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Two Kinds of Wisdom
Summer Quarter: Many Faces of Wisdom
Unit 3: Faith and Wisdom in James
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 30, 2020
By Rev. Ashley Randall
Lesson Scripture: James 3:13–18; 5:7–12
Key Verse: James 3:17
To acknowledge that choosing God’s wisdom leads to life
Reason and Compassion
Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the call to serve as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. on May 14, 1954, after completing the residential requirements for his Doctor of Philosophy in systematic theology from Boston University. He completed his doctoral thesis during the first five months of his pastorate and was awarded the degree on June 5, 1955. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began that December and lasted a little more than a year.
Strength to Love
is a collection of sermons King preached at Dexter Avenue during and after the Bus Boycott. It was originally published in 1963. Prior to its publication most people knew King only as a civil rights leader. As the first volume of sermons by an African American preacher widely available to a white audience, it revealed King’
s identity as a compelling, well-educated, and compassionate preacher. It also presented King’
s vision of love as a potent social and political force for change and his confidence in the power of religious faith to overcome systemic evil.
The first sermon in this collection is entitled, “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” It is based on the text from Matthew 10:16: “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” In this sermon, a version of which King delivered on August 30, 1959, he urges his congregation to balance reason and compassion.
In the opening paragraphs King establishes the setting in which Jesus gave these words of instruction to his disciples:
He knew that his disciples were going out to take his message into a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the recalcitrance of political officials, and the intransigence of the protectors of the old order. He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” And he gave them a formula for action: “be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove. In other words, Jesus is saying that individual life at its best requires the possession of a tough mind and a tender heart.
King then moves to the task of defining what he means by being tough-minded:
Let us consider first the need for a tough mind, characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong, austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment.
King makes the argument that this is “one of man’
s greatest needs,” primarily because it seems to be so scarce. “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers, and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
King points to plenty of evidence of such lazy thinking: “This prevalent tendency toward soft mindedness is found in man’
s unbelievable gullibility. Take our attitude toward advertisements. We are so easily led to purchase a product because a television or radio advertisement pronounces it better than any other. Advertisers have long since learned that most people are soft minded, and they capitalize on this susceptibility with skillful and effective slogans.”
King also indicts the “main stream media” (remember, this is 1959):
This undue gullibility is also seen in the tendency of all too many readers to accept the printed word of the press as final truth. Few people realize that even our authentic channels of information – the press, the platform, and in many instances the pulpit – do not give us objective and unbiased truth. Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction. Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts. One of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.
King advances some explanations for why people resist developing their capacity to think critically. “The softminded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea…. The soft minded person always wants to freeze the moment and hold life in the gripping yoke of sameness.”
King grieves the degree to which “Softmindedness often invades religion. This is why religion has sometimes rejected new truth with dogmatic passion…. Softminded persons have revised the Beatitudes to read: ‘Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God.’”
King identifies “softmindedness [as] one of the basic causes of race prejudice. The toughminded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges. The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he pre-judges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings.”
Just as King has taken issue with the mainstream media earlier, now he turns his attention to elected governmental authorities:
Too many politicians in the South recognize this disease of softmindedness which engulfs their constituency. With insidious zeal, they make inflammatory statements and disseminate distortions and half-truths which arouse abnormal fears and morbid antipathies within the minds of uneducated and underprivileged whites, leaving them so confused that they are led to acts of meanness and violence which no normal person commits.
King closes this section of his message with this warning:
There is little hope for us until we become toughminded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of softmindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.
“But we must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind. The gospel also demands a tender heart. Toughmindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached, leaving one’
s life in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer.” With these words King transitions to his presentation of what it means to be tenderhearted and the implications of remaining hardhearted. After describing the love, compassion, and generosity that characterize tenderheartedness, King makes a compelling case that “A third way is open to our quest for freedom, namely, non-violent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”
As King imagines it, this non-violent resistance “is toughminded enough to resist evil. It is tenderhearted enough to resist it with love and nonviolence. It seems to me that this is the method that must guide our action in the present crisis in race relations. Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”
King will not close his message without reminding his congregation that “I am thankful this morning that we worship a God who is both tough minded and tender hearted.” It is clear that it is King’s conviction that he is calling the members of his congregation – and all of us who follow Christ – to reflect the character of God.
Wisdom from Above
While James recognizes that wise and faithful teachers are essential to the ongoing life of the community of believers, at the opening of chapter 3, James cautions those who may be considering the role to consider the decision carefully before they nominate themselves too quickly. Teachers – those who step into positions of leadership in the community – need to be particularly careful to make sure that their lives – what they say and what they do – are in alignment with God’s mission and purpose.
What guides the use of our tongue and the choice of the words we speak? If we are not guided by the wisdom and power of God, if we let ourselves be enticed and lured by the prevailing values of the world, we may find that “
Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way! (3:10)
After raising questions about the integrity of their speech, James continues with an open challenge: “Are any of you wise and understanding?” (3:13a) The proof he will focus on now is the quality of their relationships – the product of the things they do as they live their everyday lives. “Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom” (3:13b).
