Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Show by your good life that your works are done
with gentleness born of wisdom.” (James 3:13)
If you were here or listening online a couple of weeks ago, you’ll remember that I said then that we’ll be reading from the epistle of James for several weeks, until we’ve read it all the way through. So here we are today in chapter 3 (out of 5 altogether), and I want to spend some more time, wrestling with this rather obscure book of the Bible.
I talked last time about the likelihood that James is the earliest text in the entire New Testament, written by someone who had first-hand knowledge of Jesus and who is intent to interpret his teaching to the fledgling community of his followers. This is Christianity before Paul got ahold of it, Christianity before the gospels put their spin on the story, Christianity before creeds and councils, before liturgies and hierarchies. There’s a kind of purity and simplicity to James, which is why I at least have been so attracted to it these past several weeks.
Today the topic James takes up is wisdom. Now, you probably know that the Bible is full of literature described as the “wisdom tradition.” The book of Proverbs, for example, with its pithy advice about how to live is a type of wisdom; or Ecclesiastes, with its warnings about vanity.
James is clearly conversant with this tradition, and parts of today’s reading sound like they could have been lifted from it—think of where he writes, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
But as I mentioned a moment ago, James is most intent on preserving and interpreting the teachings of Jesus—so the wisdom he is interested in, is the wisdom of Jesus. His text is littered with a variety of closely related words that point us in the direction of what he thinks that wisdom is: words like “gentle,” “peaceable,” “merciful,” “without a trace of partiality …”
James seems to have caught on to the fact that what Jesus was trying to do, was to articulate a vision he had for humankind that was founded above all else on peaceableness: living without hatred, or anger, or vengefulness, but focused instead upon finding the common ground where human beings can live together in mutual respect, forbearance, and compassion. Jesus called that vision, the “kingdom of heaven.”
The thing is, even Jesus himself seems to have known it was only a vision, not something that can be realized. Jesus was not, in the end, a social progressive. He was a social realist. He knew that we human beings simply aren’t capable of living fully into the vision he held up for us: we’re too self-interested, too selfish, too self-centered. (Notice the repetition of the word “self.”) That’s why Jesus was always talking with his disciples about how he must be given up to face death—the price he realized would have to be paid for his challenging the centrality of the self that lies at the heart of every one of us as individuals, and also at the heart of our social systems.
Jesus nevertheless inhabited his vision of human peaceableness so that we might at least catch a glimpse of it, even if it tragically lies always just around the corner. And although he accepted its ultimate price, he nevertheless also knew that there really is no alternative to a vision of peaceableness—not if human beings are to have hope, not if we are to be able to live by faith, not if we are to avoid living purely cynical lives.
Maybe this is part of the reason James hits home so forcefully right now: the events of the past few months, years—even the last two decades since 9/11—have made us realize that the confidence that twentieth century modernism had in social progress is dead. Our unreflective response to those horrific events 20 years ago revealed that when threatened, we can be no less bloodthirsty, no less inhumane, than our vilest enemy. We are left knowing that human beings are simply too self-interested, and therefore too violent, for there to be real security in any progressivist illusion.
But this, I think, is the wisdom of Jesus: to hold out the possibility of living in peace, even when there is no peace, as the lifeline that gives us reason to hope. Struggling to find a summary of this wisdom, what I came up with this week is this: Jesus’ teaching is that wisdom is the ability to see the possibility of peace in all circumstances (let me repeat that: wisdom is the ability to see the possibility of peace in all circumstances), and to go on striving for it, even when it is elusive, fleeting and tenuous. That is what is at stake in his admonition to love God, love our neighbor, and love our enemy—Jesus’ three-fold prescription for living peaceably.
The search for such a wisdom was at the heart of the lives of the desert fathers and mothers of the early church. What is striking, is that they grasped that to find such wisdom was in the first instance not about how to live in the world, but how to live with one’s self. If one could learn how to live peaceably with the struggles and temptations that are within, then perhaps one could do so as well with other people. As a result, these desert dwellers were loath to find fault in others, when the true struggle was to come to terms with one’s own.
So the story is told of a brother who had sinned, and was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and followed him out, for he said, “I too am a sinner.”
Or again, there was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault. So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest sent someone to say to him, “We are all waiting for you.” So Moses got up and set off; and he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, “Father, what is this?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of somebody else.” When they heard this saying, they called off the meeting.[*]
You see, Jesus teaches a path of peaceableness which in all things seeks to have compassion and mercy on the other, because of the weakness and fault of the self. That’s why James puts Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount front and center in what he writes, for it was there that Jesus so clearly taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the children of God.”
The possibility of living that way of life is opened to us in Jesus because he shows us that we no longer have to justify ourselves before God: in Jesus, God’s truth and mercy have already stepped into the breach, and we don’t have to create it. The wisdom that we acquire by faith is to trust, to lean into, to put our weight on that promise.
This is the “gentleness born of wisdom” that James encourages in us today. It is a vision of what life might be like, were we to exercise the restraint of judgment and generosity of spirit toward the other which characterizes the kingdom of heaven. But it is also the patience to dwell on this side of the kingdom with life as it is, still far short of the peaceableness which is our truest desire.
For yet again as it is written, some old men came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, “We see some of the brothers falling asleep during divine worship. Should we wake them up?” Abba Poemen replied, “As for me, when I see a brother who is falling asleep during the [prayers], I lay his head on my knees and let him rest.” Amen.
[*] Stories taken from Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (2003).