If you’ve been here over the past couple of weeks, you’ll know that we’ve been doing some digging in the Epistle of James, which in many respects is the most practical and realistic book in the New Testament. As I remarked last Sunday, James stands very much in the Jewish wisdom tradition, and so is interested in what you might call a reflected and integrated life. Where the ancient philosopher Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” James might have been inclined to say something like “A life worth living is both examined and lived in light of God’s deep claim on us.” Wisdom in this sense is not merely academic, but must be enfleshed or incarnated in the shape of our lives.
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No surprise, then, that his rhetorical question, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” is immediately followed by “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” To be wise—to have what he calls “wisdom from above”—is not a matter of pure head-knowledge; wisdom is a different thing from knowing a lot of stuff, or of being merely smart. “[T]he wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” It would appear that he’s set the bar pretty high here, and you have to wonder how many of his readers—both his original audience and all who over the centuries have dared to read this epistle—could answer in the affirmative.
After all, even as he writes this he’s got what he calls the “conflicts and disputes among you” in view, which suggests that the church that first received this letter was marked by in-fights and divisions. He writes of “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition,” and comments that, “Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” Do you suppose that he’s suggesting here that good Christian people might actually get caught up in things like envy and selfish ambition? That even the communities of the early church, which included people that had actually seen Jesus and heard the apostles teach, got wrapped up in conflict? We can idealize how things must have been in the early church, and how much easier it would be to fully trust the gospel in all of its demands if you’d actually met Jesus. Yet it is pretty clear from this epistle (and from many of the other epistles) that conflict was very much a part of the picture, and that at least part of it arose from some people wanting to claim for themselves places of prestige, power, and authority within their communities.
But why would we expect it to be otherwise? Then as now, the church is made up of people; or as Robert Capon once put it, “The church is the world, wet… wet in the waters of baptism.” And while those waters might well place a particular claim upon us—while they may hold out a new reality, a higher calling, a deeper promise—we remain people all the same. The call to be “in the world, but not of it” remains the most intricate dance of all.
Alongside of this reading from James, we also heard a passage from the gospel according to Mark, in which we’re shown the very human disciples managing to mess up those dance steps in a rather startling way. As Mark shapes his story, he gives us three instances of Jesus predicting his passion and death, and each time the poor old disciples seem to utterly miss the point. In this particular instance, Mark tells us that, “they did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.” But it is what follows that suggests the degree to which they failed to understand… failed to receive his words with that “wisdom from above” of which James writes.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 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.’ (Mk 9:33-37)
So they’ve arrived back in Capernaum, settled into the house for a bit of a break, and Jesus asks them, “so what were you arguing about as we walked up the road?” No answer. Maybe they were feeling a little sheepish, because Mark tells us they’d been having an argument as to which of them was “the greatest,” the most senior or significant disciple. I actually hope they were feeling sheepish, because that at least would indicate they were beginning to “get” things, and to grapple with what Jesus was really all about. On the other hand, their reaction might have been a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights sort of thing. After all, the last time Jesus had talked about his impending death, Peter had tried to tune him up on his theology of messiah-ship, and that had ended with Peter being more or less dressed-down and called “a satan.” They might have just been afraid that they were about to be similarly chastised for something…
This time, though, Jesus is patient with them. He sat down—a traditional posture for teaching—and told them that in order to be the greatest, one needed to be “last of all and servant of all,” a message likely met with quizzical looks. How is that going to do anything? How will Jerusalem be freed and Israel restored by doing that?
And then in a kind of enacted parable, Jesus took a child into his arms (probably the child of one of the people staying in that house in Capernaum, and possibly even of one of the disciples), and 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.” Set aside all of your modern romanticism about children as being innocent or pure, or as having a special protected status within the society. No, what he’s pointing to is the reality of a child’s utter lack of power and status; their profound vulnerability and dependence in a society that suffered few illusions about the idealized child. Welcoming a child meant treating him or her as a person worthy of a place; it was to confer status, in fact. The force of this enacted parable is to say to the disciples that if they really do want to be “great” in the strange economy that is Jesus’ Kingdom, it will be through seeing the least of all as being worthy; by treating a status-less child as deserving of a place. In short, it will be through a posture of servanthood. And what’s more, Jesus says that in doing this one is not merely making room for a child, but for the very God of heaven and earth.
Which really brings us back to James, who cites Proverbs 3:34—God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”—and then adds, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (4:8a) That “drawing near,” it would seem, has much to do with finding a posture that doesn’t care about selfish ambition or getting to lead the parade, but instead seeks to recognize the worth of the last, the least, the little, and the lost. By most measures this isn’t a particularly strategic business plan, but by the measure of the gospel it just happens to be the only one that matters.