Gently Wise (Prov. 8:1-11; James 3:12-4:3, 7-8a; Mk. 9:30-37)
Who is (or was) the wisest person you have known in your life? Think about it. Notice I didn’t say the smartest, I said the wisest. Smart people are not always very wise. Wisdom is not just theoretical intelligence, but is practical and has to do with ways to navigate fruitful courses through all that life brings.
Our scripture passages today concern those who think of themselves as teachers, and/or wise. Our readings help us find some ways to think about whether they (or we) really are. We set the stage with our reading from Proverbs 8 which is the first part of a poem that takes up the whole chapter. The poem personifies Wisdom as a woman who proclaims her value, her authority and her rewards. The section we read has to do with the value of Wisdom, and in a word, wisdom is “better than jewels.” The whole section also places wisdom in the context of the whole of life rather than relegating it to the intellectual realm alone. According to our poem, Wisdom leads to speaking noble words, to doing right things, and to straightness rather than crookedness of mind and motive. As I said, these words describe living the right kind of life as a whole rather than just being intelligent. While it’s probably true, most times, that wise persons are intelligent, that intelligence is directed toward living creatively and appropriately in the real world rather than simply uttering “deep” things.
As was true last week, the centrepiece of our lessons comes from that little Epistle of James which has many points of contact with the Book of Proverbs and the Bible’s so-called “wisdom literature.” Last week, we looked at the early part of James 3 and discovered some things that folk “out there” in the world ought to expect the church to be saying and doing. We found that one major roadblock to convincing speech is a sharp and intemperate tongue that delivers it. No one wants to listen to someone whose tongue is tipped in acid and whose negativity can be counted on to find fault with things in general. Don’t you get a little weary of someone in a group who always sits back and waits until the end, and then pipes up with “Yeah, but…” and comes up with a “glass is half-empty” speech. It’s true that sometimes the glass is half-empty, but not every time. As I say, people quickly tire of these folk and either turn them off, or, if they do listen, they, too, learn to become negative and destructive of the community.
In this week’s reading, James confronts another problem that inhibits or even blocks our communication with people “out there’” (or “in here” for that matter): arrogance borne of self-centredness. James begins by asking if there are those who think themselves wise and understanding? It’s probable that the author’s view is that there are those in the target audience who see themselves as wise. James proceeds with a test to see whether that’s true. He says, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (3:13). If you are wise it will show up, not so much in your eloquence, but in your life, which will consist in “works done with gentleness.” Older English versions sometimes used the word “meekness” to translate this word “gentleness.” Meekness, however, is apt to be misunderstood as something approaching weakness or “wimpiness.” The word used here does not describe the one who is too weak to do anything else but capitulate to everyone. Rather it indicates the person who is strong enough not to insist on his or her own way every time, and who is not arrogant enough to think that she or he has all the answers. This is the way to gauge whether we’re wise or not. It’s not how much information we have, or how big our vocabulary, or whether we always get our own way, it’s whether our actions (and our words) mirror the gentleness of Jesus. “Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all…”
James, then, talks about wisdom that isn’t like Jesus’ model, a wisdom that he finally calls, “earthly, unspiritual (better, merely human), and devilish” (3:15). Many of us might not be willing to see such negative tactics as “wisdom.” The writer of the Epistle of James, however, is heir of the Hebrew wisdom tradition, such as the Book of Proverbs, and that tradition clearly recognized that wisdom may be used for bad goals. We have all known people who could convince others to do almost anything. Sometimes they are people in the high places of public life. At the beginning of the Book of Proverbs, as the purpose of wisdom is being defined, the author is careful to say that one of its purposes is “for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (Proverbs 1:3). This puts wisdom within the context of three words that are lynchpins of biblical ethics: doing the right thing (righteousness), doing the fair thing (justice), and treating people according to their needs (equity). Wisdom that is not concerned about the welfare of others will always be earth-bound, merely human, and even demonic. James says that such harmful wisdom is marked, above all, by what he calls bitter envy and selfish ambition – jealousy of others, and wanting first place only for ourselves (or our own “group”). Such a “wisdom” leads only to dissension, conflict, and dispute among people because everyone is simply looking out for old number one. The result of operating on such values is worked out in chapter 4; the community is left in chaos, with only the desire of the stronger prevailing. Such communities soon disintegrate. Many groups, including churches, have ceased to exist, because they didn’t understand that “wisdom” can have a seamy, harmful, demonic side. As the political season ramps up, pay careful attention to the “wisdom” that comes. Does what comes from these would-be leaders of the free world aim to play on fear or on faithfulness, does it set up an “enemies list” that divides us, or does it look for common ground that unites us. Listen well, and you will hear plenty of what James is talking about. And it will attract some people.
On the other hand, true godly wisdom – wisdom that grows from a relationship with God in Christ – also issues in certain kinds of behaviours (again showing that wisdom’s about living not just about thinking). Such wisdom is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” It is a wisdom that can only be played out in community for the good of the community. The last verse of chapter 3 talks about a crucial part of being wise in James’ sense: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” I have said many times that behind this word “peace” is the Hebrew word shalom, which doesn’t just mean a lack of conflict, but rather wholeness and well-being. What Jesus calls a “peacemaker” (literally a peace-doer) is one who lives in such a way that her or his actions make habitually for wholeness, consensus, common ground, not simply within individuals (surely that), but also within their communities in ever-widening concentric circles until it encompass the whole human family. The way the NRSV translates this verse, it means that righteousness (what is right) is the result of living in ways that make for the wholeness of the human family. This reflects two of Jesus’ beatitudes: the one that says that peacemakers are the God’s children and the next one that says that the kingdom of heaven is the inheritance of those who are righteous (who do the right thing, Mt. 5:9-10). To speak to the world in God’s name, the community of faith must centre its deeds in a clear search for living in ways that make wholeness central to what we are. It’s not just right thinking or speaking, it’s also right acting.
I cannot think of a better ancient illustration of the principles and values that James writes about than our Gospel Lesson from Mark chapter 9. This passage follows on the heels of last week’s in which Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah until Jesus told Peter and his chums that being the Messiah entailed being killed and rising again. Peter couldn’t fathom that and rebuked Jesus, after which Jesus really chewed him out. It isn’t surprising that, in our Gospel Lesson, when Jesus kept on teaching that being the Messiah did not mean personal or political greatness, but suffering in the interest of wholeness for others, that the disciples didn’t understand and were afraid to ask him about it. If he had rebuked their leader Simon Peter they decided it was better to say nothing. I sometimes see students (or those listening to me in other circles) who I know do not understand anything I’m trying to say, but are too embarrassed or shy or confused to ask. Asking is a moment of vulnerability for us, but it does open a way to conversation and enriched understanding.
Jesus understood the disciples’ silence and puzzlement. When they stopped for a while, he asked the disciples what he’d overheard them arguing about on the road? They admitted sheepishly that they’d been arguing about who would be the boss when Jesus was gone. It was sad that he was going to die, but someone had to run the show after that – I mean it’s only wise isn’t it? What kind of wisdom, though?
Jesus responded: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all.” Then Jesus did an amazing thing. To help his disciples understand what he meant, he put a child in their midst. Now, in Jesus’ day a child was nothing but the property of the parent. The parent could do with the child as he or she pleased. On the other hand, the child was really the future of the family. Jesus set out this criterion for both greatness and wisdom among disciples: if who you are and what you do welcomes and serves folk who are like this child – who aren’t necessarily important or winners in the eyes of most people, but who really are the future of the family – then you actually welcome me. And if you welcome me, you welcome God. That’s greatness – the first being last, and that’s wisdom. That’s living as one who makes for wholeness.
That’s an ancient example. What might a good contemporary one be for us? I find that churches don’t very often do things as institutions, but individuals within them do many things. What does making for the wholeness of others mean for you in your place? What actions can you take that are wise in this sense of the gentleness born of doing acts that promote wholeness? When we ask what our mission is in the midst of our community, is it not to be those who live out of values of gentleness and make for wholeness? Is it not to welcome those who, like the little children, have no real power or prestige? And, so, is it not to be wise with a wisdom born of God in Christ?
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.