As an example, take the prophets (James 5; Pentecost 18B)

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” So we read in this week’s selection from the treatise of James which is offered by the lectionary (James 5:13–20). As a further encouragement, a few verses earlier, we are enjoined, “as an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10).

In this rhetorical question and proverbial statement, we find that the author of this treatise does something that we have seen to be quite familiar from other sections of the book; he makes reference to Hebrew scripture. In doing this, James, the author, was doing what his more famous brother—Jesus—so regularly did. Referencing scriptural traditions was a family trait; indeed, it was what any faithful Jewish man would do, and provide scriptural resonances in what he was saying.

A number of statements in the treatise of James resonate with the teachings of Jesus that we know so well in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10). Most strikingly, the final beatitude spoken by Jesus, in which he exhorts joy in the face of persecution, in the manner of “the prophets who were before you”, is reflected in the opening exhortation of James, “whenever you face trials…consider it nothing but joy” (1:2), as well as the later reminder of James, “as an example of suffering and patience, take the prophets” (5:10). The two brothers are simply providing variations on a theme.

Other teachings in the book of James provide similarities to the teachings of Jesus spoken in the beatitudes, in the form found in Matt 5:3–12. The question posed by James, “has not God chosen the poor in the world…to be heirs of the kingdom?” (2:5) is similar to the first beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3).

The promise that James envisages, of “a harvest of righteousness…for those who sow peace” (3:18), is reminiscent of another beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). The instruction to “purify your hearts” (4:8) echoes “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt 5:8).

Perhaps we should not be surprised about these resonances between the teachings of Jesus and the treatise of James; if this work was indeed written by James, the brother of Jesus, a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19), would we not expect him to know what Jesus was teaching? The two brothers are singing from the same songsheet.

These similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the writings of James are significant. The fact that they are preserved in different documents, shaped and then preserved by the followers of Jesus, is suggestive of an awareness of a common tradition of these ethical guidelines amongst Jewish members of the growing messianic movement.

James quotes Hebrew Scripture directly in verse 4:6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34). This is the basis for his instruction, “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

The same scripture undergirds the words of Jesus which declare the same thing: “whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12; see also Luke 14:11, 18:14). It is also informs the prophetic words sung by his mother before his birth, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). The two sons of Mary (Jesus and James) are singing from the same songsheet as their mother!

When James writes a warning about laying up treasure (5:3), we are reminded of Jesus’ parable about the same topic. (Luke 12:13-21). In these words, both Jesus and James are drawing from Hebrew scriptures. Speaking against the oppressive actions of the rich sounds very much like a number of oracles thundered by the ancient prophets (Amos 2, 4, Micah 6, Hosea 12, Ezekiel 7).

The details use snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations. “The last days” evoke “the Day of the Lord” (Isa 34:7-8, Jer 25:33-34, Ezek 7:1-4, Joel 2:1-3, Amos 5:18-20). The withholding of the wages of the labourers (5:4) contradicts the Law (Lev 19:13, Deut 24:14-15) and echoes denunciations spoken by prophets (Jer 22:13, Mal 3:5).

The condemnation of “fattened hearts” (5:5) evokes Jer 5:27-28, Ezek 34:2-4. And murdering the righteous person reminds us, not only of the wrongheaded approach of wicked people (Wisdom 2:10-20) and the fate of the righteous servant (Isa 53:3-5, 7-9), but especially of the fate of Jesus, the Righteous One (John 15:20; Acts 3:14).

Then, the command of James, “be patient until the coming of the Lord” (5:7), sounds a note that we hear in the final teachings which Jesus gives to his disciples, not long before his arrest. The earlier version of these teachings infers that patience will be required as “the beginnings of the birth pains” are seen (Mark 13:5–8), before Jesus exhorts his disciples: “the one who endured to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).

Interestingly, “be patient” in the midst of these tumultuous happenings is a refrain found elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul advises, “let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6); John encourages, “little children, abide in him” (1 John 2:28); and Jesus himself is quoted as saying, “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7).

It was a widespread belief amongst the followers of Jesus in the first century, that Jesus would soon return, and that God would establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. (That is the final, climactic vision, offered in Revelation 21:1-22:6). “The coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8) is a recurring New Testament motif (Rom 13:12; Phil 4:5; 1 Pet 4:7).

Over twenty centuries later, we know that this did not eventuate in the timeframe that was imagined, and hoped for, in the first century. Does that invalidate all that those earliest believers thought, wrote, and prayed for? Or is there another way that we are to take their words for our times?

Certainly, the direct ethical instructions found in this passage of the treatise of James sound like they are timeless: cultivate patience (5:7-8), avoid complaining (5:9), remain steadfast (5:11), be as good as your word in all you do (5:12), prayer and sing praise (5:13), seek healing and forgiveness (5:14–15) after confessing your sins (5:16). This is what we are called to do as we await the coming of God.

