James 5

The last chapter of James starts off with strong condemnation against the rich. It tells of their fate on the day of judgement (namely, much weeping and wailing). They have not helped the poor, they have been selfish, they have failed to act justly. Therefore, they are condemned and their corruption will destroy them. The imagery is graphic and striking. There can be no mistaking it: James does not think highly of rich people, especially those who exploit, demean or reject the poor.

Of course, once again, it makes me look to Western culture and society. How much of our values are about accruing wealth without thought of who it affects. This can be from our throw-away culture, with cheap clothes and plastics, that usually mean sweatshops and environmental damage. Or the selfishness of the banks, the business and the political leaders.

There’s an allusion to Jesus’ words in Luke 12:33-34: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This verse concerns me. How many of us actually take these words seriously? How many of us give abundantly generously to the poor and are willing to sell what we have to do it? Would I be willing to sell my laptop or my motorbike or my furniture in order to give the money to the poor? Or am I more concerned about accumulating items that provide fleeting comfort or simply look nice?

We might think, “Oh, I already tithe, I give regularly to charity, I give my 10%” But Jesus’ words would have been addressed to his fellow Jews. They were already giving money and offerings to the temples and giving tax to the Roman Empire. Around 1-2 thirds of their income would have gone this way. Now Jesus is asking them to give more. So, this is a challenge to us. I look around and I see so much stuff. Clutter and books and papers and exercise equipment I hardly use and decorative things that have no actual real function. I’m not sure this is the life that I am called for and I’m pretty sure something needs to change.

The next passage reminds us again of the importance of patience, especially in suffering. Then it discusses the importance of prayer, rejoicing and confession. Finally, James ends with thoughts about leading those who have gone astray back to righteousness.

Reflection

  • How do we live so we pursue justice for the poor?
  • What should our attitude towards money be?
  • How generous is enough?
  • Should we really sell all our things and give to the poor?

James 2

James 2 starts off with ideas of justice and fairness, looking at the idea of favouritism. In the Roman period, rich people were given a higher legal status and generally treated better. This behaviour was not, however, Biblical, so James was condemning it.

Furthermore, James explores the idea that God gives the poor a rich faith and they also will inherit the kingdom. This reminds us of the famous words of Jesus that it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to inherit the kingdom of God. It makes me wonder how many church goers activity associate with the poor (I don’t mean soup kitchens)? Why is the church always seen as a place where you dress your best and make sure your face is clean and scrubbed? I feel like we have perhaps lost sight of the idea that churches are meant to be messy, difficult and inclusive. I wonder whether the desire for propriety has robbed us of something far richer.

Verses 12-13 are somewhat reassuring to me. As a teacher I always struggled with the conflict between judgement and mercy. My bent is always to be merciful, but others can be a bit more exact in their application of the rules. The idea that mercy triumphs over judgement is helpful. Also, that is definitely seen in the cross of Jesus Christ: God’s mercy triumphed over judgement; Jesus had to endure an agonising death to ensure it would happen.

James’ statement about needing deeds may seem on a surface level to contradict Paul’s teaching of faith leading to grace rather than our deeds leading to grace. However, they are all a part of the same process. Our faith causes us to receive an underserved grace. This grace is transformative and powerful, resulting in a passionate, fruitful outworking of the Holy Spirit’s activities in us. This is the deeds aspect. Therefore, our faith needs to have deeds too.

Reflection Questions

  1. How does the church integrate and welcome people from all walks of life?
  2. How do we prevent the “Sunday best” culture in our churches?
  3. How do I get the balance between judgement and mercy right?
  4. What deeds are there in my life that show the fruit of grace?

James 1

James is named after its author, rather than its recipient, as in some of the other letters. It is likely that this is James, the brother of Jesus. This letter is also probably addressed to Christians of a Jewish heritage, given its style and its content. (Thank you, Biblegateway plus for the wealth of information!)

The first verse talks about the tribes of Israel scattered among the nations. The original context is a) a play on words (James is English for Jacob, one of the tribes b) reverent c) referencing prophesies. So in that one line, you can see how rich that text is. However, as some reading it in a cafe in Phnom Penh, it has a significance for me: linking both the past and present. It’s often hard to consider ourselves as a part of the story of the Old Testament, but we very much are.

James does not hold back any punches. Between verses 4-8 James addresses:

  • perseverance and joy in the face of temptations
  • perseverance leading to maturity and completion in faith
  • asking for and receiving wisdom in generous portions
  • believing that you will receive the wisdom
  • those who doubt are double-minded and shouldn’t expect wisdom from God.

