Dear Sisters and Brothers,
As I wrote a few months ago, in some ancient languages, the word for “neighbor” is closely linked to the word for “rival.” In the Middle East, where the land was so dry that the right to use wells could be violently contested, your neighbor was your main problem. Even today, we are most critical of how our neighbors tend their property and behave. If a party gets so loud that the police are called, you can bet that it is a neighbor who called them.
People don’t care much about folks who live far away, but neighbors are often joked about or ridiculed. You see the same things in countries and states. Swedes and Norwegians, Scots and the English, the English and the French, the Japanese, and the Koreans all joke about each other. In Minnesota there are no jokes about people from Maine, but there are lots of jokes about people from Wisconsin. When I lived in Indiana, there were no Wisconsin jokes, but lots of Kentucky jokes.
In today’s passage, James asks a remarkable question, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” It’s remarkable because we thought it was one of our basic rights. One of our inalienable rights is to complain, isn’t it? But James speaks as if he is asking for our permit or license: “Who gives you the right to judge your neighbor?”
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
James is saying that we can judge behavior, but God is the only qualified judge of humanity. To speak critically about a neighbor is taking the role of judge upon your own shoulders. Whether it is snide remarks at the dinner table and water cooler, or gossip shared at the barber shop, it is playing at being a judge. This isn’t like an employer judging job performance; this is about statements of condemnation. James has said repeatedly that this calls upon God to judge us according to the measure we apply to others. This is what is called a “no win” scenario. James goes further to say that it is a criticism of the God’s law itself. It can even be a criticism of God as too lenient or too patient of a judge.
James also has more to say about the ways we talk. Instead of announcing our plans as if they are like God’s plans, we should admit that we are not in complete control of circumstances.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
The musician, John Lennon, said “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” That’s pretty close to the idea that James is putting forward. You could also quote Proverbs 16:1 “We make our plans, but God has the last word.”
It is okay to make plans, but it has also been said that “a plan without contingencies is no plan at all.” We must remember that we are not God. We don’t control the future. We don’t even completely control our personal future. I have a pretty good idea, but I cannot say with 100% confidence where I will be at 10 am tomorrow. I can’t even speak with absolute confidence that I will even be alive then. Abraham Lincoln expected to do important work after his brief evening at Ford’s Theater. Or to put it in a less alarming way, our “to do lists” don’t always match up with our daily accomplishments.
The thought that unifies these two ideas is that we should be humble. Do not judge because you are not God, and don’t write your plans in stone because you are not God. It is a good and wonderful thing to be a regular human being. James is telling you to be satisfied with that. Judge good behavior from bad behavior, but don’t judge people. Make your plans, but your contingencies may need contingencies, because things can go much worse or better than you expect.
Being humble doesn’t mean you have to think badly about yourself. It means that you should be satisfied that you are a human being loved by God. Humility is an acceptance of reality. You are not God. You have free will, but you do not have complete control. This is why trusting God is comforting.
Questions to Ponder: Are you ever tempted to criticize your neighbors? Do you remember long ago plans you made for where you would be today? Are some things better than planned?