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By Steve Drudge
James 3:13-18 (Matthew 3:9)
Our children’s Sunday School memory verse this month is James 3:18 – Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. I quote: “Kids will discover the many things that Jesus said about peace, and how being a peacemaker helps people see us as God’s kids.”
Notice the location of this verse in the paragraph we heard from James’ letter.
It’s the last sentence. Typically the main idea in a paragraph is introduced in the first sentence and summarized in the last. So what is this paragraph about? The word “wisdom” shows up three times, beginning in the first sentence, “Who is wise and understanding among you?
So according to James, peacemaking is part of wisdom. Wise people are peacemakers.
As my dad ages and weakens, I’ve noticed how his grandchildren especially are tuning into his one liner bits of wisdom but mostly his perspective on life, his becoming more gentle, kind and accepting life’s limits. My mom and dad for the most part sowed peace, and we’re reaping the harvest.
You’ve probably noticed that a life lived in wisdom tends to grow good fruit – no guarantees. Sadly other lives resemble barren fields, tangled with weeds, eroded, damaged by poor judgment.
So, who wants to be wise? Before we dig down in this paragraph, it’s not the first time James mentioned wisdom. In chapter 1, verse 5 he says, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” Sounds simpler than it is but it begs the question, so how sincerely do I desire wisdom? If I’m sure I already know it all, need to tell other people what to think, or really just want to fit in with my friends, am I truly open to wisdom I currently lack? To the degree that I’m not, James describes me at the end of his next sentence: I am “tossed by the wind, …double-minded, unstable in every way, [I] must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” There’s a humility about wisdom, a recognition that I’m not all that wise and I really need all I can get.
James may be most famous for saying “faith without works is dead” (5:26b). Like a lot of young adults today, James wanted a practical faith that makes a real difference in life. So he says here, “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (3:13b).
Notice that James (like Jesus before him) didn’t say, ‘If you want wisdom, show up for the course in classroom #6 on Monday evenings. Here’s the textbook.’ Jesus says, Follow me; I’ll show you. And Paul didn’t describe Jesus as a great moral teacher – like so many who give a nod to Jesus as a prophet or great person who says nice things to feel good about, but who don’t imitate Jesus. Paul precisely counsels us to imitate him as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor. 11:1).
So James counsels, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Who are the wise people among us that we want to imitate – a reason we want to redevelop mentoring relationships in the coming years. If you want to become wise, hang around people who live wisely. It’s good to memorize God’s written wisdom, but seeing it lived out helps us to figure out how to live it.
If you’re a child or teen, this probably means hanging around people who’ve had more time to learn wisdom than friends your age who may be no wiser than you.
Our small groups are one place we can learn wisdom from one another. Someone else models something we miss or don’t get.
Notice how James didn’t list a thousand ethical dilemmas or common daily choices and prescribe what we should do in each situation. Wisdom is even more than good choices, smart thinking, it is about character, our being, who we are becoming in the thousand ordinary situations we find ourselves in.
James describes two kinds of wisdom: wisdom that is not from God (really isn’t wisdom even if common) and wisdom that is from above.
Common, false wisdom shows itself in “bitter envy.” We gather from chapter two that favoritism mutated in the churches James wrote to. Those who flaunted their wealth with lots of jewelry and fine clothes got special attentiont, while the poor were treated as second class. James takes them to task, Do you “really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Earlier in chapter 3 James talks a lot about this thing: the tongue, which can say things that are destructive like a forest fire, or like bitter poison.
In chapter 4 James identifies “cravings that are at war within you.” “You covet.”
So false wisdom shows itself in bitter envy. It also shows up as “selfish ambition” or “factionalism” – looking out for the interests of me and my gang without considering others. In chapter 4 James says, You want to “spend what you get on your own pleasures.” In chapter 5 he warns those who live in luxury and pleasure because they underpay their employees. In North America it’s so much about comparison, contest, winning – winning games, winning arguments, winning votes. Political posturing decries others as enemies as if they have no wisdom to offer, ironically leaving us collectively less wise.
