Two Kinds of Wisdom
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
It was at the beginning of the decade of the 1970’s (ancient history to some) that the band Led Zeppelin recorded their song “Stairway to Heaven”; towards the end of the same decade the band AC/DC recorded “Highway to Hell.” Someone recently observed, “The fact that there's a Highway To Hell and only a Stairway To Heaven says a lot about anticipated traffic numbers.” I am not sure that I would stake my life on the theology of 70’s rock music. However, it’s the general theme that I invite you to observe; the theme of these two pathways with opposite trajectories.
The opening lines of Israel’s great prayer/hymn book are thus: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2) The book of Psalms ends with Psalms of thunderous praise of God. As you read through the Psalms all manner of the ups and downs, twists and turns, joys and sorrows of life are addressed. It is a great resource of strength for life of walking with God. It is instructive to note the Psalms begin with these two ways laid before us, then in the sweep of the book address the wide range of human experience and ends at praise of God. The message is clear as to which of these two ways is to be preferred.
In our reading from the Apostle James he speaks about two kinds of wisdom that have the same sort of opposing trajectories as those in the opening lines of the Psalms—a Psalm that James would know well. On the one hand is the wisdom from above that is pure, peaceable, gentle, full of mercy and good fruit, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. On the other hand is a wisdom fuelled by selfish ambition and bitter envy that is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish that gives rise to all kinds of disorder and wickedness. The one is characterized as friendship with God the other as friendship with the world. Now in James’ frame of reference the world is the whole system of humanity (its institutions, structures, values, and mores) as organized without God.
The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is ever calling us from something to something else. Jesus put it this way, “Repent (turn around, change your mind), the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” His call to discipleship is quite clear: “follow me.” James puts it this way: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Such calls witness to us of both Christ’s claim on our lives and that the world—the whole system of humanity organized without God—is anything but benign. To live life indifferent to God in not a neutral position. “Do you not know”, asks James, “that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” James’ older brother our Lord Jesus said something very similar. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24)
Oh, but we think we can. Lord, I’m just going to fake allegiance to wealth so I can get what I need from it. Don’t worry, Lord, when push comes to shove you know you’re my guy! This is precisely the attitude James was exposing when he wrote, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
As we have taken this brief overview of the two kinds of wisdom it may be that we find James’ pronouncements to be a little strident, a little too insistent, too much of “this way or no way.” I suggest to you that for James—as it was for Jesus, who didn’t say “it’s ok for you to follow me and wealth”—the stakes are very high. This is about the preciousness of human life and what it really means to be human in the fullest sense, human as God made us to be.
1. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks James and then answers, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Remember that James is writing to the church. The subject that he addresses preceding this sentence about wisdom is the taming of the tongue; a subject he takes up in relationship to those who are teachers in the church.
Reading between the lines it would seem that some false teachers have come into the church and are tearing it apart. James goes on to name bitter envy and selfish ambition as inimical to the true nature of wisdom. The word translated as selfish ambition has the connotation of party spirit. Some of these teachers, driven by envy, were more interested in gathering a following around themselves rather than coaching people in their following of Jesus. They were looking to make a name for themselves and in doing so the gospel had become a casualty.
James goes on to explain that true wisdom is pure (not hypocritical); it’s peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy. How does James know this? He is describing his older brother Jesus Christ. Jesus lived his life in complete obedience to the one he called the Father. There was no hint of envy or selfish ambition in his life or ministry. He gave himself completely for the others. In other words, the announcement of the good news of Jesus ought to have the character of the One whose good news it is. Jesus does not come to slash and burn but to save and redeem.
James in not only concerned that our witness as the church of Jesus Christ mirror our Lord’s character but also that the church be a place that builds faith in accord with that character. James can see the harm being done to faith by these strident self-serving teachers and calls them to repentance. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
As you read James here keep in mind that he is trying to offer a correction to an abuse. So when he writes that wisdom from above is “willing to yield” he does not mean “spineless” or that anything goes. He means that it is approachable, willing to listen, easily entreated. I ever marvel at our Saviour in whom the outcast and those deemed societally “unacceptable” always found a ready welcome. So much so that many in the religious establishment wrote Jesus off because of his association with “those people.” In fact these people were attracted to Jesus. There was something about our Lord’s treatment and welcome of them they knew they could trust
Clearly Jesus was not one without convictions. While he always maintained his own wonderful “yes” to people he never relents from his word of “no” with respect to their sin. The reason is that the identification of our disease by the great physician is announced in the course of providing the cure. When Jesus points out that the problem is my willful turning away from God, he does so only as he is restoring that relationship for me in himself.
