Tag Archives: Poverty

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:15-16

JamesJames 2:15-16
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (NRSV)

James now passes onto his third rhetorical question, presenting an illustration, demonstrating that words alone, without deeds that correspond to the words, are empty and useless. Most commentators agree that the illustration is hypothetical, with McKnight referring to it as a “comic example” which “would be humorous if it were not so tragic” (229). Nevertheless, as Davids also suggests (121), the illustration is not one without immediate relevance to the community, and like the illustration in vv. 2-3, may be indicative of attitudes and behaviours which do exist or have occurred in the community.

Like vv. 2-3, the scenario is presented as a two-part hypothetical followed by the question. The first part describes the presence and condition of someone in the assembly whose poverty is indicated by their dress which is not so much shabby (cf. vv. 2-3) as inappropriate for cold weather, and by their lack of daily food. The second part then describes the words and action of another congregational member, before James presses his question. There is a further similarity between vv. 2-3 and vv. 15-16: in both cases there is a concern on James’ part for the unworthy treatment of the poor in the midst of the congregation. The poor person is to be welcomed with the same degree of acceptance and honour accorded to others; they are also to be cared for so that the “needs of the body” are catered for. Whereas in vv. 2-3 it is not clear whether the wealthy and poor persons are Christians, here the poor person is definitely identified as a “brother or a sister.” Finally, the function as well as the form of the two illustrations appears similar: James chooses an illustration relevant to the life of the community, perhaps even occurring in the congregation, since he says, “and one of you says to them…”

James is all inclusive in his description of the poor person, explicitly including both genders: “if a brother or a sister” (ean adelphos ē adelphē) in his description of the poor. These poor hyparchōsin gymnoi (literally, “are naked” as in the NRSV, though variously translated as “poorly clothed,” “in rags,” “in need of clothes,” or “without clothes” [Vlachos, 87-88]). They also lack daily food (leipomenoi tēs ephēmerou trophēs). Vlachos observes that James’ use of the present tense, and the somewhat unusual verb hyparchōsin (“to exist”) indicates an enduring state of poverty and suggests that the individuals suffer constant want (87-88). Their abject need is evident.

“And one of you says to them” (eipē de tis autois ex hymōn) brings this hypothetical illustration close to home: “someone from among your community.” The words spoken are in the form of a blessing: ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ (hypagete en eirēnē, thermainesthe kai chortazesthe). “Go in peace” is a standard Semitic blessing of good will, that the person go on in a state of peace and well-being (Vlachos, 88). “Keep warm and eat your fill” correspond to the nakedness and hunger of the person identified in verse fifteen. These verbs can be interpreted in two distinct ways, either as “keep yourself warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the middle voice) or “be warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the passive voice).

The first option places the responsibility for the poor person’s well-being upon themselves, whereas the second becomes a form of prayer. Vlachos (89) prefers the first interpretation, and because the verbs are in the second person imperative, he is probably correct; the speaker is telling the poor what they must do. Nevertheless, a number of interpreters including McKnight, prefer the second option so that the speaker is saying something along the lines of, “May God’s peace be upon you; may God warm you; may God fill you up.”

This may be an overinterpretation but, if so, not by much: the false piety, the false claims, and the false religion of those who have faith but do not have works are palpable in this letter (cf. 1:26-27) (McKnight, 231).

In the end, as Davids (122) notes, the question makes little difference to James’ main point: the speaker does nothing. “And yet you do not supply their bodily needs” (mē dote de autois ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos). Ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos refers to those things necessary for the body, the physical staples of life, which in this context refer to food and clothing. It would be legitimate, I think, to extend this to other necessities of life including shelter for the homeless.

James is concerned for bodily needs and physical necessities, and especially but perhaps not exclusively, for those in the congregation (cf. Galatians 6:10). To send someone on their way, even with a blessing of peace, is of no use whatsoever, if in the sending they remain cold and hungry. James obviously intends the speaker (and the community—dōte is second person plural) not only wish them peace and welfare, not only have good will and intention toward the poor, not only feel kindly—but to give (dōte) them the things needed for bodily life and welfare. This calls the speakers to use their own substance and share what they have with the person in need. James is concerned with “the need of the body” and not simply the condition of the “soul.” To bless or to pray, and to not give what is needed—“What is the good of that?”

