Comments and Observations
There are two ways to read this text. First, it might be a development of the theme of wisdom raised in James 1:5, then dropped for three chapters, and now revisited for further explanation. In other words, this is one more isolated bit of instruction in a long string of pearls randomly strung together. James explains what true wisdom is by contrasting it to wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” You can always tell when that false wisdom is at work in the world, says James, because the “wise guys” who live by that wisdom are filled with “envy and selfish ambition,” and they leave “disorder and every evil practice” in their wake.
This kind of wisdom is on display with graphic brutality and explicit sexuality in the wildly popular TV series, “Game of Thrones.” Many of our parishioners are probably not fans of “Thrones” because it’s too grisly and too sexy for their sanctified tastes (though we might be surprised). But many of our most sanctified brothers and sisters are avid fans of the political soap opera played out 24/7 on cable news. The race for the presidency has just begun, but already we are seeing this worldly wisdom on full display. Even candidates who claim to be Christians are not above speeches and tactics that seem earthly, unspiritual, and even of the devil. I know that we shouldn’t judge the motives of other people, but it sure looks as though some of the candidates are driven by “selfish ambition,” which one scholar defined as “an unscrupulous determination to gain one’s own ends.” There is certainly “disorder” in the body politic and our society surpasses ancient Rome in its embrace, even celebration, of “every evil practice.”
If you take this line of interpretation, you could preach a flaming prophetic sermon designed to alert your parishioners to this society-wide adoption of false wisdom, urging them to be a people apart. This would be a good time to encourage them to be adopt a distinctively Christian (rather than Republican or Democratic) perspective as we approach the next election and, indeed, as we watch TV and engage in business and interact with our neighbors. Let’s be culture critics, rather than merely culture consumers. Let’s be leaven in the loaf, salt in the meat, light in the darkness.
But there’s another way to read the text, and that is to take it as a continuation of last week’s section on teachers/preachers. Perhaps James is referring to a cadre of teachers in the churches to which he writes when he says, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Then he defines a wise teacher not as someone who can talk a good line, but as one who lives a good life. This reminds us of James’ previous words about true faith in chapter 2, and it echoes Jesus’ stern words about bearing fruit in Matthew 7:15ff.
To teachers/preachers who prided themselves on big words, fluent sentences, careful arguments, and brilliant reasoning, James says, “That’s not real wisdom.” This was a paradigm shift for folks in Greco-Roman culture where wandering teachers earned their living with their quick minds and golden tongues. It was also a refreshing corrective for contemporary Jewish culture where rabbis endlessly argued fine points of Torah and formed whole schools of interpretation around themselves. James says that true wisdom shows itself in a very different way. “Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
If you take this line of interpretation, you could preach a cautionary sermon about the current state of the church, where people run from church to church to hear the newest hot preacher. Or they simply stay home and feast on the gourmet fare served up by the superstar preachers on TV. You will have to be careful with this tack, because it could sound like judgmental sour grapes and self-defensive posturing. But this caution is timely, given the large number of superstars who have fallen from their lofty pulpits in the last several decades, not because they preached heresy, but because their lives besmirched the Gospel.
Probably the safest and most effective way to preach about preachers is to include yourself in the cautionary words, or, even better, to include your listeners. Even if only a few of us are called to be teachers, all of us are called to be witnesses. And all of us live in a culture dominated by the false wisdom about which James speaks. We can easily fall in with the “wise guys” among whom we live and work and play. So we all need to be reminded of the nature of true wisdom, and live accordingly.
As I’ve said, James stresses the living. Wisdom is defined not as intellectual brilliance or doctrinal correctness, but as moral virtue and practical goodness, as “good deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Whereas false wisdom is filled with selfish ambition, true wisdom produces humility. This emphasis on humility as the heart of wisdom flows directly out of the Old Testament insistence that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” If you bow before Yahweh, you will have a proper, humble view of yourself.
Such an emphasis on humility was no more popular in first century Greco-Roman culture than it is in 21st century North American culture. The cultural contemporaries of James saw humility as a companion of meanness and groveling, linking it with words like ignoble, abject, servile, and slavish. Epictetus put is first in a list of faults to be avoided. Today it is almost axiomatic that you cannot succeed in life if you are humble. People will simply run over you if you are humble. You have to stand up for yourself and fight for what you want. Everyone knows that. It’s just the smart way to live.
No, says James. That’s false wisdom, “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom. Those three words show the low down character of this widespread wisdom. It rises from the ground, rather than coming down from heaven. It is unspiritual; the Greek is psuchike, which sometimes refers to the soul, but here is the opposite of pneumatikos. James means that this wisdom is natural; it arises from our natural instincts for survival. It is no more than an animalistic response to the input of our senses. What’s worse, this “wisdom” is “of the devil,” or, more properly, “demonic.” I think of Screwtape writing to his mentee, Wormwood, about what will happen to the junior demon if he doesn’t succeed in temptation. He will be devoured by the Prince of Darkness who goes about like a lion, seeking someone to devour. That’s the nature of this worldly wisdom; it ultimately devours everyone who lives by it.
So, says James in 4:1-3, it leads to exactly what you’d expect, namely, fighting. When you fight for what you want, you’ll get fighting, everywhere—from the endless bloodletting in the Middle East to the subtle infighting of corporate boardrooms to the soul-destroying cruelties of the elementary school playground. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want… you covet…, you quarrel and fight….”
