Proverbs 2:1-10, James 3:13-18
September 24, 2006
“Who is wise and understanding among you?” That’s the question James asks here. And I think it is a good question! In our world people don’t ask that question as much. People don’t ask, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” they ask “Who is the smartest among you?” In our world, it’s intelligence that people value. It’s “How much do you know?” or “How fast can you think?”
That’s not what James is talking about here. He’s talking about Wisdom! And that’s something different. Wisdom is what people used to value. Do you remember King Solomon? Do you remember what they said about him? He was known, not as being the “smartest man who ever lived,” but the “wisest.” That was more important! In the gospel according to Websters, wisdom has to do with things like “deep understanding,” “keen discernment,” and “sound judgment.” Those things are different than “knowledge,” aren’t they?
Haven’t we known people who have had wisdom, but not necessarily intelligence? Haven’t we known people who, though they never had the educational opportunities others had, though they didn’t know a lot of things, they still they a lot of wisdom?! Think of those you have known who fit that description. Maybe it was a grandfather or a grandmother. Think of who that would be for you… We used to value such people, didn’t we? We used to value their wisdom. The sad fact is that they aren’t valued as much today, and I think that’s tragic.
I’m not sure exactly when that change took place. I suspect it has come about mostly in our modern age. The last century – the 1900’s – was characterized by incredible scientific and technological advances. Think about it. At the beginning of the 1900’s people were still using horses for transportation, though automobiles were on the rise. Airplanes were just dreams in the minds of a few daredevils. But by the end of the 1900’s, cars are everywhere, and air travel – even space travel – has become common. Everywhere you look there have been incredible advances in every field. And throughout that time, people had to learn more in order to fit into that modern world. People who knew more did fit in. And people who were not as smart, didn’t make it as well. And somewhere in all that, wisdom was sacrificed for knowledge. People who were smart were important. But wisdom began to fall by the wayside!
Many of us found ourselves a part of that change about 30 years ago. What I’m talking about happened in the 1960’s and ‘70’s when the teaching in schools accelerated to the point where children’s homework became difficult for the parents to understand. The part of that we remember most was the New Math.
I often joke about being from Abington and not being able to do math, but that’s really not the case. We were a pilot school for the New Math. And many of us kids really took to it. I remember they had to revamp a lot of the high school programs because there were a lot of us coming out of Junior High who were able to handle work on a higher level. And of course there were many parents who were at a loss when they looked at our homework.
I’m not exactly sure what ever happened to the New Math, but that’s another subject. Whatever happened to it, it contributed to a shift in our society, a shift characterized by children who “knew more” than their parents. Wisdom, which is what the parents had on their side, was de-emphasized. And people in our society began not to honor parents, and elders in general, less and less.
So much of our society has become geared to increasing intelligence. But wisdom has fallen by the wayside. The problem is, without wisdom, intelligence is lacking something very important. Someone who is smarter is not necessarily someone who is wiser! I asked you earlier to think of someone in your life who may not have had a lot of learning, but who had a lot of wisdom. Now I’d like you to think of the opposite. Because I’m sure you could think of someone who is intelligent, who “knows a lot,” who maybe has a lot of diplomas, but who isn’t very wise. That wisdom is not as easy to attain. And some people never do!
I say all this today, because wisdom is something that is very important in our faith. The Bible would counsel us to look to wisdom as the highest form of knowledge and learning. There’s a whole section of the Old Testament that has been categorized as “wisdom literature.” It includes books like Proverbs, which we read today, and Ecclesiastes. In those writings we often read “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Since our world has forgotten the fear of the Lord, that’s another reason the idea of wisdom is being lost.
James uses the word wisdom in this third chapter. Up until now he’s been talking about some of the practical parts of the living of the faith. Here he tells us how an important part of the living of our faith is seeking wisdom. He tells us that a believer should live a good life by “showing his good works in the meekness of wisdom.” James has written a lot about good works. And we’ve talked about them here. Now he says that all the good works we do require a meekness. And he tells us that meekness is a characteristic of wisdom.
A person who is wise doesn’t have to go around saying he is wise or proving it to others. It’s like humility. You can’t say, “Hey everybody look at me! I’m humble!” It doesn’t work! It’s the same thing with wisdom. A person who has the “meekness of wisdom” is content to be so. The person who is wise does not allow the “self” to take center stage. The good works he does are done for the betterment of others, not for the betterment of the self image.
Then James tells us about the opposite side of that coin. He says that the results of worldly wisdom are “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” A person who looses the “meekness of wisdom” is in danger of feeling those things because they are always trying to better their image in everyone else’s eyes.
I’m sure you know people like that, too. They have become so concerned with their own image, so concerned with putting themselves in the spotlight all the time, that they really have no time or energy for others. And deep down inside, they’re really miserable. Because they can never get the kind of attention with others they desire. And the attempt to get it becomes all-consuming. But it often has the opposite affect. It often has the affect of pushing people away.
On the other hand, I hope you also know people who are good examples, too. I hope you know people who have this meekness of wisdom, people who are the quiet, unassuming types, who seem to have this sound judgment and keen discernment. And I hope you notice how they aren’t caught up in the selfish ambition that causes bitterness and jealousy! And I hope you value that wisdom in them!
And please understand this. James is not saying that it is bad to be ambitious. He’s using this qualifier, “Selfish ambition.” And he’s using it along with the word jealousy. In other words this is ambition that thinks only of the building up of the self, to the point where a person begins to have negative feelings towards others. Because others begin to be rivals for the spotlight, and for the attention that person craves. Jealousy is the natural result. And the result, as James tells us is “bitterness, disorder, and every vile practice.”
Sometimes I think our society doesn’t get this. All around us we hear messages in that world that tell us that the “I” is the most important thing. The building up of the self is the most important pursuit in this life. And I think James is right on. He teaches us that that kind of self aggrandizement causes jealousy, bitterness, and loneliness, as people push others down and farther away.
Now, contrast all that to what he describes as “the wisdom from above.” I think we can also call this the wisdom from God. This is the wisdom that comes from the “fear of the Lord,” as Proverbs puts it. Look at the results of seeking that wisdom. And see how they are opposite to the previous things. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insecurity.”
Think about those things. Do you have them in your life? When you look in the mirror, do you see a person that is Pure, gentle, peaceable, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insecurity? If you don’t have those things, do you want them in your life? I’m not convinced that all people who would say they want them, really do! I think there are a lot of people in this world who want that kind of peace in their lives, but they aren’t willing to do the things that really make for peace.
It’s like the time Jesus was nearing Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Luke tells us, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’” (Luke 19:41-42) The ways of peace are hidden from the eyes of many. They want the peace, they want a life without uncertainty and insecurity, but they don’t want to give up them rule of the self! Talk to them about surrender to God, and they’ll push you away!
That’s the kind of wisdom the Bible talks about from cover to cover. And I could give you example after example. Remember the words of Paul in Romans 12, “For by the grace given to me, I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than the ought to think, but to think with sober judgment…” (Romans 12:3) In other words seek this “meekness of wisdom.”
So what do you think? Do you seek the wisdom from above? Do you value that wisdom from God? It’s not a valuable commodity in our world. The world seeks intelligence. But it is this wisdom – the wisdom from above – that is essential to the kingdom of God, and to those who seek that kingdom.
Eternal God, help us to seek and to find your wisdom in our lives. Help us to place our lives more fully in your hands. Draw us closer to you and help us to find the peace and security and wisdom we need. For we pray in Jesus’ name.