Wednesdays with James
Lesson Thirteen: The Two Ways — Time to Choose
We continue our study in the central section of the Epistle of James. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail and in reverse order. The second theme James discusses has to do with wise behavior in the congregation — we’ve called it “Wise Behavior Makes Peace and Speaks No Evil” (3:1-4:12).
In chapter one, James defined true religion as “visit[ing] orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent[ing] the world leaving its dirty smudge on you.” Last week’s passage made a distinction between “wisdom” that comes from below and that which comes from above.
Like other wisdom teachers — think “the righteous” vs. “the wicked” in Proverbs — James draws a sharp distinction between what it looks like to follow God and God’s ways on one hand and what engaging in selfish, sinful behavior looks like on the other hand. As he puts it: friendship with the world = enmity toward God.
This dualistic perspective comes to a head in today’s text. Like a revival preacher setting out two clear choices and then calling his audience to a make a decision about which way they’re going to go, James brings his argument about God’s ways vs. the world’s ways to a climactic call to action in chapter 4 of his epistle.
Where do wars come from? Why do people among you fight? It all comes from within, doesn’t it— from your desires for pleasure which make war in your members. You want something and you haven’t got it, so you murder someone. You long to possess something but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war. The reason you don’t have it is because you don’t ask for it! And when you do ask, you don’t get it, because you ask wrongly, intending to spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers! Don’t you know that to be friends with the world means being enemies with God? So anyone who wants to be friends with the world is setting themselves up as God’s enemy. Or do you suppose that when the Bible says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell in us,” it doesn’t mean what it says?
But God gives more grace; so it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit to God, then; resist the devil and he will run away from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Make your hands clean, you sinners; and make your hearts pure, you double-minded lot. Make yourselves wretched; mourn and weep. Let your laughter turn to mourning, and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Do not speak evil against one another, my dear family. Anyone who speaks evil against another family member, or passes judgment against them, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge! There is one lawgiver, one judge who can rescue or destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
One of the earliest writings we have from Apostolic Fathers is an anonymous work called, The Didache. (Here’s a post on IM from a few years ago about it.) Like James, The Didache is filled with allusions and quotes from the Synoptic teachings of Jesus, in particular the Sermon on the Mount. And, in similar fashion, it sets forth two clear ways in which people may live.
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you….
…And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.
Whereas The Didache may have used this technique of “two ways” for the instruction of new converts or baptismal candidates, James is writing to congregations of people who are in the midst of choosing between the two ways of life daily. At the time of James’s writing, in circumstances that we have described as stressful and divisive, many of them were apparently making bad choices. So he urges them — in no uncertain terms! — to get back on track with God, with themselves, with each other.
Now I will be the first to say that this style of black and white, darkness and light, righteous and wicked, heaven or hell teaching is not quite my cup of tea. I prefer the complementary biblical wisdom tradition that questions the black and white and is content to live in the gray.
Nevertheless, I understand that sometimes a pastor, a leader, a teacher, a parent, or someone else who is trying to help people in certain situations must lay it on the line, call those in his or her charge to account, and urge them to make good decisions, right decisions. And to do so with some sense of urgency.
This is not all there is to biblical religion, but it is an integral part of life for all of us.
“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.” (Deut. 30:15, KJV)
What will we choose today?
• • •
Wednesdays with James
- Lesson One: Background and Big Picture
- Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?
- Lesson Three: The Ongoing Teaching Ministry of Jesus
- Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James (1:1)
- Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life) (1:2-4)
- Lesson Six: Asking for Wisdom (1:5-8)
- Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal (1:9-11)
- Lesson Eight: Taking Responsibility, Receiving from God (1:12-27)
- Lesson Nine: Are You Not Discriminating among Yourselves? (2:1-13)
- Lesson Ten: The Old “Faith & Works” Debate — Completely Unnecessary (2:14-26)
- Lesson Eleven: Stressed-out Speech Sinks Ships (3:1-12)
- Lesson Twelve: Wise Up!