Tuesday 10 March 2009

Robert W. Wall on the Wisdom of James

Robert W. Wall, ‘The Wisdom of James’, Christian Reflection (2009), 27-37.

A 2009 issue of Christian Reflection is devoted to wisdom (Where Wisdom is Found), and includes an article by Robert Wall on James.

The Letter of James, he writes, ‘reverberates with themes from the rich biblical wisdom tradition – from the sages of ancient Israel through the teachings of Jesus and Paul’ (27). James sees Christian wisdom – in both its theoretical and practical dimensions – as embodied within a community that is ‘quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (1:19).

This ‘proverbial rubric’, according to Wall, introduces the letter’s three ‘essays’ which expound the way of wisdom, with the first essay (1:22-2:26) interpreting and applying the wisdom of ‘quick listening’, the second (3:1-18) expanding the wisdom of ‘slow speaking’, and the third (4:1-5:6) exploring ‘slow anger’.

[I personally don’t think 1:19 bears the weight of the whole letter in this way, but I don’t have an alternative, and let’s stick with it for the moment anyway…]

This leads to a division of James as follows:

1. Nature and source of wisdom (James 1:1-21)
Wall sees two parallel statements in 1:2-11 and 1:12-21 setting out a vision of Christian existence marked by joy in response to trials of many kinds, and by the assurance that believers may ask God ‘for the know-how they lack in order to deal with their trials in a wise manner’ (30).

2. The wise community walks the talk (James 1:22-2:26)
The example of Jesus, as well as that of Abraham and Rahab, underwrites the wisdom of caring for the poor in their distress (cf. 1:27).

3. The wise community talks the walk (James 3:1-18)
The wisdom of ‘slow to speak’ is ‘the constraint a responsible teacher exercises’ (cf. 3:1), especially when they are tempted to slander one another to elevate their own status (cf. 3:14). The wise teacher ‘bears a skill that is not learned from experience or education; rather its source is a “wisdom from above” (cf. 3:14, 16a)’ (34).

4. The wise community slows anger (James 4:1-5:6)
Anger comes from desire for material pleasure, provoking the impulse to covet what others have (4:1-5), which tests our confidence in a God who promises to exalt the pious poor (4:6-12). The wise find satisfaction in God rather than material profit which ignores God’s existence (4:13-17), while the greedy will lose their wealth and their lives in judgment (5:1-6).

5. The future of the wise community (James 5:7-20)
The letter concludes, as it started, with the interplay of two parallel statements (5:7-12; 5:13-20), each with ‘a triad of exhortations that recall important catchwords from the letter’s opening’, forming an inclusio ‘that frames the three essays in between’ (36).

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