The End is at Hand!
In contrast to the emphasis on right action here and now, as offered
by Elsa Tamez, Todd Penner suggests that the Letter of James is
an eschatological text. His view is that James’ purpose
is to warn us of the coming judgment. Do what is right now, because
those who live a duplicitous life will fade like flowers in the
sun. Penner agrees with Tamez that James insists on following the
law and caring for the poor. But when read in an eschatological
context it is clear that we must do what is right in preparation
for our own judgment. The main point of James, then, is to declare
that the kingdom of God is at hand.
The imminent arrival of the end is clear in James 5:7-9. Be
patient … until the coming of the Lord. Like the farmer
we must wait, but the wait is short—the judge is standing
at the doors. Likewise, it is common to consider the crown
of life in James 1:12 to be a future prize, promised to those
who endure trials, but promised at some future time. Compare this
text with the only other use of the phrase in the last part of Revelation
2:10: Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown
of life. Here it is clear that endurance, even unto death,
will be rewarded later with the crown.
To read all of James as a message of later reward requires that
the opening and conclusion be understood as the frame of the letter.
This frame adds meaning to the body of the letter, where the emphasis
on the future is not as clear. Penner outlines James like this:
- 1:1 Greeting of Letter
- 1:2-12 Opening Frame
- 4:6-5:12 Conclusion of Frame
- 5:13-20 Closing of Letter (Penner 143).
The opening and closing frames set the image of reversal of the
earthly order at the time of God’s judgment (Penner 160).
The image of God’s judgment, especially in James 5:1-12, is
what makes this an eschatological letter. When this is paired with
James 1:2-12 to create a frame, we see that the coming judgment
will result in a reversal: trials bring joy and maturity, the lowly
are raised and the rich are brought low. The body of the letter
is a call to purity so that believers will be on the right side
when the judgment comes (Penner 161).
For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown
no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. -James 2:13
Todd C. Penner, The Epistle of James and Eschatology: Re-reading
an Ancient Christian Letter (Sheffield, England: Sheffield
Academic Press, 1996).