James says that if you live by the common, conventional outlook on life – get all you can, be the center of your world – don’t boast about it. You’re actually condemning yourself. Insisting on our own way keeps us from learning wisdom. It doesn’t come from God; it’s earthly, unspiritual, base, even “devilish” – that’s strong (demonic). “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” Downhill. If we want God’s wisdom, let’s first identify ways we’ve been duped into what is not wise.
Next James offers several characteristics or fruits of wisdom that do come from God. Some echo the 8 beatitudes Jesus shared with his disciples that summarize what people are like when the kingdom of God reigns in their lives. Beginning with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matt. 5:3). Poor means the “very empty ones.” Empty, they are open to learn/receive – the opposite of those filled with envy and selfish ambition.
Jesus’ alternative wisdom overturns conventional trust in power, possessions, pleasure and prestige. We tend to try to fit Jesus’ gospel into our existing personal and cultural agenda. But Jesus was far more revolutionary. British writer G.K. Chesterton said, “Christianity isn’t a failure; it just hasn’t been tried yet.” The world would be become profoundly different if we actually followed this revolutionary Jesus.
So let’s listen in as James describes the wisdom of Christ:
1. Wisdom is pure. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). Kierkegaard wrote a whole book, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” Impurity is what distracts us from the one thing. The wise serve only God, undefiled and undivided by other loyalties, in contrast to the double-minded. It’s
the first of the 10 commandments, “you shall have no other gods before me.” And the first summary commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, ..soul, …mind” (our entire being) (Matt. 22:37). In chapter 4:8 James counsels, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. …purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
2. Wisdom is peaceable, ‘peacemaking’ – a direct contrast to the envious, combative, self-interested, contesting rivalry James addresses. Jesus had taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Peacemaking is what the family of God does, is.
3. The wise are also gentle, considerate.
4. And willing to yield to God’s larger purpose, the opposite of selfish ambition. Yieldedness is a quality of the meek, whom Jesus said “will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) Meekness predisposes us to learning wisdom. You’ve likely noticed that when someone is ready to listen, ‘yah, I see your point,’ instead of “Yah, but, yah, but” or who just blathers away about themselves you can work with that – what a gift in a culture of self-centeredness, anger, aggression.
5. Wisdom is full of mercy and good fruit. Jesus had said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). In chapter 2:15, James asked, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” In contrast, wisdom acts.
6. True wisdom is impartial in contrast to favoritism toward the wealthy James had warned against in chapter 2.
7. And without hypocrisy, unpretentious. – maybe back to pure of heart, not double-minded.
So, want to become wiser? Hang around people like this, who by their lives show what wisdom looks like. Wisdom is not cleverness as much as character. Wisdom is not just knowing more information – we’re flooded with information; wisdom changes us to live like this.
James concludes with a sentence that feels out of place: And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. Maybe he heard it somewhere and thought it summarized the wisdom-in-live-action he was describing.
Some Christians skirt around peace-making as if it’s not essential to the gospel of Christ, but it is too integrated in Jesus teaching, and recast by James, to ignore it. Peacemaking is the responsibility of all disciples of Jesus. It’s not just up to peace experts, graduates of Peace and Conflict Studies.
On the other hand, some Anabaptists talk about a peace stance or a theology of peace-making almost as if it’s a standalone practice. But notice how peacemaking is imbedded among many characteristics of wisdom, just as the blessing of peacemakers is one of Jesus eight beatitudes. We really can’t take peace-making out of the context of other disciplines.
For example, once when I was out walking I came across a woman shaking her fist at two children who were teasing some puppies. She was red in the face screaming obscenities. I realized she give lectures on peacemaking and she’s Anabaptist. It didn’t compute. There are skills in peacemaking. I wish I knew more of them. But James takes us deeper, broader into wisdom that is also about purity (which must include speech considering the previous two paragraphs about taming the tongue). Gentleness, mercy, and so on are also part of wisdom.
Let’s open ourselves to the wisdom of God as we pray. God, in myself, in ourselves, we are not particularly wise. We need the wisdom of Jesus retaught by James. I, we receive you Jesus Christ in whom wisdom of God is embodied, lived and taught. Be our Savior, Lord and mentor. We pray in your name. Amen.
- Proverbs 3:5 - 7
- Proverbs 3:21 - 22a
- Matthew 5:9
- Matthew 3:43 - 48
- James 3:13 - 18