In Pursuit of Wisdom
Sep 19, 2021
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
When I think of someone who is wise, I usually picture a person who is measured, thoughtful, knowledgeable, all characteristics of which I wish I had more. I imagine a contemplative person, someone who thinks erudite thoughts and utters intelligent words.
This certainly is not the character in the Pearls before Swine cartoon, a donkey seated on a mountain top, called, “the Wise Ass on the Hill,” who is asked by the pig character, “What is the key to life?” The initial response sounds wise, “Love your fellow man,” but what comes next falls short. The pig asks, “How does one achieve that?” and the supposedly wise one responds, “Live high on a hill where you don’t have to see any of them.” Then, again, perhaps he is wise….
Today’s reading from James focuses on wisdom, which I’ve always thought of as inner insight that is not readily attained. Yet, the reading implies something else about wisdom, that it is reflected in what we do, not just in what we think or say. It is shown, the author of James writes, by our good lives.
Here’s what wisdom looks like; imagine books on a shelf. First, it’s pure, and last, it’s sincere; those are the bookends with the other characteristics of wisdom between them. So, first, wisdom is without guile, deceit, corruption, and, last, wisdom is transparent, honest and without hypocrisy. And, in between, wisdom is being peaceful, gentle, willing to yield (reasonable), and full of mercy (forgiving); it produces good fruits (joy, love, faith) and shows no partiality (does not favor one over another). I like to imagine a book with each of those characteristics as a title, in which examples of wisdom are recorded. I even had the idea of creating such books (journals) in which we record ways that we have lived wisely. What a project that would be!
Anyway, getting back to the text, you’ll note that peace is a primary focus, because it is repeated in verse 18: seeking peace, sharing peace leads to a “harvest of righteousness,” or we could say, acquiring justice and goodness. You’ll note that unlike the cartoon character’s advice to avoid people, these characteristics involve interactions with others; the focus is outward and encompasses acting and speaking in love.
Then, in order to make that point, the author lists that which is not wisdom: bitter envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness, lying, all of which leads not to peace, but to disorder, even chaos. These are all inward-focused actions, writes Pastor JoAnne Taylor, “Instead of being all about another’s need and well-being, earthly wisdom is all about me: my needs, my desires.” (1)
The passage describes this in clear-cut terms; let me read it again: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within 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.”
That requires little explanation, it seems to me. Yet, a question remains: How do we acquire this peace-pursuing, other-focused wisdom and avoid that unpleasant description I just read? That, too, is addressed in the text, in the final verse: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”
Our initial response to that may be that we would rather take the advice of the “Wise Ass on the Hill” and avoid other people who, after all, are the reason our ability to act wisely is challenged. As someone said recently, if you have a group of people, you have issues. But while drawing near to God requires intentionality, it does offer positive results.
It is interesting that the previous verse uses the word “submit” in reference to God; the better translation of the Greek is “to place in order.” That is: put God first; make learning and living God’s will and God’s ways a priority, focus on growing in faith. Then, our inner selves and our outer world will become a more peaceable place.
Prayer is one way to “place in order” and to “draw near”. In chapter 5 of James, the focus is on prayer, and in her commentary on that section author Nanette Sawyer notes that she regularly prays for things that are unlikely to come about quickly, if at all. I’ll quote her:
“I pray for world peace. I pray for just resolutions of major geopolitical situations. I pray for reduced gun violence and for equity and fairness between people…. The prayers I pray with heartfelt sincerity for unlikely outcomes, I offer to God with my thoughts, words, and silent reflections in my heart. ‘Are any among you suffering?’, James asks, ‘They should pray.’ I pray about my own fears, my own emotional and sometimes physical suffering. I pray about the suffering I see around me in the world.” (2)
Her prayers, all prayers, are a way of drawing near to God, and thus a way of developing wisdom within ourselves. She goes on to say: “And what do these prayers do? They remind me that I am not alone, that I am deeply connected to the world, to God’s creation, to God’s beloved children around the globe. They remind me that God is near. Do my prayers change God? I don’t think so. But they do change me, and they change my experience of my relationship to God. These prayers reflect my dependence on God and my interdependence with God’s creation.” (3)
Prayer is just one way we draw near to God; others are worshipping, growing in faith, serving others, all of which happens more fully within a community of believers, which is one of the reasons the current detachment caused by the pandemic, and the growth in numbers of those who have not religious affiliation, is a concern. Will wisdom, as we have defined it today, become a rare commodity? Will it be confined to descriptions written in a book, but no longer a reality?
That’s why our quest for wisdom is so vital; we each are a potential wise one, perhaps not on a hill, but in our homes, in our community, at our jobs and schools, we are the ones who convey purity, peace, kindness, mercy, reasonableness, the fruits of the spirit, inclusion and sincerity in the world, keeping the “books” full of examples of wisdom. As we draw near to God, God draws near to us. AMEN
“Faith Works: Choose Wisely: Sermon on James 3:13-18” by Joanne Taylor, September 23, 2018, www.pastorsings.com
“Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary” by Nanette Sawyer, Christian Century, September 8, 2021, pg. 21
Same as #2