The Poor, the Rich, and God’s Mission in James

Can James be read missiologically? The answer is yes. This paper argues that one of James’ missions in his letter is to bring nominal, or self-deceived false believers in the believing community to God. The rich James addresses in the letter belong to this category. Jesus taught that the believing community would be a mixed community of genuine and false believers (e.g., the parable of the wedding feast in Mt 22 and the parable of ten virgins in Mt 25). It is generally accepted that James draws from not only the Old Testament but also from Jesus’ teachings. One example of it is his presentation of two ways throughout the letter: life vs. death, heavenly vs. earthly wisdom, hearer vs. doer of the word, the poor vs. the rich, etc. The poor are exhorted to persevere in their trials and as a result, receive the crown of life, and the rich are warned about eternal judgment, and implicit in the warning is a call to repentance. James desires all his readers to inherit life, so he calls the rich to repent from their oppression of the poor (5:1-6), but he also calls the poor not to judge the rich oppressors to avoid judgment without mercy (2:13; 4:11-12; 5:9).

Self-deception is an important topic in James and is a coherent theme that runs through the letter. In the first chapter, after contrasting between remaining steadfast under trials (which leads to receiving the crown of life) and falling into temptation and sin (which leads to death) (1:12-15), James warns the readers not to deceive themselves (1:16) into thinking that God is the source of their temptation. The truth is, every good gift is from God (1:17), and temptations are not (1:13-15). This follows the heels of the explicit contrast between the poor who are to be exalted and the rich who are doomed (1:9-11). The rich have fallen into sin by yielding to temptations and are heading toward eternal damnation.

Then James contrasts between the doers of the word and the hearers only who are self-deceived (1:22). The hearers do not act according to the law of liberty so are not blessed, while the doers are blessed through their doing (1:23-25; cf. 1:12 where the blessed are those who persevere under trials and receive the crown of life, and Lk 6:20-26 where the blessed poor who inherit the kingdom are contrasted to the rich to whom woes are pronounced). For those who think they are religious but are self-deceived and have no control over their speech (1:26), their religion is useless. Those who have true religion are the doers of charity and purity (1:27). Repeatedly, James exhorts the readers to persevere (1:4, 12, 25; 5:8) because repentance from sin and perseverance under trials is how one receives the crown of life. God desires all including the rich to come to inherit life. James’ letter should be read in this missiological light.

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