This week we’re looking at the letter of James, which is all about being double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. (See yesterday’s post if you missed the intro to the series. One of the reasons we’re doing James over the summer break is because each section is relatively independent – you can dip in and out while you’re in holiday mode, without feeling like you’re getting behind. But you do need to read the series intro first. And a big “hi” to northern hemisphere readers who are freezing cold and back at work. We’re all reading this at the beach.)
Today’s passage begins with the first mention of attitudes to wealth in James, but by no means the last.1:9-11 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
On first glance this is a simple statement about the transience of wealth. But a second and third look reveals a few difficulties in how we understand the details.
- Are the rich also believers? (The rest of James sometimes speaks of rich Christians, and other times speaks of “the rich” generally in a negative way, as oppressors of Christians.)
- What, exactly, is the “humiliation” of the rich?
- In what sense are they to take pride in their humiliation?
Here’s my understanding of what’s going on, beginning with my translation of verses 9-10 that tries to stick to the Greek word order a bit more:Let the brother boast – the humble (poor) one in his exaltation, but the rich one in his humiliation, because as a wild flower he will pass away.
In other words, the grammar suggests both poor and rich are believers (“brothers”).
Why should the humble-poor Christian boast? The Old Testament gives us a few precedents that point us in the right direction:1 Sam 2:7-8 The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. Prov 3:34 He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble and oppressed. Jer 9:23-24 Let not … the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me…
The poor person who comes to trust and know God is exalted by God, and they “boast” in the new status God has bestowed upon them.
More difficult is why the rich Christian should boast in their humiliation. Is it an ironic boasting, as an attention-grabbing one-liner? Go on boasting – but you’re really boasting in your humiliation, because your wealth won’t last! Maybe. Certainly the withering plant/fading rich imagery in verses 10-11 makes this point. If the rich Christian boasts, the ground of their boasting is really only their coming humiliation.
Or it could be a call to boast in their “humiliation” in the world’s eyes. For a rich person to become a believer it involved putting their status at risk – particularly if they were now hanging out with people from the poorer classes in the church! So the message is: “boast” that you’ve been brought low in the world’s eyes in becoming a follower of Jesus, because your previous ground for boasting (your wealth) wasn’t going to last anyway.
Either way, the overall message is clear: don’t find your status in what you own – or in the things this world says are important. That stuff won’t last. Find your status in the far more exalted position you have been given (no matter what your material circumstances) in Christ.
Or to put it another way: don’t be double-minded. Friendship with the world can’t even begin to compete with being friends of God.
To think about
Small bible passage. Big implications, right?
Where do you find your status? Take some time to think through where you get your sense of identity and importance from. How many of those things will last?
What will help you remain focused on the status we have as children of God? (Be practical and concrete, but if your answer starts with “pray” and “read God’s word” know that you’re on the same page as James – verses 5 and 21-22 respectively.)