Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

When we are children, when we reach a certain age, a loved one, without fail, will ask at some point: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

 

We probably cringed when we were asked this question, either because we didn’t know the answer or because we resented the pressure that comes with the question. But the fact that our loved one felt it appropriate to ask tells us something about what it means to be human. We want to make something out of our lives. We want our lives to count for something. And for most of us that means to discover our gifts, develop them, and then deploy them in the world, which hopefully will recognize them and reward us accordingly.

 

This is a basic, core drive in each one of us. There is in us this drive to bring out what is latent in us. Indeed, without this drive the project of education is inconceivable. Education, in fact, comes from a Latin word that means to “bring out.”

 

It is always good to remind ourselves of these things, especially at this time, when a new school year has begun, and students and teachers have eagerly returned to the classroom after a hard year interrupted by the Covid lockdowns. Debarring another Covid outbreak, teachers can hopefully focus without distraction on the important task of education, in which they “bring out” what is in each of their students. If this task is successful, the finished product is a student who has discovered his gifts, begun to develop them, and will be ready to deploy them in the world, as we have already mentioned.

 

All this is good and right. It is something to be affirmed and applauded. Christians from the earliest times have supported education. Almost everywhere missionaries have gone, they have established schools. Literacy no doubt owes a profound debt to missionaries who have sought to teach people to read, so that they can read the Bible.

 

But Christians have sought even more for their students, or at least they have when they are at their best. Not only have they taught them “what” they ought to know, but also “when,” or “under what circumstances” they are to deploy it. And this calls for wisdom.

 

James is concerned about wisdom, as we have already seen. One author has defined wisdom as the art of living well. It’s likely that James would agree, only he would expand the definition by one word, so that it reads: the art of living well together.

 

Last time we learned how important speech is to the art of living well together. Our words can either build up or tear down, either bless or curse, either strengthen the bonds of our solidarity or divide us from one another. And of course we know this to be true from our own experience. A well-chosen word can brighten our day. It can encourage us to work together with others. It can even set our life’s course in a positive direction. On the other hand, a harsh and unkind word can wound us. It can make us withdraw from others into our own shell. It can even distort how we see ourselves going forward. 

 

Today James wants to bring out another dimension of wisdom. Wisdom expresses itself not only in our speech; it expresses itself also in our character.

 

Let us imagine that in the community James is addressing there are two persons who consider themselves to be “wise and understanding.” Let us imagine further that both are educated. They have developed their gifts, and are eager to deploy them in the community. But here’s the problem. Both are laser-focused, both are single-minded in this ambition, and neither is willing to yield to the other. Each has a long list of reasons to give why his contribution is to be preferred to that of the other. And this provokes a spirit of envy and rivalry, which in turn causes discord in the community.

 

“Wait, wait,” we can hear James saying. “You both claim to be wise and understanding.” “You both claim to have gifts to contribute to the benefit of the community. But your behavior in fact is doing the opposite: instead of benefiting the community, it is breaking it down. Let’s be clear on what wisdom is here.”

 

James does this by contrasting two kinds of wisdom: the one is “earthly,” “unspiritual,” “devilish.” It is false wisdom. It breaks down and destroys community. It is appropriate that James here uses the word “devilish” because dividing and destroying is the devil’s m.0. True wisdom—the wisdom that comes from above—proves itself in how it builds up community. 

 

In his book Entering into Rest, author and theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes that we are not to underestimate the gifts that we have. But neither are we to overestimate them. If we do, then we will not sense when God is giving opportunities to others, and not only to us. This observation, I believe, offers a clue to help us grasp what James means by the wisdom that comes from above.  

 

James says that wisdom is “peaceable, gentle, and willing to yield.” Wisdom is shown in the voluntary self-restraint that makes room for another to deploy his gifts. To be more precise, wisdom consists in sensing when it is appropriate to exercise this self-restraint for the sake of someone else. We mentioned earlier that wisdom is concerned less with the “what” than with the “when” and the “under what circumstances.” This is consistent with what O’ Donovan is saying here.

 

O’Donovan goes on to say that wisdom is reflected in the decision to move at someone else’s pace rather pressure him to keep up with yours. Wisdom is reflected in the choice to do less than you are capable of doing for the sake of keeping in step with someone else. Wisdom is reflected in the decision to pause rather than to push.

