Church

Wealth and Poverty in the Letter of James

Introduction

The letter of James is famed for its stirring ethical clarity. This is especially true of its teachings on wealth and poverty, which constitute one of the leading concerns of James’ missive. In this essay, I will argue that James provides a coherent ethical view of wealth and poverty for his audience,[1] which undergirds his specific exhortations on the matter. The essay itself will unfold in three (unequal) sections. First, I will exegetically survey the relevant passages in James, parsing his main lines of thought according to three, conceptual categories: the epistle’s notion of eschatological reversal; its prophetic critique of wealth and economic injustice; and its forceful moral entreaties. Second, I will “delve beneath” those initial results and argue that the ethics of the OT and of Jesus have decisively shaped James’ economic teachings. Finally, I shall outline the implications of the aforementioned, particularly in relation to James’ overall theological-ethical agenda. Indeed, it is within this overarching framework that James’ economic counsel must be placed, as he sets out his vision for a people renewed, living in a liminal age.

James’ Teachings

The five main passages on wealth and poverty in James (1:9-11; 1:27; 2:1-7; 2:14-17; 5:1-6) reflect a cohesive programme for how to approach these matters. I have grouped James’ teachings within three inter-related categories, linked by his theocentric outlook: the eschatological reversal of status; prophetic denunciations of the (unrighteous) wealthy; and exhortations towards proper treatment of the destitute. These categories represent different facets of the larger issue of wealth and poverty in James’ epistle, evincing a spirit of social and economic egalitarianism.[2] Moreover, because these threads are woven into James’ controlling narrative, I shall pick them up at the essay’s end.

James’ teachings on wealth and poverty often focus on the eschatological reversal of the fortunes of rich and poor.[3] Indeed, James signals his conviction that present struggles (cf. 1:2-4) – borne out of economic deprivation and/or the exploitation of the poor by the rich[4] – are transitory, subject to God’s ultimate (i.e. eschatological) verdict and purposes.[5] This lies behind his initial exhortations on the matter, in 1:9-11: the Christian in lowly circumstances (“brother”) should exult in his “high position,”[6] whilst the “one who is rich” should focus upon his “low position.”[7] For James, present status and hierarchies will be overturned – reversed – when God’s purposes are fully and finally revealed. Poor believers are to “take pride” in their impending vindication in God’s kingdom, and are encouraged to look beyond their current earthly status (v.9);[8] the rich, on the other hand, are to “boast” in nothing more than the fact that they have been accepted as servants within that same kingdom (v.10-11).[9]

James 1:9-11 effectively argues that God will erase present injustices.[10] Believers should therefore evaluate themselves by spiritual, not material, standards, and orient their lives around God’s final purposes, rather than the present.[11] James underscores the ephemeral nature of riches when he says that the affluent believer may pass away even as he goes about his business (v.11). Life’s impermanence, James implies, should caution against overreliance on material goods for one’s security; thoughts of self-sufficiency, owing to economic security, are anathema (cf. 4:13-16). Significantly, James speaks of one’s future eschatological position as simultaneously present – of a status that is already a reality, even if it awaits final consummation.[12] I will return to the larger issue of this tension at the essay’s end.

Eschatological reversal also surfaces in Jas 2:1-7. There, James castigates his audience for discriminating between people based upon their socio-economic status – an issue that seems to have been very real in the communities to which James wrote, given the space he devotes to the matter.[13] James partly bases his criticisms on the fact that such favouritism is wholly contrary to God’s own special concern for the lowly and downtrodden – demonstrated particularly in the fact that he has “chosen” the poor to inherit his kingdom (v.5).[14] Like 1:9-11, the ethical exhortations in 2:1-7 are partly rooted in God’s eschatological judgments. Because the Creator and Judge has deigned to exalt the poor, any kind of behaviour within the church that mirrors the stratified world around it is sinful. James 2:1-7 also contrasts earthly poverty with spiritual wealth (esp. v.5), implying that worldly status and divine worth do not necessarily coincide. James’ point is clear: not only is it wrong to treat poor brethren so disdainfully, as it is they to whom God directs his mercy; a believer’s present earthly position, whether she be poor or rich, in no way reflects social relationships within God’s kingdom.

