Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Hyperbole and Analogy


Say what you like about James, he knew how to get a reader’s attention.

And people have said a fair bit about James over the years, not least Martin Luther, who famously called his letter an “epistle of straw”. There’s no getting around the fact that there are aspects to the missive that are theologically difficult, a tone about it that is markedly different from Paul, Peter, John and even Jude, and a strong Jewish flavor to it that can confuse Christian readers.

The Jewish flavor is explicable on two fronts: (1) the letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the diaspora”, or dispersion; and (2) the date ascribed to the book by historians. James is thought to be the first or second of the New Testament books written and circulated, perhaps as early as AD45. The dispersion James has in view, then, is not the one post-AD70, but rather of the members of the twelve tribes of Israel who had never returned with their brothers and sisters from the Babylonian captivity half a millennium earlier. It is thought that three-quarters of the world’s Jews lived outside Palestine in the early first century. Any devout Jewish Christian would be bound to consider first and foremost the spiritual needs of his own kindred, as James did.

Doctrine and Practice

While James is an immensely practical book, it is not heavy on specifically Christian teaching, most of which would be left to the apostle Paul. William Yuille has pointed out that in the book of James:

“There is no reference to the Church or the basic truths of the Christian faith. There is one possible reference to the Holy Spirit, 4.5. There is no mention of the birth, life, death, resurrection or present ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, there are only three references to the Lord in the entire book.”

These are certainly striking omissions, but James’ primary concern does not appear to have been revisiting the things his fellow children of Israel professed to believe — at such an early date in church history they can be presumed not to have forgotten them — but how they ought to live out what they claimed to believe in the real world. The book’s severe practicality is probably what prompted my father to have us memorize its entire first chapter as children. To this day I can recite it in its entirety.

Harsh Words for Beloved Brothers

But I am not kidding about the severity of the book. James says some pretty harsh things to his fellow Jews. The “my beloved brothers” of verse 16 is about as good as it gets. Before and after, doubters are “double-minded” and “unstable”. Those who squabble among themselves “desire and do not have, so you murder”. They “covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel”. The rich among his readers are accused of living in luxury and in self-indulgence and fattening their hearts in a day of slaughter.

You cannot fairly charge James with pulling his punches.

It seems likely, then, that James was not merely concerned with addressing fellow Jews whose devotion to Christ was genuine, but also those whose professions of faith were belied by their day-to-day conduct, and who may not have been true believers at all. For Jews like these, James was drawing a hard line: such conduct cannot be characteristic of those who truly know Christ as Savior and Lord. Faith without works really is dead.

So then, in James the word “Adultresses!” is hardly out of line. Christians may find the reference baffling, but it is a very Old Testament form of address. James is using the vocabulary of the prophets, in which adultery is a euphemism for idolatry. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea are full of such language.

Adultery and Murder

This probably explains the reference to murder in the same paragraph: “You desire and do not have, so you murder.” While it is remotely possible James had been informed about some particularly horrible incident perpetrated abroad by a professing Christian Hebrew in Syria or elsewhere, it seems much more likely he is using “murder” the way the prophets used it, in connection with adultery:

“But righteous men shall pass judgment on them with the sentence of adulteresses, and with the sentence of women who shed blood, because they are adulteresses, and blood is on their hands.”

“I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy.”

This blood may have been literal, in that Ezekiel might be charging adulteresses with the moral responsibility for murders committed by or against jealous husbands and lovers. But it is also possible he is using the term in the same sense the Lord uses it of the devil when he declares that he “was a murderer from the beginning”, thus laying the responsibility for the death of the entire human race at Satan’s door. Like an adulteress, the devil was never hands-on about his murders; he accomplished them with deception, manipulating others by fanning their desire into flame and using it to accomplish his purposes. Those who exist solely for the fulfillment of their own desires destroy the lives of those around them in much the same way. They certainly destroy their own.

A Problem That Never Went Away

But isn’t this all a bit too much hyperbole? Can a Christian really live enslaved to his own desires to the point that he could accurately be accused of idolatry? It would seem so. And James is concerned not just with acquisitiveness or inappropriate financial aspirations, but with every form of pleasure-seeking and passion that drives human beings to do things they know are wrong and that might draw them away from love of and service to Christ. For this reason he declares that any kind of friendship with the world is enmity with God.

James is concerned that his kinsmen who profess allegiance to Christ understand that idolatry was not merely a historic problem beaten out of the Jewish psyche 500 years in the past during the Babylonian captivity, but an ongoing spirit of worldly, selfish antagonism toward God that threatens to spring up at any moment even in the hearts of believers in the Lord Jesus. For both Jews and Christians, the danger of idolatry has never really gone away. It has simply taken another less-literal form.

In fact, every desire that prompts me to act apart from the will of God is in danger of becoming a false god and an idol to me. Even a sentimental attachment to wife and family can usurp first place in the heart and become something it was never intended to. To the extent that I allow such motivations to guide my actions, I will mislead others and draw them into sin with me, or I will find myself embroiled in the sort of conflicts that always arise from attempting to serve a second master while professing devotion to Christ.

Paul would later write that covetousness is a form of idolatry, expressing much the same idea explored here. James just got there a few years earlier.

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