Do you wish for more wisdom? You can ask God, and God will give it to you. But if you doubt God will answer your request, forget it. Doubters should not expect to get anything from God.
That sounds pretty blunt, but that’s a paraphrase of James 1:5-8. Just before that, we find another hard saying: “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy!” That’s because trials produce endurance, which ultimately leads to maturity — and more wisdom!
The first chapter of James continues in this vein. It’s full of imperatives — do this; don’t do that — obviously written by someone who has walked the road of life and offers advice learned along the way. The paragraphs seem abrupt and not necessarily connected to each other.
The reason for this, some commentators note, is that the first chapter serves as the table of contents for the rest of the document. Many of the topics in this chapter are filled out later in more detail. For example, 1:9-11 briefly contrasts the fates of both poor and rich people. Then 2:1-17 critiques how differently we treat wealthy, influential people with how we treat poor, disadvantaged (black or brown) people.
We know less about the origins of this document than possibly any others in our New Testament. Consequently, it was not accepted into the canon until the fourth century.
No one knows for sure if the author was Jesus’ brother, James, head of the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:18; Gal. 1:18). If he was, the letter would have been written before 62 C.E., when James was martyred.
But the greeting to the “12 tribes in the Dispersion” is so general it could just as well have been written years later for Jewish Christians anywhere — in Palestine, Syria, Egypt or Rome. Perhaps it was attributed to James because of his reputation for carefully observing God’s laws and doing good deeds.
Another reason questions arose about James’ inclusion in the canon is because Jesus Christ is mentioned only in the greeting and in 2:1. Unlike Paul’s letters stressing faith, faithfulness and salvation through Christ, James stresses works, or deeds.
Although that emphasis may have aroused suspicion of James’ theology, it is what Jesus himself says in the Gospels. Recall our previous lesson from Matthew: “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (11:19). Here Jesus refers to his deeds of healing and bringing good news to the poor (11:5).
This is exactly what James writes about, as in 1:27: Pure religion means to care for orphans and widows, the poorest and most vulnerable people in the Roman Empire.
Our lessons for Aug. 2 and 9 cover most of James 1:1-29. Briefly, here are the author’s main categories for acquiring and acting with wisdom:
— Rejoice when you have trials, because such testing can lead to endurance and eventually to maturity. Ask God for wisdom, but make sure you ask expecting to receive it, or you’ll be worse off than ever.
— Humble and low-income people will be raised up, but the rich will wither away. Therefore, endure trials and temptations without getting hooked on earthly desires.
— Behave yourselves and meekly accept the word of God. Be doers of the word and not merely hearers. However, while you do good deeds, bridle your tongue! True religion is not preaching; it is caring for the neediest among us.
In your classes, discuss one paragraph in James 1:1-12 or 1:19-27 at a time. How do you react to James’ specific advice? Does James sound like us Mennonites? What do you think?
Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.