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Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22; Psalm 54; James 3:16-4:6; Mark 9:30-37
To ancient peoples, especially the Romans, the central goal of life was glory. Their ambition was to make a name for themselves, to be great by their words and deeds, and to be revered by people in their present, and down through the ages. If you go to Rome or Athens, you will see the monuments that were raised to glorify these men. What we need to understand, though, is what these people did in order to receive this acclaim. They often made great sacrifices, fighting wars that saw the deaths of millions, giving speeches to move people to fight for their lands, and having their own names imprinted on the books of history by their accomplishments. To them, wisdom meant ambitiously pursuing immortality through their accomplishments.
For Christians, we are also to seek to do great deeds. We are also to understand that wisdom is not just ideas, but living a life directed by our ideals. We are also called to a certain kind of ambition. And yet, the Christian pursuit of wisdom looks very different then the ancient or modern pursuit of wisdom.
James begins this passage by asking a question to those reading his letter: “who is wise and understanding among you?” He is speaking here particularly to the teachers of the church, those who instruct and lead. Yet, this passage applies to us all, addressing issues that affect us all, and calling us to a life in obedience to the Gospel.
The answer to the question James gives us immediately: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” These teachers, and us by extension, reveal who we are when we do whatever it is that we do. As we seek out our vocations, we manifest and reveal who we really are: either compassionate and loving, or selfish and bitter. This is counter to everything in the world around this community of the Church. To follow Jesus expects humility, gentleness, self-sacrifice for the building up of others. But the society that these Christians lived in saw “greatness” as boasting, ambition, and conquest.
Lives such as this, with “bitter envy and selfish ambition” as James puts it, does not come from above, but is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” Their bitter envy can be understood as ferocious, harsh, and angry. Their ambition, it tells us in vs. 16, leads to disorder and wickedness.
Is there anything that better describes our society today? We are riven by differences in ideology, politics, religion. And that has made its way quite effectively into the Church. We divide over the same things as the world, because we are given to the same ambition and bitter envy as the world. When we seek, by force or manipulation, to leverage our own will over others so that our way is done, we have given in to the world and we have introduced the disorder of the world into Christ’s people.
Where false wisdom comes from evil desires, true wisdom is characterized by being: Pure, meaning that which is holy before God; peaceable, seeking to unite rather than divide; gentle, not violent or harsh; willing to yield, rather than fight to get our own way; full of mercy, rather than judgment; and without partiality that favors those we like or who can advantage us over others, or hypocrisy, falsely pretending to be obedient to God when deep down we care not for God or his will, but for our own benefit.
The root of false wisdom is desire, and so is the root of true wisdom. The problem is our desires, and where they are oriented! This is where our self-reflection has to begin. What we desire is what we will pursue. And the fruit of those desires will manifest, either by peacemaking and gentleness, or by envy and chaos. Our desires may be influence, money, respect, recognition, control. And any and all of those will lead to destruction when they are the dominant passions within our hearts.
That is the root of the world’s power and ambition. While most people are decent and don’t actively want to tear down, the logic of a world where we are immortalized by the imposition of our wills upon others means if we want success on those terms, murder, coveting, and seeking our own pleasure is all we have left. In a world where only our own power matters, the universe is hostile, impersonal, and devouring to survive is the order of the day. You either are the predator or the victim in such a world.
But that is not what the Christian is called to. If you are caught up in imposing your will to fulfill your own desires, whether by force or manipulation (and we are all tempted by this), then James is speaking to you. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
This could seem extreme. But small sins, small, tolerated desires can and will grow. A small taste of a drug can lead to addiction. A little violence can lead to more.
What James is saying to these teachers is, you should seek wisdom. But what they are asking for is the kind of wisdom that allows them to exploit others, to seek their own desires. They seek to influence people. They want control. They want whatever they can eke out of their community. Whether small or large in scope, these evil desires lead to murder, to coveting, to spiritual death. James tells them they are not receiving because they are asking wrongly. Have you asked God wrongly? Have you appealed to him to do a thing that is not conditioned by peaceableness, gentleness, mercy, et al?
You are either a friend of God or the world (the world here meaning the sinful, selfish desires that I spoke of earlier). That is not what God desires for you. He “yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” The Holy Spirit, given to you as a gift of God, in baptism and by the Spirit’s own will, was not given so we could seek out our own desires. The Spirit came so we could live as agents of peace and mercy.
And so there is hope, because even though like those teachers we fight our own selfish and ambitious desires, “he gives all the more grace.” The path forward for us is articulated perfectly through the words, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And so it is for us to be humble, to kneel before God, and to ask for the abundant grace that he is eager to supply. When we do, then we able to receive the gift also of peace, gentleness, mercy, and all the other fruits of the Spirit, so that the world may see Jesus through us, and the works we manifest by our faith.
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