Letter of James 8

C. 4.2
James 4,4-10: This relatively large section of the letter is a general call to repentance and therefore to turn to God. We are, probably, facing one of the toughest New Testament calls to conversion, that is, to leave behind the wisdom of the world. Already, from the very beginning, the tone is harsh, Santiago refers to his readers and listeners as "You adulteresses", although as we shall see, he does not refer only to his female audience. Next, James urges believers not to flirt with the world, explaining the consequences that commitment with the world has for their relationship with God [v. 4]. He reminds them that God is a jealous God for His people but also a merciful God [vv. 5-6] and finally calls them to repentance [vv. 7-10].

This whole section also has a strong Old Testament flavor, not only because James quotes it explicitly on two occasions [one of them being difficult to identify, though], but above all because of the presence of a vocabulary and a motif that are clearly typical of the texts of the Old Testament. In this paragraph nothing remains of the tone and the Hellenistic moral vocabulary that we have found in the previous sections of the letter [3,1-4,2]. The tone of this paragraph reminds us of the warnings of the prophets to the people of Israel. James follows a penitential scheme like the one we find in the writings of the prophets [e.g. Is. 1:10-20; Jer. 2-4] or in some liturgical texts [e.g. Psalm 50]: denunciation of sin, analysis of its causes, threat, invitation/call to conversion, promise.

At the beginning of this section, in verse 4, the expression "You adulteresses", as it appears in the original Greek text of the letter, brings us immediately echoes of the Old Testament. [This, in my opinion, does not mean at all that James is addressing only his female audience. If we want to interpret that apostrophe rightly, we must look for its meaning in the texts of the Old Testament prophets. Some scholars have also advocated the possibility that James had in mind the portrait of the adulterous woman in Proverbs. However, for this study, the view that the source of James is the prophetic writings will prevail.]

As we know, the Old Testament prophets often compared God's relationship with Israel to a marriage (see Isaiah 54:5-6). In this metaphor God was presented as the husband and Israel as the bride or the wife. Continuing and developing this metaphor, when Israel's relationship with God was deteriorating because of idolatry, the prophets accused Israel of committing adultery [see Jeremiah 3:20; Isaiah 57:3; Ezekiel 16:38; 23:45]. Certainly, the most finished and extreme development of this metaphor is offered to us by the prophet Hosea. God orders Hosea to marry a prostitute whose infidelity serves as a living prophetic sign that denounces the infidelities of Israel, her idolatry, is equated with prostitution. The Lord is the faithful husband who continues to love his wife [Israel] despite her infidelities. The sons of the prophet, who symbolize the Israelites, are signs of God's faithful love.

This symbolic image passes onto the New Testament, Jesus takes up this image of marriage to speak of the covenant between God and Israel and therefore calls those who rejected God "a wicked and adulterous generation" [Mt. 12:39; 16:4]. Later on, in
other New Testament writings, the Church becomes the new People of God [the new Israel] and therefore this image of the chosen people as the bride or spouse of God passes to the Church which thus becomes the bride. Of course, as with Israel, when the Church deviated from her fidelity to God, she too, like Israel, was being unfaithful and could be called an adulteress. This image will continue to be widely used in later Christian literature, both theological and mystical. With this idea in mind, it does not seem difficult to interpret that the term adultery is being used in the letter of James in a general way to refer to the communities he is writing to, communities that must have a relationship of absolute fidelity with God but that leaving aside that relationship of fidelity has moved away from Him in pursuit of their own desires, which become, thus, gods that are served and therefore rivals of God, the only and legitimate husband of the Church. Friendship with the world is ultimately spiritual adultery.

The term 'friendship' had a different meaning in the ancient world than it has today. In the ancient world 'friendship' meant sharing all things, a physical and especially a spiritual communion. Let us remember the effect and importance of meals in the Gospels. James does not tell us that the recipients of his letter were explicitly denying or rejecting the Gospel message; but what is certain is that from what we have been able to read in the letter about the problems they were having they were certainly living according to the patterns of the world and not according to the Gospel: They practiced discrimination [2:1-13], spoke ill of others [3:1-12], were envious [3:13-18], followed their heart's desires, sought to satisfy their own destructive passions [4:1-13]. James wants them to understand, without a shadow of a doubt, that their lifestyle, their friendship with the world, seriously compromises their faith. And that is something that God cannot possibly accept. When believers behave like the world, they are proving by their actions that their covenant is with the world rather than with God.

In verse 5 James tells us of God's zeal for his people and while the tone of this verse is threatening in the next verse James reassures his readers by reminding them that God's grace is greater than their sin and weakness and that it serves to enable them to respond appropriately to God's desire for them to be totally faithful to him. Our God is a challenging God, but he is also a merciful God who gives us in advance everything we need to do his will. As St. Augustine wrote: "God gives what he requires". Now, James also tells his readers that God's grace expects an answer from them: humility. This becomes the main theme of the exhortations we find in verses 7-10. Grace only comes to those who admit their need and accept this gift from God. This is a recurring theme in the Old Testament [Prov. 6:16-17; 8:13; 16:5; Ps. 10:4; 18:27; 34:18; Isa. 10:12; 61:1; Dan. 4:20; Zeph. 3:11-12; etc.]. There are three reasons why the proud cannot receive God's grace and these are in the very nature of the pride that dominates them: [i] the proud never recognize their need, they are so full of themselves that they cannot see any lack in their life. [ii] Linked to the above, the proud consider themselves self-sufficient, they do not need anyone else, of course, not even God. [iii] They do not recognize their own sin since they are unable to accept that they have done something wrong [they are really so busy thinking about their excellence that they have no time to consider their mistakes] or that they need something from someone. Someone like that cannot receive help, first because they do not know they need it and second because by not knowing their need they do not seek help.

Santiago has diagnosed the ills affecting his readers. However, he is not content to bring them out into the open, he also offers an effective solution. Subjection to God and obedience to His Word are the medicines that James prescribes to cure the lack of peace and charity among those believers. So, James' plea to those who are caught up in the wisdom of the world is remarkably simple: Turn around [i.e., repent]. Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil. Draw near to God. He will draw nearer to you. Be sad in your heart for the sin you have committed and cleanse yourself from it. Humble yourself by giving up your life's work of getting what you desire, and trust that God will exalt you high above all that you could have done for yourself (James 4:7-10).
It is worth ending this section by noting that all the biblical authors teach that, sooner or later, everyone will "grieve and weep" over their spiritual state. The problem is that some will do so when it is already too late, when they are in God's judgment. Now is the time to grieve and weep for the sin committed, now is the time to leave the sin behind and return to God. That's James' advice to his readers, not just those of that time, the advice also works for us.

Questions to think about
1. What do you understand by "submitting to God"? What meaning does this have in your personal life, in your day-to-day life? What are the practical implications?
2. What lesson can you draw from verses 7-10 about what James and the Early Church meant by "submitting to God"?
3. How can we take proper responsibility for our lives without falling into the spirit of worldly independence that James warns us about?
4. Why is it impossible to be a friend of the world and a friend of God at the same time? From your own personal experience and your knowledge of the Word, what are some of the symptoms of friendship with the world?
5. What is the difference between pride and a sense of accomplishment?
6. What can you do to help you bring more humility into your life?


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