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Thousands of Years Later, We Still Favor the Rich

I think I have a decent theory on why the committee choosing lectionary texts for Advent in Year A of the reading cycle chose a passage from James. It goes something like this:
 

Because the Advent season promotes the virtues of “waiting” and “patience” and “endurance” as part of the Christian community’s anticipation of the first and second coming of Christ, and since not many Epistle lessons from the New Testament came immediately to mind, the committee got out their concordances and checked the passage with those key Advent words snuggled up close together.

 

Bingo! James 5:7-10 came up a winner:

 

“Be patient, therefore, friends, until the coming of Christ. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts for the coming of Christ is near. Friends, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, friends, take the prophets who spoke in the name of God.”

 

It doesn’t get much better than that, right?

 

The only problem is that these four verses that so clearly promote “waiting” and “patience” and “endurance” are taken completely out of context.

 

Oh yes, they certainly have to do with the second coming of Christ, but that’s taken for granted here. If we want to really know what’s at stake or at issue in the fifth chapter of James – well, for that matter, the whole text of James – we’ll find that it is something quite different.

 

Here’s how the fifth chapter begins:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the God of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

Only then does verse seven kick in, addressed not to the rich but rather to the poor, who have suffered and continue to suffer at the expense of the wealthy.

 

Do you, by chance, think that this concern about the vast gap between the wealthy and the poor is reserved just for the fifth chapter of James?

 

Well, if you harbor that suspicion, I invite you to read – and re-read – this biblical text in its entirety to determine if that is the case.

 

You’ll find that, from the outset, this letter is sent to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” who are, for one reason or another, faced with trials and tribulations in their Christian life.

 

And the letter-writer is telling them that, yes, their faith is being tested, but that in being tested they will gain endurance and maturity and completeness so that, in the end, they will be “lacking in nothing.” (James 1:4)

 

 

 

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One of the major tests – in James it appears to be at the top of the list – is the oppression of the poor by the rich. So the writer counsels:

 

Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they wither away. (James 1:9-11)

 

The last verse of the first chapter declares: “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 1:27)

 

The same theme continues in the second chapter, with the writer warning the early Christians that they must not show favoritism toward the rich and against the poor. It almost takes the form of an indictment of the churches:

 

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you (the churches and the Christians within them) have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was involved over you? (James 2:5-7)

 

It’s true that members of the lectionary committee aren’t the only ones who read James in a selective and distorted way. Most modern commentators on the text are guilty of the same error: viewing the total text primarily as a defense of “works righteousness” over against the writings of the Apostle Paul, in keeping with Martin Luther’s characterization of it as a “gospel of straw” for claiming that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17)

 

What these modern commentators fail to see is that the primary aim of the letter, taken as a whole, is not to challenge the Pauline doctrine of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and replace it with a doctrine of salvation through works, but rather to amplify Paul’s insights about the consequences of faith in Christ (“patience,” “waiting” and “endurance” are, after all, also Pauline virtues resulting from faith!) in the face of a major issue (wealth disparity) of the churches at the end of the first century.

 

If I’ve made my case – including my challenge to the lectionary committee’s decision to limit, and thus distort, the reading from James – then it turns out that a fuller and more faithful interpretation of that letter is terribly relevant to those churches in the United States in the Advent season of 2010.

 

How can U.S. churches remain silent when the president and Congress are about to enact an extension of income tax reductions for the rich and to set estate taxes on the wealthy at the lowest rate in 80 years (35 percent), causing a $900 billion addition to an already unsustainable national debt?

 

It seems to me, then, all of James ought to be required reading for Advent in 2010 – not just in our churches but across the country.

 

Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence at The Common Good Network.