One of my parishioners once assured me that if and when she won the big prize in Lotto she would give me $1 million for the Church. Unfortunately this reminded me of a time when I was teaching high school some years ago when a mother of one of my pupils did in fact win the major prize for Lotto. Being a sincere Christian, after dealing with some outstanding debts and setting aside enough for her children’s further education, the mother did actually give the balance of the prize to the pastor of her church to pay for a new Church building. Since the colossal cheque was made out in his name, alas the temptation was too great for the pastor and he absconded with the lot.
It would of course be only hypothetical, but if unexpected fortune actually came your way, can you be certain you would handle the new situation in strict accordance with the finest Christian principles? I suspect using an unexpected good fortune almost exclusively for the benefit of others is less common than we might hope. I am reminded for example of what was an admittedly an unscientific survey exercise conducted some time ago as part of the programme “This American life” on NPR. The hypothetical question posed to the sample of American citizens went as follows: Which is better? The power of flight, or the power of invisibility?
Then the question went on: Think about that question for a moment and decide which you would choose. Would you rather be able to fly or be able to become invisible? And what would you do with your newfound powers? Would you be a superhero, or super-selfish?
Just before I tell you – what is your best guess as to how the respondents would be likely to respond?
In the event, I think the author of the survey – John Hodgman – was genuinely surprised. No matter which of the two magical powers was chosen, the overwhelming response was that the power should be used for entirely selfish reasons. Those who imagined themselves now able to be invisible saw themselves as now able to do things like spy on bedrooms and shower rooms – to steal fine clothes from department stores and money from banks – to spy on friends, and to listen to others talking about the invisible one.
Some wanted free services – not I might add Church services – rather free movie and show admission, free aeroplane rides.
Again almost without exception, those who wanted to choose the ability to fly were certainly not intending super-hero deeds like rescuing people from ledges on burning buildings. One specifically even explained why to be a superhero would need to be rejected because it might be potentially dangerous. Not for him the dangers of being burnt while rescuing a the small child from the fire. Rather more attractive was being seen to arrive at public places in dramatic fashion – and building a reputation for being seen as having superhuman abilities.
Well what does wisdom suggest? If we follow James we would have to admit that following of selfish instincts is exactly what he was classifying as false wisdom.
James has something of an undeserved reputation for over-simplification. I suspect this is because he makes many of us uncomfortable in his contrasts between the way the gospel would have us live and what we do in practice. For example within our Church services, many might be expected to hear much about faith but from my own past experiences, I suspect all too often we focus on the parts of faith removed from day to day realities. For our own generation and setting, James’ list of characteristics of what he calls false wisdom is uncomfortably close to the ways in which we seem to structure our society. Jealousies and selfish ambition drive many popular realities and the whole advertising industry is predicated on presenting images of the way we can fulfil these ambitions. If the media are to be believed, the so-called good life is a life in which the trappings of success are our clothes, our furniture and household possessions, our cars, our house and even our choice of toiletries. We may talk glibly of a life of service to others, but in practice we reward those who achieve status and power. Certainly we live in a different world to that of James, yet it doesn’t take too much imagination to recognise in the values which drive our society today, the same conflict that James points to in the clash between God’s values and the values of the world.
James is being counter-cultural for us today when he says that in order to achieve the good life we need to approach our tasks with the spirit of meekness. Pure, peaceable, gentle, ready to yield….. hardly a description of what drives this or any other developed nation. Is it any more what drives our religious institutions? This is not to say he is advocating that Jesus’ followers become doormats. Much of this reading implies that James is nudging us towards focussing on a positive form of justice that John Dominic Crossan likes to call distributive justice – whereby instead of organising retribution for potential rivals, our focus should rather be on the fair distribution of resources.
Certainly at least in part both our Church and our political leaders demonstrate selfish ambition – and frequently display jealousies – both traits of what James calls false wisdom, but we have little justification for separating ourselves from our leaders. Ambition and jealousies at every level are also part of all the churches I have ever encountered. To be frank, ambitions and petty jealousies are a fact of life in all community institutions and organisations. However when we say the Church does or does not act on its principles, we would do well to remember this is our church as well as the church of our leaders. There is a very real sense in which we are the Church. In the same way we might remember that when we say our politicians are favouring those with the money and influence surely they are simply pandering to what the surveys tell them their potential voters wish. Aren’t we also among those voters?
The number of words we use to talk about our faith is not where it is at. Certainly teaching may start with words. Yet ambitions and jealousies may also just as easily produce a veritable welter of words. But identifying, or worse blathering on about our hopes and dreams, is only at best an indication of a hopeful intention to start moving forward. James implies that we are only likely to see signs of true wisdom when we can see the evidence of the simple and humble acts which tell us we are actually under way.
James is not being impractical. It may be unexpected advice but the wisdom of humility is not necessarily ineffective. One of my favourite political quotes came from one of Abraham Lincoln’s election campaigns when a particularly acid tongued opponent accused Lincoln of being two faced. Lincoln’s reply: “Do you think if I had two faces I would be wearing this one?” Do you think we could call that self-effacing? And if it comes to that, would it really have helped Lincoln to reply to his detractor with a worse insult? He did after all win the election.
….or to change the metaphor…..
On the Southern motorway out of our city there are warning signs to truck drivers on the lower bridges. Every now and again, a truck driver with a high sided truck will risk it and there have been a number of occasions when a truck has become wedged and apparently inextricably so, under one of these bridges. Rather than destroy either the truck or the bridge the solution is invariably the same. They let the air out of the tyres. By analogy, the notion of deflating our egos to avoid further damage after a serious verbal collision may indeed be part of the saving wisdom required.
James says – and we would have to say he can point to plenty of supporting evidence – that false wisdom can in effect be recognised by what it produces: conflicts, people thinking they are better than others – and acting as if they have nothing to learn from others. To quote William Barclay: ‘There is a kind of person who is undoubtedly clever, with an acute brain and a skilful tongue. But his (or her?) effect, nevertheless, in any committee, in any church, in any group is to cause trouble and to disturb personal relationships. It’s a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom that he (or she?) possesses is devilish rather than divine.”
James has a solution which is dependent on accepting a philosophical premise from left field. James is nothing if not paradoxical. His message…..You cannot get the good life if you seek it. Rather the good life is the incidental consequence of seeking true wisdom.
Seek true wisdom says James and the good life will follow.
The other paradox is that….. again according to James…. when we let our thinking be shaped by the impression we are above others, we are actually below them since the true wisdom comes from above.
There is a subtle point made by James at the beginning of Ch 4 where he shows that he has noticed that a common form of attitudinal violence to others is building oneself up by the destructive process of putting others down. In his commentary on this section from James, Bill Loader suggests that some Christians seem happy to express hate even although they dress up what they are doing with artificial justification. He also notes that the violence can have various rhetorical forms and by no means implies physical violence.
The other main teaching in this passage informs us about James’ understanding of the concept of God. God to James is nothing more nor less than the concept of love. James stresses self giving and recognising that others too need space to grow.
As we start to relate to others with generosity, humility and consideration we become closer to God – for these same characteristics are part of the very nature of God.