September 14, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations:
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
It’s quite a picture: Jesus is walking up ahead of his disciples. Outwardly Jesus is watching the path ahead, minding the curves in the road and stepping over potholes. Inwardly the eyes of his heart are on the cross and on all that was now just ahead of him. In fact, if you look closely, you may detect that Jesus’ eyes are a bit red-rimmed, a leftover from the conversation he’d recently had with his disciples in which he told them all that was coming his way in terms of suffering and death.
But the disciples . . . well, they took that in without a word apparently, with the proverbial shrug of their shoulders. They didn’t get it. Worse, what Jesus had said sounded like “crazy talk” to the disciples—it was just crazy enough, in fact, that Mark lets us in on a secret: they were too scared even to ask Jesus just what he was talking about. (Have you ever been in a situation in which a friend or colleague says something so off-the-wall, you just let it slide on by for fear of what a subsequent conversation on that topic might turn out to be like? That’s where the disciples are at in Mark 9.)
Just behind Jesus a few yards are the disciples, the friends of the Lord, those to whom Jesus had the closest relationship. It was not unusual for the dozen or so of them to talk as they walked, but the conversation this day was a bit more animated than usual. Although they tried to keep their voices down a bit—Jesus was pretty sure he heard an occasional “Shhh, not so loud” coming from them—it was still obvious to even the most casual observer that whatever they were talking about was pretty serious. Or at least it was arousing some serious passions.
When they arrived at their destination in Capernaum, Jesus casually asked, “So, what was the rumpus about on the road back there?” And for the second time in as many conversations with the disciples, Jesus faced a lot of blank stares in response to what he said. There seemed also to be some nervous shifting of weight, a few averted glances, a few cheeks puffed up with air before finally one of them mimicked the average 5-year-old who gets caught doing something wrong and whose answer to the standard parental question of “What were you just doing?” comes with the equally standard child-like answer, “Oh, nuthin’.”
Nothing indeed. The response is more accurate than they could know. Because they had been talking about precisely nothing.
What they had in fact been talking about was a complete non-starter, a complete non-entity in the kingdom of God. They had been talking about how to put yourself forward, how to be a winner, how to use gifts and status and abilities to be #1. They had been with Jesus long enough now to have accrued some track records. They each had various notches in their spiritual belts for exorcisms performed, for healings done, for correct answers given to questions Jesus had asked, for having come the closest to interpreting a parable correctly. Each disciple has been building his portfolio and it was getting high time they started to figure out who was who—and who was going to do what—in that great new political empire Jesus was going to start to build any minute now.
It was, of course, the wrong focus but to their credit, the disciples sensed this just enough so as to know enough to be embarrassed when it was clear Jesus knew right well what they had been discussing. So Jesus once again did for them what he had so often done, which was to turn the world upside-down, inverting the values of this age—and the ways in which this world reckons success—in favor of a kingdom perspective that really was going to be the precise opposite of all that. The path Jesus was walking just then—and the end-point of that path that Jesus had just told them about in verses 30-32—was quite literally living proof of what kingdom living must look like and what is really the most important of all.
Who knows where the little child mentioned in verse 36 came from—perhaps he was the child of the owner of whosever house they were staying at. In any event, as this child walked by, Jesus snagged the tyke as the perfect object lesson. But sometimes we may miss the precise teaching of Mark 9. On other occasions Jesus will say that you must BE like this child in order to get into the kingdom. But here in Mark 9 that is not quite what he says. Instead Jesus says that whoever WELCOMES a child such as this welcomes also Jesus and, by extension, the One who sent Jesus.
Why did he say that? Wouldn’t this be a good time to tell these uppity disciples that they themselves needed to become like little children? Instead, Jesus talks about welcoming a little child.
What’s the difference? Well, maybe it’s one thing to tell someone to chill out, to not take himself so seriously, to get a little humility. But it may be another thing to tell someone to revel in the company of people whose station in life could scarcely be lower, as was the status of children in Jesus’ day.