Scripture on Sunday: James 2:2-3

James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)
James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)

James 2:2-3
For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet…’

James has introduced his primary point in verse one: Christian faith is incompatible with favouritism or partiality. Verses two and three form the first part of a conditional clause, a twofold protasis (the if statement), with verse four supplying the apodosis (the then statement). Together these verses provide an illustration of James’s point.

Verse two, then, presents an image of two men, one obviously rich and the other obviously poor (note that James explicitly refers to the second man as “poor” (ptōchos)). This judgement is made on the basis of their contrasting appearance: the rich man is dressed in fine clothes, wearing gold rings, while the poor is dressed in shabby clothes and has no corresponding emblems of wealth. Although the descriptions are generic, so that we cannot identify either man as either Roman or Jewish, Christian or non-Christian, Moo suggests that the description of the wealthy person might identify one belonging to the Roman “equestrian” class (81). The “fine clothes” (esthēti lampra) of the rich person suggests fabrics that are “bright” or “shining,” and so speak of luxury, elegance or even flamboyance. In contrast, the poor man’s clothing is rhypara—shabby, dirty or filthy (cf. 1:21).

Both men have come to the “assembly” (synagōgēn), a term used to denote a Jewish place of assembly for the purposes of worship and instruction. That James uses the word without the article may signal that he is referring to the people assembled rather than the building itself (Vlachos, 69). The word does highlight the Jewish character of James’s listeners, although it is likely he is referring to a Jewish Christian assembly, a position McKnight favours, noting also that James refers to your (hymin) assembly (183). Peter Davids, however, is not so sure. Davids notes that apart from this instance, synagōgēn is never used in the New Testament as a description of a Christian meeting, and so argues that in fact, the occasion envisaged by James is not a Christian meeting of worship, but a church-court, an assembly in which the two men are the litigants in the process (109). It seems most commentators are content to see this as a more generic description of visitors to a Christian worship service.

The third verse now adds another layer to the conditional clause by introducing a third party: “you,” that is, the assembly to whom James writes. Just as there are two visitors entering the assembly, so there are two responses on the part of the others present. They pay special attention (epiblepsēte) to the one dressed in fine clothing, and offer him as it were, the “best seat in the house” (hōde kalōs – “here, in this good place”). They also address the poor man, but dismissively, telling him he can “stand over there” or “sit here at my feet,” or literally, “under my footstool” (stēthi ekei ē kathou hypo to hypopodion mou). In contrast to the favoured treatment and position afforded the rich man, the poor man is humiliated and marginalised.

The scene is now set for James’s application to be delivered in verse four. Before moving to that verse, however, it is helpful to address two important issues. First, is this simply a hypothetical illustration with no basis in reality? The structure of the sentence as a conditional clause suggests a hypothetical case, but the blunt accusation of verse six (“but you have dishonoured the poor man”) also points in the direction that this, if not an actual case, is representative of the kind of behaviour that has actually occurred in the assembly. Further, Vlachos notes that the plurals used in verse three indicate that the attitude is that of the group, and not simply of the leaders or other individuals involved (70).

The second question concerns whether the men involved in this little story are Christians. While we cannot know for sure, we must note that James does not refer to the well-dressed man as “rich,” a term he often uses when referring to those who are not Christians (see, for example, 2:6; 5:1-6; see also my comments on 1:9-11). Thus it may be that James has in mind a rich Christian who is a member in the assembly. But it could also refer to a rich fellow Jew or rich gentile visiting the assembly, though one who not yet a Christian. It probably does not affect the interpretation of our passage: the members of the assembly are courting the favour of this rich person simply based on his appearance and evident wealth, and conversely, they disparage the poor man on the grounds of his appearance. In view of his principle in verse 1, for James, such behaviour is inappropriate and unconscionable.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:9-11

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:9-11
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 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 .

The Great Reversal
Our study of this passage has concluded that it is a continuation and specific application of the theme commenced in verse two. That is, one of the major tests being experienced by James’ community concerns the issue of poverty and wealth. But this is not simply “an issue,” such that it might be considered apart from the actual life-setting and life-experience of the community. James’ listeners are suffering, a poor and despised group in an unfamiliar land. Further, their faith in Christ has isolated them from the help they might otherwise have received from the Jewish diaspora community. Perhaps they face the temptation to curry the favour of their wealthier kinsmen; perhaps also the temptation to relinquish their faith in Jesus the Messiah and return to the synagogue. It is clear from 2:1-6 and 4:1-3 that the community is at least distracted if not riven with such attitudes and conflicts.

