Wisdom of Solomon 1:16–2:1, 12-22
James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a
Wisdom. No matter our location in life, there is a good chance we’ve sought out wisdom, whether from a literary source, a trusted mentor, a venerable family member, or a beloved friend. She is a presence for which many of us will, without reservation, lay down a personal claim as the human endeavor to search her out bring us curious to each new day. Very few of us would deride or refuse wisdom were she offered to us; we know, somewhere, somehow, that wisdom is something good. But is all wisdom good?
One of the consequences of our collective human endeavor for wisdom is that we frequently load the term with our own freight—indeed it may even become a particular kind of freight just out of hand, beyond reach, something to achieve. And, like most human achievement, we invariably construct a market place of competing achievements, especially when wisdom is confined to the realm of intellectual speculation.
We find two very different kinds of wisdom at variance with one another in the readings before us today and each text asks us to notice the difference between these two wisdoms as they are compared and contrasted—the failure and consequences of one and the goodness and freedom of the other.
If wisdom is only understood as a specialized wing of abstract, speculative thought, we will miss out on something profound. The biblical imagination does not conceive of wisdom in this (highly Platonic, vaguely Epicurean) way. Although composed in Greek the Letter of James demonstrates a fluent awareness of the body of Hebrew wisdom literature from which the Wisdom of Solomon comes—the embodiment of which we find lived out in Jesus himself and the people of His Spirit. This tradition reflects the ancient Hebrew understanding of wisdom as something incarnated in practical, good behavior. This incarnation, we must remember, is not a kind of human achievement: it is a gift from God, the fruit of a heart set on knowing and loving God.
We may, for this morning at least, think of biblical wisdom as the incarnated behavior born from the generous gift of God’s own experiential self-disclosure to and among us; as we might say human wisdom is the sum total of a particular kind of cumulative experience, so to the wisdom of God is shared with us as an insight into the inexhaustible experience of God’s own heart. The point of this wisdom, claim all three of these texts, is it ought to lead us away from the freight of our own wisdoms and into the freedom of God’s.
The expression of the biblical wisdom tradition which we find in the Wisdom of Solomon names a particular kind of wisdom found among, as the text put it, “the ungodly.” For our purposes, let us refer to this as the “wisdom of the world.” It is familiar to us; we know in ourselves, in others, and in the complex matrix of relationships we form at home and around the world; we find it also by its embodiment; it is a wisdom born of competition and comparison; it originates in our desire to define good and evil on our own limited terms; born of it is the strife of envy and self-ambition:
But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. For where there is envy and self-ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.
This wisdom “reason[s] unsoundly; considering death a friend.” It will always vaunt itself, delight in utility and shun gratuity, seek out its own niche, prefer its own advantage, and play on our sufferings to that advantage. It thrives on guilt and despises grace.
In an age where the CEO of a prominent pharmaceutical corporation says there is a “moral requirement to sell product at the highest price” while raising the price of an antibiotic mixture by 400 percent, we can be sure the wisdom of the world is at work. Where one clings to the fiction that they or their group are greater than another, the wisdom of the world is at work; where charity is given or received as a burden or a debt, the wisdom of the world is at work; where a disciple rebukes the suffering predictions of the Son of God, where the mighty weakness of God is shunned for the feeble strength of force, the wisdom of the world is at work:
Let our might be our law of right, says a verse redacted from our first reading,for what is weak proves itself to be useless.
The fruits of wisdom given in God’s grace, says James, are not so. A harvest of righteousness will be sown in peace for those who make peace.When the wisdom of the world compels the disciples to argue about which of them “is the greatest” on the road to Capernaum, Jesus not only shows them what a sham the argument is, but transforms it by highlighting the degree to which they have misunderstood the kind of life into which God is calling his people. It is run by a different kind of wisdom; one that refuses to hold our weaknesses against us; one which promises to meet us at that moment when we are our most vulnerable or alone with nothing other than God’s abundant life.
Knowing the disciples still don’t understand what he is trying to teach them, he places a child among them. We will lose a great deal from this symbolism if we read into the text our modern association between children and innocence. The biblical imagination understands children to represent not innocence, but weakness and vulnerability. Jesus’ response to the wisdom of the world fumigated on the road to Capernaum is to show the disciples a wisdom embodied in weakness and vulnerability. Of course, Mark emphasizes that the disciples will not fully understand this until after Jesus’ passion and resurrection, but he uses their delayed understanding to our advantage.
“If we seek wisdom,” we might paraphrase, “resist first the wisdom of the world; welcome the weak and vulnerable in humble mutuality, for we will find we too are members of Christ’s rag-tag Holy Vulnerables, dependent as children upon God for all good things.”
And yet this is the very wisdom of God—for in its fullest incarnation we see it embodied in Jesus Christ, lived out so completely that, when confronted with evil and death, it disarms and transforms both; that passes through death and out the other side; that heals the wounds of earthly confusion and binds up all that is broken in us. A pattern of life that teaches us forgiveness—for others and, perhaps more importantly, for ourselves. It is a wise weakness that knows both the profound joy and immense suffering of human life, and is yet so confident in God’s mercy that it does not repay evil for evil, but asks God to use and transform it for good.
From where we are the most vulnerable, and when we are our most vulnerable, this wisdom knows that God’s life will shine in us.
We know this wisdom, too even if only dimly. It is the long brew steeped in us by prayer. It is the food of our heart and mind in God’s word. It is the music of God’s symphony when diverse voices are joined in harmony, not boasting. It is the pilgrim’s shelter beneath the cross of Christ, well supplied with the alms of bread and wine.
Sophie Laws, “The Letter of James,” preparatory commentary to The Letter of James in The Harper Collins Study Bible (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 2052.
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16
Author’s redaction of Wisdom of Solomon 2:1 and 1:16
Wisdom of Solomon 2:11
A phrase borrowed from the hymn “The God who made us, made us all” by Carl P. Daw, Jr.
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