Childlike wisdom

23 September 2018
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20B (RCL)

Porverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Many will react to the reading from Proverbs this week. We will hear it as constraining women to a particular social place and role. I find it surprising, however, that she is clearly able to own and buy property, run a business and have servants, all apparently independently of her husband. Early in the book, a contrast was made between wisdom and folly portrayed as women. I think we could read this passage on two levels; one as an example of the gender expectations of the time, and also as an example of wisdom.

If wisdom literature is written to form the conduct of young men at court, the passage makes sense at both levels. Look for this kind of woman to marry – she will serve you in good stead at court; and, behave in a wise way – no flash, but just good solid householding.

James also seems to want to use the device “the two ways” wisdom and folly, or wisdom from above and wisdom of this world (Psalm 1 is the classic example of moral teaching by the device of “the two ways.”). The wisdom that craves to look good at court, or in the world’s eyes, leads to strife and murder. I don’t suspect anyone in James’ audience was guilty of actual murder, and it is unlikely that any in our congregations will be. But I think James’ uses the charge to shock us into thinking about the consequences of our actions. A student of mine once said, concerning the use of cheap foreign labor to make the things we enjoy, “We didn’t so much abolish slavery, as we outsourced it.” The deaths of people who die in horrible labor conditions half a world away might still be on our hands. Certainly, if we look at ourselves as a nation, our appetite for energy, for resources, for gadgets, has a deleterious effect on the rest of the world.

The disciples were arguing on the road, or on the way – and I don’t think Mark uses that word accidentally, about who was the greatest. It is easy for us in the church, when daunted by the reality of the world’s problems and our role in them, to turn inward and worry about church-y things. Who gets to decide what, who is the greatest. Jesus takes a pais, the word can be translated either child or slave, and stands it (it has no gender) in the midst of the disciples, and says, Whoever welcomes one such pais in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.

Children and slaves (those kind denoted by the word pais) had no legal status. They were often considered dirty and valueless. We don’t know if this child or slave was male or female, the word doesn’t indicate that. And Jesus challenges us to welcome such. This is the wisdom that is peace-loving. James tells us not to make distinctions between rich and poor when they enter the Church. Every category the world uses to make distinction does violence. It is no wonder Jesus’ disciples could not grasp his teaching the the Human Being must die.

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