About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Lynn Wallmark at Simpson University during my senior year for a class on the General Epistles.
Douglas J. Moo’s commentary on the book of James (James, The Tyndale New Testament Commentary series, edited by Leon Morris, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985) serves the Church as a fundamental aid to understanding this portion of Scripture. As a practical book, James is packed full with all sorts of universally relevant material for Christians, and Moo helps to unpack it all in his commentary. The book of James is a book on Christian maturity and is quite practical, and as such I will focus on four of the practical portions from the book regarding partiality (2:1-7), the misuse of wealth (5:1-6), oaths (5:12), and prayer (5:13-16).
THE FOUR FOCI
THE FIRST FOCI: PARTIALITY (2:1-7)
James focuses on partiality in chapter two. In this chapter he refers to the way believers were giving special treatment to the rich people and humiliating the poor, both actions being based on their appearances and economic statuses. James identifies that special treatment was being given to those bearing gold rings and fine clothes while the poor person is identified as the one wearing dirty clothes (v. 2). Furthermore, the one wearing such fine apparal was given a seat, while the one wearing dirty, raggedy clothes was told to “sit at my feet” or else to stand (v. 3). The believers were making a judgment against the people according to their appearance. As such, they showed partiality. James uses a series of questions, which the answer to all of them is in fact, “Yes,” in order to make a point that partiality should not be shown to the poor or the rich, especially the rich, because the rich are the ones who oppress, sue, and blaspheme (vv. 6-7). The point is clear: partiality should not be shown on the basis of appearance or of economic status. Moo unpacks this in his treatment of 2:1-7 very nicely.
Moo addresses James’ use of the Greek word for “partiality,” meaning, “receiving the face” (87). This word denotes judging a person and treating them according to their external conditions (87). Additionally, Moo does well to bring up the context of Leviticus 19:18 with 19:15: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great” (88, 90). Moo shows that the Old Testament background provides necessary context for understanding what it means to show partiality. In sum, Moo’s statement that the believers had appointed themselves as judges and were judging according to standards that were opposed to God accentuates the seriousness of partiality in the book of James because it makes them to be unlike God, thus defying their purpose as believers (90).
THE SECOND FOCUS: THE MISUSE OF WEALTH (5:1-6)
James warns regarding wealth, specifically the misuse of wealth in 5:1-6. Moo helps break this passage down and shows the development of the passage in its individual parts. Moo shows that James makes four indictments against those who are wealthy and misuse their wealth. First, James accuses them of accumulating worthless, worldly goods (vv. 2-3). Second, James accuses them of swindling their workers’ pay (v. 4). Third, he accuses them of having a self-indulgent and apathetic attitude (v. 5). Last, he accuses them of killing the righteous man (v. 6). Moo helps clarify these four indictments in his commentary.
Moo shows that the rich accumulated goods that have no heavenly value because they were perishable (161). It is clear that the rich have set their ambitions on the accumulation of earthly wealth without desire for amassing heavenly treasure that lasts, thus clearly identifying where their heart lies (161). Additionally, their hoard was never used to aid the poor (162). James’ indictment of the rich is clearly understood in the light of Moo’s words: the evidence of the misuse of wealth will stand against them as a witness (162).
Moo shows that the rich swindled the pay from those who worked for them (163). His argument rests in the fact that two of the earliest, best manuscripts have the Greek word for “defraud” as opposed to the other word used in some of the less reliable manuscripts, “withdrew” (163). Those who worked for the rich were to receive what was due to them.
Moo shows that the rich lived self-indulgent and apathetic lives (164). The rich have an “uncaring self-indulgence” to luxury: they want to accomodate a life that rests on a bed of roses and live care-free for those of less fortune (165). Indeed, Moo’s words are powerful regarding this sin: “They are like cattle being fattened for the kill” (166).
