Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a.
Within today’s Lectionary, the New Testament offers us this wonderful passage from the Epistle of St. James. We think, but are not certain, that this letter was written sometime around 48-50 A.D. In many ways, James is one of the most “Jewish” books of the New Testament, and echoes with themes and language of the Wisdom literature. Clearly, at this time, Christians were being persecuted by the Gentiles (including the Romans), the Jewish authorities, and sometimes by others within the Christian community.
As to the conflicts within the Church, James observed that many who boastfully claimed to have the authority of truth were motivated by “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” Real wisdom and understanding, writes James, manifest themselves through gentleness and peace.
Many of us today find ourselves embroiled in conflict and controversy within our churches. James doesn’t suggest we resolve that the way the world does, through power and banging a few heads together until people learn how to behave. Rather than the wisdom that comes from the Father, James calls that way of resolving conflict earthly, unspiritual, and devilish.
James offers a vision of God that suggests a gentle Lord, the good shepherd, the Prince of Peace. Reading James, we might think of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. He outlines the attributes of divine wisdom: first purity, “then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17. That’s the kind of wisdom which might pray “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34.
What would our churches look like if we recognized the willingness to yield as real wisdom? How would our churches operate differently if we saw gentleness as a quality of Christian leadership?
In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote: “The followers of Christ have been called to peace .… And they must not only have peace but also make it.” James suggests that, as Christians, we must not only live in peace; we must create peace. When we decide to live without a trace of hypocrisy, we can no longer preach Christ while engaging in conflict. He calls us to set aside some of our personal righteousness, choosing divine righteousness instead.
If we surrender to God and resist the devil, James tells us, the devil will flee from us. Our ancient enemy always calls us toward the idea of our own merit, our own righteousness. In the Book of Genesis, the serpent told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit she would not die. Rather, “‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” Gen. 3:5. In the temptation in the desert, Satan offered Jesus the glory and authority of all the earth’s kingdoms. Luke 4:6.
James suggests quite a different path: surrendering to God. Walking with God in all humility may lead us to a quite different destination than that to which the world points. If we follow it, the world may yet see a sign of hope in the Church, a sign of hope in those who call themselves the friends of God. And if we draw ourselves closer to the Living God, James tells us that God will draw Himself closer to us.
My Dominican brother Thomas Aquinas instructed us that we were created for just such a purpose: we were made for intimacy with God. We cannot achieve that kind of intimacy while we are bickering with each other. And we might just discover that a pure love of God leads to an unmixed love of His children.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis