James 4:1-17
(Today’s scripture reading is interspersed throughout the sermon)


One day God was looking down at Earth and saw all of the bad things going on here. He decided to send an angel down to Earth to check it out. When the angel returned, he told God, “Yes, it is bad on Earth; 95% of the people are misbehaving, and 5% are not.” God thought for a moment and said, “Maybe I had better send down a second angel to get another opinion.” So God called another angel and sent her to Earth for awhile. When that angel returned, she went to God and said, “Yes, it’s true. The Earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are being good.” God was not pleased. So while he was debating what to do about the 95%, He decided to send an email the 5% who were doing good to encourage them — to give them a little something to help them keep going. And do you know what that email said? No? Yeah…I didn’t get one either.

Fortunately, however, we have this letter from James that we’ve been working our way through for the last few weeks. James was the brother of Jesus, and the undisputed leader of the early church in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. Since the gospels were written several decades after the time of Christ, this letter from James possibly represents the very earliest teachings of Christianity, from a person who knew Jesus and his teachings better than anyone else.

But there’s another kind of teaching that James is obviously familiar with–one that is less obvious to us living in the 21st century, but which would have been immediately recognizable to anyone living in the 1st century world of Greek and Roman influence. That kind of teaching is the diatribe, and the entire letter of James is written in this ancient style.

Now when we hear the word “diatribe” today, we think of a long, angry rant about something, an extended, fist-shaking soapbox–the kind our current president seems fond of, and the kind many talk-radio show hosts (and many pastors) seem fond of these days as well. To be fair, sometimes it does seem like James is ranting just a little bit. But that’s not what “diatribe” was in Greek rhetorical style.

The word diatribe (διατριβή in Greek) is made up of two roots: διά, or “through” and τρίβος, which means “well worn” as in a well-worn path. So a diatribe to the ancients, was simply an excursion through a well-worn, or well-established path.

The modern wisdom poet, Robert Frost, says that he took the path “less traveled by, and that made all the difference.” But any wisdom teacher from ancient Greece could have told you that if you take the path less traveled by, you will probably get eaten by a bear. There’s a reason the path is less traveled. The well-worn path, on the other hand is also well-worn for a reason–it works. It gets you where you need to go, and it has gotten many there before you.

So a diatribe then, in the world of the 1st century, was a presentation of well-established wisdom or morality. James is clearly presenting wisdom, and moral teaching, but with a twist: James is not Greek or Roman. He’s Jewish. So his rhetorical style is Greek (which makes sense–remember he’s speaking to churches dispersed throughout the Roman Empire) but his content, the well-established path, the wisdom he is teaching is not Greek or Roman, it’s distinctively Jewish. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

First, how do we know that he’s using the style of diatribe? It has one very distinctive feature: A series of rhetorical questions that present forks in the road, ideas that lead away from the well-established path, which we are meant to reject. We’ve already seen many of these in previous chapters.

Remember the opening to chapter two: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Or, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” Or, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” By the way, extended use of metaphors from nature (water, fire, waves, flowers) is also a feature of classic diatribe AND of wisdom literature).

In the five short chapters of James’ letter, he asks a total of 26 rhetorical questions–six of them in today’s passage, chapter four. So an important key to understanding the diatribe or teaching of James is to look at those questions. I’m going to read verses 1-3. Listen for the key questions:

1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

There are two questions, right off the bat, but the second question kind of answers the first. Where do all your conflicts and disputes come from? And the answer James gives is that they come from within, from your greed. This is where James shows his very Jewish character. Greek and Roman culture (much like our culture today) valued above all else the individual–in Greek Olympic competitions and Roman gladitorial competitions, the individual winner was crowned with laurels. Monuments were built to celebrate the conquests of individual military leaders (nevermind the armies they commanded!). Sculptures and paintings immortalized the beauty of individuals. To succeed and thrive in Greek and Roman civilization, one had to be strong, powerful, self-promoting, self-serving, and self-confident.

Jewish culture, on the other hand, valued above all else the community. Jewish laws were designed to identify and protect the community from outside influence, and Jewish leaders (like Moses) were only valued for their ability to protect the community and lead it to safety. Even God, in the Old Testament, does not judge the Israelites individually, but cumulatively, on the basis of their behavior as a nation. In a community, self-serving, self-promoting and self-confident behavior is useless and dangerous. The highest virtues in a community-oriented people are self-sacrifice, co-operation, and humility. This is what James preaches, in contrast to the values of “the world” in his time.

