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Pastoral Catechism - Lessons From the Epistle of James
Small Muscle: Big Trouble (James 3.1 - 12)
Tongue lashing, mother tongue, tongue tied—there are dozens of metaphors using the human tongue. No “slouch” to literary devices, James uses the tongue to analogize the harm caused by careless speech. Virtually all interpretive scholarship on the Epistle of James notes the author’s warnings against thoughtless words as proof of his relationship to traditional Jewish wisdom. Like James, much of the Old Testament and other rabbinic documents take special care to instruct believers in controlling their speech, especially when charged with a leadership position within a faith community.
Also like his Jewish predecessors, James notes the imbalance between the size and power of the human tongue; though small in comparison to other parts of the body, the tongue is capable of tremendous destruction. Reputations, livelihoods and even lives can be ended by a misplaced word. This would have born special significance to first century Christians; property, integrity and even survival could be threatened by spurious or malicious speech. What makes James’ discussion intriguing, however, is his interest in spiritual matters. James cautions his readers that chronic ill-chosen words can lead to a fate worse than death; the tongue, though small, can destroy both body and soul.
For this reason, James asserts the need for restraint. He even proposes a provocative argument; those who can control the tongue can control every other unhealthful impulse. Casual readers may not see any resemblance between this argument and the rest of the epistle. However, the passage bears some similarity to several ideas found earlier in the writing. For one, James has already warned his readers to subvert all “yeser” or selfish impulses that interfere with daily life. Certainly, the prevalence of human speech in our every day lives make reckless words a continuous hazard for many believers. Also, James warns that the tongue can endanger believers to everlasting judgment. This more than relates to James’ heavy eschatological focus in the rest of the epistle.
James offers no comprehensive formula for “Godly” or righteous speech. However, the Old and New Testaments attest to a variety of “litmus tests” for healthful human interaction.
1. Truth—Jesus instructed his disciples that their integrity should be so far above reproach they could discard oaths Matthew (5.37) as binding contracts. Some faith communities, notably the Society of Friends, persist in abstaining from contracts in honor of this prescription. Regardless whether we do business with notaries or handshakes, the Bible mandates rigorous honesty in all our speech.
2. Equity—James himself contributes to the ethical biblical tradition of pursuing fairness in all our words, despite the status or reputation of those we encounter. On more than one occasion, Jesus spurns faithful Jews who too quickly accede a seat of judgment. Our speech must exhibit the boundless grace of God.
3. Encouragement—Paul admonishes the Ephesians that every word, even instruction, must “build up” (Ephesians 4.29) instead of tear down fellow believers. Constructive speech not only strengthen individuals but the bonds between members of God’s family.
Each of these examples turns speech from a potential deficit to an asset for perpetuating the kingdom of God.
Substitute Teachers: The Role of Rabbis in First Century Judaism and Christianity
James contextualizes his instruction against careless speech by warning fellow Christians against hastily acceding to positions of teaching. In contemporary Christian communities, the role of teacher no longer exhibits as much honor as its first century counterpart. There are several reasons for this change; many Christians own a copy of the Bible, nullifying the need for teachers to literally “share the word”; exposure to commentaries, universities and other educational resources renders many believers capable of instructing themselves in the meaning of scripture; literacy rates continue to rise worldwide, abolishing the need for “official” church readers. However, the office of “rabbi” or teacher held special significance for God’s people before and after the life of Christ.
Scattered Jews prior to the first century elected special teachers to interpret and share God’s law. Though the first recorded rabbi was the authoritative speaker of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel the Elder, many unofficial rabbis or teachers populated the synagogue system decades before the birth of Christ. The term rabbi derives from the Hebrew term for “greatness” or “reverence,” designating the importance of the position among faithful Jews. During the infancy of Christianity, pastoral systems like those prescribed by the Apostle Paul did not exist until several decades after the establishment of “The Way.” So, itinerant or permanent teachers of the Gospel became de facto leaders among the early church. This made “false teachers” a prevailing concern for the Gospel message and its followers.
For this reason, James warns his readers against being too cavalier with the office of teacher; the position’s prominence and status may have tempted undisciplined Christians to bear a mantle for which they lacked experience or qualification. Speech, for James, demonstrated a potential rabbi’s worth: did the believer exhibit uniformity in their words, inside and outside of meeting? Did they show any contradiction between what they said as an authority and how they spoke outside the fellowship of God’s elect? For James, the tongue served as an able test of the mettle for potential church leaders.
Regardless our position in the local body, the tongue remains an acute “barometer” for our spiritual maturity. Seekers and skeptics continue to mark whether our words match our deeds and whether all of our words conform to a uniform code of behavior. Time and again, James presses his readers to live complete lives in Christ; lives that do not distinguish between the “inside” and “outside” of the church; lives that signify the grace and faith of Jesus at all times, especially those moments where doing so proves an inconvenience.
Flotsam, Future and Fortune—A Discussion of Wealth in the Epistle of James (James 5.1 - 6):
Having completed his admonitions against petty jealousies and the spiritual pollution of envy and slander, James continues his extended proposition on the topic of wealth and poverty by shifting his attention from the Diaspora Jews among his audience to the prosperous Gentiles within the same spiritual community. Here, the inspired author cautions against those mercantile minded Christians to refrain from boasting about their financial future as all time resides under God’s dominion. Whereas the fault of James’ Jewish audience may have been wrongly presuming their sundry trials were the result of corroborating with uncircumcised God fearers, the author’s Gentile readers required a different lesson; that their prosperity was not the outcome of their own shrewd planning but God’s dispensation. Hence, it could be reasonably argues that their financial blessings were distributed with divine purpose; to fortify the establishment of Jesus of Nazareth’s messianic kingdom by tending to the less fortunate and supporting apostolic missions.
If, indeed, the denizens of James’ fractal congregation have been rendered “new creations” then their relation to one another must bear testimony to this singular change. Wealth, especially in a socio-cultural dynamic with unimaginable disparity between prosperity and poverty, often perverted those blessed with financial austerity. Rich believers were tempted to believe that their fortunes were a testament to their moral superiority or a license to distinguish themselves from lesser, poorer brethren. James draws a familiar analogy to Jewish wisdom literature to conclusively demonstrate to his Diaspora and Gentile audiences the precarious qualities of affluence and the corrupted value system of the “world.”
While the Christian might isolate themselves from their culture’s more lurid temptations, they would still caution themselves against polluting God’s kingdom with the prevailing financial values of the Hellenic era. As Richard Bauckham notes in James in Modern and Contemporary contexts: “James’ way is neither merely the transformation of individuals not change in the structures of the dominant society … but the formation of a counter cultural community which lives out alternative relationships in advance of the coming of the kingdom …” the passage plainly illustrates the capacity to resist the traditional class warfare of society within a thriving and fully renewed people of God.
The Letter of James
Obey the Law - Keep the Faith (James 5.7 - 12)
Have you ever tried to see how long you could hold your breath? If so, you probably reached a point where every part of your body told you to exhale, gasp and take in as much oxygen as possible. Continuing to deprive yourself of air after such a point would be an act of sheer will; to go against natural impulse requires determination and drive. In the final chapter of his epistle, James encourages his readers to “hold tight” to their faith, even in the face of personal hardships and conflicts with other believers. By persisting in faith, love and praise, Christians could anticipate a heavenly reward; a return that could surpass any earthly harvest; treasure that could exceed any worldly extravagance.
Exhibiting such faith was easier said than done for James’ readers. Indeed, several of the writer’s warnings continue to vex both new and mature Christians. For one, James condemns those believers that have selfishly hoarded wealth at the expense of heavenly pursuits (5. 1—4). In a “dog eat dog” world, believers are often forced to choose between worldly success and heavenly reward. James cautions Christians not to get ahead by leaving God behind.
Also, James reminds his readers to view their struggles as preparatory steps towards an eventual heavenly reward; that God “tempers” his chosen people through sometimes difficult experiences. Just as soil must be tilled by the farmer and beaten by rain, so the Christian may expect suffering to bear Godly fruit. James references Job as an example of one who resisted blaming God for such suffering; he encouraged Christians to abide by this model. Finally, James reminds his readers to maintain a sound relationship with God through interaction worthy of his kingdom; Christians should avoid unnecessary oaths; they should pray earnestly and honestly; conflicts, even with unrepentant sinners, should be mitigated with grace and love.
As a gift of Godly interaction—to commune with our savior, to admonish and encourage, to petition, to confess our sins—prayer remains one practice that can be practiced by all believers. Rubel Shelly provides several reasons why all Christians should make prayer a daily discipline in their spiritual life.
- Confession—Even David, “a man after God’s own heart,” found need to commune with his creator when beset with a particularly corrosive sin. In Psalm 51. 1 –2, David petitions God for mercy, love and, whatever the cost, purgation. Christians must be willing to ask for God’s cleansing power, regardless the price.
- Wisdom—Believers often ask God for assistance. Rarely do we ask for discernment as a part of our daily petitions. James, however, commands his readers to solicit wisdom from God and promises it will be dispersed freely (James 1.5).
- Comfort—All too frequently, Christians stop praying when their requests are not met. This can be especially true when we incur great loss due to a denial of our petitions. Scripture continuously reminds us, though, that God endures suffering alongside his creation. God awaits our pleas for relief and peace.
James assures his readers that prayer will not go unrewarded. If his words can be trusted, many Christians withhold immeasurable blessings from themselves for want of communion with God.
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