Two Kinds of Wisdom: Thoughts on the criteria for making good choices.

Two Kinds of Wisdom 2021

In the movie “Freaky Friday” Lindsay Lohan plays a teenaged girl and Jamie Lee Curtis plays her mother.

There is a scene that captures the essence of what every parent wants from her child.

Curtis drops Lohan off at school.

Lohan is walking away, and Curtis rolls down the window of the car and shouts to a mortified Lohan, “Make good choices!”

Good advice, right?

Of course, Curtis wants Lohan to make the choices Curtis would make.

More to the point, Curtis wants Lohan to choose to do what Curtis would do.

Making good choices is really important because the choices we make ultimately determine what we do and define who we are.

So, how exactly do we make good choices?

We want a certain standard.

We want some sort of criteria.

So, I submit that number one on the list of criteria would be whether the choice is wise.

Which then makes us ask how do we know if our choice is wise?

What is our criteria for that?

One place to go is to James who talks a lot about wisdom in his letter.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

James 3: 13-18

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But 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. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

James starts this passage, which is part of a much longer discussion, with an interesting question.

“Who among you is wise?”

Which is akin to asking, “is anyone wise?”

To answer it we should first take a look at what he means by wisdom.

To James it is the Greek word sophia.

And the Hebrew word chokmah.

Both can be translated as skill, shrewdness, moral insight, justice, intelligence or purpose.

But in the Old Testament, chokmah was more than intellectual ability, it was intellectual ability based on the fear of God and and on a moral way of life.

In fact, wisdom in the Old Testament was personified as the means by which God created.

Proverbs 8:22-31 are the words of wisdom.

27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
   …

30   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.

But it was also a way the early church described Jesus.

The logos.

The incarnate word or wisdom of God.

And so wisdom in the New Testament is knowing God through the incarnate son.

James calls this the wisdom from above.

We are called to make our life’s choices base on that.

How does James describe it?

[T]he 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.

It should surprise none of us that James is describing Jesus – that incarnate logos or wisdom of God.

Choices based on wisdom from above, according to James, yield a harvest of righteousness … sown in peace for* those who make peace.

James contrasts wisdom from above with what he calls wisdom from below.

How does James describe that?

[B]itter envy and selfish ambition … boastful and false to the truth.

That doesn’t sound like Jesus and so might be considered – unwise?

Choices based on wisdom from below, according to James, that yield envy and selfish ambition, … disorder and wickedness of every kind.

Seems like an easy choice, right?

Yet we sometimes choose wisdom from below, right?

And we are in good company.

Have you ever heard the phrase “the wisdom of Solomon”?

If someone is said to have the wisdom of Solomon, that person is thought to be among the most intelligent people.

Brilliant.

A genius.

Where do we get that?

The Old Testament book of 1 Kings.

Just after David’s death, Solomon became king of Israel.

Solomon had a dream in which God asked Solomon what God should give him.

Solomon asked for the wisdom necessary to lead the people of Israel.

And God responded:

‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

If you pay attention to this passage, we see that James might have had it in mind.

God wanted to know what Solomon wanted from God now that he was king.

Solomon asked for wisdom.

God seemed surprised.

God expected Solomon to want wealth and power.

God was please that Solomon made a better choice and granted Solomon’s request.

Solomon’s wisdom was and is legendary!

He answered the riddles of King Hiram.

He answered the questions of the Queen of Sheba.

He was second only to Moses in his knowledge of the law.

His reign over Israel was the most successful and bountiful ever.

Because of the wisdom God gave him.

Wisdom from above.

But Solomon was not immune from that other wisdom.

That earthly wisdom.

A wisdom based on ambition for that power and wealth that Solomon wanted in addition to wisdom from above.

That ambition led Solomon to diplomatic marriages and affairs that seemed wise to him, but which had been forbidden by God.

Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines!

All from different political alliances.

And in order to keep those alliances, he would worship the gods of his wives and concubines.

God’s response?

Then the Lord was angry with Solomon, [and] said to Solomon, ‘Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant.

God seems to be saying that Solomon had lied from the beginning.

Solomon wanted wealth and power and had only sought God’s wisdom to obtain that wealth and power.

And so Solomon’s earthly ambition ultimately resulted with the disintegration of David’s kingdom.