Listen again for the questions in verses 4-10:

4 Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

We might summarize the two questions in these verses as “Who has your best interests at heart? You? The individual? The world which values the individual? Or God who values all of his children? Here again, Jame’s answer is “Submit yourself to God and be humble.” That might mean abandoning your ego and your pride. It might mean weeping for all the things the world celebrates, and celebrating all the things the world despises.

James says in verse 7, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” While many in the ancient world did believe in a literal “devil,” pitchfork and all, the literal translation of the Greek word διάβολος is not a name, not a proper noun, but means “the adversary” or the one who opposes you. Resist the forces that draw you further away from God (into the world) and draw nearer to God instead. If you approach God in pride for how wonderful you are, God (who is, after all, God) will probably not be impressed. But if you approach God in humility, acknowledging your flaws, your shortcomings, your brokenness, God’s not going to beat you down for them (like the world does). Instead, God will lift you up as his precious, beautiful creation.

Listen again for the question in verses 11-12 (hint, it comes at the end):

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?

In keeping with the theme, we might rephrase this question as, “Who is best equipped to judge others? You? The world? Or God? James tells us that the only one who can judge is the only one with the ultimate ability to save as well as destroy…in other words, God.

And yet, as James reminded us last week, we continually judge and tear each other down with our words. Interestingly, James brings up the law as an example to support his point. I don’t think he’s referring to Roman law, but rather to the Torah–the Jewish law, or the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. The Apostle Paul takes a dim view of Jewish law, saying it’s impossible to keep, and therefore we need grace instead; but James puts the law on a spiritual plane–unlike the Roman law, which comes from people and is enforced by people, the Torah (the true law) comes from God, and only God can enforce it. If we try to do that, we’re putting ourselves in the place of God. The implication here is that rather than judging our neighbor, we as Christians are simply called to love our neighbor.

One more question, listen for it in verses 13-17:

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.

What is your life? Or to put it another way, whom should you entrust with your life, your future? We already know the answer that comes from the world: You are the best person to run your own life. You are the best person to make your own plans and decisions. There’s just one problem. None of us has the slightest idea how many days we have left in this world. And we have a pretty narrow, 100-year-maximum perspective on things. God, on the other hand, sees not only the short span of our lives, but the entire arc of human history.

I’m reminded of the story about the Catholic Priest and the Presbyterian pastor who stood by the side of the road one day, together holding up a sign that said, “The End is Near! Turn yourself around before it’s too late!” A driver passing by rolled down his window and yelled at them, “Get out of here, you religious nuts!” From around the curve they heard screeching tires and a big splash. “Do you think,” said the pastor to the priest, “we should have just written ‘Bridge Out’ instead?”

To those who insist on stubbornly and arrogantly driving their own way down the road of life, James says, “Be humble, and put your trust in the Lord.” You can still make plans and decisions, but hold them loosely, knowing that tomorrow is truly in God’s hands, not your own. Don’t boast, don’t brag, and don’t deliberately do what you know is wrong.

I think we especially need to hear this call to humility today, in an American culture that tells us we have to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; that you’re only worth something if you’re famous, or rich, or powerful–in other words, successful as an individual. What would it look like instead, if we, as a community of humble, faithful people, measured our success together? As in, none of us is truly successful unless every single one of us is successful together?

Sometimes, on an especially good Sunday where the message or the music has really hit home, someone will tell me how much they appreciate this church and our worship. Often they’ll use this expression: I come to church because it really ‘fills me up.’ And that’s great. I want people to leave this place feeling full of God’s spirit and God’s love. But if you’ve ever felt that way, if you’ve ever been “filled up” in this place, here’s my challenge to you, and here’s how to take things to the next level–from the individual level to the community level; the James level, the Jesus level.

In just a moment, we’re going to gather around the table of the Lord. Usually, when we do that, you get to stand in line for a few moments in order to see me, or whichever church officer is serving you communion. But today, we’re really going to gather around the table and serve each other. You’ll get to look into the eyes and faces of the people around the table who make up this community. And as we pass the cup and break bread together, I want you to do something. I want you to look into the eyes of the ones across from you, the ones next to you, and (silently) ask yourself this question: What can I do to fill them up? How can I serve them? God, how will you use me, humbly, purposefully, to help them and walk with them on your well-worn path?

You might be surprised at the answer God speaks into your heart, and at the deeper fullness that comes from being part of God’s community.