I’m fascinated by the way the teaching of James’s Letter can be brought to life when the story hidden within it is brought out. Here’s a third story about Sophron, based on part of chapters 4 and 5.
Sophron, the assistant pastor at the breakaway Jerusalem synagogue—one of those where they worship Mashiach Yeshua—is on his way to the market. He has decided to make a surprise visit to the modest business he owns there to see that everything is in order. As he turns down the street where the shop is, he notices a couple of men standing together just across the road. Nothing unusual about that, except that they are exceptionally well dressed, and as one of them lifts his arm to make a point, Sophron catches the flash of several rings on his hand. With a surge of pleasure, Sophron recognizes him: the man who came to prayers in the synagogue a couple of weeks back, whom he placed in one of the best seats. Sophron was unable to speak to him then, because he was grabbed by Elder Yakob and given a telling-off for making the poor man Elazar bar Adam sit on the floor. Now is his chance. Remarkably, as he moves with due hesitation towards the two men, the one with the rings on turns towards him with a smile.
Embed from Getty Images
‘Peace to you, Sophron bar Zakkai. Delighted to see you. You may recall that I had the pleasure of attending prayers in your synagogue recently. I am Yohanan bar Yehuda, and may I introduce my brother Yoel bar Yehuda.’
‘Peace to you both. May I be of service to you?’
‘That is what we are hoping, my friend. We have reason to believe that you, unlike some of those belonging to the Way of Mashiach, did not place all your property at the feet of the Apostles.’
‘You are right, my friend. At the time of the lamentable affair of our late brother Hananyah and his wife Sappirah, our Apostle Kepha made it quite clear that it was not an obligation to do so. He told them: “Didn’t the land belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”’
‘A wise ruling, Master Sophron.’
‘Certainly. By making over all their property, some of the brothers have become very poor and now depend on the daily distribution. I did not want to become a burden on the Assembly, but rather a present and future benefactor, so I have kept my modest business—which you see across the street—in operation.’
‘You were prudent. And, yes, we understood that this excellent house of trade is yours and came especially to look over it. It seems a well-run business.’
Sophron is relieved that the shop has passed the scrutiny of men so obviously versed in the ways of trade. He murmurs gratefully. Yohanan bar Yehuda continues: ‘And furthermore we have a business proposition to make to you. We feel sure that you could bring value in and bring profit out.’
There follows an exciting discussion. The Yehuda brothers want Sophron to come in on a trade venture outside the land of Israel! What an opportunity, especially if Sophron can encourage Yohanan, and perhaps Yoel too, to come to prayers again. He wonders what word of instruction he might put together for them. While his mind is wandering off topic, he notices a small black-clad figure at the far end of the street, moving rapidly towards them with a sense of purpose that can be felt, even at this distance. Oh, it’s Elder Yakob. Well, at least he can introduce him to his prospective partners and cement their relationship with his synagogue.
Sophron hastens to get his greeting in first. ‘Brother Yakob, peace be with you. You have arrived at an auspicious moment.’ He introduces the bar Yehuda brothers to Yakob.
‘Peace to you all and blessed be the Lord of Glory,’ says Yakob. ‘Brother Sophron, what are you doing with these men?’
‘They have invited me to join them in an important business initiative.’
‘How do you mean?’
Yohanan intervenes. ‘Allow me to explain, Elder Yakob. Today or tomorrow we are going to Damascus or possibly Sidon; we will spend a year there, carry on business and make a modest profit. Our friend Sophron here will handle the Jerusalem end of the enterprise.’
Yakob’s face takes on a look that Sophron knows and fears: knitted brow, flashing eyes, and jutting chin.
‘Today? Tomorrow? why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life, or his, or mine for that matter? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’
‘Brother Yakob,’ says Sophron, ‘There’s no need to be so negative—’ But Yakob is in full flight.
‘Instead of talking like this, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.’
Sophron is shocked that Yakob can speak so aggressively in front of men he scarcely knows. How dare Yakob behave like this? What if the deal falls through? He looks fearfully at Yohanan to see if he is offended.
Yohanan looks as calm and collected as ever. ‘My dear Elder Yakob, there’s really no need to entertain doubt about our plans. We have many poor people in Israel. It is a poor country. Taxation is high and the Romans, how shall I put it, don’t make life any easier. We must bring trade and wealth here. It’s the only way to lift our nation out of its depression.’
There’s a short silence. Sophron is relieved that Yohanan has responded so generously and put up a convincing argument. Perhaps Yakob will see sense.
Yakob takes a step forward and points a very long finger directly at the two brothers.
‘Now listen, you rich people! You may as well weep and wail! Why? Because of the misery that is coming on you. Let me remind you how Mashiach Yeshua put it. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your fine clothes. Your gold and silver—those rings—are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.’
Sophron, now sweating, attempts to intervene. ‘Brother Yakob—’
‘Wealth, my friends! You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! Did you not, Master Yohanan bar Yehuda, encounter a very poor shabby man at our prayers when you attended—sitting on the floor, in fact?’ Sophron groans inwardly.
‘Indeed, there was such a man.’
‘One Elazar bar Adam. A labourer forced off his fields by his landlord—perhaps your brother Yoel bar Yehuda here, or one like him. Yes, the wages you people failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you! The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty, blessed be he.’
‘Brother Yakob, you can’t tar all rich people with the same—’ Sophron tries. It’s no good.
Yakob is shaking his finger.
‘You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You speak of the Romans: well, you have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter that they are going to bring. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. Yes, the Innocent One from above, the Mashiach, the Lord of Glory!’
Yakob, slightly out of breath, turns to Sophron.
‘Brother Sophron, are you seriously going to take this yoke upon you?’
‘Well, I thought it would be a good idea…’
‘Just remind me of what is written, brother: if anyone knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, what is it for them?’
‘It is...sin, brother.’
‘Come then, brother.’