Tuesday of week 7 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jas 4:1-10

Strong words today from James.  He speaks about the origins of the conflicts and disputes that can tear communities apart.  He attributes it to “inner cravings” (hedonon, ‘hdonwn), uncontrolled desires to have our pleasures fulfilled at any cost.  Our word ‘hedonism’ comes from the term used in the Greek original.  Traditional spirituality often used the word ‘passions’.

These desires can even drive us to murderous hatred (if not to murder itself).  Rampant crime and violence are among the most evident fruits of our materially affluent societies.  People are driven by never-satisfied desires to have more and more and to have it NOW.

“You crave things you don’t have, you are envious and jealous of things you cannot have, you squabble and fight” (literally, ‘fight and go to war’).  ‘War’ here is not the internal spiritual struggle of a Christian, and it seems to be more than just heated arguments between Christians but resorting to physical violence.  Sadly, a perfect description of our affluent societies.

“You do not possess because you do not ask.” And who should we be asking?  In the context of the letter it is pretty clear – God.  And when we do ask, we do not receive because we ask wrongly.  We ask simply to satisfy our own personal satisfactions and the objects of our passions.  What we ask has very little relevance to either our own real well-being or that of others.

What should we be asking for?  If our requests are directed honestly to God and his will for us, we will probably find that we are modifying our lists somewhat.  God is hardly interested in our desire to have a BMW or that holiday on the French Riviera.

James is saying very clearly that the problem is not that God does not listen to our prayers but that we are approaching him in a completely wrong frame of mind.  In rather blunt language he accuses his hearers of being “unfaithful” or “adulterous”.

“Adulterers! [literally, ‘adulteresses’], do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God?”  The imagery is of Israel as the unfaithful wife of Yahweh, a traditional image in the Old Testament (see Hosea 1:2ff).  Jesus, too, speaks to the Pharisees as a “sinful and adulterous generation” (e.g. Matt 12:39).  ‘World’ here points to those elements whose behaviour is totally opposed to God’s way.  Love of God and love of the world in this sense are incompatible.  “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:24).  James’ hearers are unfaithful in choosing the “world” as their friend, in the sense of an environment which is in conflict with all that God stands for.

Whatever we ask of God, it should not be simply for passing satisfactions.  It should be something that is directed to the purpose and meaning of our own lives and those of others. Even when we ask for healing from sickness, what will we do with our health when it comes back?

“The spirit he has implanted in us tends towards jealousy”, says James, quoting a scripture text that is otherwise lost to us.  Yes, our God is a “jealous” God in the sense that he calls for the total dedication of ourselves to him.  It has to be all or nothing.  “None of you can be my disciples unless he lets go of everything he has” (Luke 14:33).  He is jealous for all of our love, not just some of it.  And we know that when we do give our all, we also receive abundantly.  It is because God has shared his Spirit with us, that we want what God wants and that God answers our prayers.

In fact, there are two ways of reading the quotation, depending on whether ‘spirit’ refers to our own ‘spirit’ or the ‘Spirit’ of God.  Regarding the two alternative translations, the meaning of the first is that God jealously longs for our faithfulness and our love (see 4:4).  In this case the Scripture referred to may be to a passage in Exodus: where we read: “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod 20:5-6).  ‘Jealousy’ here is not a form of envy but rather God’s demanding total allegiance, such as a wife or husband must have for each other.

The second reading capitalises “Spirit” and makes Him the subject.  It is the Holy Spirit who longs jealously for our full devotion.  If this is the correct translation, it is the only clear reference to the Holy Spirit in the letter.

Finally in this context, James concludes with 10 short commandments of his own, each of which is so stated in Greek that it calls for immediate action in rooting out the sinful attitude of pride which has been the subject of his warnings:

1. Submit to God.

2. Resist the devil and he will take flight (advice also found in Ephesians 6:11-18;

1 Pet 5:8-9).

3. Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you.

4. Cleanse your hands, you sinners (as the Old Testament priests had to wash their

hands and feet when they approached God in the tent of meeting as a symbol of

spiritual cleansing.) Ps 24:4 has the imagery of “clean hands and a pure heart”.

5. Purify your hearts, you backsliders.

6. Begin to lament, to mourn and to weep – as repentance for our many sins.

7. Let your laughter be turned into mourning (that is, repent for your wrongdoing)…

8. …and your joy into sorrow, for our many transgressions (our sins are not a matter

for joy).

9. Be humbled in the sight of the Lord…

10: Humble yourselves… and he will exalt you (echoing what Jesus said, Matt 23:12).

If we are to avoid divisions and the violence that can ensue, we need that wisdom James spoke of in yesterday’s reading.

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