Tag Archives: The Poor

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:6-7

JamesJames 2:6-7
But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

James’ hearers have dishonoured the poor. While the NRSV refers to the poor in general, it is perhaps better to follow other translations which read, “You have dishonoured the poor man” (Humeis de ētimasate ton ptōchon), thus reading the aorist verb as a reference to the treatment of the poor man in the little story of verses 2-4. The very man who is poor and has been treated so shamefully has been chosen by God! In their treatment of the poor man, then, the congregation has set itself in opposition to the God who chooses the poor of this world. The verb (from atimazo) is used in the Old Testament for those who despise their neighbour or crush the poor (Proverbs 14:21; 22:22). Not only have they dishonoured the poor man, they have done so by aligning themselves with the rich. You have done this, says James; You!

There follow, then, in quick succession, three rhetorical questions, each of which presupposes a positive answer: are not the rich those who oppress you (Ouk hoi plousioi katadunasteuousin humōn)? Is it not they who drag you into court (kai autoi helkousin humas eis kritēria)? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name (Ouk autoi blasphēmousin to kalov onoma)?

The verb katadunasteuō, “oppress” or “exploit” is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts 10:38 to refer to the activity of the devil. It is common, however, in the Old Testament prophets who use it to describe the oppression of the poor, especially the widows and orphans, by the wealthy (cf. 1:27; see, for example: Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 18:7, 12, 16; 22:7, 29; Amos 4:1; 8:4; Habakkuk 1:4; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). Here in James, one particular way in which this oppression occurs is by the rich “dragging” (helkō) congregational members before the courts. For Vlachos, the word suggests violent treatment, whether physical or legal (74). In both cases the verbs are in the present tense, which suggests that these actions are current and ongoing.

Verse 7 provides additional description of the rich and reveals that they are not Christians: rather, they blaspheme “the good name that was invoked over you” (to kalov onoma to epiklēthen eph’ humas). Like the previous verbs, this one is also in the present tense, suggesting present and ongoing action. While the term typically referred to verbal abuse, insulting language, or slander when directed toward a person, when directed against God or things considered holy, it denoted irreverence or impiety (Vlachos, 74). In this case the rich blaspheme the good and excellent name of Jesus (cf. verse 1). Davids (113) and McKnight (201-202) both associate this invocation of the name of Jesus with the believer’s baptism, when, being baptised in his name, they become bearers of his name. Davids also notes that the phrase “to call a name upon” someone was a Septuagintal phrase denoting possession or relationship. The NIV captures this idea by translating the phrase “the noble name of him to whom you belong.” Vlachos notes that the preposition epi used with the accusative indicates a downward direction, implying that the name of Jesus now rests upon those who are baptised (75; cf. 1 Peter 4:14-16).

It is evident in this passage that James’s hearers are themselves poor, being contrasted with the rich. Who are the rich in this passage, and why would James’s congregation seek to curry favour with them? We have already seen that the rich are not Christians, but may be either Jews or gentiles. Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire whereas Christianity was not. Not only were the Christians poor, they were also socially and legally marginalised.  Perhaps the poor Jewish Christians aspired to the greater wealth and privileges of their non-Christian compatriots. Whatever the actual historical and social dynamics, however, their own treatment of the poor man as well as their obsequious deference toward the rich aligned them with the very people who were oppressing and abusing them. For James, that the blasphemer and abuser was more welcome in the church than the poor beggared belief. They not only dishonoured the poor man whom God had chosen, they were choosing those who persecuted the poor and who blasphemed the honourable name of him who had called them. They have, in effect says Davids, sided with the devil against God (112).

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.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:4

JamesJames 2:4
Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

In this verse, the scenario described by James in verses 2-3 comes to its climax. The way in which James told his little tale implicated his hearers: “Suppose a gold-fingered man wanders into your assembly and you say…” That is, if the congregation shows favouritism and partiality to some guests on the basis of their socio-economic standing, and if on the same basis they withhold it from others; if they then treat the two persons differently, favourably on the one hand and contemptuously on the other, then, says James, they have “made distinctions” among themselves where presumably no such distinctions should exist, and so have become “judges,” indeed have set themselves up as judges, but evil judges with evil thoughts.

The two key terms in this verse form a word-play: diekrithēte (“made distinctions”) and kritai (“judges”). The first term occurs also in 1:6 where it means to doubt, or to waver between different possibilities. Here its meaning is often understood as “to discriminate, to make distinctions,” which fits well with the second part of the verse where James accuses his listeners of becoming judges—those whose principle activity involves the kind of discrimination required to make judgements. Vlachos, however, notes that the verb is in the passive voice, and so suggests that another meaning may be more appropriate, viz. “you have become divided” (71). It is not necessary to choose between these various options: making distinctions on the basis of status and appearance results in division in the assembly. These distinctions—and the resulting division—occur “among yourselves” (en heautois) which suits the whole context better than “within yourself,” and also suggests that the problem is characteristic of the congregation generally, rather than restricted to just a few of the members.

