The epistle from James was written in the early to mid AD40s. James was martyred in AD62. The epistle was addressed to folks who lived outside of Palestine/Judea particularly the covenant people of God. Luther calls it a “strawy” epistle. We know very little about James, but what we do know is that if this letter was indeed written by James, Jesus’ brother, he was once an unbeliever (Mk 3.21, Jn 7.5). James is mentioned among the disciples just before pentecost (Acts 1.14). He addressed the church at Jerusalem with authority and was considered an elder of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15.13, Acts 21.18). James was a witness to the risen Christ and was singled out at the resurrection appearance (1 Cor 15.7). James once met Paul and was considered an apostle who sent out “certain men” whom Paul was in conflict with because of their faith practices (Gal 1.19).
In this epistle Brother James provides the foundation for practical wisdom about the Christian moral life. This is the kind of knowledge that people need to live well — practical wisdom — which is most often misunderstood, the hardest to learn, and the most devalued kind of knowledge. Brother James is inviting us to look at the four important elements of the Christian life – Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience – and bring it under the umbrella of prayer. The only way Godly wisdom for practical living can be gained is in the context of prayer.
The Letter of James is all about making disciples in the context of two worldviews – Kingdom of God vs. the world/evil. The disciples that James would have been working most likely were Jewish Christians who had lived under the leadership of the Sadducees and Pharisees prior to their conversion. James was weeding out the thinking of those who were Judeo-Christian believers.
Sadducees followed only the written Law of Moses and they denied any new revelation of God. They were bound to the priestly order and the historical political structure of Israel as a nation. And, they disagreed with the Pharisees and with Jesus on the teachings of the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and spirits, and the rewards or punishment after death. They also focused only on the worship at the Temple as the primary component of the people’s relationship with God.
On the other hand, the Pharisees were a lay group of Jewish religious leaders – social reformers that disagreed with the current priestly administration and the political order of things. They were more in-line with the common people. They followed the written Law of Moses plus the rest of the Old Testament (the prophets and history books). But then they added more traditions – the traditions of the elders. The Pharisees saw that worshiping God was more than Temple worship. Eventually, the Temple would be destroyed in AD70 and the Pharisaic sect would dominate the Jewish worldview. Today’s Judaism is descended from the Pharisees as the Sadducees disbanded after the destruction of the Temple.
Pharisees added details to God’s written law to make sure they were following the right actions. Both of these folks got out their checklist every morning to make sure they were following God the right way. Jesus on the other hand came to help people see the heart of the Law of God. Jesus desired for people to be in a relationship with God in their spirit, not simply following their head knowledge about God. This clarity that Jesus brings to us helps each one of us to understand that it’s not about following rules but a heart condition of trust and obedience. James is after the hearts of the Jewish people who have been taught to follow the rules.
James is a true follower of God, and with Jesus living in the same household, you can bet he knew all the requirements of right living. Joseph, his father, would have made sure to raise him properly in the Jewish community. And, we know from scripture that Joseph had a soft heart toward the letter of the Law as he was aiming to divorce Mary quietly (as she, and perhaps even himself, would have been stoned to death under the Law).
When James talks about the rich and the poor, he is pointing to the heart condition behind the reality of their financial lives. When we look at the mirror, we see our outward appearance. But God desires for us to look below the surface to the condition of our hearts, and see ourselves as we truly are. God’s word speaks clearly that only God can discern the ways of the human heart. And, the wisdom that we need to overcome those unaware places within us comes only from Jesus. Righteous wisdom σοφία comes only from God.
All of us possess an earthly wisdom that belongs only to ourselves, and sometimes aligns with other folks beliefs to form to form a community kind of wisdom to live by. The problem lies in the Christian belief that we possess a fallen nature. But when we are filled with God’s spirit, then the word of God is planted deep within us – the word of wisdom that we need to live righteous. Wealthy folks in this life are often blessed with a worldly kind of wisdom seeking to well-being of themselves – as Jesus would say they lay up treasures upon this earth instead of heavenly treasures. But the poor, spend everything they have just to make ends meet and rely on the unknown hope that somehow they will survive.