The wisdom from above (James 3; Pentecost 17B)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him”. So we read at the start of the treatise of James (1:5). There is a strong wisdom flavour to this treatise. The word appears in just four verses (1:5; 3:13, 15, 17), but the nature of the book is quite akin to the most famous work of wisdom in scripture: the book of Proverbs.

The “letter” of James is, in reality, a moral treatise (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/25/on-care-for-orphans-and-widows-james-1-pentecost-14b/) Sometimes called “the Proverbs of the New Testament,” the book of James provides practical guidance on how to live. It canvasses matters such as perseverance, controlling one’s tongue when speaking, submitting to God’s will, responsibilities towards the poor, dealing with anger, and fostering patience.

In terms of its style, James reflects the wisdom tradition that is so evident in Hebrew Scripture and in continuing Jewish traditions. An important place was ascribed to Wisdom amongst Jews of the Dispersion; Wisdom became a key figure for such Jews, as is reflected in a number of writings.

Wisdom is highlighted in Proverbs, which affirms that Wisdom was present with God at creation (Prov 8:22–31). Wisdom was the key creative force at work beside God, in conjunction with God, in creation the world. Wisdom plays a key role in the book of Sirach, where she gives knowledge, makes demands of those seeking instruction from her, imposes her yoke and fetters on her students, and then offers rest (Sir 6:24–28; 51:23–26). Furthermore, Wisdom is portrayed as the intermediary assisting God at creation and throughout salvation history (Sir 24:1–8).

Another document which highlights the role of Wisdom, is the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon—a work which the anonymous author tells of his own search for Wisdom. But the description of Wisdom that is given in this book is more philosophical than biblical; it owes much to the developing middle platonic philosophy of the late Hellenistic period. Wisdom is described as “a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the Almighty” (Wis Sol 7:25) and reflects a most dazzling sequence of attributes (Wis Sol 7:22–24).

A comparison with Proverbs and Sirach can be drawn with Matthew, where it is said that Wisdom is at work in Jesus; when the Son of Man eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus declares that “Wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt 11:19b). Soon after those words, the Matthean Jesus explicitly adopts the language of Wisdom in a well-known set of words. Like Wisdom, he is a teacher (Matt 11:27). Like Wisdom, he invites his followers to take on the yoke of learning, and through this, find true rest (Matt 11:28–30).

Jesus teaches extensively in the style of the wise teacher, employing strings of short, pithy epithets and succinct maxims (see, for example, the collation of such sayings at Matt 6:19–34; 7:1–27; 9:10–17; 10:24–42; 18:1–14).

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The divine gift of wisdom occupies a central position in the treatise of James (1:5–8); this “wisdom from above” is to be contrasted with wisdom which is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (3:13–18).

Numerous epithets typical of the wisdom style are included in the treatise; there are succinct sayings which provide a definitive conclusion to discussion of a topic; for example, “mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:13; compare Matt 9:13) or “who are you to judge your neighbour?” (4:12; compare Matt 7:1).

Practical guidance, which also features in wisdom literature, runs through the treatise of James: “do not be deceived” (1:16), “care for orphans and widows” (1:27), do not favour the rich over the poor (2:1–7), curb your tongues, like putting a bridle in a horse’s mouth (3:3), “do not be boastful” (3:14), “humble yourselves before the Lord” (4:10), “do not grumble against one another” (5:9), “do not swear…by any oath” (5:12), “pray for one another” (5:16).

The treatise of James includes a biting tirade against the oppressive actions of the rich (5:1–6). James quotes snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations of the rich (Isa 5:9; Jer 12:3), yet the same perspective is evident in Wisdom Literature. We see this, for example, in: “riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 11:4); “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold” (Prov 22:1); “whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty” (Prov 22:16).

In an extended diatribe against wealth and honour (Eccles 5:8–6:12), The Teacher notes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” (Eccles 5:10). In Job, Zophar the Naamathite speaks of the wicked: “He swallows down riches and vomits them up again; God casts them out of his belly” (Job 20:15). Antagonism to the rich accumulating more and more wealth is found in various Wisdom works.

A diatribe against engaging in various prohibited actions (arguing, coveting, murder, adultery and impurity, 4:1–10) includes the statement, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6), which is perhaps citing Prov 3:34, “toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favour”.

The treatise as a whole ends with another saying which includes words from Proverbs: “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20), citing the later part of Prov 10:12, “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses”.

The numerous scriptural allusions peppered through the moral exhortations of each chapter certainly demonstrate that the influence of Hebrew scripture on this book, and particularly of the Wisdom literature, cannot be underplayed.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/08/wisdom-cries-in-the-streets-proverbs-1-pentecost-16b/

and there’s a fine sermon on this passage by Avril Hannah-Jones at https://revdocgeek.com/2021/09/18/sermon-avril-preaches-to-herself/