Moo shows that the rich are the one’s who killed the righteous man (166). Moo notes that this fourth indictment may be the result of the other three, for it is the “failure of the rich to share their possessions and to pay the wages of their workers” (166). Moo notes Ecclesiasticus 34:22 and its relation to the fourth indictment, for it seems to be on the mind of the author: “to take away a neighbour’s living is to murder him; to deprive an employ of his wages is to shed blood” (166). Certainly, those refusing to share their wealth, being uncaring to the poor, and withhold wages kill the poor, righteous person.
Moo tactfully addresses the difficulties of the misuse of wealth and this passage in James. In doing so, Moo reveals the seriousness of the sin of disusing wealth: accumulating riches while forsaking the poor in their need; embezling money; living self-indulgent lifestyles; and being apathetic towards the poor.
THE THIRD FOCI: OATHS (5:12)
James addresses the use of oaths and swearing in this verse. Many times have many people referred to many passages dealing with swearing to label cussing as a sin. Jesus said, “Do not swear.” Likewise, James said, “Do not swear.” Such passages as these refer to swearing in the sense of oaths, not cuss words. This is different than what I have heard, been taught, and have actually referred to in the past. When I was young, in elementary school, I thought this passage meant I cannot say certain four-letter words. However, Moo points out that this is not the topic of Jesus’ words, nor of James’ (173). Swearing does not refer to dirty cuss words, but language that appeals to the name of God or other things guarantee the truth of spoken words (173). It is not that oaths were not permitted according to the Law, because they were, but the Law required that all oaths be fulfilled. Moo notes, however, that neither James or Jesus probited all oaths, for whether Jesus or James were intending to address the type of oaths which responsible authorities ask us to take is questionable, because they both seem to have in mind voluntary oaths, ones that are intended to avoid absolute truths, and for these caution is required (174). This passage, then, is prohibiting making oaths in order to make words good as truth, and it is not against using four-letter cuss words. Moo’s treatment of oaths is invaluable, and all those who want to argue against cussing and use James in support of their argument ought to read this treatment to see for themselves that James is not concerned with that. To hold James as an authority against cussing is Scripture-twisting, and Moo’s commentary serves as an aid to keep believers from making such an error.
THE FOURTH FOCI: PRAYER (5:13-16)
It seems that prayer is the theme of the tail-end of the book of James. This is not to say that it is less important than the other topics and issues that precede it in the book, but it seems to be the appropriate place for letters of that day to address this particular issue (175). Prayer is seen here in conjunction with healing. Those who are suffering should pray (v. 13). Those are are sick should be prayed over (v. 14). Prayer is powerful, for when offered in faith it can save the sick (v. 15). Believers ought to pray for one another for healing, and the righteous person’s prayers are powerful and effective (v. 16). Moo gives some valuable information in his commentary regarding prayer in this passage in his commentary. First he addresses two facets of prayer for healing— suffering and illness—and second, the power of prayer.
Prayer for suffering is prayer dealing with all kinds of trials and afflictions (175). This prayer is not to request relief from the tribulations, but for the necessary strength to persevere through it in faith (175). Moo makes a very wonderful observation regarding those who are cheerful and singing songs of praise. Moo notes that the word for praise is the same word used for “psalm,” signifying that psalms or songs of praise are to be regarded as a form of prayer (176). This gives a whole new meaning to singing hymns, praise and worship songs, or songs from the heart, because such songs are musical prayers.
Prayer for illness is prayer offered up by elders, or leaders, over the sick person with the illness (176). Those who are the spiritually mature with the responsibility for the spiritual well-being should gather together to pray for those who are sick (176). But their prayers are more than justs words, but they are strong, persistent petitions in faith to the Lord made on the ill person’s behalf (181). Existing in this prayer of faith is the understanding that God is sovereign in the situation, and that it is only by His will that anyone might be made well (182). Not only is this prayer to be offered up on the behalf of elders, but also by each other (182).