James’ denunciations of the wealthy in 5:1-6 reflect similar concerns to 2:6b-7, and demonstrate the relationship between this polemical exposure and James’ belief in the eschatological erasure of status and hierarchy.[15] James 5:1-6 offers a trenchant critique of the rich, tinged with prophetic indignation.[16] His letter speaks not only about the future (though partly realized) upheavals of the present socio-economic order, where misery will befall the unrighteous rich (vv. 1-2, 5); the catalogue of sins listed in 5:1-6 reflects James’ warnings about the present dangers of “unrighteous Mammon”, cohering with passages elsewhere which evince a condemnatory attitude towards materialism and avarice (cf. 4:13-16).[17] Here, wealth’s transience gives way to the testimony of judgment (vv.2-3). Of course, James does not denounce the wealthy qua wealthy. He states precisely why they are liable to judgment: they have acted oppressively and exploited the poor (vv.4-6).[18] But he also criticises them for hoarding their wealth whilst others have suffered penury (v.3b). In any event, James writes convinced that the unrighteous rich will not be able to sin with impunity forever.[19]

As noted, these passages are joined together by an important theological point of orientation for James – the purposes and nature of God. James, for example, can say that the Lord hears the cries of the exploited (5:4c): in a world where they are defenceless, he is their guardian.[20] Rooted in God’s supreme compassion and mercy, Jas 1:27 and 2:14-17 exhort his audience to use wealth and resources righteously – upholding the vulnerable, and supporting those who are materially bereft. For him, the proper stance towards wealth and economic status is imitative of God. James 1:27 explicitly links care for the poor – exemplified via widows and orphans – to unsullied religion acceptable to God.[21] He condemns rapacity (4:2; 5:1ff), whilst commending generosity.[22] James calls the Lord “Father,” subtly suggesting that care for the fatherless recapitulates God’s own paternal largesse (1:27; cf. 1:17). So, too, 2:14-17, where authentic devotion, reflected in the language of “faith,” is expressed via deeds of mercy towards impoverished brethren.[23] Indeed, James’ illustrative choice is telling. One may also cite 2:1-7, which reflects James’ concern about honouring, godly attitudes towards poverty and the poor.

James’ Influences

Whether viewing economics through the lens of eschatology, or urging his audience to use what they have compassionately and justly, James grounds his teachings in God’s character and purposes. However, he did not create this perspective de novo; rather, his economic teachings reflect dependence upon a long and rich tradition, stemming from OT-Jewish thought regarding God’s just and merciful character, and the corresponding obligations placed upon his people.[24] James’ letter builds upon, and grows out of, this consistent biblical theme.

James’ reliance on OT prophetic and wisdom traditions has long been recognized, as has his use of categories of vulnerable people the OT frequently employs (Jas 1:27; cf. Deut 10:18; Ps 68:5).[25] Particularly influential for James’ teachings regarding wealth and poverty, however, is the law. This is clearly seen in 2:1-13, where James condemns partiality in the redeemed communities. He roots his condemnation in an extended application of the law of neighbour love, found in Leviticus 19:18 (cf. Jas 2:8ff), and his teachings reflect a broad dependence on the law’s social concern.[26] An expression of God’s character and will, the law informs James’ economic teachings, especially at this crucial point (cf. 1:27, applying the command to follow the word). Partiality (or selfishness and apathy in the face of poverty) is contrary to the law – and, therefore, contrary to the fundamental image of God as compassionate Father who treats all image-bearers equally.

However, James doesn’t simply allude to OT-Jewish tradition; his letter also echoes the voice of Jesus. For James, God’s attitudes to poverty and wealth – as well as the corresponding obligations of God’s people – are particularized and fulfilled in Jesus (e.g. 2:1).[27] Scholars note the many verbal links between Jesus and James.[28] For our purposes, Jesus’ social and economic teachings are relevant. Contrasts between listening to, and obeying, the word (Jas 1:22/Matt 7:24ff); promises to the poor of a royal inheritance (Jas 2:5/Matt 5:3); denunciation of the wealthy (Jas 5:1-6/Lk 6:24-26); the basic importance of eschatological reversal (Jas 1:9-11/Matt 19:30; 20:16); and, most saliently, the significance of the Levitical law of neighbour love (Jas 2:8/Matt 22:34-40), all suggest Jesus’ overriding influence upon James’ thought. Reference to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8) nuances OT legal codes according to the law of the kingdom (v.5; cf. 1:25), embodied in Jesus.[29] For James, the law – which helps animate his teachings on wealth and poverty – is taken up into the ethics of Jesus, becoming the implanted word that “can save” (1:21).[30] James views the communities to which he writes as the Messianically-renewed people of God (cf. the language of 1:1b),[31] and writes in the light of that reality. Jesus, God’s agent in eschatological restoration, constitutes the defining voice behind James’ economic exhortations and admonitions, shaping them at a deep, structural level.[32]