Then verses 9-11 discuss how those that are humble are exalted, but riches wither and fade humiliating those in high position (this humiliation, James ironically notes, is something to take pride in). James was the leader of the church of Jerusalem, where urban slums would have existed. Furthermore, the Jews during James’ time were persecuted, leading to poverty, so it was likely many of his readers were facing great difficulties.

However, once again, it definitely speaks to me as someone currently living in a country that faces poverty. I don’t want to fall into the trap of simplifying the difficulties of the poor or using the cliched “they are so grateful for what they have”. That being said, the outworking of these verses about perseverance is evident. The faith of the believers in Cambodia, who do need to overcome these struggles, is far richer and deeper and simultaneously more simple in their assertions. They say God helps them. There doesn’t seem to be the caveats or scepticism you might see elsewhere. Maybe it is this that is the humiliation of the rich: our poorer faith.

James, again, not holding back, blames anyone who fails to resist temptation. Circumstances, difficulties and, certainly not, God do not cause people to fall into sin. Our desires and the fulfilment of those desires does.

James reminds us of God’s goodness and generosity. Only good gifts come from God, so the bad is not from God. One of the gifts is grace and rebirth, which we must remember in times of temptation.

Verses 19-26 are also highly practical. It’s based around the idea of listening, but leads onto the idea that we should listen to what the word tells us and act on it. It calls out hypocrisy, saying those that listen to the word but don’t act are like those who can’t remember their own reflections after looking in a mirror.

It also challenges me about the future. I will be doing a lot of training over the next few years (including an MA). This makes me reflect on how I should put these ideas into practise and not treat it just as an academic exercise.

These verses are also interesting, telling people to hush their mouths and don’t be hasty to speak in anger. Given the context of the time was a lot of angry and revolutionary Jewish people, this is counter cultural. It also makes me wonder about how Christians respond to the Black Lives Matter and issues those that are oppressed and persecuted. Again, this gives rise to questions about a theology of oppression and justice, one that I haven’t really thought about or formulated for myself. But, evidently, thoughtless, angry and ill-considered statements aren’t the way forward. I think, however, James asks for a practical response rather than one of just words: in the last verse of the chapter he asks for the care of orphans and widows.

Reflection Questions

The process of blogging about my Bible reading seems to more often create questions rather than answers. I decided to make a note of them here, so I can hopefully go back to them and answer them. I might even do some posts where I try to reflect on them and give my personal thoughts.

  • How do I persevere in times of trials?
  • How do I live with humility despite being from a privileged Western background?
  • Who or what do I blame for my failures?
  • How do I make sure I put teachings into practise?
  • How should I respond with words and action to injustices in this world?

Amos 6

There seems to be two themes in this chapter: pride and complacency. We see that the people of Israel are enjoying life. The drink wine, have beautifully furnished homes, eat delicious food, listen to music, relax and have fun. It all seems great.

But this wealth and status has made them arrogant. They look down on the poor; they have stopped caring about them. It also means they’ve forgotten about God and his desires. Their worldly gain has been their spiritual loss. It’s stopped them doing what is right and good.

And the result we be destruction. The big mansions will be destroyed. Israel will be oppressed. The Lord detests their ways.

Amos 2

Amos 1 warns various countries surrounding Judah and Israel about their future. Moab gets the next warning in Amos 2. God will destroy Moab’s rulers.

Then God’s anger turns on his own people. Judah rejected the law of God; they worshipped idols. Again, Judah too will experience consuming fire.

Israel’s list of sins is quite extensive. They sell vulnerable people for gain; destroy the poor; fail to help the oppressed; they are involved in sexual scandals and the use of prostitutes; they use their power to make themselves rich. Those that should be honouring God the most – the prophets and the Nazirites – have all fallen into sin.

This list is somewhat terrifying. It’s not just because what they have done is wrong; it’s because the list is all too recognisable. There have never been as many slaves as there are today. People work in sweatshops for the profit of multinational business owners. London has become a hotbed of people-trafficking. Desperate refugees are used to make profits. The poor are being made poorer and the oppressed are still hindered through systematic, institutional and cultural prejudice and injustice. So many leaders and celebrities have been reveal to have been sexually immoral. People, even world leaders, abuse their power to get what they want. Churches are involved in such scandals nowadays it makes one weep.

Even “Christian” nations are full of these sins. They are the Israels of Amos’ times.

What does God tell them? He tells them he will crush them. It will be swift and no one will escape.

It’s a terrifying warning, especially as the picture looks so recognisable. It does make me wonder what might happen to the nations and the leaders of today.