The End is at Hand;
Follow the Law
4:11-12 Perfection and the law
James returns to the theme of the law in 4:11-12. The argument is
straightforward: speaking evil of another is judging them, judging
a person is judging the law, only God can judge the law. The claim
to superiority over others in the community links to the concept
of arrogance in James 4:6. It is possible this is a restatement
of James 3:1-12 (Moo 197), the call to restrain our tongues. Wall
sees this passage as an introduction to James 4:13-5:6. In this
case, the merchant and farmer described in upcoming verses are specific
examples of the general statements in verse 11-12.
James uses the term speak evil but many scholars believe
that he is discussing slander. The law against slander
and unjust judgment is found in Leviticus 19:15-16. This text is
part of what some consider a summary God’s law, and includes
the great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves
4:13-17 The End is at Hand.
James 4:13-17 is clearly expressing one theme with the opening of
James 5. James has made his main points and is leading the congregation
to the conclusion that transformation is necessary. Exactly what
that transformation must be is again determined by the lens through
which the text is read.
The connection to chapter five, and implied mention of the traders
or merchants in James 4:13 has been interpreted to mean that these
verses are aimed at rich traders outside James’ congregation.
However the remainder of the paragraph presumes that the trader
cares about the Christian perspective, so most scholars believe
that these verses are addressed to members of the community (Moo
201). These community members are either the almost rich,
with great plans to become wealthy (Tamez 25), or are wealthy merchants
whose plans are to maintain their wealth.
There is significant evidence that the early church was made up
almost exclusively of poor and oppressed people. The writings of
Celsum make fun of Christians because of their attraction to people
of no value. It is possible that the letter of James is addressed
to a community that is facing the issue of whether the wealthy can
be Christians at all for the first time. If this has been primarily
a religion that proclaims good news to the poor, what happens if
someone in the community becomes a successful business person or
trader? What happens if a wealthy trader a becomes interested in
the Christian message? Does material wealth exclude us from Christianity?
Certainly James argues that we should not be making great plans
to gain material wealth. Instead, he says, what is coming is the
time of judgment, we should be prepared for that. From the prophetic
history of Judaism, and from Jesus preaching, we know that judgment
comes with a reversal of human values. The call to purity in James
4:8 is “a call to salvation in light of the imminent judgment
of God” (Penner 161). We do not know when the end will come,
4:14 reminds us; we do not even know what tomorrow will bring.
The reminder is urgent. The tone of verse 13 is brusque—come
now, or now listen. This is an admonition (Moo 201)
to consider change, and to consider it now (Johnson 216). The description
is of a trader or merchant, traveling here and there. Because specific
towns are not named we presume that James is creating this as an
example, rather than describing a real trader in the congregation.
This trader is similar to the rich man building barns to store
his crops in Luke 12:15-20. The point is the same: life is not about
acquiring possessions (Moo 204). Tamez goes further; she feels that
James is asking the trader whether they have noticed those around
them who are in need (Tamez 23). If the trader is not in the community
at all, it is possible that the poor are being asked to recognize
that all that planning by the wealthy does not make their life any
less transitory. From Tamez perspective, it is the striving for
wealth that James condemns. Penner notes this text is similar to
Ezekiel 28:4-5 and Habakkuk 2:4-5. The point is that gathering wealth
and piling up treasures turns our hearts to money rather than to
God (Penner 167).
God is in charge, Moo argues. That, rather than the importance
of wealth, is what is the main point of these verses. What James
is condemning is future planning that “stems form human arrogance
in our ability to determine the course of future events” (Moo
203). It is traders’ confidence in their own goals that is
the sin (Moo 202), rather than their role as wealthy people in the
community. The Greeks called this boastful pride hybris”
Boastful pride, or better, arrogance, found in
verse 16, is not subtle self-promotion. It is a symptom of evil—it
is the view that there are limited resources (Johnson 216), and
that we have won a competition by getting more of those limited
resources. It is presumed that those with less have lost this same
competition. Johnson argues that the point of these verses is that
God’s creation is one of unlimited resources, and we are called
to “cooperation rather than … competition and mutual
elimination” (Johnson 216).
The passage ends with the call to do the right thing. The presumption
is that the trader, or perhaps, the community, knows what they should
do. What they lack is the single-minded focus to do the right thing.
This verse will lead directly to the condemnation that opens James,
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James in The New
Interpreter's Bible Volume XII, Leander E. Keck et al, editors.
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).
Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James in The Pillar
New Testament Commentary, DA Carson, general editor. (Grand
Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).
Todd C. Penner, The Epistle of James and Eschatology: Re-reading
an Ancient Christian Letter (Sheffield, England: Sheffield
Academic Press, 1996).
Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without
Works Is Dead. John Eagleson, translator. With Study Guide
by Pamela Sparr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002).