Summary: The devil is part of earthly wisdom, and James contrasts earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom. People’s lives reflect the source of their wisdom.
I want to take you (especially those of you who are among the older members of this congregation) on a trip down memory lane for a minute. Some of you may remember a famous comedian named Flip Wilson. He had a TV show in the 1970s, and on this show he had such famous characters as Geraldine Jones and Brother Leroy. He also had some famous lines, including one that ties in nicely with the reading we heard from the Book of James earlier in today’s service. That line was, “The devil made me do it!” The characters in Flip Wilson’s comedy routines often blamed the devil for leading them into trouble, and they were partially right. The devil can’t make anyone do anything, but he can definitely tempt us and influence our choices.
The devil is part of earthly wisdom, and James contrasts earthly wisdom and heavenly wisdom. People’s lives reflect the source of their wisdom. There is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom that leads to “envy and selfish ambition” in the individual and “disorder and wickedness of every kind” in society. Against this, there is “wisdom from above” that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits…” Trouble arrives, he tells us, when we act based on earthly wisdom and not out of faithfulness to God.
The Letter of James was controversial for much of Christian history, largely because its emphasis on doing good works seemed to clash with parts of Paul’s writings that emphasized salvation by faith alone and not by works. This passage can help us understand that faith in God and charity towards our neighbor are inseparable. It is our faithful adherence to the “wisdom from above” that spurs us to act gently, justly, and in ways that will yield “good fruits.”
If we have a right relationship with God, we will be understanding people and show concern for others, and therefore we will demonstrate heavenly wisdom. Heavenly wisdom is shown through Jesus, available through the Holy Spirit, written in the Bible and delivered in a steady flow from God to us. Heavenly wisdom is the foundation for our Christian lives. When we draw close to God, he will draw closer to us in response. If we put ourselves under God’s control, we will be open to God’s grace. This will be the ultimate challenge for proud people.
If we trust in God’s wisdom, we will be seen as meek. This is not to be confused with the world’s definition of meekness, which is cowardice and passivity. Earthly wisdom comes from sin and Satan. Earthly wisdom causes chaos, self-ambition and the playing of the “blame game.” Peace is the opposite of selfish ambition. If we bring peace, we will harvest a rich crop of righteousness.
Selfish desires cause people to make war against each other, even in the church. For example, James talks about murder taking place in the church. How could that happen? One possible reason is that the rich were taking the poor to court and basically stripping them of all they owned. Without food or the necessities of life, the result was death. In addition, how many churches have been divided because of selfish desires? Some of us may remember the division in the United Church of Canada several years ago when the Church’s General Council decided to allow the ordination of homosexual clergy. That decision caused several individual churches to leave that denomination.