Even today, movers and shakers like to be seen in the company of the rich and powerful. Go into most any office you can find in a place like Washington, D.C., and you will see walls and credenzas lined with photographs of the occupant of the office standing next to presidents, senators, movie stars. “Look at the company I keep,” such photos declare to all visitors to the office. Even if you yourself cannot be the person next to whom others want to be photographed, you can at least let the glitter of others rub off on you by sidling up next to the powerful of the world.
The more recent phenomenon of taking “selfies” shows the same thing—people don’t put up selfies of themselves on Facebook standing next to homeless people. No, it’s when someone bumps into Jimmy Fallon on the subway or Taylor Swift on the sidewalk that people snap the selfie next to this famous person and they then post THAT on Facebook for all to see.
But Jesus is saying to the disciples that they need to keep company with the lowly of life, with the losers, with the ones no one wants to be seen with (much less be photographed next to). If you can take joy in their presence, if you can see worth and value and loveliness in those very people whom so many others in society overlook due to their own misguided focus on the glitzy and the sexy, then you show you have a kingdom perspective, that you are looking through a kingdom lens.
It’s one thing to tell someone to shape up his own life and get a little humility cranked up. It’s quite another to tell someone to adopt a viewpoint on all of life that is so pervasively different from what most people have as to turn everything in the world on its head.
In Mark 9:37 Jesus tells the disciples to “welcome” a child and in so doing they would “welcome” both him and his Father / the one who had sent him. The Greek word used there—dexomai—carries with it the sense not only of some generic welcome but of a literal receiving of someone into one’s arms. The picture we should have in our heads is not of someone in an airport quietly holding up a little “Welcome Home” sign on a piece of paper but of the parent or grandparent down on her knees, arms splayed wide open and just waiting for the loved one to come running down the ramp into those waiting arms. THAT is the kind of welcome Jesus wants us to give to the lowly of the world. Because when they come running into our waiting embrace, so does Jesus and so does his Father. And that is an image that boggles the mind with joy!
Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards was a 25-year-old plasterer with thick glasses and a goofy grin but he entered the 1988 Winter Olympic Games as England’s only (and first-ever) ski jumper. Eddie was not very skilled. He fit the description of a born loser: someone who gets a paper-cut opening a Get Well card. Eddie looked decidedly non-athletic. In his yellow ski-jumping suit he looked more like Winnie the Pooh than the sculpted athletes we usually associate with the Olympics.
Eddie’s training had been sub-standard and his equipment was second-rate. The airline lost Eddie’s luggage when he traveled to Calgary. On the day of his competition, the Olympic security agents almost did not let Eddie in at all because, they later said, the chunky man’s coke-bottle glasses had such thick lenses they were certain he was an imposter. But he did get let in eventually. He didn’t do very well. Outside magazine said that in the air, Eddie looked like an “errant slushball.” When it was all over, Eddie came in 56th place out of a field of 57 jumpers (but then, the 57th man had been disqualified).
But all the world loved Eddie. Johnny Carson had Eddie flown down to Burbank to appear as a guest on The Tonight Show. TV crews and newspapers from around the world clamored to interview Eddie. Once he got back to England, he was treated like a full-blown celebrity who parlayed his fame into a tidy sum.
To state the merely obvious, Eddie was the exception, not the rule. And even with all the attention paid to him, few people would have held Eddie up as a role model. When someone is as skilled as Michael Jordan, it doesn’t take long before you hear slogans such as “Be Like Mike!” But no one would say, “Be Like Eddie.”
Eddie the Eagle is a lousy ski jumper, but he really loves it. In fact, he had hoped to compete again in a future Olympics. But it turned out that Olympic officials did not like Eddie and felt he reflected badly on the Games. So they instituted what some call the “Eddie Rule” which requires all athletes to have finished in the top half of an international sports event as a prerequisite for getting into the Olympics. Doubtless that will keep Eddie, and many like him, out. You see, the Olympic folks don’t mind having people lose but only because without losers there could be no winners. But if a loser gets attention, the winners seem diminished.
