Tag Archives: Wealth

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 – Proverbs 10:4

??????????????Proverbs 10:4
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

Proverbs 10:22
The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it

Matthew 6:24
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money

In the early days of my Christian experience I attended a church that was part of the “faith message,”—health and wealth, prosperity, etc.—and so these verses in Proverbs were well known to me. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew was not unknown; because one could not serve money we were to give it, to our church and its leaders, and to other “reputable” ministries in the same movement. Of course, in giving we would receive, for as the verse says, “the blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich” (KJV).

Thus we have an Old Testament promise of prosperity, or at least, an acknowledgement of diligence leading to success and riches, and a New Testament teaching condemning the pursuit of wealth. The problem, of course, is that I am wealthy. Exceedingly so, when considered with a global perspective. Even when I struggle to pay the bills, the truth is, I am rich.

Old Testament wisdom literature, based on observations of life, advises the reader to work diligently, to gather and store up their wealth, and thus to see accumulation as a reward. The gospels on the other hand, routinely condemn such a pursuit of wealth, and surely the gospels and the teaching of Jesus must trump the Old Testament?

So, then… I am already rich, loaded down with possessions, and still I accumulate. Especially books! But not only books. I hunger for success and acclaim. I hate not having enough money to do some of the things I would love to do, like travel and holiday whenever I like. I don’t seem to hate not having enough money to give… It would appear that in some ways, then, that I am hopelessly compromised by mammon.

Some years ago when I was wrestling with these matters I put pen to paper in my journal and wrote the following:

Resolved – Yet Still Listening!

I will not live for success but to serve God faithfully,
in obedience to Jesus Christ and for the glory of God;
I am a servant of his name, his kingdom, and his will.

Yet nor will I despise success if God graciously gives it.
Nor will I avoid success or sabotage its possibility
through indolence, laziness, false ideological commitments or lack of courage.

I will labour diligently in the gospel and in pastoral leadership
with all the skilfulness and integrity I can muster;
I will prayerfully and humbly trust God for fruitfulness from my labour;
I will gratefully accept what God gives:
whether smallness, with perseverance;
whether hardness, with endurance;
whether success, with gratitude.

Help me, Lord!
Grant me wisdom to know your way,
and courage to live and walk it.
(January 11, 2008)

I wish I could say that in the intervening years I have followed through on this pious expression of devotion. Sometimes I have. Often I have failed. Yet God is good, and God’s blessing has enriched my life in more ways than I enumerate. The richest blessings are those everyday provisions of grace we often take for granted: an opportunity to work, the love of a faithful spouse, the delight of a healthy grandchild, friends who care, a few moments of peace to write a blog post, food on the table, food in the cupboard, a bed to sleep in and a roof overhead, friendship, the respect and encouragement of peers. The list goes on.


“No one can serve two masters! … You cannot serve God and money.”

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.
(Luke 12:48).

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
(Luke 12:20-21).

And so we return to the central question: what am I to do with all this grace? It is not enough just to be rich; how can I be rich toward God?

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.

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).