“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire.” (Jas. 3:5).
You’ve seen the joke, I bet, or a variant on it: a guru sitting on a mountaintop: solitary, inaccessible, silently contemplating the universe. After a long climb to the top, an exhausted man pulls himself up the sheer rock face and staggers to the feet of the guru. He’s searching for the meaning of life, for true wisdom, and he’s come a long way. The punch line is that the guru tells him something ridiculous, like get a quote from Geico maybe. Or alternatively, the exhausted man is carrying a pizza delivery from Domino’s, or something else equally silly.
Therein lies the joke: how could Geico be the secret of the universe? If you travel a long distance to ask the guru a question you want a wise answer, not advice on insurance. Then again, what does a wise man need with a pizza or a flat screen TV? The humor lies in the weird juxtaposition between the sublime vocation of the wise man and the mundane nature of the transaction.
If we think of wisdom as something mysterious, impractical, and otherworldly, then the joke will be funny. This is not, however, how ancient Israel first thought about wisdom. In its origins, wisdom seems to have been a political concept, developed in many cultures, rooted in the vocation of the king. The king had to be able to rule wisely: this is why King Solomon, who could have had anything he wanted from God, asked for and received the gift of wisdom. It’s also why wisdom literature, like our first reading from Proverbs, was identified with Solomon. Wisdom was the ability to navigate, in terms of the policy of state; the capacity to chart a course of action and then to execute it.
Wisdom here was defined in very practical terms, but it was also a gift from God. It was definitely concerned with mundane affairs: remember Solomon’s decision about which of the women would get the baby? Solomon, as a king and judge, was really down in the weeds with that decision; very much involved in the details of life.
In some sense, the wisdom tradition in ancient Israel, was a bit like our modern self-help genre. What we do there is to look for insight within ourselves so that we can be happier in our lives and more effective in our work. But unlike self-help, wisdom, no matter how practical or worldly it was, was understood by Israel to come from God and not from within.
The wisdom tradition continued in early Christianity, and our reading from the Letter of James is a case in point. James begins in the first chapter with wisdom: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (Jas. 1:5). James is quick to add, however, “But ask in faith, never doubting…” (Jas. 1:6); and of course, he’s clear that God is the source. He ends this third chapter with another appeal, “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” (Jas. 3:17). Christians should seek the wisdom that comes from God.
It is, however, practical wisdom. Is there anyone here who doesn’t need reminding what a source of mischief our words can be? St. James is clear that none of us is perfect and that we all need reminding. (See that?: it says it right in the Bible!) Like a horse that is guided by the bit or a ship that is steered by the rudder, our tongues can send us in a direction, for good or ill. “The tongue is a fire” (Jas. 3:6), the Apostle writes, and he has foremost in his mind the destructive power that our words can have. Human beings have tamed just about everything, yet still seem unable to control themselves.
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (Jas. 3:10). James is offering us wholesome advice, and he knows that the wisdom we need comes from God. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (Jas. 3:13). If we are going to bless and not curse then we will need to be steeped in heavenly wisdom. If we are going to get from where we are to where we need to be, to chart a course as children of God, wisdom will be required.
Today we are gathering to celebrate the installation of a new chapter of the Daughters of the King, a ministry of prayer that is dedicated to blessing not to curse. The opportunity for us at the Church of the Holy Cross is to put ourselves to good works; to be those who put out fires rather than kindling them. Jesus knows how powerful our words and deeds can be, both for good or for ill. That’s why he taught us to pray. It’s why James today encourages us to be a blessing to others.
- The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee