Scripture on Sunday – James 1:11

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:11
For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

Verse eleven extends the natural image James uses, and also sharpens his warning, generalising the fate which awaits the rich and thereby intensifying his warning to the wealthy believer in particular.

The fate of the wildflowers in the field was proverbial, with Jesus also using this image in his teaching (Matthew 6:28-30). Here today and gone tomorrow, the image speaks of the fragility and transience of life (Zerwick & Grosvenor, 691). Although James has a different purpose to that of Jesus, the image is similar. In the morning the flowers of the field spring up and flourish and yet by evening, they have fallen under the blistering assault of the sun and its heat (cf. Psalm 90:5-6). The word translated ‘heat’ in the NRSV (kausōni) literally means scorching wind (NASB) and may have Jonah 4:8 in the background, where God appointed with the sun a ‘scorching east wind’ to assail Jonah so that he despaired of life.

Vlachos makes the helpful observation that the four aorist verbs in this verse are all linked with kai (and), which provides a rhythmic pulse: aneteilen … kai exēranen … kai … exepesen kai … apōleto (i.e., risen … and withers … and … falls and … perishes). He suggests that this rhythmic pulse emphasises the cause and effect relation between each of the verbs, as well as the inevitability and swiftness of the action (35). The rising sun will inevitably wither the grass so that its flower falls from the stem and so perishes on the ground.

The NRSV translates kai hē euprepeia tou prosōpou autou apōleto as ‘and its beauty perishes.’ Literally the phrase is ‘and the beauty of its face perishes.’ The NASB translates as ‘the beauty of its appearance is destroyed,’ thus retaining the genitive, but losing the personification of the image (‘its beautiful face is destroyed’), and its resulting power when applied to the rich person (cf. 2:1).

The final phrase returns to the rich person (ho plousios) and so hints that verses 10-11 may be read as a chiasm:

A – The rich…
B – The flower of the field…
B1 – The flower of the field…
A1 – The rich…

Just as the flowers of the field will wither, fall and perish, so the rich person will ‘wither away’ (maranthēsetai) in the midst of their ‘busy life’ (en tais poreiais autou). Marainō appears only here in this form in the New Testament. Typically the word is used to refer to the withering of plants or the death of humans, usually in the sense of a gradual fading or wasting away (Vlachos, 36; Davids, 78). Poreia means journey’ or ‘way of life,’ so that some commentators link this text to 4:13-17 and suggest that the rich person is a travelling merchant who will meet their end in the midst of their business trips (so Vlachos, 36, and McKnight, 103). Davids (78) suggests this is stretching the phrase and the context too far, and prefers a more generic reference to their ‘way of life.’ In both readings, however, it is notable that the demise of the rich is described in historical rather than eschatological terms, and so again, is suggestive that the rich person is to consider their life in the light of their own mortality and its implications.

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