Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gentle Strength
Prov 31:10-31; Jas 3:13-4:3; Mk. 9:30-37[1]
We live in a world where ambition is required. If you don’t have ambition, you must be some kind of slacker. If “money makes the world go around,” ambition is the engine that turns it. In our world, “climbing the ladder” is a way of life. Now, some kinds of ambition are good. But the problem with most of our ambitions is that they are all about us. And when our ambitions are essentially selfish, we tend to adopt an “any means to the end” approach. I think we can agree that when selfish interest dominates our ambitions, our principles seem to go right out the window.
James was very concerned about this tendency. That’s why he wrote to warn First-Century Christians about the effects of what he called “selfish ambition” on people and on the communities they belonged to. He says, “Whenever people are jealous or selfish, they cause trouble and do all sorts of cruel things” (James 3:16, CEV). I’m not sure anyone could have said it better. The alternative, from James’ perspective, is “the wisdom that comes from above.” He says that this wisdom “leads us to be pure, friendly, gentle, sensible, kind, helpful, genuine, and sincere” (James 3:17, CEV). For James, the real goal of the one who seeks the meaning of life in the “fear of the Lord,” in “walking humbly with your God,” is wisdom.[2] Wisdom that is a way of life defined by walking in God’s ways— humility, meekness, gentleness, along with integrity, peace, and justice! For James, “wisdom” is about taking our religious faith and making it real in daily life.[3]
That’s not really what we look for in terms of “the meaning of life.” We see the meaning of life in terms of what we can achieve (success), who knows our name (fame), and what we have acquired (wealth). And we see the meaning of life in terms of what it takes to get there. But like his brother James, Jesus took a different path. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus’ interaction with the disciples about their argument over who would be greatest is almost comic! Jesus turned their goals on their head and told them if they wanted to be “the best” in the Kingdom, then they should become the servant of everybody else.
And just in case they didn’t get the practical implications, he took a child and said that the way they treated that child determined the quality of their commitment to the Kingdom. Now, what you have to understand was a child was someone you could treat however you wanted and nobody would be the wiser.[4] Jesus said that the true test of one’s character is how you treat those who have absolutely no recourse, who cannot “report” you to anyone. In Jesus’ perspective, true wisdom, true strength, true greatness is found in the kindness you show to the most vulnerable people in our world.[5]
For some, this kind of approach to life and the world might seem “weak.” But this kind of wisdom is not a matter of weakness. The image of the ideal woman in Proverbs makes that clear in a very ironical way. In a culture where men dominated pretty much everything, the book of Proverbs chooses a woman as the ideal of “wisdom”— the ideal of what it looks like to “fear the Lord.”[6] And in this context, the ideal of success in life is not just any woman. The woman described in this passage is called “noble,” “capable,” “virtuous,” “excellent,” and “worthy.” But the Hebrew calls her a “woman of valor.”[7] Now the irony is that in the Hebrew Scriptures, “man of valor” is a title reserved for champions and heroes and leaders—and they are pretty much all men. But when it comes down to giving us a concrete image of the wisdom that Proverbs seeks to instill in us, that image is one of a woman who embodies gentle strength.[8]
I think that’s what James envisions as the “meekness of wisdom” or the “gentleness born of wisdom” (James 3:13). It is a way of life that is born of walking humbly with God. When you live like that, you develop a kind of confidence about life; but it is always a humble confidence. This kind of wisdom is a way of life that is inspired by the presence of God’s Spirit. When you live in such a way that you are consciously aware of God’s presence, it tends to create a sense of inner strength; but it is always a strength that manifests itself in gentleness, in humility, in self-sacrifice, and in kindness.
The point of this is not really to give us another yardstick by which to measure others and point out all the ways in which they fall short, tempting as that may be. The point is that we each look to ourselves, and evaluate the character of our lives. How do I speak to people who cannot report me if I get out of line? How much respect do I show people who are essentially invisible in our world? How concerned am I about the rights and the quality of life of those that for the most part nobody really cares about?[9]
Let’s be clear about the implications of following this path. It is not a path that will lead you to “success,” or “fame,” or “wealth,” in the sense that our culture defines them. Who in our world really believes that the meaning of life is to be found in service to others? Our society recognizes that there are some brave and courageous crusaders who give their lives away in service to others, but they tend to look at them as if they are on some sort of quixotic quest! But Jesus said that this is the path of life that the Kingdom of God calls us to follow. And James said that the wisdom that marks true piety is defined in these terms. And Proverbs says that this is what the “fear of the Lord” looks like. The end result is a way of life that promotes peace, God’s peace, lasting peace.[10]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/20/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX
[2] Cf. Robert W. Wall, The Community of the Wise, 181.
[3] Paul Tillich, “On Wisdom,” in The Eternal Now, 167-72.
[4] Judith Gundry-Volf, “To Such as These Belong the Kingdom of God: Jesus and Children,” Theology Today (2000): 475-76. Although in Jewish society children were viewed as a blessing and a gift from God, in the Graeco-Roman world of Jesus’ day children were a burden and a nuisance. Cf. also David E. Garland, Mark, 367: “The child had no power, no status, and few rights.”
[5][5] Cf. Judith Gundry-Volf, “Mark 9:33-37,” Interpretation (1999):57-61, where she says that Jesus advocates a “feminine greatness” that is to be practiced by men and women alike. Cf. also Garland, Mark, 375.
[6] Claudia Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs, 186-208; cf. also Thomas Ρ McCreesh, “Wisdom as Wife Proverbs 31 10-31,” Revue Biblique 92 (1985): 25-46.
[7] Cf. the Douay-Rheims version, a Catholic translation of the Vulgate: “a valiant woman”; cf. also Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, 272-73.
[8] Christine Roy Yoder, “The Woman Of Substance (esheth-hayil): A Socioeconomic Reading Of Proverbs 31:10-31,” Journal of Biblical Literature 22 (2003) 427-447. She says (p. 427, n. 1) that the word “valor” is used in the Hebrew Scriptures for “persons of ‘substance’” which she defines in terms of “strength and capacity, wealth and skill.” Note that one of the features of this woman is that she engages in “loving instruction” or “kind teaching” (Prov. 31:26; Cf. TEV: “She speaks with a gentle wisdom.”).
[9] Cf. The Message translation of James 3:18: “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God … only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 289, 291-92, where he describes the church as a fellowship of peace, freedom, and service.

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