Further, I have argued that the syntax of vv. 9-10 requires that we read James’ exhortation to the rich as addressed to the rich believer. While the poor may rejoice in that they have been exalted, the wealthy are given arguably the more difficult task: to rejoice in their humiliation. James is using dialectical language to set forth the inherent tension the believer experiences. On the one hand the social and financial reality of each group remains unchanged with respect to their position in the broader society. On the other hand, James envisages a day when there shall occur a “great reversal” in the fortunes of the poor and the rich whereby the poor will be exalted in reality, and the rich, especially those who have acted unjustly (5:1-6), will be humbled.

James’ words echo a theme common in the Jewish tradition and which also found expression in the teaching of Jesus, especially the Lukan version of the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26). Here Jesus looks forward to the eschatological dénouement in which the great reversal will take place. Mary, too, celebrates this hope in her prophetic song, although now the reversal is spoken of as already fulfilled:

He has done mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble (tapeinos). He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed (Luke 1:51-53).

(Scot McKnight (96) rightly draws attention to the impact Mary had on the fledging Christian community through her two sons.)

Thus, James’ eschatological horizon provides the grounds for why both the poor and the rich might rejoice. The poor look forward to the coming kingdom in which all things will be made right, and the rich likewise rejoice in that they have now discovered that the coming day will not be the terror to them it might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, this exaltation and humiliation are not simply eschatological, for already the poor are exalted, and already the rich are humbled. What might this mean, since it is evident that their socio-economic status remains unchanged?

Here James’ dialectic has a new twist: a social reversal has occurred – in the church. Although future in itself, the great reversal issues in a radical transformation here and now in one’s own perception of oneself, and in the community. Here and now there is a re-ordering of expectation, of desire, of value, and of relationships on account of the new reality which has arrived in Jesus the Messiah, and which will be enacted in the eschatological judgement. Here and now the poor are welcomed as honoured, indeed, primary members of the kingdom community. Here and now the rich embrace humiliation, precisely by entering into solidarity with the poor and despised Jesus followers. The Christian community enacts on the historical level the hope to be realised in the kingdom of God. It is becoming a community in which one’s identity is founded, not on one’s socio-economic status, but on one’s status in Christ. A trans-valuation has occurred with the values and priorities of the earthly city giving way to the values and priorities of the heavenly city. James has a vision of the eschatological kingdom which exists not only in the future, but impinges upon the present, and presses toward expression in the community of God’s people, here and now.


Scripture on Sunday – James 1:10

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:10
and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 

It is clear in this verse that James intends a contrast with verse nine. There he instructed the lowly to exult in their exaltation, while now he turns his attention to the rich (ho plousios) and speaks of their being brought low (tapeinōsei). Ho plousios means to be materially wealthy and is thus set in contrast to those belonging to the lower socio-economic strata addressed in verse nine. Whereas the lowly (ho tapeinos) are now exalted, the exalted (in the material sense) are now ‘brought low,’ the NRSV translation making the connection and contrast with verse nine explicit. Indeed the two verses demand to be read as a couplet with the syntax of verse nine governing the sense of verse ten. James’ command to the lowly in verse nine (kauchasthō) applies also to the rich in verse ten, the single instruction to boast or to glory being addressed to both groups.

It is also likely that the ho adelphos (‘brother,’ translated as ‘believer’ in the NRSV) from verse nine should be carried forward to verse ten. This is a more controversial claim, with a number of commentators arguing that ho plousios in James should be understood as referring to the ungodly and unbelieving rich who are described and decried in 2:6-7 and 5:1-6. Davids, for example, acknowledges that the syntax could refer to a rich believer, but argues that James would hardly consider such a rich person to be ‘truly Christian’ (77). In this case the exhortation is to the rich to really embrace the humiliation of identification with the poor Christian community so that they may truly have something to boast about! So, too, Scot McKnight views the rich here as the enemies of Christ and the Christian community, and so interprets James’ language as rich prophetic irony: the boasting and humiliation of the rich will soon be turned to humiliation (98-100). The NRSV supports this interpretation by inserting ‘the rich’ a second time into the verse. Despite these arguments, it is preferable to follow the natural sense of the syntax and to understand James as referring to a believer who is also rich. This wealthy Christian is to boast, not in his or her riches—McKnight is almost certainly correct to suggest that Jeremiah 9:23-24 lies in the background of James’ thought here—but rather, in their humiliation (NASB), because (hoti), says James, ‘like the flower of the grass’ (hōs anthos chortou) or perhaps better, a ‘flower of the field,’ or a ‘wildflower’ (NIV), he or she ‘shall pass away’ (pareleusetai).