James’ Controlling Narrative

For James, God’s past revelation and future purposes – effecting justice, denouncing economic oppression and commanding mercy – are drawn together in Jesus’ establishment of a redeemed community, embodying God’s kingly righteousness. This leads us to James’ controlling narrative, tellingly illuminated by 1:18 (with its overtones of new creation):[33] the church is the “first fruits” of God’s redemptive reign.[34] His teachings on wealth and poverty reflect reliance upon this fundamental salvation-historical story.[35] Consequently, James urges his audience to live according to the requirements and implications of the eschatological inauguration of God’s kingdom, anticipating its consummation via a just, compassionate – indeed, counter-cultural – approach to the harsh socio-economic milieu they inhabit.[36]

And so we come full circle, returning to the fruits of our exegetical survey. James’ broader eschatological concerns and context,[37] within which he situates his teachings on wealth and poverty, are clear. Aside from the already-surveyed confluence between eschatology and economics,[38] James’ whole letter brims with eschatological conviction: he consistently invokes divine judgment to motivate right living (2:12; 4:12; 5:7-9), whilst picturing the Christian life as a trajectory moving towards its final goal (1:2-4). Moreover, James’ partly realized (i.e. inaugurated) eschatology suggests that he thinks of his audience as living in a liminal phase – the first of a burgeoning, divinely-ordained future (1:18; cf. 2:5). His audience, having been “birthed” through God’s saving word (v.18), operate as his redemptive vanguard. Through his instructions on wealth and poverty, James implies that the values of the kingdom should be practiced proleptically – offering an “advance model” of what God’s just reign will look like.[39]

Paired with this view is James’ sustained, thematic call to “wholeness,” “completeness” or “perfection.”[40] The audience’s obligation to approach wealth and poverty in the way(s) he urges are part of a complex of behaviours by which believers, both individually and communally,[41] demonstrate their devotion towards God and each other. James seeks to encourage economic behaviour that is oriented towards God’s present injunctions and his future rule. His letter is replete with terms that reflect this constellation of thought,[42] and it carries concern for ethical completeness (and within that, a godly approach to economics) in a number of ways: commendation of “pure religion” (1:27); a “whole” faith, manifested in good deeds; endurance towards one’s spiritual telos or goal (1:2-4); criticism of the “double-minded” (1:7-8); and, in a crucial passage, the excoriation of spiritual “adulterers” and encouragement towards purity (4:1-10). James urges unity within Christian assemblies (cf. 2:1-7), which coheres with the complete devotion and spiritual wholeness to which he enjoins individuals.[43] He repeatedly envisages eschatological “wholeness” as a present requirement; by calling them to live in an “undivided” manner – to which acting righteously in regards to wealth and poverty provides powerful attestation[44] – James instructs his audience to anticipate the ultimate perfection that a just and compassionate God will bring (cf. 2:5).

Conclusion

The foregoing analysis has attempted to provide a summation of the main facets of James’ teachings on wealth and poverty. His letter features several, related concerns that are especially prominent: the eschatological reversal of socio-economic status/hierarchy; the prophetic exposure of economic unrighteousness and oppression; and the corresponding regard for those who are impoverished and/or vulnerable. James evinces basic sympathy towards the victims of present injustices, grounding it in God’s nature and purposes, and the corresponding ethical implications for his people. James relies upon the consistent witness of the OT regarding treatment of the poor, evidenced in his use of the law to condemn practices contrary to God’s fundamental character. That character is, for James, exhibited in Jesus, the decisive voice in the letter’s economic-ethical teachings. These findings suggest that James’ instructions on wealth and poverty are situated within a controlling narrative, one which sees Jesus as the inaugurator of God’s (partly realized) eschatological kingdom. James writes to his audience as the “first fruits” of that inauguration, urging them to embody God’s perfect rule through economic justice and generous stewardship.

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. James. New Testament Readings. London: Routledge, 1999.

————————-. “Eschatology.” Pages 333-339 in New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition). Edited by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer & D.J. Wiseman. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Beale, Greg K. “Eschatology”. Pages 330-345 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. Volume Two: New Testament Survey. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Carson, D.A. “James,” Pages 997-1013 in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.

