectiveness of the Church.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist--or someone with a doctorate in New Testament studies--to see that one of the conflicts James identifies in the early Church is over the wealth enjoyed by some Christian believers--probably the Gentiles--and the poverty endured by other Christian believers--probably the Jews living as migrants and refugees in various places throughout the Mediterranean region.

James, as leader of the Jerusalem church, would have had a particular authority among the Jewish Christians to which this letter was written. Early on, he advises them to ask for wisdom and that if they do, they'll find God anxious to provide it. In Ephesians, Paul said that when we allow God's wisdom to inform our life styles, worship of God will be the result. James will say that wisdom from God helps the Christian community to live in authentic oneness, resolving differences, empowering life styles of faithfulness.

Wisdom
is reliance on God's ways and subordination to God's will, not a reliance on our own intelligence. The Old Testament figure most associated with wisdom was Solomon, who asked for this attribute from God when he became king of Israel. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon exhorts God's people:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. (Proverbs 3:5)
Faith is trusting in God. So, here, as in James' book, one sees the intrinsic connection between faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ and wisdom.

(2) In saying that in God "there is no variation or shadow due to change," James is not commending a rigid religiosity to believers. The Christian life is all about change, for it's in change that we grow more like Christ, the goal God has for us all.

James is instead pointing out that God's character never changes. He is always gracious, accessible, omniscient, omnipotent, and so on. God can be counted on!

(3) "the Father of lights": See Genesis 1:14-18. Of course, the Old Testament says that God Himself is blazingly luminescent, so much so that no imperfect human being could look at Him and live. The Gospel of John's prologue describes Jesus as "the Light of the world."

18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
(1) John 3:3 says that we are born anew by water and the Spirit, that is, in Holy Baptism.

Peter uses language similar to James in describing the new life that we have as believers, born of imperishable seed (spora in the Greek of the New Testament).

Through Jesus Christ, believers are part of a new creation.

(2) The "word of truth" no doubt refers to several things:
First: The word about Jesus as the Savior and Redeemer of believers who turn from sin and follow Him. See Colossians 1:5.

Second: The Word, Jesus Himself, Who said, "Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)." Jesus is the foundational, living truth from Whom all who turn to Him, receive new life that lasts forever.

(3) James was telling his audience that they were the "first fruits," the earliest newborns of the new community God is still establishing through Jesus Christ.

19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
(1) Here, James is dealing with the crisis created by angry intransigence among early believers. They were following the unwise ways of the world, bent on having their own ways, rather than prayerfully seeking God's will and charitably accepting that other believers might have things to say that reflect that will.

As the New Interpreter's Bible points out, James begins here to contrast various attitudes and behaviors. Living by God's word "means being meek rather than angry (v.20); "it means reversing the estimation of wealth and poverty" as God exalts the poor and humbles the rich; "it means being driven not by evil desires (v.14) but" by searching for God's wisdom (vv.5-6); "it means counting trials...as joy (v.2), an attitude possible only to those who believe in a God who gives the crown of life to those who endure such trials because of their love of God (v.12)."

(2) Clearly, James is referring here to what happens to community when disputants within the Church hold onto anger and fail to do the hard work of resolving their issues, preferring instead to fold their arms and treat them like enemies. The sentiments echo those of Paul in Ephesians:
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27, emphasis mine, of course)
When we allow our anger to fester, we give the devil a foothold and that doesn't produce God's righteousness. (Righteousness, according to the Bible, is a right relationship with God. This is initiated by God's action, particularly through Christ, and our surrender to Christ by faith.)

21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
(1) This again echoes a section of Ephesians mentioned earlier. The six verses in question there say:
For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another... (Epbesians 4:21-25)
Christians are called to put off--or displace--the old ways of life, embracing the new life God gives us in Christ. When we do, this vital organism, the Church, is uplifted to spiritual maturity, greater closeness to Christ, and enhanced faithfulness and effectiveness in fulfilling our mission.

(2) No doubt "the implanted word" is that word about Jesus Christ mentioned above. This image reminds me of Jesus' parable here.

22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
(1) This is a great summary of James' belief. Knowledge about God or the Bible means nothing if one doesn't live out the liberating love of Jesus Christ, unless we have the wisdom that comes from faith.

Christ sets believers free to be our best selves, to love God and love neighbor with abandon, to share the good news of Christ with the world, and to fight for justice for all people. Failure to "do" the life of Christ will surely entail drifting away from Christ!

That's way more than enough for today. I hope to finish up the verse-by-verse examination of this fantastic passage tomorrow.

1 comment:

DennisS said...

In regard to verse 17, you said:

(3) "the Father of lights": See Genesis 1:14-18. Of course, the Old Testament says that God Himself is blazingly luminescent, so much so that no imperfect human being could look at Him and live. The Gospel of John's prologue describes Jesus as "the Light of the world."

You say the OT says God is bright, yet you quote the NT in regard to Jesus. Looking at God and not living doesn't necessarily imply that God is bright.

I disagree with your statement regarding the OT, because, according to the OT, God dwells in darkness.

Darkness:
Genesis 1:2 - darkness was over the surface of the deep
Exodus 20:21 - Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was
Dt. 5:23 - YHWH spoke out of darkness
Ps. 18:11 - He made darkness his covering
Amos 5:20 - the day of the Lord will be darkness, not light
Jeremiah 13:16 - He brings the darkness

Light:
Ps. 27:1 - The Lord is my light
Isaiah 2:5 - let us walk in the light of the Lord

References like this are either spiritual, or to the light which God created, not of light being an attribute of God.

Isa. 60:20 - the Lord will be your everlasting light

In the context of v.19, in which the sun will be no more, the Lord will be as a light for us - the way in which we will find and know righteousness. This doesn't say God is "blazingly luminescent".

Ps. 89:15 - happy are those who walk in the light of your countenance (this speaks of joy, not an attribute of God).

Think about it. God is Spirit. To have a physical attribute is to limit God.

The OT does not say that God is bright. Seeing a bright light (Isaiah), in regard to the Messiah, is in the context of darkness. God is not limited to brightness, nor darkness. God is not omniluminescent. God may provide light for our eyes, or for our path - yet light is not an attribute of God in the OT.