Monthly Archives: February 2019

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:14

James 3:14
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

The juxtaposition of and sudden shift from verse 13 to verse 14 indicates that James is contrasting some others with those who are wise and understanding. In place of good conduct, and works done in the meekness of wisdom, he finds envy, bitterness, selfish rivalry, ambition and strife.

The word translated ‘jealousy’ (zēlos; ζηλος) can have either positive or negative connotations. Positively, it might refer to zeal, ardour, or enthusiasm; negatively, it might speak of indignation, envy, or jealousy. Literally, it means to have ‘ferment of spirit’ (Friberg), signifying an inner life active and generative, boiling and bubbling away; but what is being produced? James obviously uses the word in its negative sense, pairing it with another word pikros (πικρος, cf. v. 11)—bitter—which has the sense of being pointed and sharp, and used figuratively as it is here, refers to a resentful attitude that may also be harsh or cruel.

‘Selfish ambition’ (eritheia; ἐριθεία) means just what it says, though it also carries the sense of rivalry or factionalism. Moo notes that it is a comparatively rare word:

In its only pre-New Testament occurrences (in Aristotle), the word refers to the selfish ambition, the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians. This meaning makes excellent sense here in James (Moo, 133).

Together these terms portray individuals or even groups within the congregation at odds with one another, striving not with but against one another, seeking an advantage over the over, and jealous or resentful of any success that the other may achieve.

James sees these attitudes and attributes as lodged in the heart, at the centre of one’s personality. Vlachos (122) notes that James’ language indicates that his listeners are ‘harbouring’ these attitudes in their hearts. If this is the ‘spirit’ at work in a person’s heart, they are actually far from wise and understanding. Rather, these attitudes are evidence of an ‘arrogance’ or ‘boastfulness’ that James prohibits (mē katakauchasthe; μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε), an expression of the belief in one’s superiority over others, and as such the very antithesis of the ‘meekness of wisdom.’ Such a person claiming to be wise and understanding is in fact ‘lying against the truth’ (pseudesthe kata tēs alētheias; ψεύδεσθε κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας): their very attitudes and resulting actions betray them. It is not surprising, then, that James prohibits these attitudes. He is calling upon his hearers either to stop this behaviour, or more generally, to avoid becoming these kinds of persons at all (Vlachos, 122-123).

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the little word zēlos which is used by James. Zeal in itself can be a commendable quality, if one is zealous for the right things in the right way. Titus 2:14, for example, exhorts believers to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’ One can be zealous for the things of God, for his word, his truth, his justice, and his mission, in ways that are life-affirming and kingdom-oriented. But it is also possible that this commendable zeal might tip over to become the kind of harsh and bitter zeal that James condemns here.

The problem is that zeal can easily become blind fanaticism, bitter strife, or a disguised form of rivalry and thus jealousy; the person sees himself as jealous for the truth, but God and others see the bitterness, rigidity, and personal pride which are far from the truth (Davids, 151).

How does this occur, and how might it be avoided? James would teach us that if we become convinced of our own rectitude in such a way that we are now against others, if we become partisan and competitive, angry and jealous, ever more determined to press our understanding upon those with whom we disagree, we have already passed beyond the tipping point. James would call us to return to the meekness of wisdom that displays itself good works kindly intended and executed.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:13

James 3:13
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’

That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.

‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.

James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.

Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.

There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.

But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.

We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?

 

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 24:44-46

There is much in Luke 24 that we could speak about: Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the discovery of the empty tomb by the women, the failure of the disciples to believe the women, the revelation of Jesus to the disciples at Emmaus, and so on. What I want to focus on particularly, however, is a hermeneutical move made by Jesus toward the end of the chapter.

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

This text is an expansion of an earlier text in the chapter, where, with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus Jesus says:

And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (vv. 25-27).

In the earlier passage Jesus instructs the disciples ‘beginning with Moses and with all the prophets.’ In the later text he adds the Psalms to the Law of Moses and the Prophets. By adding the Psalms to this list, it is possible that Jesus is referring in an abbreviated way to the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible: the law, the prophets, and the ‘writings,’ of which the Psalms were a major part. In other words, Jesus seems to be saying that the whole Old Testament had been written about him.

In these passages Luke, through words attributed to Jesus himself, is giving his readers a christological hermeneutic. This hermeneutic works in two ways. First, the life and ministry of Jesus is to be understood and interpreted in accordance with Old Testament categories; it is the framework by which we seek understanding of his life. This is important for it is not unusual for scholars to seek the understanding of Jesus in accordance with the milieu of the early church, or according to Greco-Roman categories, or even philosophical ideas and contexts from the modern era which may or may not have any real connection to first century Palestinian Judaism, and the biblical traditions that shaped and informed it.

Second, it has implications for how we read and understand the Old Testament itself. Luke (Jesus) suggests that the Old Testament serves as a witness to the divine activity that finds its telos and therefore its ultimate meaning in Jesus Christ. If this is the case, Old Testament interpretation cannot be content merely with a reading that seeks a historical reconstruction of the text, and its plausible meaning in its original context. Nor again with a reading which to a greater or lesser extent is unconcerned with the ancient historical and literary context, preferring a construction of meaning in accordance with the concerns and context of the modern reader.

The Old Testament is not merely a document in itself (and, of course, not merely “a document” but a collection of many and diverse documents), but a part of a movement toward a climax and a goal. This movement is not, of course, merely a literary movement, but a movement of faith grounded in the historical existence of a people of faith who regarded these particular writings as sacred, as “Scripture.” Jesus, too, regards them as Scripture, as prophetic, and as finding their telos and fulfilment in him.

Many other passages in Luke’s gospel indicates that Luke clearly read and understood the Old Testament in this way—and are suggestive that Jesus himself lay at the root of this practice: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). And the same approach to the Old Testament is found in Matthew, John, and Paul.

On the road to Emmaus the two disciples failed to recognise Jesus; indeed, their eyes ‘were prevented’ from recognising him (v.16). Later, after Jesus revealed himself to them at the table, their eyes were ‘opened’ and they recognised him. And they recalled how their hearts ‘burned within them’ as Jesus explained the Scriptures to them. The eleven disciples, too, needed their minds to be ‘opened’ to understand the Scriptures (v. 45). Their hearts, their eyes, their minds: all needed to be opened to hear, to see, to understand the centre, the meaning, the truth of the Scriptures—Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen.

We—modern readers and especially scholars—are sometimes critical of those who in previous eras “misread” the Scriptures, introducing “theology” into the text, and thereby doing injustice to its original authors, provenance, context, and audience, etc. (Though we are often prepared to do just that in the interest of modern idiosyncratic or ideological readings of the text!)

Luke, however, cites Jesus as reading in just this way. I suggest that following Jesus includes also following the manner in which he was devoted to Scripture, submitted to Scripture as an authority to which God’s people are subject, and also interpreted it as we see him do so here in Luke 24. We often applaud his interpretations: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” “The weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, faithfulness.” “Can you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes through the stomach and is discharged into the sewer?” But Jesus also says some things that we are not quite so sure about.

We might not read the text just as Jesus did—would that even be possible? But perhaps there is more here for us to learn, if we would be disciples of Jesus.