By making these distinctions they “have become judges” (kai egenesthe kritai). James will later insist that God alone is the one law-giver and judge, and so it is wholly inappropriate that some members of the congregation would presume to judge their neighbour (4:12). Not only have they become judges, however, but have become judges “of evil thoughts” or intentions (dialogismōn ponērōn). James will go on in the following verses to show why such intentions and activity are evil, but it is possible already to discern the reason: faith in Jesus is incompatible with favouritism or partiality. “Receiving the face” (prosōpolēmpsiais) of the other in verse one is the equivalent of making distinctions in verse four, and so utterly out of place in the community of God’s people.

One final grammatical point remains to be noted: James’s twofold question in this verse begins with ou (“not”), a particle that functions in rhetorical questions when the person asking the question anticipates a positive answer. The questions, then, are loaded questions expecting the answer, “yes indeed” (see McKnight, 188). That is, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves?” Yes; yes you have. “Have you not become judges with evil thoughts?” Yes, indeed you have.

We have seen already in 1:10-11 that James is concerned that the messianic congregation transcend the socio-economic distinctions common in the world—in the light of eternity and of the judgement to come. That the congregation continue to make such distinctions indicates that their perspectives are flawed. Their values are still shaped by the priorities of the world. Their faith in Jesus has not yet penetrated their lives sufficiently to reshape their vision and reset their values. Their flawed attitudes issue in actions incongruent with their faith and which then lead to division between rich and poor in the assembly. Because their judgements do not echo God’s judgements about the relative worth of persons, earthly conditions and “deservedness,” they are false and therefore evil judgements.

James has not pulled any punches. Like a professional boxer, he has cornered his opponent and landed every blow. His accusation against his hearers is pointed, specific and decisive. The strength and vigour of James’s assault highlights the utter seriousness with which he regards this matter. He cannot and will not allow his congregation to think that such favouritism is permissible—it is not. It is evil. Such partiality is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ.

The strength and vigour of James’s assault also challenges the church today and in every age. The question of application cannot be side-stepped. To what extent do we allow the vision and values of the surrounding culture to shape our response to the poor around and among us? Are our attitudes and actions congruent or incongruent with our faith in Jesus Christ? Further, might we map other categories onto those used by James? He does not mention “slave” or “free,” but it is very likely he would extend his argument to these persons also. Might the prohibition against making distinctions be extended also to those distinctions between educated and uneducated, old and young, male and female, conservative and progressive, married and single, gay and straight, mentally ill and sound of mind? It is likely, I think, that James would extend the principle to other socio-economic relations, but not to relations he considered immoral or against God’s commandments. Whether he would have extended it to the distinction between male and female may also be questioned, although it is worth noting that he places Rahab alongside Abraham as those justified by their works (2:23-25). That the prostitute and the patriarch are associated so closely suggests that in the community of faith, brothers and sisters, rich and poor, high and low are equally honoured. In any event, we are certainly on safe ground when we stay with what James has actually said, and do not use these kinds of questions to avoid or even forget our call to be the kind of community that welcomes, includes and respects the poor.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:1

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

James 1:2
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? (NRSV)

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favouritism. (NASB)

With his appeal to his “brothers and sisters,” James again signals the beginning of a new section in his letter, in the first half of chapter two turning to address the issue of favouritism or partiality in the Christian congregation. Although the NRSV treats verse one as a question, it is better to follow the lead of most translations and see this as another imperative rather than a question (cf. 1:2, 16, 19 where James also uses the imperative). The NRSV does better, however, by translating the main term as acts of favouritism, suggesting the repetitive nature of the activity. Both translations clearly indicate that showing favouritism is incompatible with faith in Jesus.

The word for favouritism is prosōpolēmpsiais, actually two words combined into one: prosōpon (“face”) and lambanein (“to receive”), and is likely an echo of Leviticus 19:15 where the two words are found together in the Septuagint: You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. “To receive one’s face” is to make judgements based on such things as physical appearance, social status or race (Moo, 87), and James will go on in verses 2-3 to illustrate his meaning with a cameo about rich and poor persons in the assembly.

