I am a very literal person and I have a hard time with irony and understanding the truth that should be taken away from it. James, in this section, plays with the concept of the rich and the poor, whom he labels “the brother in humble circumstances.”
God’s economy and view upon humanity is such that he humbles the proud and exalts the poor. Jesus showed this when he washed the disciples’ feet at the last supper. There are numerous verses that reiterate this point. What’s interesting to me is that James takes this concept one step further and urges his audience to take pride in the truth.
Pride collaborates with some kind of achievement or high and lofty ideal. You take pride in your school because of its excellence. You take pride in your kids because they are so special. Whatever others look up to, that is something to take pride in. However, James turns it around. The first part of this verse took me about 3 seconds to understand. When God says that he will exalt the humble or give grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34), that is something to take pride in. God’s grace is certainly something to be proud of and wish for. Knowing that your humble circumstances leads to God’s grace, it’s easier to swallow what life feeds you.
Then there’s the next part. I wrestled with this passage and talked with several friends about interpretations and meaning. It’s still unclear to me in some sense because James doesn’t use many terms to be “proud” of; low position, pass away, withers the plant, etc. What does a rich man actually have to be proud of?
Throughout the rest of the book, James never really gives any credentials to the rich at all. In fact, one could quite honestly say that he holds the rich in no high regard. They are more of a burden to the people he is writing too and he certainly doesn’t pull any punches. So why do we constantly strive for riches? I know I’m guilty of this fact, although I feel like I am growing in this area. I do agree that money isn’t a resource to be squandered and wasted. My opinion of money is to be used to sustain a family, indulge sporadically, and help those in need. I don’t desire to be rich just for riches’ sake.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians (3) and spoke of his pedigree. Some would take this as boasting, however, Paul realized that boasting in things that pertain to this world are utter foolishness. You might say that he could take pride in knowing that none of that mattered. I think that’s what James is eluding to. The rich have an opportunity to have worldly pride in the fact that they are rich; they can buy comfort and luxury and have an easy life. However, in God’s eyes, and because he looks at the heart, there’s not much to boast about there, unless you know that it’s meaningless and will pass away.
I can’t say that I fully understand passages like this. They try my patience since I enjoy more literal teaching. On the other hand, I think James does a great job in teaching us that there is a reversal of positions in God’s eyes. He sees things differently than we do and for good reason. My hope is that whether I’m rich or poor in the world’s eyes, my life will be glorifying to Him and that at the end of my life I will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower.