James 4—Insights on Business under God (Commentary and Discussion with Mariam Kamell)
Over a period of five weeks, we've asked Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell to blog through the book of James. Their commentary, the first in the ZECNT series, will release at the ETS and SBL annual meetings, beginning Nov. 19. This fourth post, written by Mariam, looks at James 4.
My father was a Coptic Egyptian who immigrated to the US when he was 14. Sadly, he didn’t teach his kids any Arabic beyond a few simple phrases, but one that I heard repeatedly growing up any time my father mentioned plans for the future – whether financial or fun – was in’sha’ala: "if the Lord wills." It always intrigued me that I could pick that phrase out at regular intervals when he spoke to his relatives. Not one of them planned for the future without recognizing that God could change their plans at any time.
James seeks to cultivate this awareness of God in 4:13-17.
He calls for the attention of the merchants, those "who say we will do this." His problem isn’t so much with their planning or aims of making money: He’s frustrated by their arrogance toward life. The merchants plan to spend a year somewhere earning money, and in 4:14 James reminds them that they don’t even know about tomorrow. He reminds them instead that their lives are like "mist" (atmis): it appears but quickly vanishes. To view their lives as something permanent and under their own control evidenced pride, because they could not even guarantee tomorrow. Indeed, in a world as treacherous to travel in as the first century world was, there were high chances that a traveling merchant could meet misfortune by shipwreck (cf. Paul in Acts 27) or bandits (cf. Jesus’ story in Luke 10:30-36): natural causes or human agents were both dangers to travelers, and so the arrogance of these merchants in assuming "we will travel and we will make money" angers James.
Instead, James says, they ought to say "if the Lord wills, we will…" The accent in this statement is on the sovereignty of the Lord in every person’s life. Statements like this, of course, can become rote sentiments with no meaning, but that obviously isn’t the point of this passage. James seeks to instill an attitude of humility in his readers – humility that recognizes the fleeting nature of one’s existence and God’s sovereign control over all of creation – not to enforce a meaningless saying. Without the recognition of God’s will, these merchants – and all who speak of their future this way – "boast and brag." To claim certainty about the future is to claim divine knowledge.
In this period of economic crisis, we are all receiving a strong wake-up call about our country’s and world’s arrogance toward money. All along the leaders of the economy have "trusted the market" and somehow assumed money would keep making money. We have all said "I will invest my money and in 15 years I will retire comfortably" or some such variant. James’ warning concerning our attitudes about earning money is timely and highly warranted. As Christians, we ought to display a different attitude from our society about gaining wealth. It is not bad to invest, not bad to do business in a godly manner, but always we must remember that all that we do and earn is in’sha’ala, "if the Lord wills."
Mariam Kamell is a PhD candidate in New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews under the direction of Richard Bauckham and Grant MacAskill. She has published several articles on James; her dissertation will focus on soteriology in James in comparison with earlier Jewish wisdom literature and the Gospel of Matthew.
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