For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading a lot of passages from the book of James (Luther’s least favorite epistle, lol). The letter of James belongs to a category of biblical writings known as “wisdom literature” – this also includes books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. While wisdom literature can sound like something that would be really abstract and esoteric, one of the things that actually characterizes biblical wisdom literature is that it is often very practical and down to earth. This is the tone that James sets in the very first verse of our second reading today. He writes, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” For James, wisdom is more than just words – wisdom is about our actions. The true test of wisdom is in how it is reflected – or not reflected – in our day-to-day lives.
To help draw this out and make it clearer, James asks his readers to consider three questions:
- Who is wise and understanding among you?
- Where do all the conflicts and disputes among you come from?
- What does God want?
These are important questions in the life of faith. The first time I can remember really wrestling with these questions was way back when I was in sixth grade. I’ve talked a little bit before about how unpopular I was growing up, how I was bullied a lot. I grew up as a member of a small class in a K-12 school in a tiny town. There weren’t exactly a lot of rungs on our social ladder back then, but you can bet your bottom dollar that whatever the lowest rung was, that’s where you’d find me.
But when we were in sixth grade, a new student moved to town: Kacy. She was pretty and cool and really tall, and she instantly became popular as the shiny new girl in class. She hung out with the popular kids and it seemed like she had found her place. But then the new started to wear off; and Kacy started having some medical issues, eventually ending up having to have spinal surgery for scoliosis, which affected the way she was able to stand and move around. These things suddenly made her different, and in response, it seemed like her popularity plummeted almost overnight.
I remember watching her fall from grace from my perspective at the bottom of the social food chain. Her unpopularity actually gave me a bit of a reprieve – for once, people were making fun of someone else and not just of me. And I very clearly remember realizing that I had a choice. On the one hand, I could join the people making fun of Kacy and use her misfortune as an opportunity to improve my own social standing – as an opportunity to climb a rung or two up the ladder. Or, on the other hand, I could choose to befriend Kacy and treat her with compassion – especially since I knew all too well just how lonely it could be at the bottom.
Both of these options are born out of their own kind of wisdom. And this is something James spends a lot of time talking about in response to his first question: Who is wise and understanding among you? He draws out this contrast between the two kinds of wisdom: there is the wisdom “from above” – divine wisdom – which James describes as peaceful and impartial, merciful and sincere, willing to yield to others; and then there is earthly wisdom, which springs from envy and selfish ambition, and which James describes as “unspiritual,” even “devilish.”
Our gospel reading for today sets up this same contrast between “earthly” wisdom and the “wisdom from above.” Jesus is trying to teach his disciples about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection, but they’re too busy arguing among themselves about which of them is the greatest (seriously, read the room, guys!). And Jesus, like James, calls them out on it. He takes the very idea of greatness and turns it completely upside down. He says to the disciples, “Whoever wants to be the first must be last of all and servant of all.” The wisest among you isn’t the one who is greatest or first; it’s the one who has compassion for the least of these – for the ones who are clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder.
When we read it in the scriptures like this, the choice between these two kinds of wisdom seems pretty obvious! It’s clearly wiser and better to choose the wisdom from above. But that choice isn’t always as obvious to us in our daily living, and we’re not always mindful about how we make it. We live in a culture that actively rewards and encourages competitiveness and self-serving behavior. Our entire economic system is based on getting as much as we can while we can – it’s pretty damning when you consider how much of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few: in the US alone, 10% of the population controlss 70% of the wealth, while the bottom half holds only 2%. We soak up this mindset of scarcity – that there won’t be enough to go around for everyone, so if I give away some of what I’ve got, there won’t be enough for me.
And this starts to get into the second question that James asks, which is: “You have all these conflicts and disputes among you; where do they come from?” Well, they comes from this! When you’re taught from an early age that you’ve got to look out for number one, before anyone else, it’s easy to start seeing other people as competition instead of as community. I mean, this is exactly how my sixth grade self saw the other people in my class – we were all competing for social standing and popularity and friendship, and I fully recognized it when I had an opportunity to advance my own interests, at the expense of someone else.
James frames this wisdom in really stark language; he writes: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and can’t get it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” The earthly wisdom James talks about only focuses on what is good for the individual – it doesn’t concern itself with what will benefit everyone, and it doesn’t worry about what the consequences of our selfish choices will be for others.
This wisdom is short-sighted at best, and it’s also the polar opposite of the wisdom from above – the opposite of God’s wisdom. In contrast, God created and loves every single person on this planet – no matter what rung of the ladder they’re on — and God wants for every single person to flourish. And God has given us stewardship over creation, not so that we may hoard it for ourselves, but so that we can make sure that everyone has enough. We’re the ones that put limits on things. We’re the ones that decided that what God has given isn’t enough to go around.
This brings us to James’ third question: What does God want? James doesn’t ask this question explicitly, but it’s heavily implied by this passage, especially by a couple of verses that the lectionary leaves out; James writes that “God yearns jealously for the spirit that God has made to dwell in us,” and that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Put more simply, God wants for us to be imitators of Christ – to be compassionate and mindful of the other people we share this planet with. God wants us to have relationships with each other that reflect the kind of relationship God chooses to have with us – relationships of deep caring and humility, relationships that are generous and merciful and just.
In the end, what God really wants most from us isn’t the works that James talks about at the beginning of this passage. It isn’t wisdom from above or wisdom from below or wisdom from anywhere in between. What God really wants is right relationship – God wants to be known and loved, just as God knows and loves us. And God likewise wants us to know and love each other.
It isn’t easy. It’s easy to stand up here and say it! – but it’s a lot harder to live it out. Dorothy Day once wrote “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Ouch. I often find myself convicted by how little I love some of the other people on this planet. But then sometimes I do get it right. I can at least say that in sixth grade, I made the right call and made a new friend in the process. And God daily gives us new chances to choose what kind of wisdom we will live our lives by – to choose whether to live by earthly wisdom or by divine wisdom. God also walks with us and guides us as we try to discern what it is that God wants for us. As James writes, when we draw close to God, God also draws close to us.
Wisdom comes from many places — some of them wiser than others. But the wisdom that leads to good life is wisdom we can only find with God. It’s up to us to choose wisely.