Ben van der Klip sheds light on an interesting aspect of the letter of James.
The aura of mystery surrounding the Lone Ranger left people asking, ‘Who was that masked man?’ An aura of mystery also surrounds the identity of the rich person in James 1:9–11; is the rich person a Christian or an unbeliever?1
A literal translation of the Greek of James 1:9–11 would look something like this:
9 And let the humble brother boast in his high position, 10 but the rich man in his humiliation, for like a flower of grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with the scorching wind and withers the grass and its flower falls away and the beauty of its face perishes; likewise also the rich man will disappear in the midst of his activities.
There are a number of exegetical issues tucked away in these verses, but I will focus here on the issue of the rich person’s identity. The question of the rich man’s identity arises because James doesn’t explicitly identify the rich man as a ‘brother’.2
To begin with we observe that the first clause of verse 10 lacks a verb: what does the rich man do in his humiliation? Most scholars are agreed that the same verb as in verse 9 should be supplied so that we understand verses 9–10 like this: ‘And let the humble brother boast in his high position, but let the rich man boast in his humiliation…’
Clearly there’s a measure of irony in the rich man boasting in his humiliation. But how ironic does James intend to be? Is it caustic irony, as if to say, ‘Boast in your eternal damnation’? Or is it gentler, something like, ‘Boast in the loss of your worldly status that you lost when you became a Christian’?
According to Drake Williams, James has Jeremiah 9:23–24 in mind, where the rich are told not to boast of their riches but to boast in knowing the Lord. Williams observes that the Jeremiah passage is directed towards the people of God, the Israelites, and concludes that James speaks similarly. Much of the force of his argument is lost, however, when we notice that Jeremiah 9 is directed to a people so unfaithful that the Lord’s judgement is going to fall on them.3
Determining the nature of the rich man’s humiliation will aid us in understanding the way in which the rich man is meant to boast. The rich man’s humiliation is contrasted with the humble brother’s high position, and it’s a lop-sided contrast: James contrasts a humble brother with a rich man. The contrast isn’t between a poor brother and a rich man, or between a humble brother and a proud man.4
On the basis of James 1:12 and 2:5 we can follow Hort in understanding the humble brother’s high position as referring to the possession of the kingdom of God; hence a present reality as well as a future one.5
Understanding the rich man’s humiliation is more difficult. Those who identify the rich man as a Christian identify a number of possibilities including spiritual humbling and forfeiting material possessions, either upon death or as a result of trials. If the rich man isn’t a believer then presumably James has his eternal condemnation in view.6
James adds the explanatory clause in verse 10: ‘for like a flower of grass he [the rich man] will pass away’, recalling Isaiah 40:6–8 which contrasts fleeting human life with the enduring word of God.7 James expands upon the illustration in verse 11. Those who consider the rich man to be a believer argue that this is not the language of eschatological judgement.8
Yet it’s instructive to consider Psalm 49 in this regard, for this psalm refers to wicked deceivers who boast of their riches (49:6)—to people who, despite their ‘wealth’ (NIV2011) or ‘pomp’ (ESV), do not endure but perish like beasts (49:12). The psalmist contrasts these people, who remain in the realm of the dead, with those whom God will redeem from the dead (49:15).
So even if the language of eschatological judgement isn’t present in James 1:9–11 the passage is still consistent with the idea that the unbeliever has no part in the age to come (or, in other words, in the kingdom of God). If we’re correct in understanding the humble brother’s high position as referring to having a part in God’s kingdom then it’s reasonable to understand James as saying that the rich man’s humiliation consists of his passing away and not inheriting the kingdom.
Deciding whether the rich man is a Christian or non-Christian is highly involved and complicated by a variety of factors, as we’ve seen; the scholarly debate continues. Somewhat strangely, Blomberg and Kamell suggest that the trials in James 1:2 involve economic exploitation of impoverished Jewish-Christian peasants by rich non-Christian landlords but then conclude that the rich man in verse 10 is a Christian believer.9 For me the non-Christian interpretation is slightly more convincing.
The letter of James is often regarded as straightforward and practical. Closer examination shows considerable depth to the text and the need for careful exegesis to determine what James is really saying. And this is not merely academic for, as Stulac observes, two very different applications (and sermons) arise out of James 1:9–11 depending on whether the rich man is identified as a Christian or a non-Christian.10
Ben van der Klip is the rector of St Mary in-the-Valley, Kelmscott, in Perth. He has an interest in the letter of James and ought to take out shares in his local Dome coffee shop.
1 Dale Allison opts for a unique solution in his recent commentary on the letter of James, arguing that the rich person is a brother (a member of the same Jewish diaspora community) but not a Christian; see Dale Allison Jr, James (ICC; Bloomsbury, 2013), 204–206. I am not persuaded that the letter is written to a combined Christian/non-Christian audience so I don’t find Allison’s conclusion as to the rich person’s identity convincing.
2 I have not provided an inclusive translation, as the inclusive rendering of pronouns complicates the exegesis. I take James the brother of Jesus to be the author of the letter, but the question of authorship doesn’t affect my argument here.
3 H. H. D. Williams III, ‘Of Rags and Riches: The Benefits of Hearing Jeremiah 9:23–24 Within James 1:9–11’, Tyndale Bulletin 53/2 (2002): 273–282. While there are resonances between the passages, there are significant differences too, so I am not persuaded that the Jeremiah passage is as foundational for James as Williams suggests.
4 According to Luke Johnson, the Greek word translated ‘rich’ refers specifically to material wealth while the term translated ‘humble’ can include a sense of poverty as well as humble status; see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James (AB; Doubleday, 1995), 184–185.
5 Cited in Johnson, James, 184.
6 Craig L. Blomberg & Mariam J. Kamell, James (ZECNT 16; Zondervan, 2008), 55–56; J. H. Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of James (ICC; T&T Clark, 1991), 145–146, 148.
7 The translation ‘it will pass away’ is grammatically possible, but in context verse 11 makes it clear that it’s the rich man who passes away; see Johnson, James, 186.
8 e.g. Douglas J. Moo, TheLetterofJames (PNTC; Eerdmans/Apollos, 2000), 67. The question of whether to translate ‘the sun rises with the scorching wind’ or ‘the sun rises with burning heat’ in verse 11 doesn’t affect the argument here.
9 Blomberg & Kamell, James, 43–44, 46.
10 George M. Stulac, ‘Who Are “The Rich” In James?’, Presbyterion 16/2 (1990): 91–92.