James 4:13-17New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
Boasting about Tomorrow
13 Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ 14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
I have known people who obeyed this instruction to the letter and always qualified their plans with “God willing.” I had a meeting today with a Muslim man who peppered his speech with “Inshallah”, ( if God wills). Recent events in my own life have made me aware of how fragile my own plans can be.
The business people in James’ example are energetic traders who have found ways of making a profit within the orderly empire. He does not criticise their business, only the foolish confidence it has given them in their own enterprise: they have made a business plan and feel certain it will be implemented, forgetting the fragility of their existence, which is like a morning mist that soon evaporates. This sober wisdom is traditional and is applied by James to the globalising enterpreneurs of his time.
His words are reminiscent of Jesus’ story of the rich farmer who plans his life of ease ignorant of the fact that he is about to die. The wisdom tradition of which Jesus was part, held dear the prophetic recognition:
as for man, his days are as grass.
Like a flower of the field so he flourshes
and the wind passes over it, and it is gone.
There is no mocking pleasure in this recognition which is sadly true of all human life, and therefore offers a wise knowldege of the vanity of human wishes. We are in God’s hands, James suggests. I would use a slightly different theology which puts God at one remove from the world. Our lives are part of the order and chaos of the universe and its evolution, including the evil actions of our fellow human beings. God, I believe, is ultimately responsible for these universal processes which can wreak havoc with human plans.
Recognition of our fragility does not forbid human boldness or ambition but does suggest that they will be most successful when they take that fragility into account, and ally themselves with the purposes of God which stand forever. The beatitudes, the blessings of Jesus are upon those who have learned this truth; the modest, the grieved, the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
Like much wisdom, this kind of truth is not popular in our culture, beacuse its dominant powers want us to believe that “growth” is always possible and that opportunity always knocks for some. If too many people recognised that their lives were like a morning mist, they might be less ready to grunt and sweat under the weary loads that capitalism imposes. That should increase our appreciation of James and the tradition out of which he writes; our fruitfulness, maybe even our survival, may depend on it.