Davids, Peter. Commentary on James. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Johnson, Luke T. The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1 vol.; Anchor Bible 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995.

————————. Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

————————. Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Lemcio, E.E. “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33 (1988): 3-17.

McCartney, Dan G. James. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Martin, Ralph P. James. Word Biblical Commentary 48. Waco: Word, 1988.

Maynard-Reid, Pedrito U. Poverty and Wealth in James. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987.

Moo, Douglas. James. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Ross, Allan P. Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002.

Wachob, Wesley Hiram. The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (Studies in the New Testament Series 106. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Wall, Robert. “James, Letter of.” Pages 545-561 in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Williams, Robert Lee. “Piety and Poverty in James.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 22 (Fall, 1987): 37-55.

Winbery, Carlton L. “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James.” Theological Educator 34 (Fall, 1986): 26-34.

Witherington III, Ben. The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses. Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009.

[1] See Douglas Moo, James (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 22-24; Craig L. Blomberg, From Pentecost to Patmos – Acts to Revelation. New Testament Introduction and Survey, Volume 2 (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 390, for similar reconstructions of the identity of James’ audience.

[2] Luke T. Johnson, The Letter of James – A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1 vol.; AB 37A; Garden City: Doubleday, 1995), 82.

[3] Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC 48; Waco: Word, 1988), 25-26; Dan G. McCartney, James (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 70-71.

[4] Moo, James, 65. On the socio-economic conditions of the first century, see Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987), 12-23.

[5] On eschatology and the later NT (and James esp.), see Greg K. Beale, “Eschatology,” DLNTD, 330-333, 335; Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” NBD, 333-334.

[6] Carlton L. Winbery, “The Attitude Toward Wealth in the Letter of James,” TE 34 (Fall, 1986): 28.

[7] Moo, James, 68, argues that the rich person is a Christian; cf. Martin, James, 25-26. I agree with Moo that the term “brother” (v.9) governs both individuals.

[8] Robert Lee Williams, “Piety and Poverty in James,” WTJ 22 (Fall, 1987): 43.

[9] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 29; Moo, James, 66.

[10] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 28.

[11] McCartney, James, 98.

[12] Martin, James, 25, 28; Johnson, The Letter of James, 185; Moo, James, 30.

[13] Moo, James, 98.

[14] Moo, James, 35.

[15] Winbery, “The Attitude,” 31-32.

[16] Moo, James, 211.

[17] McCartney, James, 232.

[18] Moo, James, 210.

[19] Johnson, The Letter of James, 309.

[20] Moo, James, 216.

[21] Martin, James, 52.

[22] Johnson, Sharing Possessions – What Faith Demands, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 92.

[23] Martin, James, 52.

[24] See Moo, James, 35-36 for a discussion of this general theological-ethical trend; cf. Peter Davids, Commentary on James (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 42.

[25] See D.A. Carson, “James” CNTOT, 997-1013. On the influence of wisdom and prophecy, see Johnson, The Letter of James, 32-34.

[26] See Johnson, The Letter of James, 30-32; Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God – Studies in the Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 127-135; Carson, “James,” 999-1000. On Leviticus 19, see Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the LORD – A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 351-365.

[27] The consequential relationship between faith in Jesus and rejection of partiality is clear. See Wesley Hiram Wachob, The Voice of Jesus in the Social Rhetoric of James (SNTS 106; Cambridge: CUP, 2000), 77.

[28] See esp. Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought-World of the New Testament. Volume 1 – The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: Inter-varsity Press, 2009), 298; Wachob, The Social Rhetoric, 138.  

[29] Moo, James, 98, 112; Carson, “James,” 1000.

[30] McCartney, James, 110.

[31] The language suggests that James sees his audience as the renewed “Israel” of God. See Davids, Commentary, 63.

[32] Bauckham, James (NTR; London: Routledge, 1999), 147.

[33] McCartney, James, 111.

[34] Moo, James, 24, 80.

[35] On the unifying story of the NT, see E.E. Lemcio, “The Unifying Kerygma of the New Testament,” JSNT 33 (1988), 6.

[36] On the narrative cast of James’ letter, see Robert Wall, “James, Letter of,” DLNTD, 556-557; Bauckham, James, 100; Winbery, “The Attitude,” 33; Johnson, The Letter, 85-88.

[37] McCartney, James, 70-71.

[38] Cf. Moo, James, 36-37.

[39] Bauckham, James, 173; Moo, James, 24.