A particular temptation for the rich is to rely on their wealth, perhaps even coming to believe that their wealth shields them from the trials that afflict the rest of humanity. “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his own imagination” (Proverbs 18:11; cf. 10:15). This illusion is strengthened by the fact that wealth does to some degree function in this way. A large bank balance does shelter its owner from many common trials, just as a large estate filled with assets and enviable treasures may tempt its owner to believe in their invincibility, and to boast of their accomplishments. But James adopts a common image from the Palestinian countryside to depict the fate of all humanity—including the rich.

As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer. But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him (Psalm 103:15-17).

A voice says, “Call out!” Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
“All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever”
(Isaiah 40:6-8).

James calls the rich to recognise their mortality in common with all people. They, too, ‘shall pass away,’ all their wealth and earthly glory notwithstanding. While their wealth may prove a shield in some affairs, ultimately the only lasting treasure is the fear of the Lord arising from his Word. As a believer they have embraced his Word. James now exhorts them to embrace the humiliation of association with the Christian community, of identification with the scandalous message of Jesus, for this is the true basis of glorying as Paul also insisted: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:9

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:9
Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up.

At first glance these verses appear to mark an abrupt change of theme and help support the idea that James is a collection of unrelated homiletical materials pieced together to form a letter representing the central themes of James’ teaching. It is possible, however, to read these verses as part of James’ overall theme in the first part of this chapter. First, verse twelve will return to the theme of the blessedness of those who endure under trial, suggesting that all the material from at least verse two through to verse twelve belongs together. Second, the opening word of verse nine (kauchasthō) is another third person singular imperative, extending the string of imperatives James has used in his opening section. Further, the word means to boast or to glory in which is not too far removed in concept if not language, from the opening thought of verse two where James exhorts his hearers to ‘count it all joy.’ In Psalm 149:5 (LXX) the word is set in parallel with joy: “Let the godly ones exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds.” Finally, a number of commentators understand these verses as an application of the opening section, identifying a particular trial, and indeed likely the major form of trial, being experienced by James’ community. The theme of wealth and riches, and the temptations associated with them recurs throughout the letter. The second chapter especially, indicates that this is a present trial and temptation for the community. Together, these contextual clues suggest that these verses should be understood as a continuation of the primary theme in this first chapter. That is, the community is to rejoice in the midst of their ongoing trials, enduring them steadfastly with faith, hope, and prayer for wisdom, and especially with reference to the vexed issue of economic difficulty, privation and temptation.

James turns his attention first to the lowly brother or sister(ho adelphos ho tapeinos), the reference to ho adelphos indicating that he refers not to the lowly in general, but to those in the community of God’s people. Tapeinos means humble or lowly, but in this context, especially given the contrast with ho plousios in verse ten, is to be interpreted in socio-economic terms rather than with respect to attitude or demeanour. The word is used in this sense in the Old Testament, and often in contexts in which the Lord is near to those who are tapeinos, to hear their prayer and to judge in their favour (e.g. Psa. 10:18; 18:27; 34:18; 102:17; Isa. 11:4). In 4:6 James will cite Proverbs 3:34 which declares that God gives grace to the tapeinos. Such favour is also in view in 2:5 where God has chosen the poor (ptōchos) to be the heirs of his kingdom. James, therefore, exhorts the person in ‘humble circumstances’ (NASB; NIV) to glory in their high position (NASB; en tō hypsei autou) because (reading en in a causative sense) they have been ‘raised up.’

Everything depends on the reality of this exaltation. Already they are the recipients of God’s grace and the special objects of God’s favour. Although not rich in this world they are rich in faith (2:5) and as such are heirs of the eternal kingdom. This, too, is divine wisdom, as James brings an eschatological worldview to bear on the circumstances of his readers. Only on the basis of divine grace and promise may the poor rejoice. From an earthly perspective they have no reason to boast. Just as joy in the midst of suffering is counter-intuitive, so too is boasting in the midst of poverty and affliction. But in the light of God’s present favour and eschatological promise, they may indeed boast for they have been made brothers and sisters in the very family of God.