And so the good news come to us in gentleness; the Spirit of God woos us and entreats us. Look at Jesus with his disciples. In our gospel lesson today we read the story of their argument over who will get top spot in the kingdom that Jesus is about to inaugurate. Now if there was a moment that Jesus might be tempted to snap and send them all home this had to be that moment. They have been together with Jesus for a little over two years. They have heard him teach; they watched him in his tireless compassion for people; they had private access to him so they could ask for further explanation of his teaching; they each had experienced Jesus’ own ready welcome of them with all their foibles; they even knew their argument was out of place because they were unwilling to share with Jesus the nature of their conversation—yet, they are still arguing about who is the greatest among them. This is what envy and selfish ambition looks like. Does Jesus throw them overboard? He uses this as a teachable moment ever willing to journey with them.
The character of the gospel in saying “no” to sin is always in the “yes” of the cure. And we all need the cure so there is no place for seeing ourselves above the rest. In July of this year the Moderator of The United Church of Canada Gary Paterson send a letter to all ministry personnel. The letter was in anticipation of 42nd General Council which would bring far-reaching changes to church governance. In this letter the Moderator acknowledged that “few of us are fully comfortable with change” and called us to “be gentle with one another in the journey.” I applaud our Moderator for striking a note that is in tune with the gospel.
2. The Apostle James has been addressing life in the church of Jesus Christ but the import of his admonition has the potential for application beyond the gathering together of our Lord’s people. The wisdom from above that blesses the church’s’ communal life can bless life generally.
I recently saw and magazine advertisement by a car company hyping its new sports car. The ad pictured the car on a race track with the following caption: “You can’t outrun envy but you can lap it.” The idea was that if you possessed this car everyone else would be envious of you. Let me ask you a question. If you are driven by the desire to make everyone else envious of you are you not still in envy’s grip—even if you lap everyone else?
The gospel teaches us that this is not the wisdom that come from above. Envy always plants a seed of bitterness. Think about the disorder in family that arises when siblings are envious of the accomplishment of one another. Civility is usually the first causality and relationship is surely strained if not indeed broken. Think of the bitterness in our own hearts that would want to be in the place of being envied. It renders the person difficult to be around and separates from others. It is no surprise that James should describe envy as bitter.
“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” continued James. (James 3:16) Last July a news story detailed how a former chief librarian at a Chinese university stole more than 140 paintings by Asian masters in a gallery under his watch and replaced them with fakes he painted himself. He told the court in his defence the practice appeared to be rampant and the handling of such paintings was not secure. He said he noticed fakes already hanging in the gallery on his first day on the job. Later, after he replaced some of the remaining masters with his own fakes, he was surprised when he noticed his fake paintings were being substituted with even more fakes. The man sold 125 of the paintings at auction between 2004 and 2011 for more than 34 million yuan ($7 million), and used the money to buy apartments and other paintings.
Consider the mess that has been created by this man’s selfish ambition. How will the original paintings ever be recovered? The reputation of the art world has been damaged—if I go to an art gallery am I really looking at the original work I am told it is? Think about his colleagues and the reputation of the University. You see envy and selfish ambition has little regard for anything except its own pursuits. This is not wisdom from above.
3. There is much to be learned about human life in the gospel; much can be learned about our humanity as we probe the gospel. James went on the talk about the conflicts and disputes among the people of the church. He said, “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” Now we may think James psychologically naive but we must never underestimate the inspiration of the Spirit of God in the Apostles’ articulation of the gospel.
As I read James probing of what he calls “these cravings at war within me” I can readily identify that not all cravings are good ones. And they compete with one another. Further, the gospel witnesses that I need not be subject to these cravings. It tells me that the gospel view of me as a human being as something far more profound that the emotions that I feel. This not never to deny the proper place of emotions in life but they are not constitutive of who I am. You will not discover who you are through a process of self-discovery; you are greater than the sum of your cravings and emotions.
The gospel calls us to draw near to God; the promise is he will draw near to you. Your true humanity is realized in relationship to God. “Humble yourselves before the Lord,” wrote James, “and he will exalt you.” The purpose of drawing near to God or submitting yourself to God is not so that you get lost in some great being, rather God seeks you to be you. “He will exalt you.” We tend to think we are the ones who know ourselves the best. Well, if we do why are we in need of so much counselling? Why do we flock to self-help books and seminars? I recall the popularity of Tony Robbins book Awaken the Giant Within; I used to wonder, if the giant is there who put him to sleep?
This is not to say that some self-knowledge is a bad thing. It is to say that the trajectory of the gospel is away from ourselves to him who is the author and finisher of our faith; to relationship with the one who knows you through and through—the One who preserves you for the sake of his love.
James has a great passion for the well-being of the church because the gospel she bears witness to is good news. Central United has carried that witness for 175 years; while our Lord gives us strength may it ever be our witness.