Tuesday of Week 7 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on James 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” (Greek, hedonon), 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 covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts. [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 rather resorting to physical violence.  Sadly, a perfect description of our affluent societies.

You do not have because you do not ask.

Whom 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 Tesla 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 “adulterers”.

Adulterers! [in the Greek, ‘adulteresses’ but applying to both men and women] Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

The imagery is of Israel as the unfaithful wife of Yahweh, a traditional image in the Old Testament (Hosea 1:2).  Jesus, too, speaks to the Pharisees as an “evil and adulterous generation” (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:

No one can serve two masters…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?

James, quoting a Scripture text that is otherwise lost to us, says:

Does the spirit that God caused to dwell in us desire envy?

  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 become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:33)

God 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 above quotation from James, 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.  In this case the Scripture referred to may be to a passage in Exodus where we read:

You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exod 20:5-6)

‘Jealousy’ here is not a form of envy, but rather God demanding total allegiance, such as a wife or husband must have for each other.

The alternate interpretation of the quotation from James would capitalise “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 entire letter.

Finally in this context, James concludes with 9 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:

  • Submit yourselves therefore to God.
  • Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (advice also found in Eph 6:11-18 and 1 Pet 5:8-9).
  • Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
  • 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.”)
  • …purify your hearts, you double-minded.
  • Lament and mourn and weep (as repentance for our many sins).
  • Let your laughter be turned into mourning…(that is, repent for your wrongdoing).
  • …and your joy into dejection (our sins are not a matter for joy).
  • Humble yourselves before the Lord, 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 to follow these commandments from James, and we need to develop the kind of wisdom that he that speaks about in the previous chapter of his letter (see James 3:13-18).

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