Dear Sisters and Brothers,
We don’t read the Easter story on Christmas Eve. We don’t read Paul’s letter to Philemon at weddings. Not every biblical reading is appropriate for every day. When you are trying to ease someone’s grief, you don’t read cattle counts from the book of Numbers.
Today’s reading is not for all occasions, but it has its own time and place. Specifically, James is writing for a time when arguments are breaking out between inside congregations and between congregations. It is applicable to other kinds or arguments and conflicts, but it is not a touchstone like “love your neighbor” or “forgive and you will be forgiven.” It has specific value and we are glad we have this text, but don’t think that God wants us to be continually miserable and gloomy.
But the underlying message that runs much deeper is that James suggests are biggest arguments are between spiritual people and worldly people in a congregation. This “worldliness” is a life of shallow pleasures and distractions that is attractive because it claims no responsibility for anyone or anything.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
The biggest quarrels among Christians appear to be around moral issues. The things that set us strongly against each other have to do with living out our faith day by day. In the past, the big moral debates are things that feel long settled to us. Our nation was torn apart over the issues of slavery and continues to carry the infected wounds of racism. Other moral issues that split the church included child labor, insurance companies (which were seen as a form of gambling or insufficient faith in God), the morality of warfare, attitudes about alcohol, and classism. Because of the Protestant Reformation we have a strong emphasis on the separation of church and state that is supposed to keep political leaders from dictating church practices. For most of the history of the church, it was silent about the grave problems of domestic abuse and violence, but that has been changing.
But James implies that the real source of our biggest quarrels is that some people are spiritual while others remain materialistic.
The main argument that James is making is that we should be living in the world as God sees it and not as human society sees it. To be “a friend of the world,” as James puts it, means that you are living in a life devoid of spirituality. In the older sense of the word, “materialsm” meant living as if only physical things existed. Spiritual things like, faith, hope, kindness, charity, mercy, and morality, are replaced by a simple mindset of transactions. A person living without any faith is just a consumer, a person who takes what they can get and give only what they are required to pay. Law seems to this person like an arbitrary set of rules to keep transactions going. In this kind of worldly attitude there is no real concept of right and wrong. Law is enforced by threat, but crime is not seen as crime unless it is detected and punished.
Spirituality offers us great joys with deep meaning and purpose, but it can be difficult. To see things from a divine perspective, you become aware of the needs of others. Love makes you vulnerable to deep grief and broken heartedness. Some people would be free of all heartache rather than be loving, compassionate and idealistic.
To be “of this world” in the way James is describing is to be selfish or self-centered to the point of apathy about other’s feelings. The joys aren’t deep, but lots of people choose shallow joys because the shallow life is almost free of responsibility. Their only rule is “don’t get caught.”
The god of an old-fashioned materialist is wealth in the form of money or other property. Money enables you to stay shallow and focused on creature comforts. There was a popular saying forty years ago that went, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Life is seen as a meaningless game and all the other people you see are just pieces on a chessboard to be moved around.
It is to this state of mind, that James says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
We are called to let go of extreme selfishness and a life without moral responsibility. We are called to live a life of deeper meaning. We are called into a life of deeper joy and deeper sorrow where people and ideals matter. We change our priorities from “taking care of number one” to loving God, and loving neighbors as we love ourselves.
For most of us it feels as though the reality of life has more to do with love than with property. All property is temporary, and all wealth is fleeting, but we are told that God’s love is infinite and eternal. So, when we try to rescue people from a shallow “worldly” life, we are helping them to wake up to a better life that is a deeper and more satisfying reality.
Questions to ponder: Have you ever felt the temptation to stop caring for people? If so, what made you care again?