—Fr Peter Johnson
Wisdom 11. 6–21, 12–22; James 3. 13–4. 3, 7–8a; Mark 9. 30–37.
Our first reading this morning was taken from a book in the Apocrypha which is called The Wisdom of Solomon. This book was written in the first century BC among the large and important Jewish community in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. The book is from the heart of Jewish biblical tradition, but presents that tradition within a framework of Greek philosophical ideas. So it is an example of how Judaism, and later also Christianity, sought to broaden its presentation from an original Palestinian milieu to meet the wider world, while at the same time not in any sense denying the basic beliefs.
King Solomon’s highly important reign was roughly in the years 961–922 BC. For a start he would have known nothing of what would have been very early Greek philosophy, nor is he likely to have known any Greek. But he was seen as the patron of wisdom ideas because of the collection of proverbs and Egyptian and other wisdom ideas which he commanded to be assembled from the cultures surrounding his kingdom in his own time. You can see that in the book of Proverbs for a start, and in the report in 1 Kings 432 of the 3000 proverbs he is meant to have composed.
So it is quite understandable that a major work like The Wisdom of Solomon should have been given that name by Alexandrian Jews, to show that the diaspora was also a true part of the Jewish people, living and thinking in a different cultural milieu but being loyal to the law and the commandments and keeping the traditional feasts and cultic observances.
But the book was certainly not written by King Solomon! However, you might be interested to know that this consideration does not seemed to have inhibited the tourist guides. In 333 AD, a pilgrim from Bordeaux was shown in Jerusalem the very room in the remains of the Jerusalem temple where King Solomon had sat to write this book. So beware of what you believe when you go travelling.
Most of what we heard in our reading from The Wisdom of Solomon was imagined speech of the ungodly, who are described in a philosophical way as “reasoning unsoundly”. Their reasoning is blinded by their wickedness, so we see how morality must underpin sound reasoning. In the thinking of the ungodly, the righteous stand as a reproach because they are not like others (verse 15). So the ungodly become more incensed, to the point where they say “OK, let us put them to the test, and see whether God will indeed deliver them from a shameful death.”
We might think here of the taunt of some of the authorities at the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, as presented in Matthew 27. 53 “Let God deliver him now, if he wants to…”, and indeed also of taunts made against Christian martyrs during persecutions.
The contrast between the righteous and the ungodly is presented fairly strongly in our reading, but we also do need to be careful to avoid self-righteousness or fanaticism in our own living of our faith and in our daily dealings. We know how much damage that can do in personal dealings and in the wider community or between nations. We might wish that some things had not been done, or done differently, to adapt words used by The Queen on her state visit to Ireland some years ago.
Loyalty to the faith, in particular, does not exclude the need for tolerance and humility, we might think, especially if we reflect that our understanding of our faith and its implications is itself evolving. What remains constant is God’s outreach to mankind.
The epistle of James, from which we drew our second reading, also works in the framework of the wisdom background we have been thinking about. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” it asks (verse 13). But true wisdom, the wisdom from above, is to be shown in our lives by works that are done in gentleness born of wisdom: so again there is an association of morality and wisdom.
Our reading also talked of false wisdom, which leads to envy, ambition and so forth; this is underpinned by falsity and disorder. It might remind us of Sir Walter Scott’s lines (Marmion) “O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.”
“You want something, and you do not have it, so you commit murder” (James 4. 1). Maybe James was thinking of stories in the Old Testament such the appropriation of Naboth’s vineyard by King Ahab at the behest of his wife Jezebel, or of David’s acquisition of Bathsheba by getting her husband Uriah put in the front battle line. But the point in any case is that falsity and the abuse of power lie behind avarice.
Coveting something and not being able to get it leads to conflicts and disputes, the epistle continues. And so there is a further point: “Ask, and you will receive”, we are taught. Yes, but we must ask rightly, not just in order “to spend on our pleasures” (verse 3). Instead, we should submit ourselves to God, resist the devil (with whom remember the ungodly are in league according to The Wisdom of Solomon), draw near to God and he will draw near to us.
The hymn Immortal love forever full (JG Whittier) ends with these lines: “To turn aside from thee is hell, to walk with thee is heaven.” That’s quite a good summary I think.
You don’t have to accept the idea of a personal devil: some do, some don’t. But we can hardly deny the idea of evil, and great evil at that, in the world then and the world now. And it won’t go away by political machination or giving everyone more money, for the potential for evil is in the hearts and minds of mankind and brings us back all the time to the question of the proper, moral management of power. Just think of the moral ambiguities in the internet. Power has to be exercised for our wellbeing, but the continual question is how it is to be controlled so as to be not unjustly exercised.
As usual, the gospel reading illustrates this for us. The evangelist is building up the picture, as he shows that there is a secret about Jesus and his work which his disciples do not understand and are afraid to ask about. For the second time in the gospel narrative, an announcement of the forthcoming destiny of the Son of Man is given, that he would be handed over, put to death and rise on the third day.
For a start, the bafflement or lack of understanding of the disciples as they follow Jesus through Galilee towards Jerusalem is also a symbol for us on our own walk of puzzled or doubting faith. There is a connection of suffering and discipleship which is inevitable in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the lives of the disciples and in the lives of all who seek to follow.
But when the disciples have to admit to Jesus that on the way they were discussing who was the greatest among them, yet again the topic had become power. Who would control? What a stark contrast to what has just been on the lips of Jesus!
Jesus gives his answer with the enacted parable of accepting the young child. We must avoid sentimentality about innocence here; rather, the child is a symbol of weakness and lowliness and dependence. To welcome such a one is to welcome Christ and to welcome the one who sent Christ: the representative stands for the sender. So there is no room for power distinction: leadership is service.
Again, there are obviously many questions which could be raised about practical political and social organisation.
But the fundamental point remains that the meaning of Jesus for us today, as through the centuries, is that he is God’s claim on mankind in his life and teaching and complete self-giving, and it is this claim to which all mankind is called to respond.
Christians are those who in trying to respond to this claim have entered the journey of faith. We come in the knowledge that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable…without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
And as we come in faith again to this Eucharist, we ask God to bless this wonderful yet troubled world for which our Lord Jesus Christ gave himself, and for which we share responsibility, and in which we seek to play our part, in loving and thoughtful moral commitment, in the building up of God’s kingdom.
And we give God thanks for the means of grace and the hope of glory as we share in the Holy Sacrament of the altar.