“Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks James. And how are answers to this question lived out in the church, we wonder.
Well, one form of logic might suggest that the wise and understanding ones among you are necessarily the clergy and church officers of a congregation. Isn’t this how they – or we – have come to hold the positions and enact the roles we do? I will confess that such thinking sends a cold shudder up my spine. Thank goodness for James’ letter – from which comes this question about wisdom and understanding among us. Thank goodness for James’ sensibilities and sensitivity, because while some kinds of logic might create hopes that wisdom and maturity of faith are presumed criteria for church leadership, such hopes don’t always equate with the kind of wisdom and understanding James describes.
And thank goodness for Nadia Bolz-Weber – whose name has come up in this pulpit at least twice already in my time here. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor in Denver. She’s edgy, evangelical, creative, and passionate about Christianity – this system of symbols that has called her and allows her to mount a teetering relationship with God – and she has created a church – The Church of All Sinners and Saints – in which she observes a growing number of incredibly diverse members – the kind of people, she says, that Jesus was famous for hanging out with. Her brand of wisdom on this subject affirms that church leaders, herself at the head of the pack, are not necessarily so much shining examples of perfect faith as much as proof that God can use anything or anybody in the furthering of God’s purposes. She sometimes has to admit that she feels that the gospels are the worst good news she’s ever heard in her life, acknowledging the pain that can come when she receives what she calls “a divine heart transplant” – when God reaches in and rips out her heart of stone and replaces it with something warm and beating again. I love that image, and I love how James may be acting as God’s surgeon.
And there’s nothing to fear here. As is characteristic of James’ writing, the answer to his opening question is simple and direct: good works are the mark of one who possess wisdom. In so many words, you will know wisdom by its fruits. This is pretty practical and down-to-earth theology that is clearly about God and God’s relation to us as creation. Wisdom, James suggests, assumes that because it is, of itself, the supreme gift of God to humans, reflections on what it means to live in relation to God are always going to be very practical. The gifts of God have an immediate and very practical purpose – at a spiritual level they intend and point to a life that only becomes full through intentional and practiced love and care for the neighbor. Spirituality is not a matter of escaping from this world. It is, instead, to be exercised and most visible in engagement with the day to day affairs of our lives.
In today’s passage, the author lifts up a number of markers of the evidence of God-given wisdom in the lives of individuals. These include being gentle or humble, being pure, being peaceable, being willing to yield, or full of mercy – being without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Does this describe you? Anyone you know? It probably does, and perhaps often. Maybe the point is that we might be described as such more often.
And while these qualities characterize parish leaders in many ways, they are not always perfectly embodied, and they are not the exclusive province of faith community leaders of any kind. They can be very difficult traits to live into. They speak of a life that is not ego-driven – code-language for not being based in fear – a life that is not grasping or envious. In a society that is centered on self-gratification (often at the expense of others – recall our recent reflection on the very nature of advertising and politics) James’ words sound alien and counter-cultural. But as you reflect now upon what James is saying, it may be helpful to try to envision the ways you or others around are able to embody these traits. It may create a foundation from which to expand.
As you reflect, it’s helpful to recall St. Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia. Chapter five of that letter enjoins us to be mindful of the fruits of the spirit – and James might be singing a duet with Paul, his list of attributes harmonizing beautifully with Paul’s, a list that includes: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s a short list – easy to memorize – and it comes in handy as we engage in the day to day affairs of our lives. If you encounter one of these markers – from James’ list or from Paul’s – chances are you’re heading in the right direction.
Deliberately gaining a fuller understanding of the fruits of the spirit as they contrast with envy, selfish ambition – with disorder and wickedness of every kind – helps us to know the difference between true wisdom and false wisdom – helps us break ourselves open to the wisdom from above.
Using words that are gentle but firm, Jesus’ brother is really letting his first-century readers know – and us, these millennia later – that he is sick and tired of hearing what people think about faith in God. He is unimpressed by wisdom and understanding – at least the kind that people use to pound each other – to create insiders and outsiders. The only wisdom that interests James is the wisdom from above, which has nothing to do with having good ideas and everything to do with living good lives. Our job is not to judge. Our job is not to figure out if somebody deserves something or not. Our job is to lift the fallen, restore the broken, and heal the hurting.
And along the way, we will often encounter conflict as we attempt to live into the wisdom from above. The conflicts and disputes that James refers to as he addresses his first century audience, really haven’t changed all that much in the ensuing 2000 years. And James lifts up as one of the greatest gifts of wisdom, its capacity to lead humans to peaceful resolution of conflict. Indeed he identifies our difficulty in satisfying our insatiable wants and desires for things as the root cause of the inevitable coveting and craving that leads to conflicts and disputes – coveting and craving that, at its most insatiable and power-hungry, leads even to war. While the fruits of the spirit bear the potential for peaceful resolution of conflict, feeding the end-goal of our pleasure, taken to its extreme, can become the spring-board to death.
How do our desires relate to our conflicts? Where is God in those places if all desire is, at its heart, desire for God? How does James’ practical and down-to-earth theology help to guide and govern us?
Of course, for James, the answer to our conflicts is to learn what the gift of wisdom has to offer in its taming of excessive desire. And he argues that this piece of learning has to do with our learning how to pray rightly.
To pray rightly – in the context of this wisdom from above – is to imagine a “friendship” with the very creator of what James loves to refer to as “every good gift”. God’s gifts to us – especially those around which we have been dancing today – truly have the ability to center our lives in good works that flow from God’s spirit that dwells within us. If it really is our desire to measure our faith by our personal relationships – both in our habits and in our speech – it’s much easier to walk the daily journey amid conflicts – amid the sometimes difficult decisions and choices we must make – when a close friend is with us. This is what it means to live in a relation of nearness and trust in God. Friendship with God.
In James’ practical and down-to-earth theology, prayer is not selfish – not asking for what will feed individual desires – rather, prayer seeks, from the heart, the good fruits that will meet the needs of all.
“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Paradoxically the good life cannot be found by seeking it directly.
Rather, when you seek wisdom, the good life will follow. God yearns for you. “Submit yourselves therefore to God.”
Frankly, it seems there’s no getting around it. While we’re here reflecting on James’ letter, over on the gospel channel this week Jesus – gently, and with a child in tow so as to soften the message, perhaps – is moving closer and closer to what is, perhaps, the central message in Mark’s gospel – “(the Messiah) came to serve rather than to be served”. Can you imagine if the people of this world were able to understand what this means and get about, even awkwardly and haltingly, living in such a way. Heck, even if Congress were to live this way, an actual trickle-down effect might occur in ways that would change the world!
You see, the kind of wisdom James offers cannot be found unless it is pursued in a spirit of meekness. We must pray – we must want to pray to be opened – to be inspired to the exercise of wisdom in humility – in making choices that will make for the kind of harvest of righteousness that James knows must be seen in peaceful human relationships if God’s purposes are to be realized.
Yes, it’s important to remember that for James, wisdom is not in the head but in behavior – much the same way John’s gospel speaks of belief, not as intellectual assent, but in the impact it makes on behavior. Wisdom is a way of life, not a way of thinking or believing. And lest we become drawn, mistakenly, into focus on wisdom from above versus wisdom from below and the judging that comes of comparison-making, never forget that God can work from either end.
Good Jew that he was, James did not build his argument in this letter on the mystery of his brother’s death and resurrection, but on the basic-yet-awe-inspiring faith in God that allowed his brother to live and die the way he did. In Jesus, after all, wisdom from above met wisdom from below, so that everyone could see which is which.