November 19, 2017

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Seven

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He lifted up his eyes and looked at his disciples, and said: “Blessings on the poor: God’s kingdom belongs to you!”

“…But woe betide you rich: you’ve had your comfort!”

• Luke 6:20, 24 (KNT)

• • •

Wednesdays with James
Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal

Today, we look at the third and final of the opening paragraphs in the Epistle to James. It introduces the third main theme in the letter.

  • The first had to do with testing and how believers should view life’s troubles.
  • The second had to do with wisdom and how believers should ask God for it to get perspective on their trials.
  • The third has to do with poverty and wealth. This is the specific context in which James’s readers were experiencing trials.

Brothers and sisters who find themselves impoverished should celebrate the fact that they have risen to this height— and those who are rich that they are brought down low, since the rich will disappear like a wildflower. You see, the rich will be like the grass: when the sun rises with its scorching heat, it withers the grass so that its flower droops and all its fine appearance comes to nothing. That’s what it will be like when the rich wither away in the midst of their busy lives.

James 1:9-11 (KNT)

When Luke records Mary singing her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), he has her channeling Samuel’s mother Hannah, whose song in 1Samuel 2 anticipates the ultimate victory of God’s Kingdom and its humble inhabitants over the mighty and proud who oppress them.

Their “gospel” songs speak to the history of Israel and tell a story about communities, nations, kings, conquerors, judicial systems, slaves and masters, exile and devastation, and the corruption that power, riches, and idolatry bring upon the world, marginalizing those outside the inner circles of influence and trampling the human dignity of those who have little or no say in society. The powers that now rule the world are being overthrown! This is the Gospel according to Mary and Hannah.

In his Beatitudes, Jesus reinforces this perspective.

James, writing to Jewish Christians “in the dispersion” (1:1) — that is “exiles” in vulnerable communities outside Jerusalem and perhaps Palestine itself, applies this viewpoint to their situation. As the Epistle proceeds, we will learn more details about their circumstances, but here in 1:9-11, he reflects Jesus’ teaching (especially as portrayed in Luke’s Gospel) about “The Great Reversal” that takes place with regard to rich and poor, powerful and oppressed when the Kingdom of God takes root. This was the vision of the Hebrew prophets, culminating in the triumph of a crucified Savior over the empire that put him to death.

Some have called this, “The world turned upside down.”

Neither Jesus nor James is saying that God loves the poor and hates the rich. God loves all people and wants all to be saved, forgiven, and renewed. But they are addressing the fact that people live in a world characterized by unjust power structures. The rich and powerful gain status by stepping on the little guy and girl. The system is rigged so that it is easier for people and institutions with wealth and influence to get their way. The poor and humble, who lack their resources and connections, find it almost impossible to fight the system.

These prophetic voices look to a day when the playing field is leveled. The rich will be brought down. The poor will be lifted up. The scales of justice will be balanced. The power structures will be adjusted so that everyone has a fair chance. Oppression will cease. Justice and peace will cover the earth.

See, a king will reign in righteousness,
    and princes will rule with justice. (Isa. 32:1)

When the prophets taught like this, when Jesus proclaimed this good news, when James applies it to his readers, all of them do so not simply to cast a light on the future. After Isaiah’s initial vision of a righteous Kingdom being established in the world, he then says this:

O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord(Isa. 2:5)

The vision of a future realm of justice and peace is meant to inform the way we live in the present, motivating us to seek justice as individuals and communities today. Those who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized should take hope and courage in knowing that Jesus is with them to lift them up. Those who take advantage of others and push them around to gain advantage for themselves should know that God does not approve and will not give his blessing to their behavior.

Wednesdays with James
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Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    “Whatever one calls it, this is what shaped the kingdom vision of Jesus: it was for all in such a way that those in power experienced the downside of the unleashed kingdom.” (Scot McKnight)

    I was thinking of the mega-preachers who demand ‘loyalty’ and are secretive about money and controlling of their ‘flocks’ when over at TWW, I wrote this:

    An old song from the sixties goes
    “. . and Jesus was a sailor and He walked upon the water, and He spent a long time watching from a lonely wooden tower . . . ”

    sometimes if any Christian feels he needs to ‘be raised up’ in the eyes of another in order to be respected, all he has to do is to imagine how Christ was raised up.
    Then he will quietly walk away from thought of pedestals;
    because he knows that the Only One who ever deserved to be on one, chose the Cross instead.

    • Danielle says:

      McKnight’s quote and yours hit an interesting point about the judgement implicit in the Jesus statements about the poor. Perhaps there is a violence in the suggestion that the poor will be remembered and the rich (in one sense or another) cut down.

      It’s hard to say, it’s not specified. But I wonder if the way this is experienced would differ vastly. Those who are advantaged in one way or another and have tied their happiness to that advantages would experience such a ‘cataclysm’ as a terrible event. However, those seeking the wellbeing of their brothers and sisters would be more cheerful about such an unexpected ‘turn of events.’ Perhaps they would find it the reflection of what they were imperfectly seeking?

