Study 5       Is There a Time to Boast?

James 1:9-11

9. Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation,

10. and the rich in his humiliation, because like the flower of the grass he will pass away.

11. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower fails, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

This short paragraph is quite interesting in that it leaves commentators puzzled over the identification of the rich man. Some think the person is a Christian while a significant number of writers believe he/she is a non-Christian. If James is referring to a Christian then he is reminding the person that riches are transitory, but if it is a non-Christian then the only thing he could take pride in is his condemnation in the judgment.

Verse 9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation.

The word translated “lowly” may mean poor or humble. The New International Version paraphrases the word as “humble circumstances” The Septuagint uses the word in the sense of someone who is of little worth in the world and is oppressed by stronger forces. This is especially true in the Psalms. (10:18; 18:27, for example). We need to remember that the people James is writing to are poor and persecuted in their new homelands. It would seem that the idea of being poor or humble would fit more aptly in this verse than the RSV word, “lowly.”

Now, the word “boast” is translated as “take pride,” in a number of versions of the Bible and the term is used widely by Paul, but James is the only other N.T. writer to use the word. (See also 4:16) Pride or boasting is not necessarily wrong, but is determined by what we are boasting about. The point of the verse is that we boast in his exaltation and not in anything he has achieved or accomplished.

This whole idea of boasting in knowing and trusting Christ as compared to the boasting of a rich man who boasts in his wealth is built upon Jeremiah 9: 23-24 “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength    or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this; that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.”

I love this verse and am tempted to spend the rest of the study musing through the many faceted sides of this encouraging and motivating passage of Scripture. But, a quick read through of the text shows us from where James developed his idea of contrasting the rich man with his passing riches and the nature of true boasting, which is in Christ and His gifts. How many people in our world strive for riches, and pass by God’s gifts of kindness, justice and righteousness. We complain about our lot in life and all the difficulties that we face, but we all too often don’t rely upon God’s goodness to help us through, but instead think if only I could win the lottery life would be better.

James is reminding the scattered persecuted church that regardless of their financial circumstances they have a great deal to boast or take pride in because they belong to God and He watches over and cares for them. As Christians we are to look beyond the things that bring status in this life and recognize that our life belongs to the Kingdom of God and the entire blessing associated with the Kingdom. In fact, by faith we already belong to that heavenly realm and can walk in the assurance of salvation and the newness of life that comes through Jesus. James makes this clear in Chapter 2: 5, “Listen, my beloved brethren, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He has promised to those who love Him?”

How many times have you listened to fellow Christians bemoan the fact that they are not wealthy or have more money? However, this is not what life is about, seeing who has the most toys or the most money at the end of their life. Discipleship is about living within the realm of God’s leading and protection. Remember Jesus said, “for what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his life.” Matthew 16:26ff

Something else we need to think about before we move on to verse 10 is that in Jeremiah 9 God explains what true wisdom consists of. Remember, in chapter 1, verse 5 of James we read that when we are facing trials to ask God for wisdom on how to handle the situation? Here Jeremiah tells us that true wisdom is to understand and know God who is kind, just and righteous towards us because that is His very nature. How is it possible that, as a Christian, we want to blame God when something goes wrong in our life as if God doesn’t care about us or actually makes the problem happen? Jeremiah and James remind us that God is there to help us in our times of trouble because this is God’s nature.

It is important for our study to keep in mind that Jeremiah 9:23-24 seems to be the catalysts for connecting verses 2-8 with 9-11. James isn’t flying from one topic to another without any rhyme or reason. There is a connection, through that regardless of all our trials (v.2) and our financial struggles and persecution,  (v.9) God is looking out for us. This becomes obvious to anyone who asks God for wisdom to understand. The result is a Christian may boast in their growth, in faith and God’s love in spite of their circumstances because through those trials they grow stronger and closer to God.

Verse 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like the flower of the grass he will pass away.

It is interesting that James doesn’t introduce the rich man as brother like he introduces the persecuted man as brother in verse 9. There is a strong tradition that we have mentioned in the previous verse throughout the O.T. that the poor and humble in spirit are associated with being godly people. However, there is little tradition in the O.T., to my surprise, of associating rich people with wickedness and evil. Moo points out in his commentary on James that the only passage that clearly associates the idea of wealth and wickedness is Isa. 5:14

It is not till we come to the N.T. that the relationship between wealth and wickedness seem to meld. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus proclaims, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Luke 6:24 Now, contrast that with the blessing on those who hunger after the Lord and face trials in verses 21-23 of Luke 16. I believe, that James is simply saying that whoever the rich man is in the passage, money doesn’t make the man. Riches all disappear like the grass that turns brown in the fall of the year and fades away. The only thing that is worth pursuing in life is wisdom to know and understand and trust God in every circumstance.

Verse 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

This is obviously a continuation of verse 10 and carries the metaphor further along the road. Take a few minutes to read Isa.40: 6-8; Psalm 103: 15-16 and Ps. 49: 16-17 to get a sense of the flavor and power of the tradition behind what James is saying.

In summary of these three verses let me say that I don’t think James is anti-wealth. I do think that he is saying that a rich man just like a humble man should rejoice in his relationship with God and not in his possessions. Wealth dies with you, but a trust in God carries you through to the Kingdom. I think Moo has a wonderful summary of the passages. “To the poor believer, tempted to feel insignificant and powerless because the world judges a person on the basis of money and status, James says: take pride in your exalted status in the spiritual realm as one seated in the heavenlies with Jesus Christ himself. To the rich believer, tempted to think too much of himself because the world holds him in high esteem, James says: take pride not in your money or social position – things that are doomed all too soon to fade away forever – but, paradoxically, in your humble status as a person who identifies with one who was ‘despised and rejected’ by the world.” The Letter of James, p. 68

It is not easy to think and believe as James outlines it, but it is the road to discipleship and if the church is to have power and be relevant then his admonitions need to be taken seriously. So far in James we have seen that when we are tested we need to hold tight to God and not be double-minded when confronted with trials. The single minded resolve to stand fast in the face of trials comes when we seek wisdom to know how to respond and to remember that God is with us through our troubles. James also knows that money and the pursuit of wealth can lead a person away from God as quickly as any vice. Money is a key threat to our exercise of faith and we have to make sure that we don’t spend our lives enslaved to it. Jesus warned his followers, “ No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Matthew 6:24

Question: What would our churches look like if we were a people who saw money as a tool for the Kingdom of God and not for our own pleasure and ease?

Confession:  When I started studying James I thought it would be quite a slog to get through. I love the action of the Gospels and the grace that flows from the words of Paul, so I thought James would be rather dull, legalistic and steeped in tradition that related to the Jews, wow was I wrong! I really hope you are enjoying the study as much as I am. If you have comments I would really like to hear about them and your views. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section so we can all share in each other’s views. I am pleased with how many of you are reading these posts, but I would love to hear from you because it keeps me thinking and I like corresponding with my readers.