[40] See Bauckham, James, 165, 173-179, for an extended treatment; Martin, James, lxxix.

[41] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[42] See esp. Martin, James, lxxix.

[43] McCartney, James, 71-72.

[44] Moo, James, 97-98.

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Weekend Musings

This article is quite unlike the ones that have been posted of late. It does not concern issues out there in the public sphere; nor is it a rigorous analysis of the topic in question. Instead, it represents a couple of insights that I gleaned from Scripture last weekend, and as such, this post will undoubtedly exhibit a more informal character.

Both insights I gleaned whilst reading the Gospel according to John. I have been studying this book for some time, and have been repeatedly struck by its remarkable theological density. However, during the course of studying Chapter 15, two particular points – both of which are essential elements of a vibrant Christian life – leapt off the page and hit me squarely between the eyes. However, before I delve into those truths, I should set the scene. The fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is largely about two things: the love that ought to exist within the fellowship of believers; and the inevitability of hatred and hostility that will meet believers as they seek to minister to the world. What’s more, it comes in the midst of a very private and intimate gathering between Jesus and his disciples, and everything he says in this passage is for them. He begins by likening his relationship with them to a vine and its branches (v.1). He then proceeds to counsel his disciples to remain in him in order to bear fruit (v.4), before commanding them to follow his commands – chief of which is the command to love one another (vv. 9-12, 17). Finally, he warns them of the inevitability of opposition to the message they carry and embody – a message that saw Jesus himself persecuted and despised, but only so that they would be prepared. Within what I have just written lies the two truths that have given me pause for thought and have led me to reflect on my walk as a disciple of Christ.

The first truth relates to the metaphor Jesus uses at the commencement of the chapter. His use of the “vine-branches” image (with God as the gardener) is an apt description of the deep interconnectedness of the church: those who are united to Christ receive their power from him, and it is necessary to remain in him (ie. endure in union with him) in order to, as he put it, “bear fruit”. That much is true, and I (usually) have no trouble abiding by, and celebrating, this great image. Paul’s image of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), which is a complementary way of understanding the interrelationship between Christ and believers, also comes to mind. We are many, but together – joined with Christ and held together by the Spirit – we are one. Putting aside any temptation to break out into song at this point (remember the cheesy ballad, “We are one, but we are many”?), both images convey the deep intimacy that exists between Christ and his church, transcending time, space, geography, culture and language. It is a mystical union that brings us into the closest of relationships. So far so good. But what I failed to appreciate (even if I did formally recognize) was that the image John presents to us – that of the vine and the branches – not only implies intimacy or connectedness between Christ and believers; it also implies intimacy and connectedness between believers themselves. A branch is automatically connected to all the other branches of the vine if it is connected to the vine itself. Similarly, a part of the body – the foot, say – is implicitly connected to all the other parts by virtue of the fact that it is a member of the body.

And so it is with us. Not so profound, you might say. That may well be true, but how many of us live in such a way that betrays our own purported spiritual independence? This is significant, since I have detected such a tendency in myself, and that is why Jesus’ words struck me so deeply. For too long, I have attempted to grow spiritually – to bear fruit, you might say – without the aid of the body. Sure, I have been a part of the body. I am a faithful member of a local church. I have taken part in all kinds of ministry there over the years. But I have never truly allowed myself to be fully and freely shaped by that community; to be sharpened by other disciples, as iron sharpens iron. I have always kept a distance, believing myself to be of such spiritual stature that I could get on in life without the enriching aid of a vibrant spiritual community. But recent events have taught me otherwise, and the frustrating inconsistency of my spiritual walk of late has slowly brought me round to the idea that the body of Christ – his church – is a necessary context within which authentic Christian spirituality may flourish.

The image presented in John’s Gospel confirmed that; in order to bear fruit, one must remain in Jesus, but his love and his presence are made manifest in the lives of other believers, to whom one is also connected. Only then, when we take full stock of that truth, will a constantly vibrant and enlivening life of discipleship become a reality. That is something that I need to learn, living as I am with a kind of  rugged individualism. The fact is, I cannot exist without the community of God, and nor was I ever meant to. I might think that it is a sign of spiritual maturity to strike out on one’s own without the ministry and support and spiritual nourishment of other Christians, but this passage has made me realize that I am simply engaging in a self-defeating exercise. Remaining in Christ and remaining in the body cannot be separated; to cut oneself from the latter is to (eventually, but inevitably) cut oneself off from the former. At that point, the failure of one’s efforts to maintain a spiritually vital life apart from the embodiment of God’s presence in his church becomes a fait accompli and no fruit will be forthcoming. I wouldn’t say that I’m in danger of that – far from it – but my spiritual growth demands the humble embrace of the ministry of others.