      One isn’t supposed to nab images from parables for other purposes, but I’m reminded a bit of the parable where the widow has to keep waking up the judge to beg for a hearing of her case. There’s a quiet insistence in her wheedling: we’re going to do this one of two ways; you can hear this case, or you can keep waking up in the dead of night! Which is it?

  2. Robert F says:

    Perhaps we should all ask ourselves: Am I among the poor and disadvantaged, who can claim the Magnificat as my own, along with Mary, or am I among those who will be “sent away empty”?

    Is there something in between? The Magnificat doesn’t seem to allow for any place in between; it’s an “either/or”.

    • Clay Crouch says:

      Would you characterize poverty as a somewhat subjective state? When Mary sang her song and James penned his epistle, 3% of the Greco-Roman world earned 15%-30% of the income while 82% lived from slightly above to below subsistence levels. That left 15% in the “middle class”. According to Talk Poverty, the percentage of people living below the poverty line ($23,834 for a family of four) in my congressional district is 19.1% How does that compare to where you live?

      • Robert F says:

        I’m not sure what the numbers are in my area, Clay. But four people living on $25,000 a year is already poverty. The government sets these thresholds far too low; the poverty line for four people should probably be closer to $30,000 a year for a family of four, in your area and most others, I’d bet. Do you think you could support a family of four on $24,000 a year, apart from going without some things that are important to the stability and well-being of every family? I know I couldn’t.

    • “Is there something in between? The Magnificat doesn’t seem to allow for any place in between; it’s an “either/or”.”

      As CM pointed out last week, James isn’t an “in-between” book. It was written for those in need of a sharp reminder of certain matters, using the “wisdom literature” model. I think that not every biblical truth is 100% applicable in 100% of everybody’s circumstances.

    • Perhaps it gives all a chance to search ourselves. Perhaps we are both oppressors and oppressed. Perhaps we should give thanks that God will both humble and exalt us.

      • We will see…. but my best guess is you are on to something here: we are both Kingdom children…. and the bad guy. Funny you would put it this way, I was thinking that perhaps the #1 attraction to this site, for me, was Michael’s insistence on honesty with himself and the church.

        • flatrocker says:

          or as it’s also been said … we’re all just messed up mixtures of glory and grime

          • Christiane says:

            “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan.
            “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar,
            and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.
            Be content.”

            (C.S. Lewis)

      • Danielle says:

        Yes. I suppose the same words are meant to heal and challenge, depending on the moment. Depending on what medicine is needed.

        To borrow from MLK yesterday, perhaps oppression harms some people by giving them a false inferiority, and it harms others by giving them a false superiority. It gets into the water, if you will, and warps who we become, and what others are able to be. Maybe we are all built up and cut down, in many different ways, by the experiences we have. It’s true for the injustice King was talking about, and it’s true as well for other kinds of harm.

        Were people brought into a correct relationship with one another, then maybe all of us stand to lose some things and gains some things. That reality might be difficult for us to accept. However, the result would be finding our true selves – the people we might be or should be, but can’t become by ourselves.

        Perhaps this is already the reality of what humanity actually is in Christ.

      • Robert F says:

        Perhaps. This is a Blakean idea, that oppression is as destructive to the oppressor as to the oppressed, and that the oppressor is a victim of his own oppression of others. I like the idea, it makes room in the middle, but I don’t see that it’s a characteristically Biblical religious idea. It has to be interpreted into the text, which is fine with me, as long as we are cognizant of what we’re doing, and honest about it. It is a way of making sense out of things that don’t add up theologically otherwise, or are morally unpalatable.

        • Christiane says:

          Hi ROBERT F.
          I do see a biblical connection of sorts: “You shall not oppress a stranger , for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; 22:20).
          The verse asks us to recall our own experience of suffering and degradation to which vulnerability can lead, we are ourselves ethically called not to oppress the stranger. The verse asks for EMPATHY based on this: you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you must never abuse or mistreat the stranger.

          In that sense, it is ‘biblical’ in that it calls us to the knowledge of our own suffering at the hands of others, and brings us into understanding of the wisdom of ‘do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.’

          I think we must not see ‘the other’ as apart from our own selves, but we must acknowledge the full humanity of all people in the light of our own experiences of suffering and being oppressed. And in the ‘Incarnation’, we ARE very much joined to one another through Christ who assumed our full humanity.

  3. >> The powers that now rule the world are being overthrown!

    As far as I can make things out thru all the confusion, this is taking place right under our noses as we speak. There are reports that the families who have been running the show since the Crusades and were likely walking the streets of Jerusalem with James, have either capitulated and joined with the positive alliance rising up in the world, or are on the run with a price on their head. I have no way to prove this to those in thrall to the mass media, but I am most hopeful, which sure beats wallowing in fear and anger. Perhaps will turn out to be another false hope, but if nothing else it’s a better story than anything you’re going to find in the movies. I’m thinking if James was here, we might catch him in a rare smile. If in fact the ruling powers are losing control, that would include losing control of the mass media and glimpses of truth might start showing up here and there. I’ll be watching. You go, James!