Tuesday, September 19, 2006

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: James 3:13-4:3a, 7-8a

[Each week, I present as many updates on my reflections and study of the Biblical texts on which our weekend worship celebrations will be built as I can. The purpose is to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio, get ready for worship. Hopefully, it's helpful to others as well, since most weekends, our Bible lesson is one from the weekly lectionary, variations of which are used in most of the churches of the world.]

The Bible Lesson: James 3:14-4:3a, 7-8a
3:13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4:1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly...7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you...

Some General Comments
1. For general comments on James, found in the past several weeks' first passes at lessons from the book, go here, here, and here.

2. There are times when the selected passages for the lectionary (the plan of Bible passages appointed to correspond with the Church Year) appear to make little sense. Rather than being motivated to expose worshipers to the maximum amount of Scripture, the creators of the various lectionaries sometimes seem to want to avoid controversy or simply to pare down the sizes of readings. (In some cases, the second apparent reason is completely acceptable to me!)

In some narrative passages, legitimately, the lectionary sometimes skips verses containing not directly germane to the incident being highlighted.

This weekend's lesson jumps around quite a lot. In this instance, I completely understand. Most notoriously missing from what seems like it should be part of our lesson is this passage:
4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:4-6)
This is a great passage and it is germane to the focus of our lesson. But it requires some unpacking for modern listeners and readers to see that. It would mean lengthy explanatory asides if this were the text on which preachers decided to preach. And if preachers decided to not preach on the text, only having it read, during worship, it would cause a lot of confusion, a seeming incongruity in the passage.

These three verses allude to Old Testament imagery with which the first century Jewish Christians James addressed would have been familiar. Here, James is accusing early believers in Christ not of adultery, but of idolatry.

Many passages in the Old Testament compared the relationship between God and His people, Israel, to that between a husband and a wife. Consider:
Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.

For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:4-8)
God deemed Israel's going after other gods--engaging in idolatry--as a sort of adultery, faithlessness to God:
The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and played the whore there? And I thought, “After she has done all this she will return to me”; but she did not return, and her false sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce; yet her false sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom so lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her false sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in pretense, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 3:6-10)
(See also Ezekiel 16:38)

The New Testament applies this same imagery to Christ--God enfleshed--and to the Church: Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is His bride. Take a look at these passages: John 3:29; Revelation 18:23; 19:7; 21:2; 21:9; 22:17; Matthew 9:15; Matthew 25:1-13.

2. Idolatry, a violation of the First Commandment, is adulterating our relationship with God, either by replacing God with another focus for our lives or by trying to force God to share His rule over our lives with other gods. Either act, James says, is one of arrogance in which we try to impose our will or our wisdom on God, as opposed to submitting to God's will and wisdom.

James says this won't work: Either God will have all of us or God will have none of us. We cannot be doubleminded, to use James' terminology from chapter 1. Wisdom resides in understanding Who God is and who we are. To understand God is to willingly stand under God.

3. We see another presentation of James' dualistic understanding of human life here. The key question confronting us all, as The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) points out, is whether we will live by God's wisdom or by the counterfeit wisdom of the world? The latter, as was true of the serpent in the garden, is demonic "wisdom" from hell.

4. Two great points from NIB.
Point one:
The moral choice facing humans is also a choice between religious allegiances.
The implication of this assertion is stunning: When we choose to live our lives on the bases of what's in today's daily horoscope or to treat another with disdain, we're as guilty of arrogant idolatry as the person who decides to substitute God's will with their own by taking another person's life, having sex outside of marriage, or using God's Name for anything other than "prayer, praise, and thanksgiving."

There are no little sins. But, thank God, there are no sins that cannot be forgiven those who come to the Father in the Name of Jesus Christ to seek forgiveness.

Point two:
Arrogance is the self-aggrandizing manifestation of envy that creates the desire to have that will stop at nothing to acquire what it seeks (4:2)...envy leads inevitably to social unrest (3:16), battles, and wars (4:1). Ultimately, envy leads to murder (4:2)...This is...the arrogance God resists (4:6).
More tomorrow, I hope.

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