In this world losers are supposed to fade away quietly so that winners can occupy center stage. The Jesus we meet in Mark 9 would have us adopt a rather different point of view.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations:
What are we to make of this conclusion to Proverbs? For a long time some women saw it as a kind of blueprint for life and so were honored if they could be seen as fitting this profile of the “wife of noble character.” Not surprisingly, more recent times have witnessed other reactions. Some now more-or-less reject these words because they think this represents a biblically sanctioned role restriction for women as being domestic only.
Meanwhile others have hailed this as a kind of proto-feminist tract in that it shows women as active in not only household affairs but in wider concerns, too, involving commerce in the larger society.
And then . . . sometimes see cemetery headstones that are lovingly engraved with the line, “Her children arise and call her blessed.” In a lighter vein you sometimes may hear a woman who works full-time outside the home joke with her friends about how she’s not exactly “a Proverbs 31 woman” (echoes of a certain Democrat front runner who 20-some years ago made clear she was not a stay-at-home-and-bake-cookies kind of wife and mother).
But there are textual oddities here, too. What is this doing at the end of a book made up mostly of proverbs, maxims, and aphorisms? This book does not typically present you with long passages about just one thing: it tends to be more wide-ranging and eclectic (which is precisely why many of us resist ever preaching on Proverbs). Yet now it concludes with an extended passage on a single theme. What’s more, these verses are not proverb-like at all. Wisdom is mentioned in passing just once and folly is not mentioned at all. Also, unlike any other part of this book, these verses are a poem written in the form of an acrostic.
In short, Proverbs 31 is not like the rest of the book, is not a string of wise sayings, and in fact scarcely deals with this book’s central theme at all in any overt way. And this is the climax of Proverbs? How does this fit and how should we interpret it today?
To begin I want to suggest that these verses are neither a timeless blueprint which all women must follow to the letter as God’s sole will for their lives nor is it a piece of stealth feminism that demonstrates that even way back in Solomon’s day life wasn’t quite so patriarchal after all. Rather this is like an old photograph you find in a shoebox in an antique store somewhere: it gives you a window on an ancient time when men were in charge, ruling things from the city gates, and when women took care of all things domestic. It would probably be a stretch to say that this woman’s purchase of a field or her trading at the market puts her on a par with her husband (much less that it was some ancient equivalent of working outside the home). To suggest that it means this would have been shocking news to the wife and husband depicted in Proverbs 31 (and probably also to the author of this poem, to whom talk of equality and sexism would have been utterly foreign, and perhaps even distasteful).
Instead we need to take these verses for what they are: a glimpse into a different time, culture, society, and mind-set. We no more need to wonder what is the modern equivalent of a husband sitting at the city gates than we need to ponder whether a woman buying her kids new mittens at Target is the equivalent of knitting the family scarlet attire for the winter. It probably won’t work to try to line these verses up on a one-to-one basis with life today. That hardly renders these verses irrelevant, however. In fact, if we can come to understand how and why this apparently out-of-place poem actually rounds out Proverbs quite nicely, we may begin to see the real ways in which this connects with our lives right now.
There are two main ways by which these concluding verses help to unify the larger Book of Proverbs. One is the way this ties in with the first nine chapters and the personification you find there of Lady Wisdom (over against Lady Folly, who is consistently presented as a kind of seductive adulteress whom the wise son is told to avoid). The second way these verses clamp this book into a unity comes in verse 30 and the line about how a good woman “fears Yahweh.” That line is a clear echo of Proverbs 1:7 that claims “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.”
