James on Wisdom – 9,24,06

There is a short parable from the American Indians that goes something like this: A grandmother was sitting with her grandson who was starting to come of age.  The grandson said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart.  One wolf is the angry, violent, and vengeful one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate, forgiving one.”  The grandmother looked at him and said, “I know which wolf will win.”  The grandson was quiet for a while.  Then he asked, “Which one will win?”  The grandmother replied, “The one that you feed.” 


I think these two wolves show up today in this passage from James.  He says there are two kinds of wisdom at work within us.


Now, if there’s one writer in the New Testament that we could make an honorary Mennonite, it would probably be James.  I remember when I was young my mom telling me that James was one of the most important books of the Bible.  We like the guy because he’s practical, all about living out your faith.  One verse from James that I heard growing up was “Be doers of the word, not just hearers.”  James isn’t really impressed with God-talk that spins the wheels without going anywhere.  This is the book that says “faith without works is dead” (2:26).  He’s the one who repeats the central commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and calls it “the royal law” (2:8)  James says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).  This down to earth, hands on, approach to what it means to be a people of faith is a large part of what I value in the Mennonite tradition, a tradition very much rooted in the spirit of the book of James. 

James might best be classified as wisdom literature.  This would put it in the same genre as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon.  James only mentions the name of Jesus twice.  A lot of the New Testament letters talk frequently of Jesus and about faith in Jesus.  James reads more like something that could come right out of the mouth of Jesus, like an extended version of the Sermon on the Mount, like a wise rabbi urging faithful living to the one God.  James helps us expand the conversation of what it means to have faith.  His goal isn’t to dazzle you with his deep theology, but to instruct you in how to live well.

The reading from today picks up right where last week leaves off.  James has just told us that the tongue is a small but dangerous thing.  You sort of get the feeling that if he could have his way we would all put duct tape over our mouths the rest of our lives, shut up, and just focus on living a good life.  He starts the passage today by saying “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  And then this word wisdom begins a new theme.  What follows is a commentary on just what James means when he talks about wisdom.   

James is concerned not only with what we do, with our ethics, but with what is behind our actions.  What drives us?  What is it that causes us to act violently or to act compassionately?  Where do these desires within us come from?

            His answer to these questions is ‘wisdom.’  Everyone operates out of some kind of wisdom.  We can look at the world through two kinds of wisdom, he says, and he uses spatial metaphors to speak of the differences.   One is from above, one from below. 

We find ourselves in the middle, with both of these wisdoms available to us and pressing in on us. 

            People aren’t just a collection of isolated actions, but we operate from within one of these wisdoms.  We buy into a package deal that teaches us where to channel our desires.    

V. 14. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts,” he says, “such wisdom is from below.”

The wisdom from below is based on a perception of scarcity.

If there is a scarce amount of power, then I must grab as much as I can in order not to be overpowered.  If there is a scarce amount of love, then I must do whatever it takes for others to love me so I won’t be isolated and alone.  If there is a scarce amount of wealth, then I have to hold on to everything I have in order not to lose out on having enough.  All of these are behaviors based on a certain kind of logic or wisdom.  If you buy into the wisdom that there is a scarce amount of power then it makes a certain kind of sense to beat down the enemy, or the competition, to keep as much power as you can.

            The wisdom from below looks out at the world with envy.  Envy identifies being with having and getting.  It’s an identity based in what you acquire and possess. 

            Now James takes all of this very seriously.  He says in 4:1 and 2, “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.”  The whole cycle of social unrest, murder, and wars is based in this wisdom from below.  We’re always fearful of losing what little we think we have, so we’re always setting ourselves up into rivalries with others. 

            This kind of wisdom even treats God as an object to be manipulated.  James goes on to say, “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.”  We approach God as the one who can help us possess what we want.  We want God on our side.  In this wisdom even God’s grace is scarce and limited and we want to secure as much as we can for ourselves. 


The wisdom from above comes at us from a completely different direction.

Listen to how it is described in v. 17.  “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” 

This verse reminds me of the list Paul gives us in Galatians that we call the fruits of the Spirit.  How do you know its wisdom from above?  How do you know its really the Holy Spirit at work and not some other spirit?  Well, Paul says, you look at what the tree produces and if the fruit is good, like love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, then that’s the Spirit.  James also uses a metaphor from the natural world.  “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”   


This pure wisdom, the logic of God, identifies being with abundance, with receiving and sharing in this free flow of mercy and compassion.  


If you think power can be shared and multiplied, then it begins to make sense to seek to heal a broken relationship, to reconcile with an enemy, to empower those who are weak. 

If you have let go of the need to possess and grasp onto things, then it makes sense to begin sharing your resources with others.  The feeding of the 5000 and 4000 actually make sense under this logic.  One act of sharing from someone’s small meal gets blessed and multiplies out so that everyone is found to be with enough.  Sharing leads to blessing which leads to more sharing. 

If you think love is in abundance and actually multiplies, then you become free to love those who may not love you back.  You become free to enjoy the love that is in your life knowing that you are not taking away from a limited store of love, but helping love increase.  Now this may sound a little strange to you, but there was a time in my life when I actually felt guilty for having such a loving family.  I knew other people who had terrible family lives and for some reason my mind figured that if I was part of a loving family I was somehow depleting the reserves available to everyone else.  It has been freeing for me personally to come to better understand this kind of wisdom of abundance.  James 4:6 says “God gives all the more grace.”  It’s gift.  It’s all the more.

   I love the passage that was read from the Wisdom of Solomon.  It has to be one of the most beautiful descriptions of wisdom ever written.  “For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.  For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of God’s goodness.  Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls, and makes them friends of God and prophets.”


It is becoming a little too clear that the wisdom from below leads to destruction.  Our desire to have and possess and dominate is coming to have profound effects on the non-human world.  It’s becoming more clear that this is not a path we can continue to follow if we wish to survive.  The wisdom from below is based in death, smells like death, looks like death.


Life isn’t about dominating and accumulating.  It’s about receiving the free flow of grace and being a channel of that grace.  This is the spiritual life founded in the living God.  It is the way of being human that is true to who we have been created to be.  It is the only way we will ever live at peace with each other and with creation. 


So, sisters and brothers, which wolf are you feeding?  I think James calls us to a task that involves a daily decision.  Daily choosing the kind of wisdom that informs our actions.  Daily nurturing the creature within us that lives out of the abundance of compassion and grace.

James wants us to live well.  To act out of our faith in all areas of life.  May we daily allow the wisdom from above to shape our heart and our will.   Amen.


Prayer of Confession


Words of Assurance

“God is indeed near, giving us grace daily.” 


Response Song

STJ #36 “Long before my journey’s start”