When Moderation Isn’t a Virtue

By David Baumann

A Reading from James 4:13-5:6

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.

1 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.


It is common for congregations to come up with a mission statement. At a church where I was rector, a large group of people came together on a long Saturday to draft just such a mission statement. I was delighted with the result: “It is the joy and bounden duty of the people of [this congregation] to worship God as he has revealed himself in Jesus, to become Saints, and to make disciples of all people.” There was a lot of discussion as the day went on. The part of the statement that was most controversial was the commitment to “become Saints” (capital “S”). It was the most personal, the most applicable, and the most challenging part of the statement. Did we really mean it? Or was being just “nice” and “good” enough?

For a long time, many in the wider Church have taken “moderation in all things” as wise counsel, but perhaps we have taken it too far. The problem is, that quote is not in the Bible, and in many cases the Bible contradicts it — especially James’s teaching in today’s lesson, for example. The rich are to “weep and howl” for the miseries their wealth will bring upon them. It does not take much imagination to apply his immoderate teaching to anything at all that can take the first place in our lives over God. We can take nearly anything that we want and put it first, subtly fooling ourselves into thinking that we are making a godly decision. James is not alone in urging total renunciation of whatever threatens single-hearted devotion to God. Jesus taught the same thing, with evocative, uncompromising images: hating parents, leaving children, cutting off hands. With fervent, even fiery style, James urges us not to be moderate in giving ourselves to God, but to become Saints.

David Baumann served for nearly 50 years as an Episcopal priest in the Dioceses of Los Angeles and Springfield. He has published nonfiction, science fiction, and short stories. Two exuberant small daughters make sure he never gets any rest.

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