There’s an entirely different way to get what you want, the way of heavenly wisdom, and that is to ask God for it. That is superstitious foolishness to the worldly wise. In fact, the way of prayer is so counter-intuitive that we can live that way only if God gives us the gift of wisdom. True wisdom “comes down from heaven” and is totally unlike the prevailing wisdom of the age. Rather than being characterized by “every evil practice,” it is “first of all pure.” The word pure is usually a description of God’s utter separation from moral imperfection, but here it is the primary characteristic of those who have received heavenly wisdom. Rather than adopting the desire-driven lifestyle of our fellow humans, the wise will adopt the holy life of God.
And rather than resulting in the universal fighting that characterizes the worldly wise, this wisdom from heaven is all about peace. In some of the loveliest, most clever Greek in the New Testament James paints a picture of wisdom that is the very opposite of that groveling servile humility so despised by 1st century moralist and warriors and by chest thumping football players and bombastic politicians in the 21st century.
Heavenly wisdom, because it comes from the One who promises Shalom for the entire creation, is “peace-loving.” It shows that love of peace and actually creates peace by being “considerate and submissive.” By using Greek words that are alliterative, James describes two sides of the same coin. If you are in charge, you will be considerate of those under your authority, rather than lording it over them. If you are under authority, you will be submissive to those over you, rather than being rebellious or grudgingly obedient. You will be gentle and reasonable no matter where you are on the pecking order.
Further, with a second couplet of near poetry, James says the heavenly wise will be “full of mercy and good fruit.” Finally, using more alliteration, James echoes his words about discrimination in chapter 2; the truly wise are “impartial and sincere.” In a world filled with bitterly divided camps, you will regard everyone as worthy of the same honor and respect. And in a world full of hypocrites who hide behind masks to deceive their opponents, you will drop the masks (anhupocritos) and speak the simple truth.
The result of such wisdom will be not only peace, but righteousness. The tension between justice and peace thrums through society. We saw the tension in places like Ferguson, Missouri, where some citizens only wanted things to be peaceful again, while others insisted that there had to be justice first. “No justice, no peace.” True, but it’s also true that there can be no justice without peace. The Psalmist acknowledged that those are often competing concerns in human society when he promised that one day, when the Kingdom of God comes, “justice and peace will embrace (or righteousness and peace kiss each other).” (Psalm 85:10) Followers of Christ can promote that Kingdom by living with heavenly wisdom. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”
That’s the promise we can hold before our skeptical people when we preach on this counter cultural text. Living with heavenly wisdom seems an impossible ideal in our battling world. But what a wonderful effect that kind of living can have. The alternative is the fighting driven by envy and selfish ambition. And the result of such “wisdom” is the disintegration of society and the disappearance of common decency and simple goodness. God promises peace and justice to those who live by his wisdom, both in the church and in society.
Of course, this whole business is beyond us. We simply cannot live in such a way. That’s why it’s a good thing that our reading for today ends as it does with verses 7 and 8a. The only way we can even begin to live wisely is to submit to God; after all, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Rather than rising up on our own two legs and trying harder, we must kneel before God and ask for his wisdom and mercy and strength. “We do not have, because we do not ask.” When we do ask, it is often nothing more than a pious equivalent to fighting. It’s all about our own desires. “Lord, give me, give me, give me, for me and mine.” No, says James, when you pray, submit to God and his agenda and his way, and you will receive all you need to pursue justice and peace.
Oh, there is a place for standing up and fighting, and that is wherever you meet the devil. The devil is involved with all the envy and selfish ambition and disorder and evil practices and fighting in the world. So wherever you encounter him at work, resist him. And, powerful though he may be, he will flee from you. Not if you resist him in your own strength. You will be defeated if you try that, because “on earth is not his equal.” No, you resist the devil, not by battling the human opponents who live by his wisdom (Eph. 6:10), but by coming near to God and repenting of your own sins. Any other approach to the wickedness in our society will leave us a self-righteous, contentious, embittered, and defeated sectarian minority.
Could it be that the church is in its current weakened condition because we’ve either given in to the wisdom of the age or we’ve tried to battle that wisdom in our own strength? Rather than being the beautiful peace-loving bride of Christ, we’re the emaciated old hag shaking her bony finger at society and croaking out condemnation. This text calls us to a different way of living in this world. If we come near to God in humble faith and sincere repentance, God will use us to bring his kingdom, where, at last, “justice and peace will embrace.” And that begins with us preachers.
In The Christian Century, Vicar Lisa Fischbeck tells the story of the time she threw someone out of church. Her story illustrates the difficulty of being a peace-loving Christian in a hostile and violent world. On Pentecost morning, a visitor arrived early at Fischbeck’s Episcopal church with “an urgent message.” She introduced herself as Vicki and said to Rev. Fischbeck, “God is going to end the world on Friday. You are all going to hell, and I need to talk to everyone here.” Rev. Fischbeck tried to be both welcoming and careful. There was no way she could give the pulpit to this obviously troubled soul. But Vicki stayed, accosted every church member she could find, warning them that they were all going to hell. Finally, just before the service, Rev. Fischbeck ushered the visitor out the door and to her car.
The whole episode deeply troubled the Vicar. Her church aims to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible, but, as the title of her piece puts it, there are “limits of welcome.” She ends her piece by musing as follows: “Should I have responded in a different way to Vicky? I don’t know. I pray about it. I pray that Vicki will get whatever help and care she needs. I pray that I will be wiser and more faithful if we have another encounter. And I pray that the people in our congregation will be kept from harm.” That is the nature of church life today. Such episodes illustrate why we desperately need that wisdom from heaven.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 20, 2015
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a Commentary