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What are We Counting On?: Reflection on James 5

Although James 5 seems to offer several disjointed topics, James actually presents two images for how we live. The first image is of a self-indulgent rich person and the second is of a patient farmer. While these two people are not seeking the same end result, they are living out the same question: “What am I counting on?” In other words, “Where do I put my hope?”

In James 5:1-6, James warns the rich about storing up rotting treasures, and gold and silver that will corrode. This warning sounds familiar to Jesus’s words in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

This is not only a warning to the rich, but to anyone storing up earthly possessions.  Just because we might not consider ourselves living in luxury does not mean we can count ourselves out of this warning. Rather, if we find ourselves “liv[ing] on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence,” then we see that this warning is for us. Both James 5 and Matthew 6 comment on the consequences of counting on treasures. Jesus goes on in Matthew 6 to warn against being anxious about daily needs, focusing instead on how our Good Father provides for the lillies and the sparrows and James says the laborers of the rich will cry out against them. Where does this “rich person” put their hope and what are they counting on? By making life comfortable, predictable, and safe, they are counting on finances, materials, and self-sufficiency.  The consequence of relying on ourselves and material riches not only makes us anxious, but it leads to our neglecting of the others around us.  What are we counting on?

Next, James says, “Be patient, therefore brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord,” and this is where we start to wonder if this all connects. James then presents us with a counter image to how the rich person lived, a farmer who waits for the fruit of his fields. The farmer plows and plants and then waits for the rains to come. The farmer relies on the rain to produce good crops. James says this is how we should wait for the coming of the Lord. Waiting with expectation and with patience. Rather than focusing on storing up earthly things at all costs, James says to have a heavenly focus that waits expectantly for God because that is Who we are counting on.

More than this, James says to count on God even in suffering. He points to the prophets and to Job as biblical examples of people who suffered yet remained reliant on the Lord. The prophets experienced resistance and rebuke of others, and Job experienced unprecedented loss and tragedy. The reason for counting on God even in suffering is because it points others to the purposes and characteristics of God: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).

When reading the prophets and Job, we see that another reason to count on God is that God can be counted on. After Job hears from his friends, the Lord speaks to Job, asking him questions like, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) and, “Who sends the rain to satisfy the parched ground and makes the tender grass spring up?” (Job 39:27). The Lord shows Job that as humans we are not all-knowing, all-present, or all-powerful and then for two chapters the Lord shows Job that He is all-knowing, all-present, and-all powerful. The Lord can be counted on, even in times of suffering.

While we are waiting on the Lord, like the farmer waiting for the rain, James reminds us to be present and committed to where we are: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” (James 5:12). The coming of the Lord is our great hope and Christ’s second return is why we wait expectantly. Until that time, however, the coming of the Lord in our daily lives is when we are not sure how something will work out and yet the Lord comes through in His own way, each and every time.

James concludes his letter by driving home the call to count on the Lord. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray” (James 5:13-14). In other words, if life is in the valleys right now, then go to God; if life is exciting, then go to God; if this physical life is difficult to live in, go to God. James says faithful prayer will save us. After reading the rest of James 5, we can see that faithful prayer does not work only because we pray with faith, but because the Lord to whom we pray is faithful. That is why we can pray during suffering and praise during celebration, and why we can seek healing.

Lastly, even in our sin we can count on God. Adam and Eve counted on their ability to hide from God and fashioned clothes to cover themselves–we can easily count on our good works to save us. However, James again points us back to God: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). We can confess our sins to God and to each other because our God is the Redeemer. If we use the paradigm given by Zach’s teaching on James 1, we see that because God is Redeemer He convicts, and because we are convicted we respond and are sanctified.  In other words, we confess and we receive grace. We do not have to hide ashamed of our sins. God is Redeemer, so we can go to Him and receive both conviction and mercy. We can count on God despite our sins.

The final image in James takes us back to the farmer waiting on the rain. However, this time it is Elijah who prays fervently for rain. James even says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (5:17). Elijah’s prayer was not heard because he was outstanding, but he was heard  because he counted on God to send rain.  God was faithful.

James begins the final chapters of his letter with an image of what it looks like when we count on ourselves and what we can manufacture. Then James shows us what it looks like to count on God, why it is worth counting on God, and what happens when God has all of our lives.

“So friends, everyday do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love somebody who does not deserve it

…Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts

…Practice resurrection”

– Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor

 

 

Faithful To

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  Matthew 21:43

The renters are given everything they needed to produce wine, including a press and a wall (v. Mt. 21:33).  They weren’t given just one vine of grapes but an entire production and probably a vast amount of land full of fruit-producing plants (Is. 16:8).  The grape farmers were deeply faithful to the vineyard – they produced good grapes.  In fact, the owner was very satisfied and sent servants to go get his portion – presumably the rent he was owed – from the tenants (Mt. 21:34, 38).

Of course, the owner had the rights to everything in that farm since he’d built it and owned it outright.  All he’d asked for was payment from the ones renting the property. More than that, the owner didn’t even demand a finished product of wine, he only wanted the grapes as they were being harvested (v.34).  So, the renters would have been left with many bunches of grapes, a wine press, and the safety in which to make and then sell a lucrative product.

In return for rent in the form of grapes, the farmers could produce wine.  The renters were unrestricted beyond that – they were not considered slaves or even servants of the vineyard’s owner (v. 34).  In other words, in return for only rent, the tenants were given a vast supply of produce to sell, freedom to use it as they wanted, and land on which to live.  It wasn’t just a fair agreement, it was a fully gracious agreement.  The owner planned to make them wealthy.

And, the renters had been very faithful in growing and producing grapes.  They were good at their craft.  In fact, they were fiercely loyal to the vineyard.  As it turned out, they would eventually murder to keep it and its produce.

When he doesn’t receive what he is rightfully owed, the landlord sent one servant and then another to the vineyard to collect.  When they ferociously kill both servants, in an act of unprecedented and lavish grace, the owner sends his son to gather the payment.  He did not send his son with an army to imprison, enslave, or execute the renters who had access to his land and an income from his produce (vv. 37-38).  He sent his son to represent himself, thinking that maybe the renters didn’t respect the servants he’d sent.  But, in fierce defense of grapes, the renters slaughter the son too.  Instead of being content with their huge portion of wealth, the renters were also greedy enough to obtain the portion belonging to the owner’s son – his inheritance (v. 38).

In either case, in this scenario, the grapes or wine were going to be produced.  It would either be done in faithfulness to the owner or in faithfulness to the vineyard and its renters.  Of course, the owner had the right to take everything, but he was generous.  In return, while attempting to tend the owner’s vineyard, the renters became so infatuated with the grapes that they began to think of them as their own bunches of tiny fruit.  Instead of remaining faithful to the owner in their gardening and sending, they were intensely faithful to their grapes.  Instead of sending to the Father, they were going to send and sell the grapes elsewhere.  Instead of being faithful to the one who had the power to create and gift vineyards, they were faithful to the yield of the vineyard.

In using our talents, we must be faithful to the one to whom we are sending.  When someone becomes more attached to the people in whom they are invested or the gifts the Spirit has given, the heart attaches to those things or people instead of the Father.  This action chisels the soul away from the rightful, lavishly gracious, and loving Owner.  It causes us to become vicious in defending the product. It causes what we produce to become more valuable to us than God. We are left holding onto something that will die instead of onto the indulgent and infinite Life Creator.

The question isn’t “what have we produced,” but to whom will we be faithful with what we’ve been given?  To whom will we send the fruit?  Our fruit may be used for others, but it is ultimately given to God.

In the end, faithfulness to fruit rather than faithfulness to the Owner – the Father – took the tenants outside of his grace.  It may seem as if the owner instigated this by finally “bringing those wretches to a wretched end” (v. 41, NAS).  However, by rejecting the grace of the Generous One, the farmers took themselves out of his favor.  They were attempting to disconnect the vineyard from the Owner.  They brought their own destruction because they were cutting themselves off from the Creator – the builder of the vineyard.

Of course, it was the Pharisees, not Jesus, who came to the violent conclusion of a “wretched end” for the renters.  The Jewish leaders decided that judgement in some form of painful and dignity defying death would be best.  Jesus, in his grace, only said the vineyard would be given away to those who would be faithful to the Father, producing for and sending the grapes to him (v. 43).  Jesus — who is exemplified by the murdered son in the parable — does not choose to repay death with death.  Instead, he moves leadership away from the Pharisees — exemplified by the tenants — allowing them another chance at restoration.  Whether we are faithful or not, restoration lives in the heartbeat of Jesus.

 

Jessica Fleck, New City Stories Contributor