The 1994 movie Forrest Gump tells the story of a simple man, Forrest Gump, and his lifelong love for a broken and hurting woman, Jenny. It is painted against the background of US culture and history from childhood in the 1950’s through the turbulence of the 60’s and 70’s and on into the 1980’s. The movie is peppered with Forrest’s, folksy down home sayings, His momma’s wisdom captured in easy to remember proverbs. “Momma says, ‘life’s like a…Box of chocolates.” Not necessarily earth shattering insights or the prevailing wisdom of the day but things that steer Forrest through his life. One line from the movie sprang to mind as I contemplated the two different kinds of wisdom that James talks of in the passage we had read out this morning… I’ll let Forrest Gump give us the line…
“I’m not a smart man, but I know what Love is”, all through the movie Forrest has cared for and befriended Jenny, he has shown her kindness and respect, welcomed her back after wild episodes, feed her, nursed her through drug withdrawal, he had been the only person who didn’t exploit or use her, in the end his love for her is redemptive and healing for both of them. Maybe the character Forrest Gump wouldn’t naturally come to mind as an answer to the question James asks ‘Who is wise and understanding among you?’ but just maybe Steven Spielberg and his writing team have managed in Forrest Gump to capture something of the wisdom from above that James speaks of.
James contrasts earthly wisdom with wisdom that comes from above, and in his very practical way he says you can tell which wisdom is which by the kind of life that they result in. Wisdom, like faith, is demonstrated in actions. The wisdom from above is the one needed for Christian leadership and Christian community.
Cricket world cup fever seems to be sweeping the country at the moment, and of course one of the things that makes it great is that our cricket team is playing so well. A lot of that is down to the leadership of Brendon McCullum and Coach Mike Hesson. But you won’t hear that from them. One of the things that McCullum has introduced is what he calls a culture of humility. Cricket has been called a team sport played by individuals. Much of the focus is on individual statistics and achievements, but when members of the Black caps are interviewed you will not hear them talking about their own great performances rather they will talk of the contributions of others. Batsmen will acknowledge the people at the other end, and how the bowlers backed up what they did. Bowlers will talk of how the bowling group as a whole exerted pressure, how they were backed up by good fielding and that the batters had set them a total to defend. It’s all about the team, it’s all about the common good and the common goal.
This is what James is talking about when he says that the wisdom needed for Christian leadership and living in community is shown in acts of humility. The Greek word here is the word meekness. It has the idea of being committed to the common good, and not being willing to be distracted or diverted from that common good by thoughts of personal advancement or avoiding personal disadvantage and suffering. The illustration often used of this is a Clydesdale horse, which is blinkered so it will not be distracted from harnessing its great strength to the task at hand. The great example is Jesus Christ, who Hebrews tells us for the joy set before him, endured the cross.
Earthly wisdom, says James, is the opposite; it is motivated by personal achievement and personal success. It is what Dan McCartney calls the wisdom of success and power. The words James uses to explain it are bitter envy and selfish ambition. People involved in leadership because of what they can get out of it rather than what they can give. When it is focused on the individual and not the community the community will suffer. Such wisdom says James is earthbound, it is unspiritual, and it is the sort of behaviour you would expect from the demons. WE only need to look around us in the news today to see the impact that focusing on personal gain, personal success and personal power can have… as James says it leads to disorder and every evil practise.
Then James moves on to contrast the wisdom of this world with the wisdom that comes from above. Wisdom Dan McCartney sums up as “ how one displays Godly character patterned after the life of the one who identified himself as meek and lowly”…Jesus Christ. We should not be surprised that the wisdom from above reflects the one who came from above, who was God’s word, God’s wisdom made flesh.
James explores this wisdom through a series of seven virtues. In the Greek they are all start with the same or similar vowel sounds.
Most importantly says James this wisdom from above is pure. As it comes from above it comes from God. It is not contaminated by divided loyalties and divided motives. At the beginning of his letter James had spoken of two kinds of faith, one that was totally focused on Christ and the other that was in two minds and here James picks that up again to say that wisdom from above is focused on Christ and the common good opposed to the double minded earthly wisdom, split between Christ and self, a division that will result in a divided community. In Hebrews we are encouraged to fix our eyes on Christ the author and perfecter of our faith. Wisdom from above is undivided it is pure because it comes from God and reflects Christ. In the Civil rights movement in the 1960’s one of the catch cries when faced with opposition and opportunity for self-advancement not the cause, was to keep your eyes on the prize.
Peace loving. Again speaks of desiring the common good. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom which speaks of wholeness and right relationship. Sadly in the church we have seen peace loving as avoiding conflict at all cost. We often will sweep things under the carpet, which really only means that we will trip us up later, or we will walk away, or give in for the sake of peace. But to be peace loving is being willing to face and work through those things to be committed to each other and to justice. It is to seek wholeness.
Being Considerate speaks for itself. It is being willing to consider the other person, the other perspective. David Noystrum says that being considerate was usually associated with the administration of Justice and had to do with a judge not abusing their power but staying calm and committed to the exercise of the highest ideal of that position.
Submissive. Kind of sounds like it does not fit in this list, it sounds like you just give in to the most dominant voice… which only gives the semblance of peace. But it is not simply the idea that someone will always give in rather it goes along with being considerate, its acting on what we consider, we are attuned to hearing the truth and the word of God and being willing then to accept it and work with the rest to see it put into action: Being a team player.
Mercy and good fruit go together and speak of that willingness to care and be committed to the common good being shown in acts of kindness and love: In meeting the needs of others.
Being impartial and sincere, are grouped together. James had already spoken about impartiality and favouritism, encouraging his hearers to care equally for all within the community of faith. Being sincere calls this not to be simply for show, it is not just a shallow mask to hide our selfish ambitions but rather comes from a genuine heart felt love for others.
James major concern was with those who lead and teach and this passage challenges us about how we view leadership. Robert Greenleaf wrote possibly the most influential book on leadership of the twentieth century, it was called servant leadership. He looked at the model of Jesus and others and it is a good summary of what James is talking about here. He says that a servant leader is a servant first and a leader second. They lead out of the desire to see others benefit rather than a personal need for power or to obtain some material benefit. He goes on to say…
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. (This is a great definition of the Greek word agape which epitomised for the Greeks the highest ideal of selfless love and which the New testament writers used to talk of the love of Christ) The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“
It also speaks to us all about how we live. We started off talking about Forrest Gump and the proverbs that encapsulated his momma’s wisdom and steered him through life, James finishes each of his section of teaching with a proverb to sum it up. Here it is verse 18, ‘Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness’, and maybe its lost something of its pithiness in translation from Hebrew thought patterns to the Greek language and on into English, but it hasn’t lost anything of its challenge. It is a call to be a people who are about peace. That we are called to be Peacemakers… To be first and foremost about the wholeness of the community and the world in which we live, because that reflects the priority of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ. As I mentioned before this does not call us to simple avoid conflict, or be willing to settle for peace by appeasement, or by forcing others to see things our way, or even compromising our standards. As one commentator has said “Peace that leads to righteousness is peace that steadfastly refuses to let go of its standards: justice, righteousness and the wisdom of God.” Peace that sacrifices these things is not biblical peace.
We are called to be peace makers because we follow the one who himself has become our peace. Who was not willing to sacrifice his standards or settle for anything less but gave himself as a sacrifice so that we might be reconciled to God, that we could be reconciled to one another.
In the end we may not be very smart, but in Christ we know what love is.
We are wise if we seek to live that selfless love out, to make peace with the help and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit that lives in us.