Prayer is powerful. This is why believers ought to pray, because it has the power to heal, and this power rests in the believer, not just a super Christian (187). The believer is the righteous man, for it is he or she that is completely committed to God and sincerely seeks to do His will from the bottom of the heart (187). Moo makes a good observation regarding the source of power in prayer by noting that the participle, “effective,” could be translated passively, thus rendering “prayer is very powerful when it is energized (by God or the Spirit)” (187). Therefore, the power and effectiveness of prayer rests in the will of God (187). But if the participle is to be translated as middle, it simply refers to the effect of prayer: “prayer is very powerful in its working, or in its effect” (187).
Moo’s commentary was very informative, shedding light on difficult passages and bringing whole new meaning to familiar ones. He addressed some passages that cause much debate, for example, healing and anointing in James 5, and helped the reader come to a better understanding of how the biblical audience, the original audience, might have understood the letter and the particular issue. His commentary was particularly useful to understand partiality, the disuse of wealth, oaths, and prayer in James, giving good, fundamental bases for exegesis. However, at times, there was one weakness to the commentary.
Further support should have been given, although still kept at a minimum, regarding Scripture outside the scope of James. In his treatment on James and Paul regarding works and faith, for example, Moo neglects to mention relevant passages that support for Paul’s view that works are a necessary reality for the believer. Instead, he shows that the contexts and situation for writing are different for the two authors regarding particular texts. Moo should have also demonstrated Paul’s calling for works from the believers to show further that they do not contradict, for Paul is not negating works and James upholding it—they both afirm works ought to be abundantly existant in the life of the believer. We already know this to be true in James, and Galatians, Romans 6, Ephesians 2:8-10, and the Pastoral letters demonstrate it in Paul. James says we ought to demonstrate our faith by our works, and Paul says we were created by God to do them. It is important to understand their respective contexts, yes, but it is also important to know the entire spectrum, which in this case is the fact that Paul also calls for the necessary abundant existance of good works in believers, and I am surprised that Moo did not pick up on this and make mention of it in his treatment of works in Paul and James (101-2).
THE FOCI IN REVIEW
Moo’s commentary is outstanding. The content’s quality of exegesis outweighs my dissatisfaction by far. The illumination of such texts in James, such as 2:1-7, 5:1-6, 5:12, and 5:13-16 are quite valuable. It is important to know what it means to show partiality, the problems and consequences of misusing wealth, what oaths are all about and why they are no readily permitted, and the importance of prayer for believers.
I chose these four foci because they were areas of James that were less familiar to me, and I wanted to strengthen my understandings in those area with the aid of Moo’s commentary. Partiality was particularly beneficial because it demonstrates the practical call against segregation and discrimination, which are modern forms of partiality. Moo helped show that indirectly by demonstrating the Greek for “partiality” as stated above. The misuse of wealth was particularly beneficial because although I am poor, financially speaking, though rich in Spirit, I wonder what will happen some day if I write a book and happen to become well-off financially. The commentary shows me that it is ok to have money, but it is not acceptable to pursue money and forsake caring for the poor. Those with money have a greater responsibility to take care of the poor and needy, and failure to do so is a sin, for God cares for the poor and wants those He has granted to be stewards of His money to aid the poor. Oaths and swearing were quite interesting as I have always been raised that oaths and swearing is equal to cuss words, but the commentary says otherwise, and upon review I agree. Oaths and swearing do not necessarily deal with cuss words, rather it deals with vows. Vows are binding, and James is urging alongside of Jesus not to make oaths so that sin might not result from the lack of fulfillment of the vow. Moo helped to shed new light on this familiar issue, thus enabling me to come to a new and fresh understanding. Moo’s treatment of prayer was very powerful. This is only fitting since James says that “prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (5:16). Prayer is essential for believers. They are to pray when stressed and when they are happy. They are to fervently request for healing in prayer on behalf of others. Prayer is both individual and corporate in concept as James has it.
Moo helps provide essential understanding in his commentary for understanding these concepts in the book of James. This book proves to be a great resource for anyone who wants to study James at a deeper level, and it is particularly invaluable, although not exclusively, for understanding partiality, wealth, swearing, and prayer in James.