 

Invariably this gives rise to the question: Will the one who acts in this way ever get the chance to express his gift? The community of the wise and understanding that James envisions here knows reciprocity. If one makes room for the other now, then that other will make room for that one later. This is what it means to be “gentle” and “reasonable,” which, according to James, are marks of wisdom. This reciprocity ensures that each may appreciate the gifts the other has to contribute for benefiting the community. In this connection, we may propose another definition of wisdom: wisdom consists in taking turns. This is an instance of the truism that the most valuable lessons in life we learn in early childhood.

 

In summing up, O’Donovan makes the following thoughtful observation: “if in the exercise of our freedom we fail to see our neighbor as created for freedom to act, too, or we see his freedom only negatively as his “right” that sets limits on our freedom to act, then we lack wisdom.”

 

Evidently this voluntary self-limitation does not characterize Jesus’ disciples in our gospel lesson. Each wants to be “first.” To be first of course means to assert dominance over the other, who then becomes “second” at best. Implied in the assumption that I deserve to be first is the following: “What I have to contribute is more important than what you have. The gifts I have are more important than yours, therefore I must push you aside; your place is after mine, and if you think otherwise, I will prove that I am superior to you.”

 

In this regard, the spectacle of the disciples arguing on the way provides an example of the rivalry and selfish ambition that James denounces in our first lesson, as we have already seen.

 

When Jesus asks them about their arguing, they are too embarrassed to say anything about it. But he already knows that they were arguing about who among them is the greatest. He then turns to them and says that “if anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a child and places it among them.

 

There is a play on a word here in the original that we miss in our language. The word for child here can also be translated as servant. The act of placing a child among them then is an object lesson. It illustrates the preceding statement. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” We imagine Jesus making this statement as he points to the child. This is straightforward enough. But this is not at all the lesson that he is drawing from the presence of the child. As is typical of him, Jesus departs from our expectations here as he does elsewhere. Evidently, greatness does not consist in imitating the child, that is, the servant. Rather it consists in welcoming it.

 

What Jesus means here may not be immediately obvious. Let me then clarify it by relating an incident from my own experience.

 

After I completed all the courses and exams, after I submitted and defended my thesis, I anticipated that the department would assign to me seminars, in which I would lead graduate students in their research. This was the big league, to which I felt I should be called up. But later I learned that I would only be assigned classes for first-year undergraduates.

 

I was disappointed, to say the least. To me to continue to teach first-year undergrads felt like a demotion. I felt I had already paid my dues. I felt I had already developed the competencies I needed to guide young scholars in their research, and I was eager to deploy them in them in the seminar. And here I was—relegated to the first-year student lecture hall. The gifts that I felt I had to contribute would not be appreciated.

 

To be sure, there was good reason to be disappointed. There was something legitimate about my complaint. But was there also something else going on in me? To teach first-year undergrads does not advance me. It does not allow me to be great. At least that is how it appeared to me. And this is how it appears to the world.  

 

But Jesus is not found among the great, at least as the world defines the term. He is found among people seen as insignificant. These people tend to be overlooked, because they have nothing to offer. That is, there is no advantage to be gained in associating with them. That’s why they remain overlooked. But Jesus associates with them. In fact, his association with them is so close that when you welcome them, you welcome him. And not only do you welcome him, you welcome the one who sent him.

 

One can be in no greater company than in that of Jesus and the One who sent him. To be acknowledged and commended by Jesus and the One who sent him is to realize true greatness. In the end it will be his definition of greatness by which all definitions will be measured.

 

Let us then not shun tasks that seem to be beneath us. Let us not resent it when our community does not give us the opportunity to deploy our gifts, and instead gives it to someone else. Let us support and encourage that someone else, doing all that we can to promote him or her. It will be our turn soon enough, when that someone else later does the same for us. The Bible calls this mutual submission; it is the gold standard for Christian community.

 

If we do not, and instead insist on our own rights, then we make life chaotic for ourselves and for our community. Conflicts and disputes will break out, which divide and destroy. Then, instead of the church, we resemble the world.

 

That is why James tells us to resist the devil and turn to God. When we draw near to God, then God will draw near to us.

 

In this process of drawing near to God, we will begin to see things differently. What used to escape our notice now comes into sharper focus. Conversely, what used to be at the center of our attention now recedes into the background. We speak in this regard of a reordering of our priorities. This happens as we gain in wisdom and understanding. If we were to ask James about the source of this wisdom and understanding, he’d point to God, to whom he is encouraging us to draw near. “If any lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all who ask, without finding fault.” Amen.

 

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