Paul’s image is also instructive, and it spoke to me as well. The picture of the body he uses is interesting, since in order for a particular member (again, we can use the foot) to function as it was meant to function, it needs to be connected to the body. A foot is not truly a foot if it has been severed from the body; conversely, it has be attached to the rest of the body – connected to tendons, ligaments, bone, etc. – in order to fulfil its function as an aid to walking. In a similar manner, I can only fulfil my function within the body of Christ – thereby becoming what I was created to be – when I live in deep interdependence with others. The presence of a spiritually stimulating environment, apart from the natural benefits I might accrue, brings me into contact with the embodied Christ. We are social animals, and have been created as such. Moreover, we – I – have been redeemed into a community, in which true identity is found. Any attempts to grow in isolation (and I should know, since I have been doing that for some time) constitute, as I have said, a self-defeating project.

The second truth that influenced me concerns Jesus’ later words about the reality and inevitability of opposition to the gospel. He counsels his followers to prepare themselves for such opposition, as he himself did (v.18). Not all will receive what they have to say, and they will face the prospect – sometimes constantly – of lethal hostility. All this is on account of the name of Jesus (v.21). That in itself is an important point, since those of us living in the west like to try and maintain some kind of civility, and to imagine that discussions and conversations are conducted with mutual respect and peaceful understanding. But this is hardly the case elsewhere, for Christians from many parts of the world face horrors that we scarcely give credence to – all for the sake of Christ. But what really impacted me was the fact that I was guilty of not taking this warning seriously enough. I kept it at arms length, implicitly confining it to the pages of an historical document whose cultural and chronological distance from my own situation had been exacerbated by my own tendency to reduce it to the object of theological and intellectual games. As I read this passage, I realized that Jesus was speaking to my own situation, and to the reality and inevitability of opposition to the gospel in my own environment. And it struck me that for some time, I had not always allowed the text of Scripture – God’s Word – to speak to me. This passage opened me up to the stark truth that I had kept a distance between myself and all of Scripture. Reading Jesus’ words about opposition and hostility to the gospel, whilst trying to avoid such a situation in my own life, suggested to me that my efforts to understand the Bible did not always mean that I was listening. I may have developed a true understanding of the meaning of the passages I read; but did I allow them to speak to me? Was I allowing the Creator and Redeemer God to transcend time and space, and bring forth the significance of his Word for me? Unfortunately, I could not always answer in the affirmative.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with studying the Bible in order to glean the theological meaning of the text. There is nothing wrong with expending intellectual energy discovering the intended meaning of a passage, its immediate and biblical context, and its theological and ethical implications. These are necessary elements of good, honest Bible study. But if it does not set one’s heart on fire; if it fails to actually speak to the one who is reading it; if it does not transform and shape and mould someone into the likeness of Christ, leading to faithful discipleship; then it has not truly been read or understood. This is something that had, for me at least, receded. Those words, spoken by Jesus and recorded by John, were not meant simply for the former’s immediate circle of followers, but for all Christians down through the ages. And those words – like all the words of Scripture – ought to carry with them a Spirit-filled power that crosses the chasm of time and culture to change us in our own situations (diverse as they are) today. That is something that I learned, and it is a lesson worth repeating.

These truths – the essential nature of the Christian community and the immediacy of the Word – may be known instinctively by some of you, and I celebrate that. I am a little slow to learn at times, I must admit. But it just goes to show that if you open your ears for just a moment, God will speak. You just have to make sure you’re actually listening.

Why the Canonisation of Mary Mackillop is Mistaken

This post was originally going to be a sequel to my last entry. However, I have been thinking about the recent hoopla surrounding the canonisation of Mary Mackillop. Whilst I greatly respect the work she did – helping the poor, ministering to the downtrodden – I was perturbed by the outpouring of emotion, even to the point of veneration, which went with this unprecedented event (unprecedented in the sense that Ms. Mackillop is the first Australian to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church). This is quite apart from the distorted theology that underlies the legitimacy of canonisation within Catholicism, which I will also touch upon.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that the Catholic Church has done some wonderful good in the community. It has established many charitable organisations that have alleviated the burdens with which the poor and broken-hearted have struggled. I had the privilege of volunteering with St. Vincent’s soup van for a time, which was originally a Catholic outfit (though it has become somewhat secularized). And unlike some of those snarling secularists out there, I am not criticising the veneration of Mary Mackillop because I hope to erase all traces of religion from public life. I read an article in The Australian at the time, written by Greg Sheridan, which argued that this was precisely the attitude that lay beneath much of the criticism levelled at the Catholic Church and its canonisation of this Australian nun. I am certainly not in that basket; indeed, the whole point of this blog is quite the opposite – to preserve Christianity’s position within the public square.

