Scripture on Sunday – James 2:5

JamesJames 2:5
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

In this verse James extends the point of his little parable, by means of another question which, like the question in verse four, anticipates a positive answer. In fact, verses four through seven comprise a series of rhetorical questions, all calling for a positive response:

Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves?
(Have you not) become judges with evil thoughts?
Has not God chosen the poor in the world?
Are not the rich those who oppress you?
(Are not the rich those) who drag you into court?
(Are not the rich those) who blaspheme the honourable name?

The first two questions (v. 4) function to accuse the congregation of their wrong intentions and the dire consequences of these intentions in the assembly. The question in this verse provides a theological rationale which highlights their fault, while those in verses six and seven provide common sense reasons for abandoning their present form of behaviour. Thus James calls his “beloved brothers and sisters” to listen to his message (akousate, adelphoi mou agapētoi), and to learn afresh the ways in which God is at work in the world, and so also to learn afresh the ways in which God calls his people to conduct themselves in the world.

“Has not God chosen” (ouk ho theos exelexato) draws on a rich vein of Old Testament imagery with which his listeners would be familiar: God’s election of Israel as a small and insignificant community of slaves to be God’s own possession and heirs of his covenant promises (see Deuteronomy 6:6-9). This same text in Deuteronomy, like the New Testament also, insists that God’s election is grounded in God’s own goodness and love. That God has chosen “the poor in the world” (tous ptōchous tō kosmō) is not original with James, of course. Behind James’s words stand those of Jesus, the similarity being unmistakable:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke 6:20, 24).

Jesus’ beatitude addresses the poor with the promise of the kingdom, while also assailing the rich. This theme was also prominent in the song sung by Jesus’—and James’s—mother:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:47-48, 51-53).

Of course it is not the case that Jesus excludes all rich persons and accepts only the poor. The rich may enter the kingdom of God—although such a difficult outcome is possible only with God (Mark 10:23-27). Nor is it the case that all the poor necessarily find their way into the kingdom. In 1:9-11 James contrasts the rich with the “lowly,” and in so doing draws on the Old Testament prophetic tradition of the Anawim in which the poor are those who are not simply economically destitute but who in their desperation also turn to God as to their only help and hope (see McKnight, 94-96, 194-195). According to Moo (91), “‘the poor’ became almost a technical term designating those who were both economically oppressed and spiritually inclined.”

God has chosen the poor that they may be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (plousious en pistei kai klēronomous tēs basileias). Here we may note that it is not simply the fact of being poor which in and of itself confers the blessing of the kingdom, for faith is also required. Nevertheless God has chosen the poor for just this reason. “Rich” (plousious) and “heirs” (klēronomous) are predicate accusatives and so provide further definition of “the poor” (tous ptōchous). The Greek text does not contain the verb “to be,” but Vlachos notes that this is often the case with predicate accusatives (73). Therefore “rich” and “heirs” are descriptive of what God intends for the poor. The term “kingdom” (tēs basileias) occurs only here in James, despite it being a favourite term in the teaching of Jesus. This kingdom remains in the future, “promised to those who love him” (hēs epēggeilato tois agapōsin auton). James has used identical language in 1:12 to speak also of the “crown of life” which God has promised to those who love him. Therefore the poor who ultimately inherit the kingdom are not only rich in faith but also among those who love God.

This is a deeply challenging verse, especially for those who like myself are extraordinarily rich—historically and globally, if not necessarily in the context of contemporary western culture. James’s blunt assertion that God has chosen the poor in the world runs counter to human expectation as Jesus also taught: “What is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Thus, whereas in the world’s sight, the poor are merely ‘the poor,’ or are even despised and misused, in God’s sight they are valued and chosen. That the early Christians were drawn largely from amongst the poorer members of the society finds expression also in Paul who notes that God has chosen those who are foolish, weak, low and despised in the world, rather than those considered wise, powerful and noble (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).

If it is the case that God chooses the poor of this world, then the church must not shy away or recoil from a similar commitment to the poor. Indeed the church must be a place where the poor are welcomed and included, honoured, heard and valued. Late twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology developed the idea of a “preferential option for the poor,” which claims that there is in the Bible a discernible trend which gives preference to the well-being of the poorer and more vulnerable members of the society. This text in James is a clear example of that trend.