Summary: Two kinds of wisdom are set before us in the Book of James - a “wisdom” in quote marks that is not wisdom at all but “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic" and true wisdom which comes from God and is first of all peaceable.
16th Sunday after Pentecost
24th September 2006
Text: James 3:14-4:10
TWO KINDS OF WISDOM
James defines wisdom in a very down to earth way. When we think of the wise man we may think of the sage who sits on a mountain top meditating on the nature of the universe. His devotees climb the rugged mountain top and ask him the meaning of life, the universe and everything and receive some tid-bit of wisdom leading to enlightenment. But James defines wisdom in a much more ordinary way. Wisdom is seen by living a good life, and by deeds done in humility.
The opposite of this kind of life, James calls “demonic.” When we hear that word we usually think of the dark shadowy underworld of evil spirits. We may think of black magic or witches covens. Or perhaps we think of exorcisms and holy water being sprinkled on possessed people or vomiting pea soup projectiles. Then we read James and find that the demonic is a lot closer to home than that. It’s a lot more ordinary and a lot more common. This is what James says is demonic - harbouring bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, and then either boasting about it or denying it. “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (15-16)
Webster’s Dictionary defines envy as “a feeling of antagonism towards someone because of some good which he is enjoying but which one does not have oneself || a coveting for oneself of the good which someone else is enjoying…”
We can do two things with this earthly, unspiritual, and demonic impulse within us - we can boast about it or we can deny it. There’s a lot of boasting about this in reality television, especially those based on competition, as most of them are. If you watch something like Survivor or Fear Factor you will find this attitude quite common. “I am pumped to win. I’m going to wipe the floor with you losers.” Bitter envy and selfish ambition hanging right out there for all to see. This is a more extreme case but it happens more subtly in the workplace, in our chosen professional careers, where we are pressured to be confident about asserting our superiority to the next guy or girl in the pecking order in a desperate attempt to move up the ladder of success.
The other option is to deny our envy and selfish ambition. This is to take the passive aggressive approach. We still have our sights fixed on winning and succeeding at whatever cost, but we keep our ambition hidden within us until the opportune time. We are like those fish that can completely flatten themselves and hide under the sand of the ocean floor with only their beady little eyes peeping out above the surface. When their unsuspecting prey swims close to them there is a rapid flurry as a cloud of sand and water is thrown up and it’s dinner time for the hidden predator.
Whether we boast about our bitter envy or selfish ambition or hide it, James says it is “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.” And wherever these things are found according to v. 16 “you find disorder and every evil practice” . Surely this is not true wisdom.
It was this bitter envy and selfish ambition that Jesus found among his disciples in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 9:30-37). They had travelled to Capernaum together and when they arrived in the house where they were staying Jesus asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called them together and said “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
Years ago, a large statue of Christ was erected high in the Andes on the border between Argentina and Chile – called “Christ of the Andes.” The statue symbolizes a pledge between the two countries. As long as the statue stands, there will be peace between Chile and Argentina. Shortly after the statue was erected, the Chileans began to protest that they had been slighted, because the statue has its back turned to Chile. Just when tempers were at their highest, a Chilean newspaper writer saved the day. In an editorial that not only satisfied the people but made them laugh, he simply wrote, “The statue of Christ faces Argentina because, “The people of Argentina need more watching over than the people of Chile.” [David Owens, “The Cure for Conflict,” http://sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=92721]
In contrast to the so-called wisdom of the world, “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (17-18).”