The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 25th Ordinary (Day 3)
James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a
13 Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. 14 However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. 16 Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil. 17 What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. 18 Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts.
4 What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? 2 You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight. You don’t have because you don’t ask. 3 You ask and don’t have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.
7 Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. 8 Come near to God, and he will come near to you.
This passage from James appears to a commentary of sorts on the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4. There the two brothers, the former a farmer, the latter a rancher, bring their offerings to God. For no explicit reason, God accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s. God then counsel’s Cain to take care because the anger he indulges toward Cain threatens to overcome and enslave him.
James does a riff on that story here in James 3 highlighting the difference between a life of wisdom and understanding and one ruled by drives and “cravings” that are “from the earth, natural, demonic” (3:15; 4:1).a Indeed, the latter threaten to overwhelm and enslave us as well to the destroy our humanity and unravel the fabric of our community.
“Jealousy” and “selfish ambition” are at the root of much that troubles us in our world; much that we do not take seriously, which makes it all the more dangerous for that. C. S. Lewis, in his Narnian story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, portrays our dilemma well. Lucy, in the mysterious house of an old magician, finds a book of spells. In it she finds
An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals. Lucy peered at the pictures with her face close to the page, and though they had seemed crowded and muddlesome before, she found she could now see them quite clearly. The first was a picture of a girl standing at a reading-desk reading in a huge book. And the girl was dressed exactly like Lucy. In the next picture Lucy (for the girl in the picture was Lucy herself) was standing up with her mouth open and a rather terrible expression on her face, chanting or reciting something. In the third picture the beauty beyond the lot of mortals had come to her. It was strange, considering how small the pictures had looked at first, that the Lucy in the picture now seemed quite as big as the real Lucy; and they looked into each other’s eyes and the real Lucy looked away after a few minutes because she was dazzled by the beauty of the other Lucy; though she could still see a sort of likeness to herself in that beautiful face. And now the pictures came crowding on her thick and fast. She saw herself throned on high at a great tournament in Calormen and all the Kings of the world fought because of her beauty. After that it turned from tournaments to real wars, and all Narnia and Archenland, Telmar and Calormen, Galma and Terebinthia, were laid waste with the fury of the kings and dukes and great lords who fought for her favor. Then it changed and Lucy, still beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, was back in England. And Susan (who had always been the beauty of the family) came home from America. The Susan in the picture looked exactly like the real Susan only plainer and with a nasty expression. And Susan was jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now.
“I will say the spell,” said Lucy. “I don’t care. I will.” She said I don’t care because she had a strong feeling that she mustn’t.
But when she looked back at the opening words of the spell, there in the middle of the writing, where she felt quite sure there had been no picture before, she found the great face of a lion, of The Lion, Aslan himself, staring into hers. It was painted such a bright gold that it seemed to be coming toward her out of the page; and indeed she never was quite sure afterward that it hadn’t really moved a little. At any rate she knew the expression on his face quite well. He was growling and you could see most of his teeth. She became horribly afraid and turned over the page at once.
A little later she came to a spell which would let you know what your friends thought about you. Now Lucy had wanted very badly to try the other spell, the one that made you beautiful beyond the lot of mortals. So she felt that to make up for not having said it, she really would say this one. And all in a hurry, for fear her mind would change, she said the words (nothing will induce me to tell you what they were). Then she waited for something to happen. As nothing happened she began looking at the pictures. And all at once she saw the very last thing she expected—a picture of a third-class carriage in a train, with two schoolgirls sitting in it. She knew them at once. They were Marjorie Preston and Anne Featherstone. Only now it was much more than a picture. It was alive. She could see the telegraph posts flicking past outside the window. Then gradually (like when the radio is “coming on”) she could hear what they were saying.
“Shall I see anything of you this term?” said Anne, “or are you still going to be all taken up with Lucy Pevensie.”
“Don’t know what you mean by taken up,” said Marjorie.
“Oh yes, you do,” said Anne. “You were crazy about her last term.”
“No, I wasn’t,” said Marjorie. “I’ve got more sense than that. Not a bad little kid in her way. But I was getting pretty tired of her before the end of term.”
“Well, you jolly well won’t have the chance any other term!” shouted Lucy. “Two-faced little beast.” But the sound of her own voice at once reminded her that she was talking to a picture and that the real Marjorie was far away in another world.
“Well,” said Lucy to herself, “I did think better of her than that. And I did all sorts of things for her last term, and I stuck to her when not many other girls would. And she knows it too. And to Anne Featherstone, of all people! I wonder are all my friends the same? There are lots of other pictures. No. I won’t look at any more. I won’t, I won’t"—and with a great effort she turned over the page, but not before a large, angry tear had splashed on it.
On the next page she came to a spell “for the refreshment of the spirit.” The pictures were fewer here but very beautiful. And what Lucy found herself reading was more like a story than a spell. It went on for three pages and before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too. When she had got to the third page and come to the end, she said, “That is the loveliest story I’ve ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years. At least I’ll read it over again.”
But here part of the magic of the Book came into play. You couldn’t turn back. The right-hand pages, the ones ahead, could be turned; the left-hand pages could not.
“Oh, what a shame!” said Lucy. “I did so want to read it again. Well, at least I must remember it. Let’s see … it was about … about … oh dear, it’s all fading away again. And even this last page is going blank. This is a very queer book. How can I have forgotten? It was about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill, I know that much. But I can’t remember and what shall I do?” . . .
Aslan, the great lion and Christ figure appears to Lucy in the Magician’s study)
Then her face lit up till, for a moment (but of course she didn’t know it), she looked almost as beautiful as that other Lucy in the picture, and she ran forward with a little cry of delight and with her arms stretched out. For what stood in the doorway was Aslan himself, The Lion, the highest of all High Kings. And he was solid and real and warm and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane. And from the low, earthquakelike sound that came from inside him, Lucy even dared to think that he was purring.
“Oh, Aslan,” said she, “it was kind of you to come.”
“I have been here all the time,” said he, “but you have just made me visible.”
“Aslan!” said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. “Don’t make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!”
“It did,” said Aslan. “Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?” After a little pause he spoke again. “Child,” he said, “I think you have been eavesdropping.”
“You listened to what your two schoolfellows were saying about you.”
“Oh that? I never thought that was eavesdropping, Aslan. Wasn’t it magic?”
“Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way. And you have misjudged your friend. She is weak, but she loves you. She was afraid of the older girl and said what she does not mean.”
“I don’t think I’d ever be able to forget what I heard her say.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Oh dear,” said Lucy. “Have I spoiled everything? Do you mean we would have gone on being friends if it hadn’t been for this—and been really great friends—all our lives perhaps—and now we never shall.”
“Child,” said Aslan, “did I not explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?”
“Yes, Aslan, you did,” said Lucy. “I’m sorry. But please—”
“Speak on, dear heart.”
“Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn’t remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan? Oh do, do, do.”
“Indeed, yes, I will tell it to you for years and years. But now, come. We must meet the master of this house.”
Even as Lewis masterfully displays the ways our distorted drives and strivings can wreak havoc in our lives, just as James has taught, he also memorably interweaves the other story of our lives as Christians that counteracts and even, thank God, redeems the havoc we have wrought. We have Aslan always present, ready to tell us that most beautiful story in the world which helps us rightly order our priorities and desires. Or, as James puts it, “Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you.”