Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Problems For James (part 2)

There, immediately after elevating orphans and widows (1:27), who were among the most overlooked and ostracized groups in all of society, James goes on to write “My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1).  James is here addressing those that confess Jesus as Lord, and therefore identify themselves as participants in His kingdom movement. 

Bearing in mind the honor and shame culture and the social stratification that would be on display in public gatherings (especially community meals), and keying in on the idea that prejudice should not be shown, James writes “For if someone comes into your assembly” (2:2a), which is an assembly that is most likely going to include a common meal as was standard practice for those that sought to follow the model that Jesus had adopted, “wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and to the poor person, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit on the floor’?” (2:2b-3) 

Though the words are not used, this mention of one person being seated in a good place, with another person relegated to standing or sitting on the floor is a reference to table/meal practice.  Because Greek culture had infiltrated Jewish culture to a point, it is here possible to hear the language of protoklisian (chief seat) and eschaton (lowest place).  Those in receipt of this letter, along with those who would read it apart from the original audience, who would have been imbued with the cultural understanding that made this language commonplace and understandable, would have quickly and easily imagined the banqueting constructs that are being referenced. 

Common cultural practice dictated that the most noble and esteemed would have been given the best seats at a banquet, whereas the least would have been left standing or taken their places on the floor.  The honored guests (in the eyes of those in attendance) would have received the best food and wine, and the less honorable guests (in the eyes of the attendees and the court of public opinion) within that honor and shame society, would have received items of much lower quality if anything at all.  What does James say about this situation that is taking place in the church community to which his communication is addressed?  He says, “If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?” (2:4)  Clearly, the harsh language indicates that this type of behavior had no place within the church.   

In a way that continues to echo the example and the teachings of Jesus, when heard from within a construct which has James envisioning the character of the meal practice of the church, James goes on to say “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters!  Did God not choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He promised to those who love Him?” (2:5)  If a banqueting table is in mind, this mention of the kingdom, along with the use of “heirs” (which provides the Abrahamic covenant context that the author, due to his mentioning of Abraham that is soon to follow) that accompanies the contrast between rich and poor, places James squarely within the Jesus tradition that served as a constant reminder of the messianic banquet and of the unexpected way in which the Creator God was going about the business of establishing His kingdom, as reflected in the unexpected way in which Jesus was said to have gone about His daily ministry. 

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