Sermon: Humility and the Wisdom from Above
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 1; James 3.13 – 4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37
Today’s Collect concisely summarizes the content of the lectionary readings: “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
My remarks today will focus primarily on the lections from James and Mark, with a brief visit with Proverbs and Psalms.
Proverbs 31 is the final chapter, the closing words, of the book. Proverbs opens by noting the book contains the proverbs of Solomon given “For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (1.2-3; NRSV). After setting forth the aims of the book, we encounter the following statement: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1.7; NRSV).
Our reading for today begins with the question: “A capable wife who can find” (Proverbs 31.10a; NRSV)? The attributes of an ideal wife are then addressed; such a wife is “far more precious than jewels” (Vs. 10b; NRSV). She is strong, generous, hard-working, wise, dignified; she teaches kindness. Her children and her husband recognize that she is happy, and her husband praises her by saying, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (Vs. 29; NRSV). So often we men look for charm and beauty, but here we are told “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Vs. 30; NRSV). Such a wife, a capable wife, is cause for rejoicing.
Psalm 1 contrasts the way of the righteous with the way of the wicked, the unrighteous. The righteous are happy; they delight in, and meditate on, God’s law. The righteous thrive like “trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither” (Psalm 1.3; NRSV). The righteous are like the abundant grain of the harvest which is retained and stored; not so for the wicked who “are like chaff which the winds blows away” (Psalm 1.4; NRSV). The wicked will not endure judgment – their way is doomed, but the “Lord knows the way of the righteous” (Psalm 1.6; NRSV).
Our lesson from James begins by asking, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The wise and understanding, James says, are to show by their good life that their “works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (James 3.13b; NRSV). James then contrasts worldly wisdom with wisdom from above; he warns, “If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom . . . is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (James 3.14-16; NRSV). We find this worldly wisdom in the art of the deal which might better be named the art of the steal; we see it in the distortion of truth and in self-aggrandizement. Worldly wisdom seeks to maximize wealth, power, and prestige. It encourages us to look out for #1.
In contrast, James tells us, wisdom from above, Godly wisdom, is “pure . . . peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3.17; NRSV). And as in Psalm 1, we see a reference to the harvest of righteousness as it concerns the peaceable characteristic of Godly wisdom: “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3. 18; NRSV). James further observes our lack of peace, our conflicts and disputes stem from our cravings, our desires, that are at war in us. We crave or desire something we do not have, so we resort to murder; we covet things and cannot obtain them, so we engage in disputes and conflicts. Exodus 20.17 set forth the prohibition against coveting : “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (NRSV). Remember – to covet something is to do more than desire it. When one covets, one actively plans or plots how one will obtain the object of desire. James further writes, “You do not have, because you do not ask;” acknowledging that we sometimes ask, James continues, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4.2b-3; NRSV).
Our reading from James skips a few verses, then closes with “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you” (James 4.7-8a; NRSV). When there is a break in the reading, I always like to see what is omitted. Here it is:
Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4.4-6; NRSV).
Acting in friendship with the world, choosing to exercise the wisdom of the world in concert with our covetousness, separates us from God and the grace that God would have us receive. Immediately after James tells us, “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you,” he adds, “Cleanse your hands you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4.8; NRSV). In acknowledging our double-mindedness, James makes a telling point. As Christians, we still wrestle with some of our worldly desires. We rely on God’s help, God’s grace, when cleansing our hands and purifying our hearts.
Our lection from Mark amply demonstrates the depth of this struggle. Jesus and the disciples have returned from the region of Caesarea Philippi to Galilee. Jesus, while teaching his disciples, again shares what lay ahead: How the Son of Man will be betrayed, killed and rise again. Upon arriving in a house at Capernaum, Jesus asked the disciples what they were talking about while traveling. Silence! They had been arguing with one another as to who was the greatest. It was time for another lesson!
Jesus sat down, like a good rabbi about to teach, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9.36b; NRSV). Jesus then placed a child among them, took the child in his arms, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9.37; NRSV). This is a lesson in humility. Remember, the Middle-Eastern social structure is grounded in honor – not only individual honor but the honor of one’s family. If one acts inappropriately, one dishonors not only oneself but also one’s family. Worldly wisdom says strive to gain and to retain the honor you have.
John Pilch, an expert in Middle-Eastern culture, suggest that, inasmuch as Jesus’ announcement had to do with honor, we should not be surprised that the disciples were arguing over their honor. Jesus direct question is his first act in shaming them. But what about the child? Pilch says:
By asking the disciples to extend hospitality (“to welcome”) a child, a creature of low status in their culture, Jesus further shames these grown men. Hospitality is extended to complete strangers to guarantee safe transit in unfamiliar and hostile territory. To extend hospitality to children (“to welcome them”) would be a laugh to everyone else in the culture. Further, though guests are not expected to reciprocate hospitality, they are expected to broadcast the kindness of the host far and wide, thus extending his honorable reputation. Unpredictable children couldn’t be counted upon to do that, so why bother? (http://liturgy.slu.edu/25OrdB092318/theword_cultural.html)
Jesus’ wisdom, the wisdom from above, turns our world upside down: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” We know we are making progress when our works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. It is no longer about us – it is about the grace of God working within us.