Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
Let me say just a few words about our lesson from Proverbs, about the ideal wife. Yes, of course, it’s very traditional in its sex-roles, and the wife does all the work and the husband can just sit at the city gates. At the same time this wife has power and authority and initiative. She handles her own money and owns her property and runs her business. She does not fear her husband; she fears God—in the positive sense of fearing God, of knowing her place with God. She has wisdom and by her words and her actions she displays her wisdom.
The Greek view of wisdom is philosophical, abstract, and esoteric. You achieve it by putting yourself apart from ordinary life. The Biblical view of wisdom is down-to-earth—good choices and positive conduct in the daily round of life, how you speak to people and your deeds and actions in the world. This is important for the rest of our readings today. The wisdom of this wife from the Proverbs would have served the disciples well instead of their squabbling about who was greatest.
The Lord Jesus had been teaching the disciples and empowering them for a couple years now. They’ve congealed as a group, which was good, and developed some group identity, which is natural, and they’re arguing behind his back, which is usual. They want to divvy up the power when he becomes the king. Who will be number 2? Who will have authority, who will speak for him? Simon Peter might have claimed it, except that in last week’s Gospel lesson the Lord Jesus rebuked him and took him down a peg or ten, so it’s open. And now that Jesus is predicting crazy self-destructive things, they’re arguing who might take charge instead of him! No wonder they all clam up when the Lord Jesus asks them what they were talking about. But he knows.
He takes a child into his arms. Why the child? Not that we should be childish. You would call the disciples childish for their squabbling who was number 1. Boys will be boys. Nor is it that we should be childlike and innocent. I am not sure of the anthropological status of children in ancient societies, but they weren’t the precious jewels of sentimental Protestantism or indulged and protected like the children of Park Slope. I think it’s because the child had no rights, no privilege, no power, and no authority. So then, you must devote yourself to serving the powerless if you would be great.
It isn’t natural. What soldier would give his life for his country if his country was weak and powerless? Why pour yourself into your job if the company that you work for has no power to achieve its goals? Imagine if we decided that for some big special event we invited a famous preacher to come to Old First. We put extra money in the budget, organized a luncheon, advertised, publicized. And then when that preacher arrived we sent that preacher upstairs to the Nursery, and we said, Would you please take child-care today! Child-care workers are among the lowest paid in our economy. And that’s why Jesus embraced the child in his arms in front of the disciples.
He presents her as a symbol of himself, that even as the Messiah he will take no rights, no privilege, no power, and no authority. And he goes further to offer her as a symbol of God, that God takes no rights, nor privilege, nor power, nor authority.
But how could God not be God? God is omnipotent. Well, his point is how you have to accept God. You have to accept God not for any rights or privilege. You embrace the Lord Jesus not for the power and authority you get from Jesus.
Embracing Jesus and receiving the God who sent Jesus will you get no power, privilege, rights, nor authority. This is off-putting. It makes no sense from the outside. You have to enter it to get it. You have to accept it first to understand it. It is worse than unconventional. It is the foolishness of God.
But didn’t Jesus tell the disciples that the Holy Spirit would give them power? And didn’t Jesus give his disciples authority to cast out evil spirits? And wasn’t it a privilege for the disciple to receive the Kingdom of God? And aren’t Christians committed to human rights? So why do I say that you have to receive God without expecting God to give you power, authority, or privilege, or rights?
I could say that the power that God gives you contradicts the power that the world esteems. The world does not recognize the authority that God gives you. The world does not value the rights and privilege that God offers you. So you can’t want any of these things for their sake, because then you will assume your estimation of them. You have rather to want God for nothing else than God, and Jesus for nothing else than Jesus, just as you embrace a child for nothing else than the child.
I am intentionally extreme. We live our lives in a fuzzy middle, our choices are rarely simple and usually complex. There is no pure right and no pure wrong, no pure evil and no pure good. There are no orcs nor elves, just us mushy human beings. But behind every mushy moment and complex experience is that single radical choice, an either/or, whether you want God or the world, whether you take God in terms of the world or God in terms of God, who then gives you to the world.
The Epistle of James is just as extreme. The Apostle goes so far as totally to deny all the wisdom of the world. Whether it’s conventional or philosophical, the Apostle unmasks all of worldly wisdom as earthly, unnatural, demoniacal, typified by envy and selfish ambition. He may be thinking of the upper classes of the Roman Empire and their degradation, but how about Washington or Albany or Wall Street or even NYU. He says that it brings disorder and wickedness of every kind. Yes, that extreme!
By contrast the wisdom that comes from God is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Well, we all want this. How to get it! The Apostle is saying that there’s no way to get it if you start from the values of the world. The choice is stark. The only way to get it is to submit to God. Just as when you embrace a child you are submitting yourself to the agenda of the child. That’s the only way to this wisdom. The way is unconventional but the benefit is great: A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
The choice is stark, the options are extreme, but, as I said, we live our lives in the muddle. The choice never comes to us so clear and simple, but always complicated and mushy. How shall we not be discouraged? Who can live at such extremes?
We cannot free ourselves from the world nor the obligations of the world. No matter what we think of Washington and Albany, they make the laws, and we have to obey the laws. And throughout the New Testament the apostolic writers advised the early Christians to obey the laws whenever they could, no matter how degraded the lawgivers were. We do our best. We try to carry deep within our souls the awareness of the extremity of the choice, and between these two poles we mushy humans make our flimsy choices in the daily muddle. But how can we ever be righteous in all this? We’re always tainted, we’re always compromised.
Well, all that I’ve been saying so far is the Law. But the deeper wisdom is the Gospel, and we go back to the child embraced in the arms of the Lord Jesus. He said, take that child for me. Take that child for God. And what a child does not do is judge you. The Lord God, in the person of Jesus, comes to you not as your judge but only as the object of your love.
But of course God is a judge. Psalm 1 says that the wicked shall not stand in the day of judgment. If God loves justice then God must judge. If God gives order to creation and laws to nature then God is a judge. And that’s the necessary wisdom of the Law. But the unconventional wisdom of the Gospel is that God offers Godself to you as a powerless, non-judging child, just the object of your love.
And that is how you navigate the mushiness of life and the daunting complexity of your choices, not in worry about your failure or your fear of collaboration or your guilt about your collusion but directed by love and the practice of love. That means the practice of acceptance and embrace. It means patience, and suffering in the sense of holding up. Making peace. Full of mercy. The wisdom is the deeper wisdom of the gospel. God offers Godself to you as a little child.
The way to love God is to accept the love of God. Be that child yourself. Of course you want to be as deservedly lovable as that wife in Proverbs, but already you are lovable to God, as incompetent and foolish as you judge yourself to be. I am telling you that you can navigate all the mushiness of the world because you are so unconditionally loved by God.
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.