First in Caring
We are in our second week of lectionary readings from the Letter of James. This is a letter, as you may know, that was dismissed with insults by Martin Luther, who saw it as proclaiming that good works are salvific, when Mr. Luther believed that only faith could be so. Since Luther’s time, many a theologian and preacher have similarly dismissed James’s epistle; to do so shows that one is theologically advanced. Here’s a quote I came upon this past week: “The frustration of James’s is that the author spends so little time in theological description. That is, neither this particular text nor the book as a whole spends much time actually doing theology in order to shape the church’s ethics. Missing from the book is, for example, a focused Christology, an evangelical or missiological impetus, an eschatological attentiveness, or any discussion of the most significant theologically driven moral questions of the whole New Testament: how much do Gentiles have to behave like Jews in order to be Christians? While James is about wisdom rather than a faith vs. work debate, it would be helpful to see him spend a bit more ink on the way faith is integrated into wisdom.” Well! This contemporary preceptor gives James a solid “D” for his contribution to the Bible!
I disagree, and while I would never act as preceptor to any Biblical writer, I hear a tremendously theologically substantive message from James. He was, we believe, that James, the very brother of Jesus, who grew up in the God-centric milieu of their family, and who was not, like most Jews, an immediate adaptor to the idea of the divinity of his brother. As another commentator writes, “James’s letter is theocratic, not Christocentric. Good Jew that he was, James did not build his argument on the mystery of his brother’s death and resurrection but on the elemental faith in God that allowed his brother to live and die the way he did.”
And so James writes to us, in the ethics of his brother and savior, about how we should live and die. We are to live by wisdom and faith, but there are two wisdoms from which to choose. One is bound to the ethics of this world, and it is about self-promotion, envy, boastfulness, and lies. The second form of wisdom is about all that is peaceable, gentle, merciful and kind, and this wisdom comes from above. This distinction is theologically out of the heart of the Torah, the Prophets, and the teachings of Christ. We see it in Christ’s interaction with his disciples in our lection from the Gospel According to Mark - the disciples think that greatness comes from high status, from being a favorite of the leader (Jesus), from being closest to power. Jesus, on the other hand, says that wisdom and leadership are centered in being the servant of all, and in radically identifying with the least powerful (in his society, children).
Jesus’s disciples (and his brother was not yet one) could not accept that even he, the one whom they were coming to believe was the Messiah, should suffer at the hands of humans with power. Where indeed is the power of God, the maker of heaven and earth, if the reputed Messiah is to be humiliated and killed by human beings? This is unacceptable.
To James the theologian, this is human wisdom at work. If things aren’t working according to my standards of entitlement, they are, first, inauthentic, and second, not “of God”. How often do we apply our own standards to the issues of our day and proclaim our standards “godly”! James hits the nail on the head, I think, by proclaiming that the way we want things to go for ourselves and for the world may be different from God’s plans, and so we resort to bitterness and envy when things do not work out as we’d planned. We are not the highest ranked or most decorated person in our profession, or art, or class; we know the people who are, and we speak ill of them on the sly while we nurse bitter feelings about them in our hearts. This, to James, isn’t wisdom from above, from God, but from below, from our most human yet flawed emotions. Both James and the Evangelist Mark ask us the same important question: why do we want what we say we want?
If it is for honors, income, glory, status, then we are getting it all wrong, even if the status we want is being closest to Christ, like the disciples. Why, Mark and James would then ask, do you want to be closest to Christ? The disciples’ unfortunate answer is that they want to be closest to Christ for their own glory, so that they can be known as the “greatest” in their faith community. Jesus will have none of that - the greatest person to him is the one who extends her-or himself most as a servant, and who identifies with the most vulnerable, not the most powerful.
The “wisdom from above” that James tells us about is not necessarily easy to sign on to. The words are lovely, but the work is hard. It is hard to hear, especially if we feel we have been ill-treated, the admonishment to be “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.” It is hard to give up any acts of partiality if we feel others have not been impartial to us. If we make peace, we read, a harvest of righteousness will be sown for us. How about those times when we feel that justice has been denied, and so to make peace feels rather obscene? Perhaps some people’s issues with the Letter of James are rooted in his insistence that we hew to a Gospel-based ethic of interacting with others no matter what they do to us. We could say that this is a focus on human interactions without reference to Christ, or we could say that this is a mandate for action in the challenging footsteps of Christ himself.
The teaching of Christ is for servanthood. No matter what. Under any circumstances. Many of us welcome an ethic of servanthood and strive for it, too, but we have subtle boundaries around what we are comfortable with. We don’t want to be servants to people we dislike, or whom we feel are beneath us. Jesus and his brother James tell us to overcome that elitism, or heal from our hurt, so that we may be servants to all. Our servanthood will look different in different contexts. To the poor, we will be servants by seeing their poverty, being present to them in our daily lives, sharing with them of what we have, and working hard to end poverty. Our service to those living with violence will be to rescue them from their immediate situation, provide them with safety and human necessities, and work to end the violence that has upended their lives.
Pope Francis visits the United States later this week. While in Philadelphia, where I live, he will visit a prison, as he has done before in Italy, where he also washed prisoners’ feet. Maybe he will do that in Philly. He will be their servant, whether or not he washes their feet, if he sees to their spiritual comfort as prisoners, their genuine rehabilitation and education, and to an end to outdated and inhumane sentencing for those convicted of some non-violent crimes. We, too, can choose to be the servants of prisoners - yes, even prisoners, people who are supposed to have excluded themselves from our mercy - if we do the same as the Pope. People can exclude themselves from our mercy, but never from Christ’s, and so as members of Christ’s body we are to extend mercy to all, even to the merciless.
We are to be servants of one another - to the friend who is struggling, the loved one who is mean, to the acquaintance who is clearly making some bad choices. We are never servants for our own sake, for that would be wisdom from below -“earthly” and “unspiritual,” and eventually for our own gain. We are to be in the service of the wisdom that is from above - servants to all others regardless of any circumstance but because there is a greater cause. All of us who believe that Christ is Lord are, every moment of every day, to share in the work of preparing this world and every one of its members for the coming reign of God. That is our daily work, and with all people, whether we like them or not, whether we feel they have been good to us or not, whether we feel they deserve it or not. They are uniquely ours to serve, all of us who would like very much to be great. Christ told us exactly how to be great - to be last of all and servant of all. We are to be first in caring for the least among us. Others will say that we are nuts, or (gasp!) lack ambition. Actually, we are very much strivers, just for another realm.
D.L. Bartlett & B.B. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the World, Year B, Vol. 4, pp. 86-97