Yesterday’s class went very well. I was happy that the subject matter sparked quite a bit of discussion. I started the class with an exercise put together by Pamela Sparr in the updated version of Elsa Tamez’ The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead (pp. 119-125). In this exercize I had a table set up for five people with plates, cups, forks & knives, a gallon of milk, measuring cup, and a danish ring. I then had five volunteers come to the table and one of them divide the danish into four equal pieces. I took a pinch of crumbs and laid it on one person’s plate. Then I had someone cut a third of one fourth and put it on another person’s plate. Then the remaining 2/3 of the fourth on another plate. Then a whole quarter went to one person and half to one final person. I then explained that this represented the distribution of income in the United States. Each person represented 20% of the US population. One half of the income goes to a single 20% segment, while the lower 20% only recieves a “smidgeon” of income:
Individual Income 1st 20% 2nd 20% 3rd 20% 4th 20% 5th 20% % of total income earned by group 3.6% 9% 15% 23% 49.4% Average income for a person in group $9,940 $24,436 $40,879 $63,555 $135,401
I then had one of the volunteers pour milk into each person’s cup. The 1st recieved 2 oz.; the 2nd 3 oz.; the 3rd and 4th received 3.5 oz., and the 5th received 22 oz. of milk. Finally, I had the volunteer pour slightly less than 1 oz. in the measuring cup. This represented the spread of wealth in the world’s economy. I think that this exercise was quite helpful in demonstrating to upper-middle class residents of the North Shore of Massachusetts that there is inequality in the world, even if we do not feel it too much in suburbia.
After discussing the inequality of distribution, I handed out the lesson and we read James 1:9-11:
The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business. (NIV)
While studying this text, I was struck at the strangeness. If I put out of my mind what I knew of the Gospels, the scandal of James’ message hit me a little harder. The humble brother may boast in their exaltation even though we don’t see much of that exaltation in this age. The rich brother can boast in his humiliation. Then the real scandal – the rich can boast in his humiliation because he will one day fade away in his pursuits like a Palestinian flower withering under the hot sun in a sirocco wind storm. How can this be? I explained to the class that James is alluding to Isaiah 40:4, 6-8:
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. . . . All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.
This passage speaks of a day of “Great Reversal” when Israel’s exile is at its end, and Israel’s God returns on straightened paths. James picks up the imagery of the text. The humble will be exalted along with Isaiah’s valleys, and the rich debased along with Isaiah’s mountains. James’ brother, along with his cousin, John, preach of this great reversal. The beatitudes in Luke proclaim a series of eschatological blessings for the poor, the hungry and the mourning, while warning of eschatological judgment to the rich, the satisfied and the laughing. This gives the poor reason to boast. In their poverty, they are favored in the Kingdom of God.
How then can the rich boast in James? Of course this is the crux interpretum of the passage. Who are the rich? Insiders or outsiders? Is their boasting literal or ironic? The more I think about it, the more I think that the rich in this context are indeed rich brothers – they are insiders with reason to boast because in their care of the poor, they have emptied themselves of their resources. In essence, I think that James is stating, “You folks who were once rich, but have now debased yourself in care of the poor for the sake of the kingdom have reason to boast. After all, if you had continued in your pursuits as a rich person, you would have faded away like a wilted flower.” I demonstrated this pouring out by taking the 22 oz. cup of milk and using it to level off all of the other nearly empty cups. (I only spilled a little milk!)
I openned up the time for discussion at this point. Does James’ declaration here mean that as Christians we should become “bleeding heart liberals?” I used incendiary language on purpose, of course! The discussion was helpful. One respected gentleman in the class, who has been quite successful in business observed that we cannot simply repond to this by pouring money out to those with need without thinking. He stated that he has been quite thoughtful about the issue, and does not see any value in socialism. On person remarked that according to certain TV preachers, the United States is blessed because it is a righteous nation founded on godly principles. This caused another to point out other prosperous nations who are anything but “Christian.” I encouraged the class that there was no such thing as an easy answer to poverty, but at the same time, we must answer. We must ask the question and not let the overwhelming nature of the problem cause paralysis. We must ask for wisdom from the Father of Lights to guide us as we are tested with our wealth in a less-than-just world.