If we read James 4:13-17 out of context, it would seem as if he is rebuking some businessmen simply because they would like to earn some profit for themselves. But if we see the passage within its proper context, then we realize that the rebuke is similar to the one found in the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12:16-21.
The Context of James 4:13-17
The present selection belongs to the context begun with James’ allocution about Wisdom in James 3:13-18
13. Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.15 Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. 18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace
What follows this statement is a critique of the manifestations of “earth-bound wisdom” in the communities addressed by James. So he speaks against conflicts and divisions (4:1-6) which he sees as a turning away from the Lord in pride (cf. 4:7-10) and rash judgments (4:11-12). In this section, he speaks against those who are “presumptuous”.
Humility and Presumption
“Wisdom from above”, says James, derives from humility. What is humility? Humility is the acceptance that before God we are needy. Humility is not comparing oneself with another and saying “I am ugly”, even if you are not. Humility is not saying “I am not capable” when you are capable. St. Augustine says that “humility is truth”. Humility is accepting that before God, we do not have anything to boast about since there is nothing good in us that did not come from God. If we can accept that all that is good in us comes from God, then this would have an implication in the way we relate to others, that is, we don’t have any reason to raise ourselves above others in pride and boasting.
Among the Greeks of the classical period, humility was not considered a virtue. For this reason, atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche, in their program for human betterment, would not recommend humility, since according to them, it is a virtue of slaves. For us, however, it is important since the Lord, Our Lord himself, says: “Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart. Take my yoke upon you for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
Who should be humble? The student before the Teacher, the soldier before his General, the slave before his Master, the son or daughter before his/her parents. Note that student, soldier, slave, son/daughter are images most often used in the Bible for those who are disciples. In the Scriptures, the humble are those who have come to depend on God and who live by His Word. Presumption, on the other hand is the direct opposite: it is to live as if there is no God. In presumption, there is no fear of God.
Fear of God
In Isaiah 11:2-3, we have the classical text for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are gifts that were given in full to the Christ (cf. CCC, 1831), but we also receive in baptism as we share in the three-fold office of Christ as priest, prophet and king. Here, the last gift mentioned — fear of God — is the first one given as condition for the rest: piety, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, understanding, wisdom. Isaiah 11:2 lists “wisdom” first, but it is the last to be given as crown of the other gifts. It is that wisdom “from above” that James refers to. But it is given with fear of God as a pre-condition.
“Fear of God” is not like the fear of a lawbreaker for the policeman. It is rather like a loving son’s or daughter’s “fear” of causing offense to his/her parents. It is “fear” that derives from love and respect.
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”–14 you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. 15 Instead you should say, “If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.” 16 But now you are boasting in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
James addresses himself to businessmen. Later on he will speak against the rich (James 5:1-6). What he rebukes here is the attitude that makes this group think that they can manage their lives independently of God. Like the foolish businessman in the parable (Luke 12:16-21), they go about their business as if they alone control the way their life goes. But like the fool in the parable, they too would die and they would be forced to recognize the emptiness of their strivings.
The opposite of this attitude is “fear of God” which is expressed in humility, the humility of accepting that my life is in the hands of God. This kind of humility derives from that wisdom which comes from above. Wisdom is the capacity to see myself, others, the world and life as God sees them. It is a gift, something granted from above. And only through faith-filled prayer — as James tells us — are we going to receive it. “If any of you lacks wisdom” James says,”he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting.” (James 1:5-6) We need wisdom in order to live as God wants us to live. In confusing times like these, we need that kind of wisdom.
Originally posted 2008-05-21 03:53:56. Republished by Blog Post Promoter
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