Perhaps the reason for James’ prohibition on partiality is found, not only in the allusion to the passage in Leviticus, but also in the reference to “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” James mentions Jesus by name only twice in this letter, in his opening salutation and in this verse. To refer to Jesus as our glorious Lord is to recall Old Testament language and imagery about the glory of God, “the luminous manifestation of God’s person” (Davids, 107). Thus, continues Davids, it is a term of exaltation, revelation and eschatological salvation. Nonetheless, Jesus is not so glorious that he has nothing to do with humanity in its brokenness and need. Rather, the glorious one has come, entering fully into the weakness and poverty of the human situation. If the glorious Lord does not show partiality against the poor, but enters into solidarity with them, how dare those who have faith in Jesus act in ways counter to his own practice? Thus James’ ascription of the term glorious to Jesus functions not only as a christological image that associates Jesus with the glory of God, but also reminds and perhaps even rebukes his listeners, with respect to an attitude and practice which contradicts the essential nature and orientation of their faith. If God does not play favourites, neither should his people.

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 3:10-11

“The Sermon of John the Baptist” Frans Pourbus (1545-81)
“The Sermon of John the Baptist” Frans Pourbus (1545-81)

Luke 3:10-11
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

  • Read the whole section (Luke 3:1-18) here.

John lashes his hearers as he preaches the “good news” to the people (v. 18). And these are those who have come out to the wilderness to hear him! Might he be even harsher with those who refuse to come? Many Christians today would not recognise this sermon as good news at all, while others think this is the only way to authentically preach “the good news.” Tear strips off the people! Flay them with words! Drive them to repentance!

John is obviously anticipating the end of all things; the wrath is coming, but so is salvation (vv. 6-7). Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees (v. 9). Now is the time of decision. Now, before time expires and the opportunity is lost. Soon the Mighty One will come, gathering the grain into his barn—but the chaff!—the chaff will be burnt with unquenchable fire; the unfruitful tree, too, will be cut down and thrown into the fire (vv. 16-17, 9). John’s fierce rhetoric is born of urgent times. This is not simply eschatological vision, but apocalyptic certainty. It is a minute to midnight and the axe is poised to strike. Judgement is inevitable and imminent, and the people flee like vipers before a spreading fire. So John calls to the people to repent while they still can. There is but one possibility of escape.

They have come for baptism. They have come because they are Abraham’s children. They have come because he is a prophet, the first in four hundred years. They have come because they are curious. The news of the coming judgement and salvation is good news indeed—so long as one is on the right side of the judge! And so John preaches repentance. His baptism is a baptism of repentance (v. 3), though baptism alone will not suffice. Not religion or ritual, but repentance. Not belonging to the right group outwardly, but a new life demonstrating that we are indeed, not a brood of vipers, not simply children of Abraham, but children of the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 3:2). “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I. Howard Marshall suggests the question is rhetorical and indicates the sheer impossibility of escaping the coming, total judgement, least of all by an “external, ex opere operato rite” (Marshall, The Gospel of Luke [NIGTC], 139).

In verse 8 John warns the people to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” The analogy of verse 9 speaks of “good fruit” and warns that every tree not bearing such fruit will be cut down and destroyed (cf. Matthew 7:19 where the warning is also found on Jesus’ lips). What fruit does John have in mind?

Some commentators suggest that the fruit is the repentance itself, that baptism must be undertaken in repentance if it is to be genuine and effective. Marshall, however, notes that the word for “fruit” is in the plural rather than the singular (karpous), and that the phrase as a whole (poiēsate oun karpous axious tēs metanoias) suggests “fruits befitting repentance” (140). At this point Luke includes additional information not found in Matthew (i.e. vv. 10-14), which suggests that Luke identifies precisely the kinds of fruit he has in mind. The crowd ask “What then shall we do?” (v. 10), to which John responds,

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.

John identifies acts of generosity toward the poor as a key indicator of true repentance in the kingdom of God. This is more than simply having a “generous heart” or a generous intent, but involves concrete acts of compassion, sharing, participation and solidarity.

The good fruit of verse 9 is worked out in terms of good works: works of love, kindness and mercy rather than works of the law and more than religious works of ritual. Soldiers may keep soldiering and tax collectors keep collecting, but they must do so without violence or greed, avoiding the sins of their profession (Marshall, 143). Certainly John wants the people to be baptised and receive the forgiveness of sins. But their faith must be genuine, and so repentant, and their repentance must move in directions which characterise the love, kindness and mercy of the God who cares for every living person.

To be baptised is to enter into the life and community of the kingdom of God, freely offered to us through the forgiveness of sins. Yet this involves repentance, a decisive turning from the kinds of sins which render present life antithetical to that kingdom. To those, like me, who are so very rich—I have far more than two tunics, and I never go hungry—this word comes as a great challenge. John is interested in deeds. Note the threefold question from the crowd, the tax collectors and the soldiers, “What shall we do?” What, then, do I do with respect to the poor in specific, concrete deeds of sharing? And do I do it from a distance, writing a cheque or making a bank transfer, or is it a case of love with dirty hands? Is my sharing personal and participative or impersonal and aloof? Is my life characterised more by the way of the kingdom or by the way of the world?

This verse has been unsettling me all week.