Sunday, June 14, 2015

A note on life from the brother of Jesus (Part 4)

As noted recently on this page, from time to time over the next several weeks I intend to "dig into" the letter that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote to first century Christians. 

Thought to be among the earliest, extant Christian writings, the brief letter addresses the challenges facing Jewish believers located primarily in the area around Jerusalem.  Clearly, these early devotees of Jesus experienced suffering, systemic economic oppression and some forms of persecution--possibly because of their opinions about the identity of Jesus and certainly due to the social and status implications of those strongly held opinions and life perspectives. These ideas, drawing on the social context and economic constructs, may lead us to read this familiar material in quite a new way. 

James 1:12-18  (NRSV)

Trial and Temptation

12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved.

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

How does economic status affect life decisions?  How are the "temptations" of the rich different from those of the "poor?" 
Most of the first readers of this short letter from James, the brother of Jesus, knew the "surround of poverty" right well.  They spent their days in common labor for low, inadequate and unjust wages that at times were not even paid! 

No doubt, many faced the very real temptation to steal, to cut corners, to "hustle the man" who held all of the power, and to fight on his very unfavorable terms. 
The message of Jesus, now mediated by his younger brother, pulls no punches. 

The injustice of the rich doesn't provide license for similar behavior on the part of the oppressed.  James re-frames the issue completely. 

The oppression of the powerful present the oppressed with a temptation, a dilemma. 

Will I live as an obedient disciple of Jesus? 

Or, will I succumb to the temptation to take matters into my own hands and level the playing field by means of violence, treachery or rebellion? 

Will I behave as the unjust rich by oppressing those who are even less powerful than I am? 

Will I depend on my own strength rather than the strength provided by my faith? 

Will I look out for myself alone? 

Will I surrender to immorality? 

Will I give up my faith? 

Will I "kiss up" to my oppressor? 

Will I surrender my own self-respect? 

Will I walk through life as a totally compromised human being because I am afraid? 

Or, will I speak truth to power in my journey through and toward a better life? 
Seldom do we connect the social context of life in the real world to the words of scripture.  

James offers a stark contrast. 

Don't play the game of life by the rules set forth by unjust, greedy oppressors. 

Rather, as God is generous beyond imagination, determine to live a life of generosity in response to injustice. 

To give is to demonstrate one's direct connection to God, the first harvest of God's amazing creation.  All good gifts imamate  from God. Taking a cue from heaven, faith directs believers to live as givers, no matter what oppressors decide to do.

God does not change.  Nor should God's people, even in a world of injustice.

It would be impossible to recount all of the instances in which I have observed the urban poor, the extremely poor, give of their meagre resources to benefit others.  Food, shelter, money, transportation, encouragement, opportunities--I've seen "the poor" demonstrate generosity and move beyond the scale of the wealthiest philanthropist.  I've heard and witnessed the homeless refuse the offer of housing because they could not justify leaving friends and loved ones behind. 

I've seen God in the lives of the outcasts and the marginalized, again and again. 

James understood.

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