Monday, September 24, 2018

Pentecost 18B

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

3 13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4 1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. ...

Old Testament & Wisdom Literature

A few weeks ago on Pentecost 13 / August 20, when we studied a passage from the book of Proverbs we did an overview of the content of the Hebrew Bible, especially contrasting the Wisdom literature Proverbs belongs to with the rest of scripture.

The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible has three major sections: Torah; Prophets; Writings. Torah or Pentateuch ("penta" refers to the number five, as in pentagram, pentagon, pentatonic).

* Torah carries and conveys a sense of God's definitive self-revelation, along with covenantal and other history, and includes commandments and related instructions for human behavior.

* Prophets break into the current setting or situation with words or challenges from God, often speaking truth to power, frequently revealing restored hope for the future, promises of resurrection from the dead.

* Writings are a diverse body of literature that aren't so much as words from heaven to earth as they are words from earth to heaven. The writings include books of Proverbs, Psalms, Esther, Daniel, Chronicles, Song of Solomon, Job. ...

To review some characteristics of Proverbs for today's discussion, in alignment with many wisdom writings in the Ancient Near East, its articles, exhortations, essays, and poetry tend to be about discernment from the human side, rather than revelation from God's side; they emphasize obedience, learning from living together in community, and obeying God's word along the way: heart knowledge and foot knowledge we acquire from walking the talk! They have a sense of mystery and hiddenness rather than an aura of command.

James: Author & Content

The Revised Common Lectionary that provides most of our Sunday scripture readings has been in a semi-continuous reading of the New Testament epistle or letter of James. Like Proverbs, James is within the tradition of wisdom literature. Most weeks we have time to discuss only one lection, so this group has been missing out and this is our first Sunday with James; maybe not the best passage to start with, but here we are, anyway.

Jesus' apostle James Zebedee almost definitely didn't write the book of James. It might have been by Jesus' biological brother James; someone else could have written it and honored either of those James by using their name. Even most recent critical scholarship considers dating uncertain; it remotely could have been written even before Paul's 1 Thessalonians we generally regard as the earliest NT book; it could have been written several decades later. Steve's Study Bible suggested possibly well into the 2nd century, but that feels way too late. For what it's worth, James' grammar and syntax are quite consistent. In any case, James wrote to scattered, dispersed Jewish Christians in a diaspora either fairly nearby or relatively far away.

Throughout five short chapters, James is about neighborology, how to live together in community, how to obey the commandments so everyone will be their healthiest and best. James brings us echoes of Jeremiah, Deuteronomy, and Luke. Remember how often we discussed those books during Luke's lectionary year A? James also sounds like Jesus in his Sermon on the Plain and Sermon on the Mount.

Luther & James / James & Luther

The reformer Martin Luther famously did not like Jimmy, notoriously referred to the book as an "epistle of straw." Reasons for Luther's opinion aren't entirely clear. It could have been because so much of James emphasizes we need to be doers of the word of God, and not merely hearers of the word; that would appear to be works-righteousness that violated Luther's theology of grace. It could have been because Pastor Martin wasn't crazy about the idea of serving some of his more boorish, bumpkin-like nearby neighbors. It well may have been because James nowhere affirms or confesses Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, so the epistle does not contain even a hint of the high Christology Luther would have desired.

One more note: in addition to James, Luther did not want to include Revelation, Hebrews, or Jude in the canon of scripture. He also had lesser opinions of 2 John, 3 John, and 2 Peter. That group of Luther's leftovers sometimes gets referred to as antilegomena, literally "spoken against."

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