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Proper 20 (25), Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
19 September 2021
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
One thing my wife brought into our marriage was a reproduction of a painting of two little children in the dark, in adverse weather crossing a rickety old bridge over a fast flowing stream, behind them and likely unbeknownst to them, a benevolent guardian angel. It hung over her bed when she was little and made it into our children’s rooms.
It’s not a great work of art and it does not claim to make a theological contribution. It’s main value is its emotional appeal. God loves the little children. And who would not?
There are a number of little ones in the complex where we live and seeing them and interacting with them gives me much joy, in fact sometimes it makes my day.
And that, I think, is the emotional level at which we usually approach the story of Jesus placing a child in the midst of the group of disciples and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Of course, when they’re your own children, they can drive you crazy (and you might drive them crazy), but you love them anyway. And in some ways, if loving Jesus is like loving a little child, then faith seems not so hard.
In our reading from James we hear James asking who among the addressees is wise and understanding. A few verses later James speaks of wisdom from above.
Our own time does not speak much of wisdom, at least not as a goal. We may occasionally recognize it in people, but we speak more of knowledge, expertise, and efficiency. We speak of reading, writing and arithmetic, and fields of study that will get you a job. I don’t intend to suggest that wisdom is alien to practical things. Rather, it is often in practical matters that wisdom is recognized. Common sense is not actually common but it intersects with wisdom. What I am trying to point out is that we don’t seek wisdom so much as the acquisition of knowledge, and the knowledge we seek is often technical and specialized, not usually open-ended but mostly aimed at tangible things, like learning skills that will get you a job.
Acquiring knowledge is different than receiving wisdom. The philosophers of the Middle Ages saw human reason as two-fold. One is ratio, rational thinking is how we use the word today. And that is precisely what ratio described, discursive thinking, seeking, and investigating.
The other part of reason is intellectus. Intellectus describes the ability to perceive, to take in, to observe the truth as the eye perceives the landscape.1
It seems that our own time focuses less on the perceiving and receiving but more on the controlling of the world in the same way we use technology to subdue the earth and to exercise control.
There are a number of implicit problems with this, one is articulated by the German sociologist and philosopher Hartmut Rosa who states that “for modern human beings the world has become a point of aggression. Everything that appears to us must be known, mastered, conquered, made useful.” One example that this is so, is our relationship to our own body. Everything we perceive about it tends to be subjects to the pressures of optimization. We climb on the scale: we should lose weight. We look in the mirror: we have to get rid of that pimple, of those wrinkles. We take our blood pressure: it should be lower. We track our steps: we should walk more. Our insulin level, our bust line, we invariable encounter such things as a challenge to do better … Moreover, we ought to be calmer, more relaxed, more mindful, more environmentally thoughtful.”2
Rosa is not a theologian but what he articulates has theological implications. We put ourselves into the driver seat, not God. This creates a different focus.
I want to take this back to our readings. Jesus teaches and embodies wisdom in placing the child in the midst of his group of disciples, James asks for wisdom that is from above. This is wisdom not our own, but wisdom received, if we could just pay attention.
The incident in which Jesus places a child in their midst is preceded by an argument among the disciples about which one of them is the greatest. Greatness in the comparative sense serves to assert authority over others, to climb the career ladder of discipleship, to come out on top. And one requirement of coming out on top is that someone else has to end up at the bottom. This too is an expression of our desire to assert control.
The church has often made fun of the disciples and their foolishness, but, of course, if we’re honest, we all would like to end up in the upper third. That’s why we want to be part of the middle class and not the lower class. We may profess egalitarianism, but our society is hierarchical.
However, Jesus does not reprimand the disciples, Jesus simply redirects their attention which has become rivalrous – as they all seek to be the greatest – to something else they can embrace together, to the care of a child. And Jesus places a child in their midst not for cuteness or emotional response, but because in the society of the day a child had no power and thus no status.
James tells his readers, “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.” (3:16-17)
That true wisdom is from above, suggests that it is not enough for us to use rational and discoursive thought but rather that we must also employ what Josef Pieper calls intellectus, i.e. the ability to perceive, to take in, to observe the truth as the eye perceives the landscape. If true wisdom is from above it means that we do not create wisdom but receive it. And the free gift that comes along with the ability to receive such wisdom, as the disciples received when Jesus placed the child in their midst, is humility, we then are no longer in need to control the world but become free to receive it as a gift.
Thanks be to God.
1 Josef Pieper, Muße und Kult, 5th edition, Munich: Kösel 1958, pp. 25 – 26
2 Hartmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press 2020, pp. 6-7