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.