Both that verse and the image of Lady Wisdom are echoes of earlier parts of Proverbs and so both summarize what this book is finally all about: the formation of character. Having a good, wise character is founded on the fear of the Lord. A proper reverence for God means that you know right up front that this creation has a certain orderliness to it. Life possesses unity and coherence, sensibility and structure if only we take the time to discern and figure out which patterns of living work and which ones flop. Life is not a booming, buzzing confusion and so we are not free to make up our own rules as we go along. Instead we believe down to the core of our being that there is a right way and a wrong way to do most everything, and our faith in God makes us want to find the right way.
Lady Wisdom calls us to do the sometimes hard work of sorting things out, discerning right from wrong. Lady Folly, on the other hand, is always enticing us to live for the moment, to take the easy way out, to put pleasure before principle and short-term gain ahead of long-term nurturing of a good reputation. Lady Wisdom tells us to measure our speech, to value people more than things. Lady Folly says that being your own unique personality, expressing your own opinions, and amassing life’s goodies are more important than fitting yourself into what God wants you to be.
That is what this book has been about all along. So now we come to the end and find this lyric portrait of one person who is Lady Wisdom incarnate. Never once is this woman said to do anything just for herself–her attention is ever and only on others, whether it is her own children or some poor people she happens to see on the street. Additionally, like the Book of Proverbs in general which ranges so far and wide across the face of life, so also the depiction of this woman zooms right along. These verses encompass everything from household finances to dinnertime, everything from sewing to real estate, everything from prudent speech to business transactions.
In the culture of that time the actions described in Proverbs 31 were the hallmarks of a wise woman, a good wife, a prudent mother. But although some of the specific tasks would have been different, this same kind of diligence, prudence, honest work, and focus on other people is what has been recommended throughout this book to men and women alike. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of this book (nearly all of it, in fact) was clearly addressed to young men. But this conclusion is a stellar reminder that wisdom is for everyone, male and female, husband and wife, alike. Indeed, even though at that time formal schools of wisdom were restricted to males only, Proverbs 31 stands as eloquent testimony to the fact that you didn’t necessarily need a formal education to develop wisdom–such divine wisdom can also arise from common sense and hard work in the ordinary situations of everyday life.
The underlying principles of Proverbs 31 apply to men as well as to women, but these verses demonstrate that then as well as now all tasks are honorable, all people (no matter what their station in life) are to be wise in carrying out their tasks. And if they do so, then it doesn’t matter whether the person is a CPA or a housewife, a stay-at-home dad or a working mother, a high octane lawyer who rules things from the modern city gates or a quiet widow who takes good care of her grandchildren–it doesn’t matter who a person is or what he or she does, if it is done in the fear of the Lord, it is honorable and to be commended. A person like that is worth “more than rubies” and will indeed bring praise not just to him- or herself but to other members of the family as well.
So whether in the past you have seen Proverbs 31 as describing domesticity as a peculiarly feminine matter or whether you’ve viewed it as an example that women can be just as active as men in contributing to society, either way what cannot be missed is the elevation of the mundane up into the realm of divine wisdom. All of life, Proverbs has been proclaiming all along, is to be lived in the fear of the Lord. A proper respect for the boundaries of God’s creation order is the beginning of wisdom, the end of wisdom, and the whole of wisdom.
Or as Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, once put it, “Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear. But seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you as well.” We do not need to know much more than that the Lord Jesus abides with us every day and in every situation. The kingdom of God has something to do with everything. The wise live like they really believe that is true.
At one time or another it is something maybe most of us experienced, probably as young children. Perhaps you were at your great-grandmother’s house, rooting around under an old bed or in some musty closet when suddenly you ran across a shoe box. Curious, you slipped off the cardboard lid and peered inside. There you discovered, thrown together slapdash and in no particular order, a cache of old black-and-white photos that never made it into albums for some reason. Some are yellowed with age and faded a bit as the photographic chemicals had degraded over the decades. So you gingerly picked one up and were confronted with an image, frozen in time, from long ago.
