Living into the unknown

Today’s first reading continues to work its way through the Letter of James.

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”— 14 you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears. 15 Instead you should say, “If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that.” 16 But now you are boasting in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So for one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, it is a sin. (James 4:13-17)

James is not saying to not look ahead and plan, he is using commerce to make a point. Every local business has responsibilities to customers, employees, and family – and should plan appropriately – “count the costs” so to speak. James is focused on the merchants who deal domestically and in foreign trade. They took risks, weathered storms and bandits, and demanded a high margin of profit – but then they are the ones who are taking the risks. James does not show concern with that.

Earlier, James rebukes (vv.11-12) the sin of arrogance rooted in self-opinionated, self-righteous smearing of others. Now James addresses another kind of arrogance. An arrogance he sees in the apart-from-God self-assurance of the merchant’s attitude. He sees it as an unwarranted presumption – a form of practical atheism. Over against such practical atheism James sets God and man’s dependence on him. He has already spoken of submission to God’s will (v.7); he now shows that this submission applies to all life.

You can make plans, but as James notes in v.14, you are not in control of the tomorrow. Consider the story of the self-satisfied landowner in Luke 12:16 (and following). The same idea was expressed in Jewish thought: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what any day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1)

What James urges is not 1st-century “doom scrolling,” but a realistic attitude to the future made possible by faith in God. Realizing the future is uncertain not only teaches us trust in God, it helps us properly to value the present. To be obsessed with future plans may mark our failure to appreciate present blessings or pay less attention to our present responsibilities and duties.

Total trust in God calls for a radical reorientation of the whole of our lives in the light of conversion to the one true God. Hence, our lives, whether we live one or a hundred years, whether or not we succeed in our undertaking, are all under God’s providence and not our own control.

James stresses that Christianity requires a sweeping and pervasive change in our lives which are totally caught up in God. The point is not quietism or passivity but completeness of our conversion to God with our whole heart, mind, and strength – that is shown forth in faith and works, all through the grace of God.

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