If we dig deeper into the meaning of wisdom we find the humanity has always assumed that wisdom could be obtained through learning. Sophia (σοφία) is a Greek word meaning wisdom. It means the breadth and fullness of intelligence and is used in a variety of ways. The shade of its meaning is taken in context of what is spoken or written. Sophia is considered to be the universal wisdom that belongs to humanity, both human and divine. Sophia wisdom is acquired by personal experience and often summed up in maxims/principles and proverbs in science and learning. Sophia wisdom is the art of interpretation, and always gives the best advice. It is the wisdom required in the management of affairs, and the devout or proper prudence in contact with people of diverging beliefs. It is the skill and discretion in imparting truth and knowledge into practice for upright living.
Human wisdom (σαρκικῇ σοφία) is a form of craftiness, shrewdness and cunning knowledge and skill in the affairs required for successful defense of beliefs against hostility. It is the interpreting and applying of sacred text to human matters, the application of instructions in beliefs or the knowledge of a plan previously hidden from human eyes. Sophia wisdom is the ability to eloquently discuss spiritual matters. According to Aristotle, σοφία is the “mental excellence in its highest and fullest sense” (Aristotle, eth. Nic. 6, 7). Wisdom is essentially the application of knowledge and understanding for the greater good of all humanity. Supreme wisdom is intelligence that belongs to God, and given to humankind.
Right living is remembering God in the midst of our everyday lives. It’s listening and taking action. It’s about having a strong faith in God. It’s keeping both eyes on Jesus alone. I call that one way thinking. Godly wisdom that is sought in prayer alone. It’s being humble and poor. It’s owning the consequences of one’s own choices in life. Living in God’s spirit helps us to keep our emotions in check, esp. anger. When we live right, our lives produce a profound belief in God, endurance, patience, maturity, and the fullness of a blessed life.
Wrong living is forgetting God in the midst of our everyday lives. When we live wrong, we don’t take action after we’ve heard God speak to us. Our faith becomes unstable as we expect nothing and we receive nothing from God. When we live wrong, our minds are anxious as we look in two different directions even sometimes toward God and sometimes toward the people around us. Earthly wisdom is based on our own understanding and the cultural believes around us. We become proud, supporting ourselves with our own hands and hard works seeking riches to achieve our own plans. We blame God when troubles. We lack holiness of heart and life. Instead the wages we gain are sin and death. When we hear God speak, but don’t listen then we find our lives cursed and filled with doubts.
The mission of the Church is to make “new” disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs. The tendency in the church is to move into action without letting the word of God penetrate our thoughts and our hearts. We Methodist believe that worship is about head, heart, and hands. Notice that the hands come last. First, we hear the word with our minds then we take it into our soul. We engage our will and our emotions to agree with God. Then we can put it into practice. The invitation for us today is to make space in our decision-making process for God to speak to us in a dynamic, on-going way.
As we’ve heard today the Sadducees had disciple-making got it half right. Worshipping God was not all about coming to the Temple and following the 10 Commandments. There is more to being a disciple than worshiping God in a sacred space. And, we’ve heard that the Pharisees had it half right. The Pharisees understood that God desired an on-going relationship, but God desires more from us than following a checklist of does and don’ts. What Jesus desires from us is a right spirit within us – one that listens to the voice of God moving among us through his Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
According to James we must remember and not forget what God says to do so we can put it into action in our lives (a changed heart and life as Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel). We need to seek wisdom in prayer daily. We need to stay humble when we have so many possessions, relying on God alone. We are to become comfortable in our poverty and not seeking a place of power in our community relationships. We must accept the consequences of our actions and inactions. We are to be mindful of our feelings by being self-controlled not giving into our emotions, especially anger. We must continue to grow in our discipleship through trials of every kind – enduring, becoming patient, maturing into the fullness of life that God offers us in his Kingdom.