He lifted up his eyes and looked at his disciples, and said: “Blessings on the poor: God’s kingdom belongs to you!”
“…But woe betide you rich: you’ve had your comfort!”
• Luke 6:20, 24 (KNT)
• • •
Wednesdays with James
Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal
Today, we look at the third and final of the opening paragraphs in the Epistle to James. It introduces the third main theme in the letter.
- The first had to do with testing and how believers should view life’s troubles.
- The second had to do with wisdom and how believers should ask God for it to get perspective on their trials.
- The third has to do with poverty and wealth. This is the specific context in which James’s readers were experiencing trials.
Brothers and sisters who find themselves impoverished should celebrate the fact that they have risen to this height— and those who are rich that they are brought down low, since the rich will disappear like a wildflower. You see, the rich will be like the grass: when the sun rises with its scorching heat, it withers the grass so that its flower droops and all its fine appearance comes to nothing. That’s what it will be like when the rich wither away in the midst of their busy lives.
• James 1:9-11 (KNT)
When Luke records Mary singing her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), he has her channeling Samuel’s mother Hannah, whose song in 1Samuel 2 anticipates the ultimate victory of God’s Kingdom and its humble inhabitants over the mighty and proud who oppress them.
Their “gospel” songs speak to the history of Israel and tell a story about communities, nations, kings, conquerors, judicial systems, slaves and masters, exile and devastation, and the corruption that power, riches, and idolatry bring upon the world, marginalizing those outside the inner circles of influence and trampling the human dignity of those who have little or no say in society. The powers that now rule the world are being overthrown! This is the Gospel according to Mary and Hannah.
In his Beatitudes, Jesus reinforces this perspective.
James, writing to Jewish Christians “in the dispersion” (1:1) — that is “exiles” in vulnerable communities outside Jerusalem and perhaps Palestine itself, applies this viewpoint to their situation. As the Epistle proceeds, we will learn more details about their circumstances, but here in 1:9-11, he reflects Jesus’ teaching (especially as portrayed in Luke’s Gospel) about “The Great Reversal” that takes place with regard to rich and poor, powerful and oppressed when the Kingdom of God takes root. This was the vision of the Hebrew prophets, culminating in the triumph of a crucified Savior over the empire that put him to death.
Some have called this, “The world turned upside down.”
Neither Jesus nor James is saying that God loves the poor and hates the rich. God loves all people and wants all to be saved, forgiven, and renewed. But they are addressing the fact that people live in a world characterized by unjust power structures. The rich and powerful gain status by stepping on the little guy and girl. The system is rigged so that it is easier for people and institutions with wealth and influence to get their way. The poor and humble, who lack their resources and connections, find it almost impossible to fight the system.
These prophetic voices look to a day when the playing field is leveled. The rich will be brought down. The poor will be lifted up. The scales of justice will be balanced. The power structures will be adjusted so that everyone has a fair chance. Oppression will cease. Justice and peace will cover the earth.
See, a king will reign in righteousness,
and princes will rule with justice. (Isa. 32:1)
When the prophets taught like this, when Jesus proclaimed this good news, when James applies it to his readers, all of them do so not simply to cast a light on the future. After Isaiah’s initial vision of a righteous Kingdom being established in the world, he then says this:
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord! (Isa. 2:5)
The vision of a future realm of justice and peace is meant to inform the way we live in the present, motivating us to seek justice as individuals and communities today. Those who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized should take hope and courage in knowing that Jesus is with them to lift them up. Those who take advantage of others and push them around to gain advantage for themselves should know that God does not approve and will not give his blessing to their behavior.
Wednesdays with James