Scripture Readings: Proverbs 31:10–31 | Psalm 1 | James 3:13–4:3, 4:7–8 | Mark 9:30–37
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (James 3:13)
What does it mean to be wise?
Wisdom is one of those words that can be a little hard to wrap our heads around. We know it has something to do with knowing, but it’s not always easy to pin down more precisely. With words like this, I sometimes find it helpful to use an example, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this example ends up being helpful or not. Here it goes: an intelligent person might be able to tell you all the reasons why it’s a bad idea to spit into the wind… and a wise person wouldn’t do it.
There’s a world of difference between knowing information and facts about the world, and knowing how to exist in the world… how to relate well to what’s going on around us. Wisdom refers to this second way… calling us to live in ways that actually line up with the wider story of our world. It aids us in navigating all sorts of situations and choices… helping us find our way when we might otherwise get lost.
The need for Godly wisdom is a common theme throughout the Scriptures, which all of our readings today pick up, each in there own ways. Our reading from Proverbs 31, for instance, uses the image of a “capable wife” (Prov. 31:10), (which actually sounds like an ideal that no one could possibly live up to…) but this image is used as a down to earth picture of how godly wisdom is the ultimate companion… bringing all sorts of blessings into the lives of those who “trust in her” (Prov. 31:11).
This morning we prayed Psalm 1 together, which speaks of two different ways: the way of the wicked, which leads to ruin, and the way of life. “Happy are those” whose “delight is in the Law of the LORD, …and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” (Psalm 1:1a, 2-3). Here the Psalmist invites us to live within the wider story of God’s ways; aligning ourselves to His wise commands, and so find ourselves nourished so that we can truly flourish.
Turning next to our New Testament reading, St. James, the half-brother of our Lord, explicitly contrasts two very different kinds of wisdom: wisdom from on high, and ‘so-called’ wisdom from below. True wisdom, St. James reminds us involves our character being shaped by sharing in God’s holy love… especially as it plays out in community. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 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. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:16-18). Given the noticeable lack of gentleness and peace in public discourse today, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine what St. James would think of our culture’s current sense of wisdom. But before we as the Church get smug, and start looking down on our neighbours, St. Mark gives us an example of this same conflict between Godly and false wisdom at work in Christ’s own closest followers.
Our Gospel passage today began with Jesus repeating a message to His disciples that they were struggling to wrap their heads around. He said to them: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31).
This was the second time that Jesus had tried to talk to teach them about His coming death… His mission to be rejected, crucified, die, and rise again. Jesus knew that this mission was fully in line with God’s story since the beginning… but His disciples were still out of sync with what their Master had come to do. St. Mark tells us “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (Mark 9:32). Lack of understanding and fear… two barriers all of us face in our faith journeys at times. And in the case of the disciples, I think we can see why they struggled. Jesus was not confirming their own expectations about God’s Kingdom, but teaching them something new that was stretching their imaginations.
This passage helps to remind us that following Jesus involves a lifetime of learning… and re-learning… drawing us ever deeper in understanding the Living God. As we look to Jesus, God’s Son, the Holy Spirit can work to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to the wisdom and ways of the LORD.
And yet, the disciples were still caught up in their own vision of what mattered most. On the road with Jesus, even after He spoke of His own suffering and death, they were more eager to argue about which one of them was the greatest.
As we know, tomorrow’s Election Day, where we vote for our next government. For the last several weeks, candidates from all over this country have been trying to convince as many people as possible that they and their party are the greatest… positioning themselves as the only ones who know best how to lead our country into the future… calling us to trust them.
Who knows why the disciples on the road were arguing about greatness? Not long before, a few of them had a special mountain-top experience with Jesus, seeing Him revealed in glory, proclaimed by a voice from heaven to be God’s Son. The rest had struggled to perform the work they had been entrusted to do in Christ’s absence… failing to drive out a demon that had been tormenting a young boy. Perhaps both pride and insecurity were at work in their debate? Just as these two impulses seem to be at work in debates about greatness today.
Whatever their motives, the point for us this morning is that the Disciples were still operating according to the wisdom of the world. They were in sync with the way most of us are used to existing, and responding to our circumstances… that is, without taking God and His mission into account.
St. Mark helps us see this contrast between what was on the Disciple’s minds, and what Jesus had just been trying to reveal to them: that He, as their Master, was not chasing after position or power… but was willingly heading towards His own suffering, rejection, and death… which seems like madness to the world, but was fully in line with the surprising wisdom of God His Father, following His mission on it’s course to rescue the world.
So to help them get the message… to wrap their heads around God’s ways of doing things, Jesus takes a child in His arms and gives them an example… a tangible image to teach them to see things, and people, the way God does.
“Whoever wants to be first” He said, “must be last of all and servant of all… Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:35,37)
What does this mean? What is our Lord getting at?
Well, for one thing Jesus wasn’t putting kids up on a pedestal… compelling us to welcome children because children were really the most important. The reason He embraced the child was because children were seen to be among the least important… the least powerful or influential people in those days.
The scholar R.T. France makes the case that in Jesus’ day: “The child represents the lowest order in the social scale, the one who is under the authority and care of others and who has not yet achieved the right of self-determination. To ‘become like a child’ (Mt. 18:3) is to forgo status and to accept the lowest place, to be a ‘little one’”. He goes on to say that to receive a child the way Jesus spoke of was “to reverse the conventional value-scale by according importance to the unimportant.” Jesus was turning conventional wisdom completely upside down! True greatness in God’s eyes really is about humility, and service… not puffing ourselves up, but practicing self-emptying love… just as Christ was on His way to the cross to pour out His life for us all.
Another scholar, Peter Marty sums up what Jesus was saying in this way: “It all points to the creation of a new community with altered priorities. This new community would be one where the least of humankind would count. And the least would not only count, they would be embraced.”
Our world tells us that some people deserve attention status and welcome much more than others. That only those who fight their way to the top can truly be great. But instead of focussing on making ourselves great in the eyes of others… which is just a recipe for division, ego trips, and butting heads… Jesus calls us to focus instead on caring for and welcoming others… especially those considered unimportant by the world.
Who are these people in our culture? How might God be calling you and I to welcome them today?
There’s another important part of this message with Good News for us all as well! We don’t have to be great in the world’s eyes to be important in God’s kingdom. Even the most humble, seemingly insignificant of us can be the way that somebody else encounters and welcomes the LORD of all into their life! There are no unimportant, powerless people in God’s Kingdom. He has embraced all of us in Christ, and through each one of us the Holy Spirit of God wants to draw those around us into His fellowship.
It’s tempting to look for success, or even survival by doing things the world’s way. But we are part of a different story: the story of God’s good Kingdom reigning, not by self-centred striving after influence or popularity… but by self-giving love… ultimately the self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ, who faced rejection, betrayal, and cruel death to reconcile us to God… to open the way for all to be welcomed and share in God’s eternal kingdom.
Our passage from Mark highlights this example of Godly wisdom at work, but there are many ways Christ is calling us to embrace God’s surprising wisdom, and let go of the ways of living that only lead ourselves and others to ruin.
Some we might recognize easily. There’s likely many more we can’t yet see. Just like the disciples, we also struggle to recognize where we are more in sync with the world’s wisdom than with God’s.
But as St. James reminds us “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” (James 1:5) “Draw near to God,” St. James says as well, “and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8). You and I are invited to draw near to Jesus Christ, the Risen King of Kings, who makes known God’s wisdom, and God’s true greatness, through His own self-giving love. Amen.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 374.
 Peter W. Marty, “Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume Three, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 245.