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Synopsis: Patience and Swearing

After firmly condemning the rich, James then turns to his readers/listeners and admonishes them to be patient. After nearly inciting them to riot by condemning the rich landowners (or so it might seem), he then counsels them to accept their troubles with patience. James refers to the prophets and to Job as examples of those who suffered and were patient.

After the call to patience, James seems to drop in another unconnected admonition: Don’t swear at all, either by heaven or by earth (5:12). The connection with what precedes or what follows does not seem to be clear.

The prohibition against swearing has nothing to do with “dirty” language, but seems to be directed toward the need to be absolutely honest without having to overlay one’s words with additional oaths. In the Sermon on Mount, Jesus gives almost a carbon copy of James, forbidding swearing by heaven, by God’s throne, by the earth, by Jerusalem, or by your own head (Matt. 5:34-36). “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’” said Jesus. “Anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37, NRSV).

Questions for Discussion.

1. Patient complaining. James heartily endorses the “endurance of Job” (5:11), yet Job complained mightily to God. How can we get the best of both worlds?

Note: Pedrito Maynard-Reid (James, 204-205) indicates that some scholars think James has been influenced the intertestamental Jewish book, The Testament of Job. In the biblical book, Job’s patience (or endurance) lasts only through chapter 2. Beginning with chapter 3, he “opens his mouth and curses the day of his birth.” In the Testament, it is Job’s wife who complains; Job maintains his patience throughout.

In the biblical book of Job, the preamble (Job 1-2) twice declares that Job did not sin through all his trials (1:22; 2:10). But some Jewish rabbis, noting the sharpness of Job’s critique against God, declared that Job really did sin after all. Therefore he was not granted a place in the world to come. The Lord relented somewhat, however, and doubled Job’s earthly wealth, a kind of second-place prize to compensate for the fact that he would have no place in the world to come.

2. Why patience? James exhorts to patience (5:7), but patience in the face of what? What would be the temptation to “impatience” in this connection? Would the oppressive measures adopted by the wealthy landowners (5:4-6), be enough reason to admonish the believers to be patient? Could one not make a case that the oppressed should cry out against their oppressors, as the widow did against the unjust judge in Jesus’ parable? (Luke 18:1-8).

3. The coming of the Lord is near. Was James referring to the second coming when he said “the coming of the Lord is near” (5:8)? The hope in the return of Jesus is strong in the New Testament and “coming of the Lord” does suggest second coming. PMR (James, 199-200), notes that the use of the word parousia is the strongest argument for this position. But another option would be to see the Lord here as the Old Testament Lord of judgment who comes in connection with the frequently-cited “Day of the Lord” in the prophetic books. In the OT, such a “day of the Lord” could be imminent and refer to a local event when God comes to put things right. James’ roots in the OT prophets may have led him to think of such a context. Each local “Day of the Lord” would also typify the final “Day of the Lord” at the time of the Second Coming. But an OT “day of the Lord” would have a much more imminent flavor. Christians have now been waiting for 2000 years for the parousia. That doesn’t seem very near.

4. How near is near? James says that the coming of the Lord is near (5:8). How near is near? Is it still near after 2000 years?

Note: The New Testament makes it clear that “nearness” should not be a major factor in our expectations of the end. Indeed, all the parables in Matthew 25 seem to point in the direction of a delay, and thus the need to always be ready. C. S. Lewis addresses that point in his essay, “The World’s Last Night”:

“We must never speak to simple, excitable people about ‘the day’ without emphasizing again and again the utter impossibility of prediction. We must try to show them that the impossibility is an essential part of the doctrine. If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you do believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return? His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. (1) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly find out when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.” – C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 107.

5. Grumbling against one another. In 5:9, James admonishes the believers not to grumble against each other. Does the long wait make it easier to grumble?

6. No swearing (5:12). What is the big deal about swearing? What is the hidden agenda against which James is warning?

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