Suffer the Children, Carl Bloch, 1865-1879, Frederiksborg Palace (Denmark)
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Letter of St James, 3:16-4:3
September 18, 2021
The first Mass reading is often from the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. We have seen especially in the books of Sirach (see commentary for March 3, 2019) and Wisdom (see commentary for Nov. 8, 2020) that the authors were aware of what could be accepted from pagan thought and custom and what could not. They also insisted that Jews maintain their distinctive acts of worship especially the sacrifices in the Temple. These authors knew that their readers lived in a non-Jewish world and even if they wished to cut themselves off from pagan influence it was ultimately impossible, and they would need to address these concerns. This was a challenging task and we read these books because the authors succeeded.
St. James’s task was even more difficult. Many different groups of people read his letter. The primary audience were Christian converts from Judaism. They would be judging his letter by Jewish standards. Would following Jesus make them participate more deeply in their covenant with the Lord? Did it make them better Jews? We must also remember that Christianity was an urban religion and there might be several house churches, parishes, in the city or town. These were connected not so much to the other churches in that town, but to a confederation of churches in other cities who looked to one of the apostles or gospel writers for inspiration. There would be some in these local churches who wanted to reach out to the other local parishes and others who did not. This tension was evident in the letters of St. John which we read this Easter Season. We have noted previously that the author of the letter of St. James is very aware of the writings of St. Paul and shares many ideas and indeed much of the same language as the gospel of St. Matthew. He is actively seeking to show his unity with other Christian parishes. Like Sirach or the author of the book of Wisdom, he is also aware that his people do not live in a bubble and will be exposed to pagan thought particularly pagan moral thought. He will need to show that Jesus provides a superior philosophy. Remember however that in the classical world “philosophy” meant more than it does today. It expressed a way of life. A good philosophy gave both diagnosis and prescription.
Both are present in today’s reading.
James’ community was not without conflict and tension. We do not know the full details, but can assume from what we have previously read and what we will read next week, it reflected the difference between how the rich and the poor were treated. James gives his diagnosis several verses before today’s reading:
Who among you is wise and understanding?(Jas 3:14–15)
Let him show his works by a good life
in the humility that comes from wisdom.
But if you have bitter jealousy
and selfish ambition in your hearts,
do not boast and be false to the truth.
Wisdom of this kind does not come down
from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
For both Jews and Gentiles, “core” beliefs are revealed in behavior. For James, true wisdom is expressed in humility. This would not be immediately apparent to people in his world. As we saw when we examined the letter to the Ephesians, humility was considered if not a vice far from a virtue. (see commentary for July 25, 2021) It is however a common Christian belief:
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;(Mt 11:29)
for I am gentle and humble in hear
In a community divided between rich and poor, jealousy was an easy vice to embrace the expression. “Selfish ambition” originally meant cheating to achieve political office, but here it meant using unsavory methods to obtain anything. Wisdom is used sarcastically for “the philosophy or way of life” that comes not from God but from the devil.
This creates disorder and uncleanliness: “foul practice.” The wisdom, way of life, that comes from God is pure, clean, and undefiled. Because it is an expression of humility, it creates good fruits that flow from harmony. This too is reflected in other Christian communities:
Those who look to Paul(Ga 6:7)
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked,
for you reap whatever you sow
Or those who look to Matthew:
“Blessed are the peacemakers,(Matt 5:9)
for they will be called children of God”
However, there is rarely peace. James states that this is because our “passions make war within our members.”
This is many times found in the New Testament
“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles(1 Pet 2:11)
to abstain from the desires of the flesh
that wage war against the soul”
Paul also speaks of a war within his body (Rom 7:21-23).
But this is also common to classical literature: Plato wrote:
“Whence come wars, and fighting’s, and factions?(Phaedrus, 66C)
Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?”
Hatred, discord, disagreements, seditions,(Concerning the ends of goods and evils)
wars are all born from desires …”
Our desires aim as much for recognition as actual objects of that desire They will not give us wisdom – an effective way of life. What we really need and ultimately desire is the wisdom with comes from above. It can only be received as a gift.
Again, this may be found in Matthew’s gospel:
Ask and it will be given to you;(Mt 7:7–8)
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks,
the door will be opened.
If we ask for what will build up the community and ultimately bring us happiness we will receive it, because it will be for our benefit. If not, he will not give us anything which would not help us.
Which one of you would hand his son a stone(Mt 7:9–10)
when he asks for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asks for a fish?
You ask but do not receive,(Jas 4:3)
because you ask wrongly,
to spend it on your passions
James is not asking his readers to accept his diagnosis “on faith.” Look and see if the strife and disharmony you see comes from people seeking to be noticed, affirmed, and rewarded at the expense of others. If yes, then he asks that they all ask about the virtues which come from above, especially humility. Pagans and those Jews influenced by their philosophy would have found this humiliating. Yet James proclaims that if they accepted these gifts no matter how counter-intuitive, they would have the peace and harmony they all claim to desire. He tells us the same thing. Have things changed much in 2,000 years? Are we still seeking the wisdom from below and wondering why peace eludes us? Next week’s selection from St. James will show us the personal consequences of division and disorder, but he wisely insists that we first acknowledge that it will come from assuming that we can attain the fruit of heaven with the wisdom of hell.