And yet, my criticism remains. It rests upon theological, ecclesiological and christological grounds, and I will tackle them in turn. First, the general theological issues. The Bible speaks constantly about the dangers of idolatry. It was one of the primary sins into which Israel constantly fell, the prophets condemned them for it. The New Testament does not shy away from this point either: Paul, for example, takes aim at human depravity by linking it to idolatry. Instead of worshiping the One who is sovereign over his creation, humanity instead decided to worship parts of the created order (Romans 1:21-25). Instead of giving obeying the source of all truth, wisdom and life, man gave himself over to bits of creation, substituting idols for the real deal. It’s a broad-brush approach that sums up humanity’s plight by placing it in the context of primal idolatry. The root sin of all the lesser sins we witness around us is, according to Paul, the sin of unseating God from his rightful place as sovereign Creator and placing something in his stead.

Now, is this occurring when a person is singled out for canonisation by the Catholic Church? I think it comes dangerously close to what one would call idolatry. It may not do so in some kind of deliberate, systematic way, but the kind of veneration we saw at the time of Ms. Mackillop’s elevation to sainthood threatened to unseat the primacy and centrality of Christ. I don’t remember hearing much at all about God or Jesus during that time, and it seems to betray a fundamental distortion of priorities. This is where the theological and the christological issues overlap. Thus, the second problem I have with the canonisation of Mary Mackillop and all that went with it is the fact that she seemed to take the place of Christ himself. Surely the church should be preaching Christ? Surely the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus should take pride of place in the life and witness of God’s people? For all the good work she did, I believe that Mary Mackillop’s canonisation, and all the attention she received because of it, did a great disservice to the church and to the world, since it drew attention away from the saving work of Christ and placed it on one of his servants.

A particularly acute example of this comes by way of the push to have Mary Mackillop’s miracles recognised. One such miracle was said to have been performed after a woman prayed to Mary Mackillop in order to be healed of cancer. Now, I don’t know whether this was a miracle or not. But one thing is for certain. We are not instructed to pray to fellow human beings, dead or alive. We are instructed to pray instead to the Creator God who is also the Redeemer God, and who made himself known to humanity in the most radical and intimate of ways – through the person of Jesus Christ. Mary Mackillop’s canonisation, and all the attention it garnered, completely did away with all of this, whilst at the same time making the fundamental theological error of attributing any miracles performed to her instead of God himself. As I said, the fact that such miracles were attributed to her is an especially obvious sign of a creeping idolatry that has unseated God from his rightful place of primacy and centrality. And in all the media attention and publicity the Catholic Church generated, it spectacularly failed to fulfil its mandate to bring the gospel to the multitudes. All that attention, all that energy, all that time – and none of it spent on Jesus. At the very least, it can only be called a failure to obey the explicit teachings of the One who has saved us and the One who has sent us.

The third criticism I must make, pertaining as it does to issues of ecclesiology, is the very fact of sainthood, as practiced in the Catholic Church. Sainthood, properly understood, is a good and biblical thing. The problem lies in Catholicism’s hierarchical reading of sainthood. It is emphatically not the case that there is a kind of spiritual hierarchy within the church, whereby some are elevated to the status of saint, whilst the rest wallow in the in the pit of ordinariness. The fact is that all those who have been called into God’s redeemed community are saints; there is no distinction. To be a saint is to be sanctified. To be sanctified is to be set apart and progressively set free from the corruption of sin. A quick look at, say, 1 Peter 2:9 gives us the strong impression that we are – all of us – saints. He says that we are a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” The language here echoes Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. They were called out of Egypt – all of them – and set apart as God’s holy nation (“holy” is much the same as sanctified, for it refers to separation also). The Israelites – again, all of them – were to be a nation of priests, intermediaries between God and humanity. As members of the church, we take up that common identity, without distinction. All of us have been set apart, and therefore all of us are saints. Similarly, all of us have been called to be ministers, and therefore all of us are “priests” in some fashion. The canonisation of Mary Mackillop reflects a distortion of the radical egalitarian nature of the church of God.

