Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked the disciples, ‘What were you arguing about along the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about which of them was the greatest.
They’d been scrapping about which one of them was the greatest disciple, which presumably meant which one of them would have the position of prominence once Jesus inaugurated his Kingdom. By this point in the Gospel according to Mark, they’d finally come to the realization that Jesus was the Christ—the promised, anointed one—and so they were doing a bit of jockeying for position amongst themselves. Never mind that in the verses directly preceding their argument Jesus had told them that he was headed toward death; a death that would not have the final word, but a very real death all the same. They certainly didn’t understand that kind of talk, but they did think they knew about the shape of the messiah’s kingdom. The Romans would be defeated, Israel properly restored, Jerusalem returned to its place as the city of David… and when that happened, well, he’d need to have the right man serving at his side. Which of us is it going to be?
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How could they so miss the mark? They’d heard his call to follow, and headed out with him on this strange road trip. They’d heard his teachings, seen him restore people to health from all manner of physical and spiritual afflictions and maladies, shared with him a meal of bread and fish that fed multitudes. Peter, James and John had even accompanied him up the mountain, where they’d seen him stand in the presence of Moses and Elijah and they’d heard with such clarity the declaration, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And yet somehow they still couldn’t quite get their heads around the heart of his message.
Of the four gospel writers, Mark is the most unflinching in showing just how wrong-headed this bunch could be. In these verses Mark does show one little glimmer of insight on their behalf: when Jesus asked what they’d been arguing about, “they were silent.” They were silent, because when he looked at them and asked his question they were struck by the presumption of it all, maybe even a little ashamed that this was the thing that had been driving their thin imaginations. I find myself encouraged by that little glimmer. At least at that moment they realized they didn’t actually know everything; they didn’t really “get” what he was about.
Some forty years later when James writes his letter to the young church communities—to what he calls “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”—he is facing some very similar presumptions and problems. He writes of “bitter envy and selfish ambition,” naming them as “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” in origin, and he points to the “conflicts and disputes” that are going on within the various churches. He’s not speaking theoretically here; as in “if conflict happens to arise.” It is happening, and so James addresses it.
“[W]here there is envy and selfish ambition”—and recall, it is envy and selfish ambition that drives the argument Jesus’ own disciples are having when they try to establish which of them is the greatest—“Where there is envy and selfish ambition there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” James rhetorically asks a few verses later. “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
Now remember, James is writing his letter to the churches; to communities that are, at least in principle, committed to following the way of Jesus. And yet here he is talking not only about “disputes and conflicts”, but also about murder? “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” Is he serious? Yes, he is. Whether he’s referencing a literal act of murderous violence or invoking some worst-case scenario, he clearly wants to push those churches—and by extension this church community—to confront just how murderously destructive envy and selfish ambition can be. As the New Testament scholar Douglas Moo puts it in his commentary, “With penetrating insight, James provides us with a powerful analysis of human conflict. Verbal argument, private violence or national conflict—the cause of them all can be traced back to frustrated desire to want more than we have, to be envious and covet what others have, whether it be their position or their possessions.”
And so James tells a hard and insightful truth about “the extremes / of what humans can be” as Bruce Cockburn phrases it in his song “Rumours of Glory.” Of course James is also deeply committed to writing of the “extreme” that runs in the opposite direction, which is human life rooted in with what he calls “the wisdom from above.” “[W]isdom from above,” James writes, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Grounded as he is in the Jewish wisdom tradition, James shows himself to be eminently pragmatic in his approach these matters of conflict and division on the one hand, and a “peace for those who make peace” on the other. If your church community is caught up in all manner of disputes; and if you are constantly in conflict with those around you; and if you are never quite satisfied with what you have and are always striving for something more… those are all signs that things have become deeply disordered. If, on the other had, there is peaceableness in your communities and in your lives, this is an indication that you are rightly ordered in the wisdom that comes only from above.
I suppose that can sound a little too neat, with the potential to court some serious smugness. I’m at peace with my life and my neighbours, so I’m clearly wise… which is why James also points to mercy, a willingness to yield, and the absence of partiality and hypocrisy as being fruits of true wisdom. And he recognizes that while each person must take responsibility for his or her own actions, there is also need to acknowledge the spiritual roots of disorder actions and affections. James not only writes of envy and selfish ambition as being rooted in the “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish”, he also counsels his readers to “Resist the devil.” In Greek the word is diabolo, which like the name “Satan” is best translated as “Adversary.” In his 1983 book People of the Lie, the psychiatrist Scott Peck contended that while we do need to take seriously the reality that evil is very much a spiritual reality and much bigger than the sum total of individual evil acts, it is crucial that we not give that evil a stature as God’s equal and opposite. They are not two sides of the same coin, warring with one another for the heart and soul of creation, but rather the satan—and Peck insisted on not dignifying it with personal pronouns or other forms of personal address—the satan is powerful only by way of lies. At the heart of that spiritual lie is the contention that we have no need for God; that in fact we can ourselves be as gods. Unveil that lie, and the adversary is exposed as having no power, or as James puts it, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Instead, James counsels, “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” Draw near to that which gives life, not lies.
Confronted by the embarrassed silence of his disciples, Jesus responded with a kind of enacted parable. “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” The lie of selfish ambition and self-absorbed striving is thus unveiled. And welcoming the child, he takes them another step toward the defeat of all death and all lies.