There are two kinds of wisdom – wisdom “from above” and wisdom “from below.” Heavenly wisdom and earthly wisdom. James is speaking in the way of the Proverbs and the first Psalm. Two ways, two wisdoms.
The wisdom “from below” is an arrogant, self-centered sort of wisdom. James calls it “earthly, unspiritual, dark, and devilish.” We’re accustomed with that kind of wisdom. It’s “in our genes,” so to speak. It comes naturally to us. “Don’t get mad, get even.” “Do unto others before they get a chance to do unto you.” “Might makes right.” “Me first; look out for number one.” We know it all too well. The will to power, to control others, to make others bend their will to our will and our way. “My will be done,” if we could get away with it.
This is the wisdom that tends to run the world of business, the world of politics, and all too often the church as well. Envy over the position of others. Selfish ambition – crawling up the ladder while standing on the backs of others. And with them comes disorder and all sorts of evil. It’s quite amazing, really, how much evil comes out of our self-centeredness – looking out for good old number one. We steal, we kill, we lie, and we justify our actions saying “I’ve got to take care of myself.” We neglect our duties and responsibilities and call it “me time.” It shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus said out of our hearts come murder, adultery, immorality, theft, lies. He knew the condition of our hearts, turned inward on themselves. Self-absorbed, self-indulged hearts.
James, the brother of the Lord, knew it too. He was the bishop of Jerusalem, the pastor of the first congregation of Christians. He’s writing his flock scattered by persecution. He knew that in every baptized believer, there is still old Adam, demanding to have his own way, wanting to be in power, willing to cut down, destroy, do anything to get ahead. He recognized, like the apostle Paul, that the life of the baptized believer is anything but easy. It’s a war, an inner conflict between two entirely different persons – Adam and Christ. Our sinful nature and the Holy Spirit.
Paul put it this way in Galatians: “The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” He goes on to describe the works of the sinful nature, and essentially gives the same list as James: “immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, etc.” In fact, Paul is even harsher than James in his assessment. He says, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” James puts it this way: Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
We are plunged into a paradox. We’re supposed to be in the world, yet not of the world. We know that God loved the world in the sending of His Son, and yet we are told quite clearly by Jesus and His apostles Paul and James, “Don’t get cozy with the world.” The world doesn’t have God’s interests, or yours, at heart. “World” means the unbelieving world, the world that wants nothing to do with Christ, the world that hates the good news of sins forgiven for Jesus’ sake, the world that prefers false gods to the real One, idols instead of Incarnation, “spiritualities” instead of sacraments, self-help instead of dying and rising.
The Spirit we have from God, the Holy Spirit which is ours by virtue of our Baptism, is a zealously jealous spirit. He wants us all for God. He won’t share us with any other god. And while our envy works disorder and evil, the Spirit’s zeal creates order and good. He’s envious on our behalf, knowing that we are engaged in a struggle. It’s good news to know that the Spirit is not one to put to flight and run off when things get rough, but He engages the struggle, He is jealous for us, He is grieved when we don’t live as the free children of God that we are.
The Spirit of God teaches us that heavenly wisdom from above, the wisdom that is truly “spiritual” in every sense of that word, God’s wisdom. It’s the wisdom of the cross, the way of dying and rising. We heard it again in the today’s Gospel. “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after three days He will rise.” That’s God’s Wisdom Incarnate.
His disciples didn’t get it. They were afraid to ask about it. They wouldn’t get it. Instead, they resort to their own wisdom, their own way of thinking, and argued with each other about who was the greatest. Imagine it. Jesus speaks of His death and resurrection, and the disciples are bickering over who is the greatest among them. Who is going to have the top cabinet appointments when Jesus takes power? Who is going to get the most recognition for a job well done? Will it be Peter, James, John? Certainly not the bottom rung like Thaddaeus or Bartholomew or that tax collector Matthew!
We know that game all too well ourselves. We play it at work, at home, at church. Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be a power struggle.
Jesus sits down and teaches His Twelve, and us, a thing or two about greatness in the kingdom. It’s not about being first, but being last. Literally dead last. The lowest slave. The bottom rung. The servant of all. That’s Jesus’ place. He came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom, an atoning sacrifice, not for the religious and the good, but for sinners. Not a king crowned with gold sitting on a throne, but a king crowned with thorns hanging on a cross.
He took a little child and had him stand among all the big people. In Jesus’ day, childhood was not something idealized, but something you got through as quickly as possible to productive adulthood. Children were considered losers until they grew to pull their own weight. They certainly had no time to indulge adolescence. But Jesus identifies with the littlest of the losers and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these, welcomes me, and in welcoming me, welcomes the Father who sent me.”
No, that’s not our wisdom, is it? Coming in last. Identifying with the little. With those who have nothing and receive everything in trust. On another occasion, Jesus said, “Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Childlike, not childish. Childish is the way of the old Adam – self-centered, bratty, all about me. Childlike is the way of Christ – trusting, receiving, becoming the least.
What causes fights and quarrels among you, James asks. The early Christians had fights and quarrels. Think about that. There has never been a perfect church, a pristine Christianity. Not even among the first believers. What causes fights, quarrels, divisions? What goes on inside us. We want but we can’t have. We pray self-centeredly instead of Christ-centeredly, and then we complain that we don’t get what we pray for. We make our alliances with the world, and we betray our baptisms, the mark of ownership God stenciled on us in the water.
There has to be a better way, and there is. The way of heavenly wisdom, the wisdom that comes down from above. Pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, sincere. It’s the way of peacemakers who sow in peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. It’s what Jesus called “blessed” in the beatitudes. Blessed are the spiritually poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
The world cries out, “That’s the way of losers!” And God cries out, “That’s the way of life in Jesus.”
Now this is not something you wind up in yourselves. This is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22). As Paul says, “There is no law against these.” These are the fruit that happens when the Spirit of God has His way and we get out of the way. This isn’t something that you do to be saved, but something God does because He saved you.
It’s there in that tiny little word “grace.” “But He gives us more grace,” James says. Undeserved kindness toward the sinner. Forgiveness, life, and salvation. Gifts in abundance. It’s all there for you, dear child of God. Complete and perfect forgiveness for all of your sin. Life in abundance in the death and life of Jesus. His own Body and Blood to strengthen and sustain you. Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound. “He gives us more grace.”
This isn’t grace as in power to do good. This is the grace of the father who embraces his wayward, loser son in the hold of his unconditional forgiveness. This is the grace that seeks and saves the lost. This is the grace that invites the uninvited to the wedding feast. This is the grace that welcomes a little child as a picture of greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
This is the grace that embraced you in the poverty of your sin, your selfishness, your desire to power and control. This is the grace that picks you up when you are humbled, broken, kicked, stepped on. Grace. Amazing grace. Undeserved kindness toward an enemy. “While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us.” That’s the wisdom of God, the wisdom that comes “from above” – pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, merciful, fruitful, impartial, sincere. That’s the wisdom that is yours in Christ Jesus.
In the Name of Jesus,