James teaches that we are all just like Solomon.

We are exposed to two kinds of wisdom.

Wisdom from above and wisdom from below.

We are subjected to a tug of war for our obedience.

So, what does James want from us?

He wants us to choose wisdom from above.

How do we do that?

What criteria should we use?

Again, I suggest we read James.

Is our life pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy that will yield a harvest of righteousness sown in peace for* those who make peace?

In other words, does it resemble Jesus?

Or is it full of bitter envy and selfish ambition, boastful and false to the truth that will yield disorder and wickedness of every kind?

In other words, does it resemble Solomon?

The problem is that the answer to these questions is often not obvious to us.

It wasn’t to Solomon.

Why not obvious?

Solomon was biased and so had a blind spot.

His bias was that he believed that getting wealth and power for himself would also do that for Israel.

So, all those concubines?

That was OK.

God thought otherwise because what Solomon was really doing was using God’s wisdom for his own selfish interests.

Solomon just couldn’t see it.

We have the same dilemma.

We want to have and use wisdom from above, but we are biased.

We assume that we are given wisdom and are using it the way God wants but, in fact, we are doing it for our individual benefit.

It’s called projecting.

We say we want to do God’s work with our wisdom, but we really don’t do it, and decide that’s OK.

This is what James is talking about.

So, back to that question.

Who is wise among us?

Anyone?

Anyone?

To answer that question, it might be good to look at what people are doing, not just saying.

So, we need to compare what we do with to the life of the only one who we can trust without hesitation as wise.

Jesus.

Jesus was wisdom from above.

And doing what Jesus calls us to do is living wisely.

Because wisdom, as James defines it, is not about what we say, but what we do.

So, wisdom is:

Loving God.

Loving neighbor.

Feeding the hungry.

Clothing the naked.

Giving water to the thirsty.

Caring for the sick.

Welcoming the stranger.

Visiting the prisoners.

And as one pastor put it – Confronting chaos and destruction, hatred and suspicion, violence and pride?

If so, we are using wisdom from above.

Or do our actions encourage chaos and destruction, hatred and suspicion, violence and pride?

If we do that, we are using wisdom from below.

So, what does wisdom from below look like these days?

Well, we need look back no further than 2020.

We have had quite a journey in 2020, haven’t we?

Our trifecta of trouble.

Pandemic.

Politics.

Protest.

Have we handled these things with wisdom from above?

Doesn’t seem so, does it?

People are elevating their own perceived individual rights over the health of others by claiming that wearing a mask is somehow oppressive.

People are demonizing candidates and polices that might actually benefit all of us simply because they are not introduced by the party of their choice.

People claim to be exercising their right to protest but violate the law and pursue chaos and destruction.

And who will ever forget January 6, 2021 when our nation’s capital was invaded by a mob,  many of whom appeared to have the intent of overthrowing our government by violent force?

Do we think that any of this is wise?

Do we think that any of it is the exercise of wisdom from above?

Does it sound like a harvest of righteousness sown in peace for the peaceful?

Or is it simply the inevitable disorder and wickedness that stems from, among other things, envy, selfish ambition, pride, and rejection of truth?

What would Jesus do?

I don’t think any of that.

Jesus would do what he always did.

He would invite people to sit with him, talk with him and eat with him.

Regardless of race, nationality or creed.

Then he would teach them to love God and love neighbor with words and action.

Action that took him to the cross.

How does James describe it?

[P]ure, … peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

 How do we do that here at JMPC?

It’s when we do small things.

Making a meal for someone sick, visiting the shut-in, befriending the lonely, showing hosptality, praying with a friend, being merciful and gracious to all.

It’s when we support Family Promise, SHIM, First Presbyterian Church of Duquesne, our Hebron partners in Chiapas, all the PCUSA missions and all the missions overseen by our outreach Pillar.

It’s also when we gather, virtually, for worship and on-line companionship and Children’s Christian Education.

And this week, it’s gathering on the JMPC Facebook Page with our interfaith friends to pray for unity and peace the day before the inauguration.

It’s about being a community, a family, regardless of our differences.

We will always be subjected to two kinds of wisdom, but when we do our best to live the Jesus way, that is living with wisdom from above.

And that will bring a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

That is a good choice.

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