The passage from Wisdom appointed for this Sunday is an instance of the literary trope which scholars sometimes call, “The suffering righteous one,” or “The Wisdom Tale.” The basic plot outline of the trope is that a righteous person is unjustly accused, suffers persecution, and is finally restored to favor. The story of Joseph is a good example. He is sold into slavery by his brothers, becomes Potiphar’s servant, is accused by his wife of rape, imprisoned, and through his ability to interpret dreams, elevated to the right hand of Pharaoh. In that position, he is able to get his own back against his brothers, and finally be reunited with them and his father. The story of Job is another classic example of this trope.
The passage from Wisdom presents it from the other side, the side of the oppressors, and explores their reasons for persecuting the righteous one. He is inconvenient to them. His life puts the lie to everything they have said about life and death. Their style of life, indulging desire, living for the moment, is shown to be a covenant with death. Even the righteous one appears to die, yet they have miscalculated: he in fact lives in God’s favor. It is they who die.
Gospel writers probably had this poem in hand when they composed their passion narratives. Some of the quotes are almost direct. “If he is God’s son” is almost word for word the same in Wisdom 2:18 and Matthew 27:39.
It’s not hard to draw parallels to the world around us. Our wanton way of life leaves signs of enjoyment in all the meadows of the world — it pretty much fouls them up. We want and don’t have (as in James) and so go get. The suffering poor ones of the world make us uncomfortable, because they put the lie to our way of life. The joy Deb describes among the people of Lui, Sudan, tells us we don’t really need the things we think we need to be happy.
Kids in gangs who jack cars are only really aping the values of our culture. They want and don’t have, just like the rest of us. Sometimes they do commit actual murder, but James is pointing that finger at us — our acquisitiveness causes plenty of pain around the world.
Jesus, in the midst of his disciples arguing about who is the greatest, takes a child and stands it in their midst. In the Greek, this child isn’t old enough to be grammatically gendered. It hasn’t achieved that mark of personhood yet. It is an “it”, on the fringes of humanity. Deb talks about 50% of kids in Sudan not making it to five years old. They don’t invest a lot of emotional energy on such a long shot. Jesus takes this child and says, “Whoever welcomes on such child welcomes me, and not me but the one who sent me.” He enfolds it in his arms. He brings the marginal to the center. Jesus restores the suffering righteous one to God’s favor and remarks that in welcome such, we welcome God. It will be inconvenient to welcome such a one, because we will have to ask how the suffering righteous one came to suffer in the first place, and we may not like the answer. But whenever we find ourselves marginalized, we have the assurance that Jesus enfolds us in his arms. That is what greatness is to look like among us.