Summary: A comparison and contrast of worldly wisdom and wisdom from above.
Sermon for 15 Pent Yr B, 21/09/2003
Based on James 3:13-18
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, Alberta
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
When a dog wags its tail and barks at the same time, what end do you believe? When a sick florist goes to the hospital, what do you send her or him? Why does the old saying “Out of sight, out of mind” not apply when you have kids away at college? Such questions require practical wisdom to be answered appropriately. In today’s second lesson from James, the apostle compares and contrasts wisdom from God with worldly wisdom. And the writer concludes that for people of faith, the wisdom from above is very practical to live by.
Wisdom in the Bible is described not as a body of secret, esoteric, highly specialized technical knowledge, but as a gift of God for the use of the people of God. Wisdom is not something available only to the gifted few, but a gift freely available to all who want it, to all who seek it, to all who pursue it, and to all who recognize it in the variety of its subtle guises and forms—God’s benefit for the bewildered. A wise person is one who accepts that benefit, and proceeds to learn from it and to live by it. 1
In our passage from James today, the apostle begins by saying that God’s wisdom is shown by people who live a good life and who do works with gentleness born of wisdom. He then contrasts this with a description of worldly wisdom by saying it consists of bitter envy and selfish ambition, which lead to being boastful and the telling of lies. “Such wisdom,” says brother James, “does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
There is an old legend about a demon who was sent to tempt a holy man. He tried all his wiles, but none of them succeeded. At last, an older and more experienced demon said, “Let me try.” He crept up behind the saintly man and whispered, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.” Sad to relate, that did the trick!
Envy (jealousy)! If we can fight successfully against THAT and be content with what we have, sincere in our appreciation of others’ good fortune, then we shall have gone a long way along the road to true happiness. 2
People who are envious and jealous focus more on the negative than the positive; painting everyone and everything in the worst possible light. When people are controlled by such envy it has the potential to bring much harm and destruction to self and others.
Along with envy, James says, is selfish ambition. Selfish ambition can, of course, make one so involved with so many “irons in the fire” that it results in not being able to accomplish much of anything.
The story is told of young Charles Darwin that one day he was eagerly holding one rare beetle in his right fist, another in his left and then suddenly he caught sight of a third beetle that he simply knew he must have for his collection. What to do? In a flash he put one of the beetles in his mouth for safekeeping and reached for the third beetle with his now free hand. But the mouth-imprisoned beetle squirted acid down Darwin’s throat—so that in a fit of coughing he lost all three beetles. 3
Selfish ambition—the desire to want more and more, often at the expense of others, in a lot of cases ends up in self-defeat or self-destruction.
In contrast to this worldly wisdom, which leads to destruction and is therefore evil by nature since it causes more hatred and division and conflicts among people; James then goes on to describe the wisdom of God, which is a gift of grace. The apostle lists several characteristics of this wisdom. He tells us that first of all IT IS PURE.
I heard about a man who visited an art gallery in Europe and after looking just briefly at some of the paintings of the great masters, he left saying to the attendant: “Your gallery is boring.” The attendant responded by saying: “Sir, the paintings are not on trial, you are.”
In various ways Jesus made it clear that our state of mind affects what we see. Sometimes the things we miss seeing are the things we miss being. I believe this is part of what Jesus meant when he said: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
One Biblical scholar, James Moffatt, has translated “blessed are the pure in heart” to mean “blessed are those who are not double-minded.” The double-minded person is one who is continually distracted and pulled in many different directions. When we are pulled in different directions by the temptations and distractions from our daily lives it is easy to lose our sense of perspective as well as our values. 4