My beef does not lie with Mary Mackillop. As I said, she apparently did some wonderful work in her obedience to God and her service to the poor. That is not at issue. However, for the reasons I have outlined, I am deeply troubled by the way in which an arm of the Christian church could have gotten all of this so spectacularly wrong. Why this is the case is not entirely clear. Perhaps it’s a carry-over from the Roman period, when empire and church made a fateful pact that would end up warping the nature of the latter. The canonisation process, at least, seems to betray a hierarchical model that is inimical to New Testament Christianity. Of course, it’s easy to sit back and criticise from afar, but we must remember that we produce and sustain idols all around us, whether material, ideological or conceptual. My own denomination, the ACC, seems to have turned that practice into a fine art. The obvious theological distortions that have been reflected in the canonisation of Ms. Mackillop should make us aware of the fact that all of us carry the potential to distort God’s truth, unseat him from his place of honour, and hinder our witness in the world. That should consistently humble us.

Communion and Worship

This post is not an in-depth exploration of the topic at hand; more a series of thoughts as they form in my mind. Thus, there may not be the kind of order that some crave (or that I crave).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the significance of communion in the context of worship. Much of that thinking stems from a book I am reading at the moment, called “Worship is a Verb”, by Robert E. Webber. It’s a good, theologically rich book on the biblical roots of worship – including the significance of communion. That in itself is an important statement, since some of us may think of communion as an adjunct to worship, rather than being a means of worshiping God in its own right. We need to be reminded that communion is a form of worship. By participating in it, we are making a declaration about what God has done in and through Jesus Christ. It may, of course, be a non-verbal declaration; but a declaration it is. True worship is declarative in form, since all worship worth its salt should tell the story of God’s gracious act of salvation through his Son, whereby he gave himself up for sinful humanity, making atonement, and being raised to life once again. That is a simplified version of the great narrative that is the gospel, but it is something that proper worship publicly declares through word, sign and song. And that is what communion does. In it, we are actually giving a sign to people that Jesus died for us; that he gave himself up unto death for our sin; and that in him, God condemned sin once and for all so that we might enjoy salvation.

This kind of thinking resonates with what we find in the New Testament. Think, for example, about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:26. It comes in the context of his criticism of the Corinthian church for their unholy attitude towards the Lord’s Supper. By eating it as they had been, the Corinthians had actually maligned the word of God and trampled on the sacrifice of Christ. Paul outlines all this, and chastises the church for its error. But in the particular verse I mentioned, Paul says that whenever one eats and drinks communion, one is “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes”. Thus, communion is not something private; it is not something done behind closed doors; it is not something that simply takes place between God and the individual believer. Instead, it is a public act, in which we (and I use the word “we” very deliberately) use symbol and sign to “speak” about what God has done. If worship is all about declaring God’s truth, then surely communion fits the bill?

That is why communion should be an integral part of every worship service, and why it should be integrated as such. We ought not to consider it as a separate part of our service, but as the natural visual companion to the verbal forms of worship that are embodied in song.

Another couple of points are worth mentioning. Speaking about communion as a form of worship should alert us to the fact that honouring God and offering him praise go beyond the singing of words. Although I do not want to go too far down this track (since it would provide material for a whole new post), it is important to remember that worship is conducted in all kinds of ways. Celebration through song is certainly important. I mean, that kind of worship is pervasive throughout scripture. From the singing of the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt, to the myriad Psalms that honour God through music and the lyrical quality of song, it seems that singing is one (very important) way in which the people of God can honour him. But that should not define or constrain the boundaries of worship. The very fact that communion can be seen in this light ought to remind us that various forms of worship are legitimate. They may not necessarily use words, but they still communicate a message that is just as powerful and just as profound. And of course, what are our entire lives if they are not forms of worship before God, where every deed and act communicates and reflects something of the divine nature? I’ll leave that last point hanging, but it is something worth remembering.

I guess my goal in this post is to alert us to the fact that worship needs to be conceived in ways that go beyond our narrow, traditional definitions, and I have used communion as a kind of “window” that could help us do that. Words are vital, but our worship cannot be confined to those acts that make use of them. Communication is an act that is multi-faceted. That is true in all contexts, but it is certainly true when it comes to life with God.