A handful of people stare out at you–relatives of yours who died long ago and who you maybe never knew, or not very well at least. They are standing in front of an old house–probably a house that is no longer standing or, if it is, one which today would be almost unrecognizable due to remodeling and renovations. You know it’s an old house because it is covered with that gray, shingled siding that you almost never see anymore. One woman wears what looks to be a hairnet (which you also don’t much see anymore) and all of the women are wearing plaid or checked gingham house dresses. Behind them and off to one side is a Ford with enormous fenders and a design reminiscent of vintage automobiles from the 20s. On the other side, next to the house, is an old-style water hand-pump. It’s a glimpse into the past, into another time when people not only looked different but thought differently, lived differently.
Proverbs 31 is a little like that: it’s a glimpse into the distant past. This chapter is a window on another time, an ancient culture, a society structured very differently from our own. Sometimes we forget that. When you’re looking at an old photo of your great-grandparents, sometimes maybe you quietly assume that if by some magic trick of time travel you could get back to that day when the picture first was snapped, you would fit in pretty well. You imagine you would maybe enjoy talking with those folks, driving that old Ford, and spending a few days in that house during that time.
But if you could travel back in time, you might discover you wouldn’t fit very well after all because so much would be different that you’d feel lost. You’d hop in the old Ford and turn the key only to find that nothing happens. After all, what’s a starter button? In conversations with relatives from back then, you might be unsettled to hear the vaguely racist way they refer to various ethnic minorities (and maybe it would not be so vague!). You might be struck by how little they know of the wider world (having maybe never traveled more than 50 miles from home). If you described your life to them–including things like movies, shopping malls, restaurants, and travel abroad–your pious and well-meaning forebears might slap a “worldly” label on you.
Exploring Proverbs 31 is like that—it’s a trip back in time. When we forget that and try to make these verses some kind of a contemporary portrait, that is when we may get led astray.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 54 is a prayer for God’s deliverance from enemies who wish to harm or maybe even kill the poet. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it also contains a strong tone of lament over enemies’ mistreatment of the poet. This lends Psalm 54 an air of honesty that sometimes seems missing from 21st century prayers, at least in North America.
Several things bracket this psalm. It’s bracketed by a cry for help in verse 1 and verse 7’s memories of God’s past salvation that fuel the trust necessary for such a cry. However, references to God’s name also bracket this anguished prayer. God’s “name” refers to the totality of who God is. So the poet implies that his attackers’ victory over him would call into question God’s “name,” in other words, God’s very character. It’s appropriate, then, that in verse 1 the psalmist begs God to save him by his “name” and that in verse 6 the psalmist vows to praise God’s “name.”
The historical setting of Psalm 54 is unclear. The psalter’s editors thought it was David’s hiding from a rampaging Saul at Horesh in the Desert of Ziph. The Ziphites approached the king and basically informed him that David was hiding in Ziph. They begged Saul to come so that they could hand David over to him. Yet, ironically, when the king came looking for him, David had but passed up on a chance to kill him as he relieved himself. If, in fact, that is Psalm 54’s context, the psalm describes God’s “yes” to David’s prayer. God, after all, doesn’t just save David by God’s name. Eventually evil also recoils on Saul and he’s “destroyed” in battle.
Yet Psalm 54’s murky historical context makes it in some ways applicable to God’s sons and daughters who are under a wide variety of attacks. It’s certainly a prayer God’s children who are being persecuted for their faith can offer. However, any of God’s people whom others are somehow assaulting might claim this as their own. This offers those who preach and teach this psalm an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on what sorts of contexts might call out for the offering of this prayer.
In the Hebrew, this psalm begins without fanfare or preliminaries. It simply begins aleim (God). The poet then goes on to beg God to save her by God’s name, hear her prayer and listen to the words of her mouth. So the psalmist’s pleas arise, as in most lament psalms, out of her distress.
