9/23/12, The Wisdom That Is From Above Is This

Wisdom 2:12, 17-20, James 3:13-4:3, Mark 9:30-37

If you’ve been hanging out with us here at Lumen Christi through the month of September, you’ll know that we’ve been focusing on the little letter of James to the first century Christian community.  In a relatively short letter, James addresses questions of faith and doubt, praying meaningfully, choosing to live joyfully despite suffering, being an active doer of the faith we profess, treating every human being with equal respect and refraining from judgment, using caution in our speech, and knowing the appropriate attitude towards worldly riches.  This little epistle serves as a succinct summary and a practical advisory of what it means to be a wise citizen in the Kingdom of God. 

It’s interesting to notice that both Jesus and James often teach principles of life by asking questions.  For example, in last week’s selection from James, the beginning line was, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?”  And Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  Now this week, James poses the question, “Who among you is wise and understanding?  Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom.”  And Jesus asked his disciples, “What were you discussing on the way home?”

Questions, though we are often afraid to ask them, turn out to be our friends. It is in the curiosity of asking our own questions or engaging with the questions of others that we give ourselves over to the kind of humility and vulnerability that allows us to open our hearts to true wisdom.  We become teachable when we set aside our pride, our need to be seen as competent, knowledgeable people and we become like the child who Jesus freely welcomes. 

As I considered the three readings suggested for us today, the word “wisdom” seemed to prevail. The collection of Proverbs from the ancient Jewish writings was meant to be instruction in living a good life. Its constant exhortation is : Above all, get wisdom!  If it costs you all you have, get understanding.”  The first reading today was from a book called WISDOM.  Modeled on the Proverbs, it was actually written in the first century BC, close to the time of Jesus.  Drawing from his familiarity with these Old Testament Wisdom Writings, the author of James also emphasizes the importance of wisdom.  Last week we entertained the question, what good is professing faith without doing actions that show it? This week, through another question asked by James, we are led to see that it is Wisdom that helps us know how to show our faith through good works.

What is wisdom anyway? 


The dictionary defines it this way: wis·dom n. 1. Understanding of what is true, right, or lasting; insight. 2. Common sense; good judgment. 3. Wise teachings of the ancient sages. 4. A wise outlook, plan, or course of action.


   That’s a bit of a boring definition though, so turning to the modern font of wisdom, the Internet, for answers to that question, I came  across one site that seemed especially practical.   Cowpoke Wisdom starts out with this observation:

Wisdom comes from experience, and a lot of experience comes from poor use of wisdom.


And it went on to offer a few more nuggets of wisdom:

    ** Lettin' the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier 'n puttin' it back in.
** If you're ridin' ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there.
** If you get to thinkin' you're a person of some influence, try orderin' somebody else's dog around.
** Never kick a cow chip on a hot day.
** Don't squat with your spurs on.
** There's two theories to arguin' with a woman. Neither one works.
** If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin'.
** Never slap a man who's chewin' tobacco.
** It don't take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep.
** Always drink upstream from the herd.
** When you give a lesson in meanness to a critter or a person, don't be surprised if they learn their lesson.
** When you're throwin' your weight around, be ready to have it thrown around by somebody else.
** The quickest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket.
** Never miss a good chance to shut up.
** There are three kinds of men. Those who learn by reading. Those who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.


Well, back to the Bible….“Who among you is wise and understanding?” James answers his own question with a list describing a wise person.   Look back at the text itself when you have time, but let me unpack it for you again here.



If there is any wise and learned among you, let them show it by good living- with humility, and with wisdom in their actionsThe wisdom from above, has a purity as its essence, works for peace, full of compassion, shows itself by doing good.  No partiality or hypocrisy. “Peacemakers… sow the seeds that will bear fruit in holiness.”


(What wisdom is NOT) But if you have the bitterness of jealousy or self-seeking ambition in your hearts, be careful or you’ll find yourself becoming arrogant and covering up the truth with liesThis kind of wisdom doesn’t come from above.  Where there is jealousy and ambition, there is also disharmony and wickedness of every kind.


In the gospel passage, the disciples very clearly did not understand all the things that Jesus had been trying to teach them in the earlier stories we read in Mark’s Gospel.  The passage says, “Though they failed to understand these words, they were afraid to question him.”  Rather than asking him what he meant by the paradox of losing their lives in order to save them, they protected their sense of dignity by falling into an argument about which one of them was the greatest!  They were wrestling with jealousy and ambition, exactly the kind of wisdom that James says is not from above. 

Can’t you just hear Jesus sighing?  The disciples hadn’t absorbed any of the teaching we heard last week about expressing faith through a life of simple service.  So Jesus wisely demonstrated a basic and simple act of service.  As their leader, the one they named as Messiah, he sat down and welcomed a little child onto his lap, saying, “Whoever welcomes a child such as this welcomes me.  And whoever welcomes me, welcomes God.”  In that culture, a child was the most vulnerable, least valuable member of society.  Jesus’ action and words were a total contrast to the petty argument of the disciples about which of them was the most important. 

21 centuries later, we are still wrestling with our human inclination to convince ourselves and show others that we have it together.  We are reluctant to ask questions because we might reveal our ignorance.  We want to be wise in the eyes of the world.  Perhaps especially in the area of religion, we fear to ask questions, to reveal that we are not sure what it is all about, what this life is supposed to mean and how we are supposed to live in order to find connection with God. 

Knowing that the Biblical writers and Jesus himself made use of questions to open new doors of understanding helps us to accept the freedom that we have as individuals and as community to live the questions that shape our lives of faith.  We learn what wisdom is by living life itself.  James might say that some things we learn turn out to be Cowpoke Wisdom—simple good living that is realized through actions of faith that are humble, pure, peaceable, compassionate and non-judgmental.  Jesus says we live wisdom when we make ourselves the servants of all, paying special attention to those who are the most vulnerable, least valued members of society. Let’s challenge one another, Lumen Christi, to profess our faith by living this simple wisdom as servants to one another and especially to the most vulnerable of our fellow humans in this community of McMinnville. 

By Sandi DeMaster