September 2, 2018
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|[Song of Solomon 2:8-13]||[Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9]||James 1:17-27||Mark 7:1-8, 14-15|
by Jeanyne Slettom
The Timeliness of James
The September lectionary readings focus on the general epistle of James, and the pairing of this book with our present socio-politico-economic reality could not be better timed. These commentaries will therefore focus on James, with occasional dips into the other readings.
There are various theories offered for when James was written, likely the late first or early second century. The letter, which assumes a context of extreme social stratification, is notable for its teachings on the rich and the poor. These points become strikingly relevant when one considers that income inequality in the U.S. is now greater than it was in Rome when James was written. Whereas in the year 150 CE the top one percent in Rome controlled 16 percent of society’s wealth; the top one percent in the U.S. today controls 40 percent of the wealth.1 Is it synchronistic that ancient history and biblical theology are converging in the present to press for economic reform?
There are, of course, other resonances between then and now that will be clear to those preaching on these texts, not the least having to do with professions of faith not matched by deeds, and that the commandment to love be made manifest in acts of mercy.2
The text selection begins with the recognition that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift” comes from God. Although the language reflects the three-tiered cosmology of antiquity (comes “down” to us), from a process view the “act of giving” is God’s ongoing “word of truth” incarnate in us; that, is, experienced, or felt, as coming from within—James’ phrase “implanted word” captures this beautifully—which we can either turn from or embrace.
But James takes it further, giving faith an active dimension that is also familiar to process thinkers. That is, God is a guiding presence in every moment (process folks call this the initial aim), and in every moment we decide what to do with that guidance—to ignore it, to reject it, or to incorporate it into what we become—thereby making that decision an ingredient in the world, a stubborn fact to be reckoned with in the next unfolding.
Rejecting the aim, ignoring the aim, incorporating the aim—these become trajectories in the world that grow stronger with repetition, but also weaken with neglect. We see this in the ebb and flow of history and social movements. Issues like racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny go through times when they are less socially acceptable, but they don’t go away. They are ready to erupt whenever the spirit of the times again makes it possible. We are living in one such era.
So when James urges the community of faith to be not just hearers of the word, but doers, he is telling us to activate God’s word of truth in the world. And in case we need it, James reminds us what being a “doer” means. In verse 25 he refers to the “perfect law,” which many biblical scholars believe is a reference to Jesus’ great commandment— to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . and your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). And in case we need to know what that actually looks like, James gives us the great synthesis from the prophets: it is “care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Doing is actively caring for the vulnerable, especially when they are distressed.
The challenge in preaching texts like these from James is that they’re ideas, not stories. It is easier to engage congregants with characters and stories than with biblical counsel and advice. But there are stories aplenty all around us that we can put onto the scaffolding James has given us. These stories are in the still-unfolding tragedy at our border with Mexico, in the homeless encampments in many of our communities, in the out-of-control opioid crisis,3 in the grim news about climate change, or in the local hardship stories affecting your community. These are all consequences of the kind of staggering income inequality that James was addressing.
No matter what religious belief people profess, or the pieties they use to disguise their policies, if their acts do not reflect the mercy and compassion of God, “their religion,” James proclaims, “is worthless.”
The reading from Mark underscores this point (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15). If people honor God “with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (7:6), they are hypocrites. If they teach “human precepts as doctrines” (7:7)—which is to say, if they pass off, say, an immigration policy, as biblical,4 they have abandoned the commandment of God (the law of love and the imperative to care for the vulnerable) and substituted a “human tradition” (xenophobia).
[Interestingly, the reverse of these points can also be used to promote interfaith understanding. When the actions of faithful people of other religions reflect an ethic of compassion and mercy, then one cannot declare that their religion is worthless!]
So where does the message of hope come from amidst these words of judgment? I’ll dip again into a process metaphysic. If God’s guidance (aim) can be ignored, giving rise to waves of racism and prejudice, then even when pernicious movements engulf whole nations, God’s “word of truth” can still be heard and activated, making all the difference in the world. It happened one person at a time in Europe during the Nazi horror (remember Schindler’s list). It happens in every act of resistance against every tyranny in the past or unfolding in the present.
What we choose, how we act, matters—literally, materializes, is actualized in the world. My act becomes conjoined with your act; the actions of our congregations become stubborn facts in the world, and they are augmented by the actions of other people and organizations who are also committed to compassion and mercy. God’s power is God’s implanted word; our power is activating that word. And that word is love.
- See “Income Inequality in Ancient Rome,” https://persquaremile.com/2011/12/16/income-inequality-in-the-roman-empire/.
- I acknowledge with gratitude my reliance on New Testament scholar Russell Pregeant (Engaging the New Testament and Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics).
- See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/upshot/opioids-overdose-deaths-rising-fentanyl.html.
- See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/us/sessions-bible-verse-romans.html.
Jeanyne Slettom is a UCC minister whose primary interest is process-relational theology. A theologian and teacher, writer and publisher, she has taught at Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites and served churches in California and Minnesota. In addition to being the publisher of Process Century Press, she is theologian-in-residence at Macalester-Plymouth United Church in St. Paul and an award-winning preacher whose online liturgies and commentaries have been used by practicing preachers around the world. She is passionate about ecotheology, prophetic resistance, and a ministry of transformation and hope. A past director of Process & Faith, her PhD is in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University. She lives and works on the banks of the Mississippi River.