Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness,
Pier Francesco Mola, c.1640, National Gallery (UK)
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2022
Last week, we noted that most of the authors of the New Testament urged their readers to be patient. They expected Jesus to return and establish the Kingdom and were disconcerted that it was taking so long. They also believed that acceptance of Jesus, who they thought was at very least the Messiah, would make their lives easier. Instead, they seemed to have more problems than had they not joined the church. To make matters, even worse most of the New Testament was written before there was any truly organized persecution of the church from Roman authorities and the stresses and strains came from within the church or family. We saw this last week when looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans and we see it again this week in the Letter of St. James. These letters are usually, if very incorrectly, pitted against each other but speak together with one voice of encouragement to the weary Christian: now as well as then.
We read the Letter of James for over a month last year. A more complete introduction may be found here. We need to know for this reading that whoever James was he was Jew and wherever his audience was they were Jews. They were not interested in speculation but in being righteous, that is having a good relationship with God. James tells us in his first chapter:
Religion that is pure and undefiled
before God, the Father, is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their distress,
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James is very clear as to what occurs when a person does not care for the marginalized and is thus stained by the world. He examines the corrosive effects of wealth with great precision. We examined the section immediately before today’s reading previously and as we saw it mostly explains itself:
Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
James presumes that this wealth has been obtained through dishonest means and that this will literally haunt them:
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud,
and the cries of the harvesters have reached\ the ears of the Lord of hosts.
This reaches its culmination with the verse immediately before today’s:
You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance
Remember these are Jews and every statement must reflect the Old Testament. To use one example:
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training
James now addresses the just:
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it until
it receives the early and the late rains.
“Therefore” connects this verse to the previous. James assumes oppression. Not all rich are of course depraved or exploitative, but because of their greater power, those who are have a greater impact on the rest of society. He urges patience and connects it to the “coming of the Lord.” This again is a very Jewish understanding. He has spoken of endurance previously but more generally as a character-building exercise:
Face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,
because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance;
and let endurance have its full effect,
so that you may be mature and complete,
lacking in nothing
The coming of the Lord is a specific reference. At the risk of somewhat tedious repetition, many Jews expected the Messiah to “come” and bring the reign of God. This was by the power of God not through their own actions. They could not make this happen any more than a farmer could make the rain come. He had to be patient for the early rain (spring) and the late rain (fall).
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Patience, however, is not idleness or passivity. Making one’s heart firm is a biblical expression to push aside doubts. This is of course one of the temptations of waiting but can be done because “the coming of the Lord is at hand”. The Old Testament spoke of the day of the Lord begin at hand, yet it did not come at least in its fullness. A good example is from Zephaniah:
The great day of the LORD is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there
The day of the Lord did not come, the reign of God was not established, but yet the Jews still believed and had hope they waited with patience. They also recognized that what we have called the Kingdom of God requires that we change our lives. We read in Matthew:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
When we read from the letter before, we noted the connection between the Letter of James and the Gospel of St. Matthew. We do not know if James read Matthew or if they shared a common source but they both wrote to a community which contained many people who understood and appreciated Judaism.
We read today:
Do not complain, brothers, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
We find in Matthew:
Do not judge,
so that you may not be judged.
So also, when you see all these things,
you know that he is near,
at the very gates
We must also remember the separation of sheep from goats. (Matthew 25) The just will be separated from the unjust as most Jews expected. This is the work of God perhaps through the Messiah and no one is to take his place. We cannot judge. Complaining in this context is grumbling about other Christians and note he uses brothers. We do not bring the kingdom only God does, but we can cooperate with it. The principal form of cooperation is love of neighbor. (see Matthew 22:36-40)
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
James is calling on his audience to remember the great prophets of Israel. They proclaimed the presence of God and suffered for it. Again, to look at Matthew:
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted
the prophets who were before you.
For James and Matthew, the suffering of the prophets came from their fidelity to God and the Christians, all of whom are called to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus, could expect the same.
James speaks to our condition alas to every age. Although the Lord demands justice and James and Matthew are particularly clear on how our final destination depends on our seeking to be just, we must recognize that injustice will always be with us, and we must be “patient.” But this is patience that reflects the recognition that the Kingdom is here and is coming to its fullness. It is patience that shows itself in the peace that will be fulfilled in perfect love.