Attackers whom the poet describes in a variety of ways cause that distress. He refers to them as “strangers,” perhaps not only to the psalmist but also to God. The besieged poet also describes his assailants as “ruthless” and “without regard to God.” So those attackers have no respect for either God or the poet. In fact, it seems that their disrespect for the Lord leaves them free to show contempt to God’s sons and daughters. The psalmist’s enemies believe they can be ruthless in their treatment of the Lord’s people such as the psalmist.
Ruthless people’s disregard for the psalmist takes the shape of both attacks on her and what verse 3 calls seeking her life. It’s not clear whether the psalmist’s life is literally in danger or if she’s simply in deep trouble. The word translated as “life” in verse 3 is nephesh and is actually often translated as “soul.” This leaves readers with the sense that the poet feels as if everything that she is under attack.
Yet the poet can beg God to rescue him because he knows God is his “help.” When God created our first father, God recognized that it was not good for him to be alone. So God created a helper for him who would partner with, support and protect him. Sometimes, however, as Fred Gaiser notes, that “other” rejects the God-given task of helping and becomes, instead, an attacker. Then God’s people like the psalmist must cry out to the Lord to help.
The salvation for which the psalmist pleads takes a shape that sometimes makes God’s 21st century sons and daughters blanch. She prays, after all, that “evil recoil on those who slander” her and that God “destroy” her assailants. This is perhaps the most difficult part of Psalm 54. It’s sometimes called an imprecation, basically a plea for one’s enemies’ downfall and destruction. In this psalm the poet basically prays that God will send her enemies the same kind of difficulty they’ve been inflicting on her.
Yet it seems hard to reconcile such pleas with Jesus’ call to love and pray for our enemies. It even seems to contradict Proverbs 25:21’s injunctions about the proper treatment of enemies. How, then, might those who preach and teach Psalm 54 help worshipers think about the psalmist’s pleas for his enemies’ destruction? Gerald Pauls points out that historically scholars thought of such psalms as reflecting either the attitudes of merely the Old Testament or pleas for God to act in ways that are in not in God’s but the psalmist’s best interest.
Modern scholarship, however, invites us to think of imprecatory prayers as very honest reactions to the duress people and circumstances sometimes cause God’s children. They’re not the result of stable, serene reflection but are spoken in the heat of the moment, in the midst of great suffering. Such prayers display a refusal to accept suffering as part of God’s will. They remind the Lord that something is terribly wrong.
What’s more, imprecatory prayers such as Psalm 54 point to the seriousness with which the poet views and he assumes God views evil. Those who assail God’s sons and daughters are not behaving in ways for which God created them. They’re violating the shalom for which God created all things. It sometimes seems as if God’s people who are most uncomfortable with such imprecations are those who feel the safest from the kinds of attacks it describes.
Psalm 54 reminds worshipers that assaults on the faithful can and must be brought to the Lord’s attention. They invite renewed prayers for people of all faiths who are under duress for their faith in places such as Nigeria, Syria, India and even North America. Psalm 54 offers a vehicle for worshipers to plead with the Lord to restore things to the way God created them to be.
Yet Psalm 54 ends with the poet’s promise to praise God for her deliverance. The poet can only offer this praise to God if she survives because God delivered her. In fact, she sees praise to God as the reason for and promise of her rescue. In other words, she begs God to save her precisely not so that she may enjoy herself but so that she may sacrifice a freewill offering to the Lord and praise God’s name.
Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, describes how attackers can reduce their victims to something less than people, something less than who God makes them to be. In it he describes a forced journey to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Germans, the victimizers, crammed the Jews, the victims, into a cattle car with no provisions.
Wiesel describes how when a German workman threw in just a piece of bread, the men inside, in a desperate attempt to get at the crumbs, “threw themselves on top of each other, stamping on each other, tearing at each other, biting each other. Wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes.” Their enemies transformed the victims into victimizers. They also did the unthinkable: in the process of seeking their lives, they harmed their very souls as well.
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Author: Stan Mast
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.