Monday of week 6 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jas 1:1-11

Today we return to the New Testament and for the next two weeks we will be reading from the Letter of James. There is a refreshing directness about this letter. It does not beat about the bush and pulls no punches in calling Christians to order. The emphasis is very much on doing – actions speak louder than words.

The letter is addressed to the “twelve tribes in the dispersion (or diaspora)”, that is, to Jewish Christians scattered over the Mediterranean countries. James sends them greetings of joy. In spite of what he is going to say, he is not to be seen as a pourer of cold water.

In today’s reading he makes three related points:

A, He begins by addressing his readers as “brothers (and sisters)”. He does so 15 times in this short letter. He may need to rebuke them but he does so in a spirit of fraternal love.

First, he urges his readers to see in their trials as Christians a source of joy – “The testing of your faith produces perseverance.” We see the same when Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said: “Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you… because you are my followers” (Matt 5:11). Speaking from his own experience, Paul said the same: “We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance brings God’s approval and his approval creates hope” (Rom 5:3). The trials that James mentions here are those that come from outside. In tomorrow’s reading he will speak of the inner trials of temptation to wrongdoing.

“We don’t want failure, humiliation, sickness, powerlessness, poverty or inferiority of any kind,” write Fr Ron Rolheiser, “yet these, more than success and glamour, are what produce character and depth inside us.” Obviously, we do not go out of our way to look for such things but, when they come, their long-term results can be beneficial both for ourselves and others.

We can get upset sometimes when we see the Church attacked or rubbished in the media. Yet experience has shown again and again that nothing strengthens and matures one’s faith than to have it challenged. When things go too easily our faith becomes flabby and weak. The Church is always strongest where it is the object of persecution and attack.

St Ignatius Loyola once said he hoped that the Jesuits would always experience persecution; for him, it was a sign they were doing their job of proclaiming the Gospel. We should not be worried when the Church is attacked, only when it is ignored. Then we really know that the salt has lost its taste.

B, James tells us pray for wisdom. Wisdom here is not something abstract and academic. It is not just a vast knowledge of Church doctrine. Rather it is a deep insight into how to live the Gospel and do God’s work. It is the gift to know that even in suffering and setbacks the love of God may be guiding and strengthening us. For those who ask, it will be given simply and unreservedly. But it needs to be asked for in faith, that is, with a deep trust that God always wants the best for us.

We are not to be like a wave on the sea driven here and there by the wind. Through our faith and trust, the Letter to the Ephesians tells us “we shall no longer be children, carried by the waves and blown about by every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful people… Instead, by speaking the truth in a spirit of love, we must grow up in every way to Christ, who is the Head” (Eph 4:14-15).

This search for wisdom is to be done with confidence, sure that God will give this gift which we need to be followers of Jesus. It gives us a certain self-confidence which does not mean that we possess all the truth. But we know what we know and are ready to learn more. The vacillating person will not get anywhere.

In times of trial this wisdom is greatly needed so that we can respond in an appropriate way, in truth and love.

C, Thirdly, the poor man should be aware of his special status in the eyes of God. “Happy are the poor in spirit for they truly belong in the Kingdom of God” (Matt 5:3). With nothing of their own, their total dependence is on God. Throughout the letter the author reaffirms the teaching of Jesus that worldly prosperity is not necessarily a sign of God’s favour, as the people of the Old Testament and even Jesus’ own disciples tended to believe in their early days with Jesus (cf. Mark 10:24-26). See also the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

The rich man – if all his dependence has been on his material wealth – is really in a lowly position in spite of his status and power. For he will pass away “like the flower of the field” and will leave this world with nothing. The rich man needs to be aware of how vulnerable and weak he is. His wealth can evaporate in the same way the hot midday sun makes the grass and flowers droop in its heat. The truly rich are not those who have the most but rather those whose needs are the least.

James will have a lot more to say to the poor and the rich as the letter proceeds.

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