Once again, we find the connection between wisdom and humility. When people show the utmost regard for the ineffable wonder of God’
s presence, power, and glory – when they “
fear the Lord” – God fills them with wisdom. The result of this wisdom is a covenant community where people live in right relationship with one another and with God. Conversely, people who are committed to “
walking blamelessly” must not compromise with evil, however it expresses itself, whether it is pride, arrogance, corruption, or perverse speech. Communities where these things are ignored, excused, tolerated, encouraged, or allowed to multiply are destined for conflict.
James’s next warning seems to echo Proverbs 16:18: “Pride comes before disaster, and arrogance before a fall.” Bitter envy, selfish ambition, and empty boasts are destructive to the community. Such self-referential behavior is not wisdom at all. It is counterfeit, or as the writer of Proverbs would call it, “folly.” James is not afraid to say that not only does such “wisdom” not come down from heaven, but that it is “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.” (3:14-15).
Paul warns the Galatians with very similar words:
I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom. (Galatians 5:16-21)
Paul offers the Galatians an alternative path to consider:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. (Galatians 5:22-26)
James’s list of preferred outcomes sounds quite similar: “What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts” (3:17-18).
Once again we find the principle that there is more to this life than satisfying our physical appetites. Wisdom leads one to “
walk blamelessly.” And when a person is walking blamelessly – in a way that honors God’
s will and purpose – that path leads to righteousness, justice, and equity.
As we learned in the book of Proverbs, God’s wisdom is offered as guidance for our daily lives. It is a gift meant to enrich the quality of our relationships and the strength of our communities. The enduring value of wisdom is that it reminds us that our relationship with God and our neighbor are more important than any pleasures that might tempt us to do any less than love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Luke 10:27).
Paul commends this kind of wisdom to the church in Philippi: “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).
Let me remind you that this “peace” that James, Paul, and Jesus talk about is more than just the absence of conflict. It connotes wholeness, completeness, harmony, tranquility, welfare, and prosperity. It is the result of trusting God with your life. “Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
Although we skip all of chapter 4 and a good part of chapter 5, it is interesting that after commending “those who make peace [by sowing] the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts” (3:18), James once again turns to agricultural metaphors to commend the kind of patience that is required as one faces the suffering and trials that are part of the lives of the believers (see James 5:7-8).
James encourages them with the promise of a valuable crop. Once again we find more similarity with Paul than difference:
Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith. (Galatians 6:7-10)
Again, James warns them about grumbling, especially about grumbling against one another (see James 5:9). His words are similar to the counsel of Jude: “But you, dear friends, remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the end time, scoffers will come living according to their own ungodly desires.’ These people create divisions. Since they don’
t have the Spirit, they are worldly” (Jude 17-19).
While not as extensive as the list of the prophets we find in the Letter to the Hebrews, James commends the example of the prophets, and particularly of Job, as those who have persevered in the face of suffering, especially reminding them of God’s restoration of Job at the end of his time of testing. “You have seen what the Lord has accomplished, for the Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (5:11b).
In some ways James warning about swearing – making a solemn pledge – seems out of place. Perhaps James knows that desperate people are prone to resort to desperate measures. Making the kind of promise he is referring to goes beyond their authority as children of God. Indeed, in a sense it sets the creature over against the Creator.
Recall that Jesus also warned his followers about such promises:
Again you have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago: Don’t make a false solemn pledge, but you should follow through on what you have pledged to the Lord. But I say to you that you must not pledge at all. You must not pledge by heaven, because it’s God’s throne. You must not pledge by the earth, because it’s God’s footstool. You must not pledge by Jerusalem, because it’s the city of the great king. And you must not pledge by your head, because you can’t turn one hair white or black. Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37)
The Beloved Community
Jesus declares clearly and openly, “I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest” (John 10:10). Throughout his ministry, Jesus demonstrated the path to that life. Jesus showed mercy to those who had been excluded and left out. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and shared fellowship around the table with those who were outcast.
Jesus challenged the practices of the authorities of his day – both the political and the religious. Jesus pointed out their dishonesty and called them to be truthful and fair.
Jesus also taught people to follow carefully the commands of God – especially those that affect the life of the community. Jesus challenged everyone to think clearly, to avoid confusion, and to rely on God’s direction and not their own understanding.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Matthew 22:37). Jesus said that was the most important commandment, and it was the principle that guided his ministry.
As a community of faith, we are called to practice mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with God. It is that “walking humbly with God” that may need our renewed attention. With the current status of race relations, the inequities of our economic system, the strain on our ecological systems, and the growing tribalism around the world, it is clear that we need to find a better way.
It starts with humility. It is really just another way of saying “
the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 9:10). It is the willingness to acknowledge that God deserves our respect, our obedience, and our utmost regard for the ineffable wonder of God’
s presence, power, and glory. Once we embrace that truth, we find that we are prepared to receive the gift of wisdom from the Lord—a wisdom God has stored up for the community of believers.
We have heard the plea to seek wisdom from Proverbs, through the gospels, and in the letters to the church. The invitation comes from “Woman Wisdom,” James, Paul, Peter, Jesus, and from God. Seeking wisdom is described variously as “making your ear attentive,” “inclining your heart,” “cry out,” “raise your voice.” It is an endeavor that demands total focus and full participation.
The good news is that God gives generously to those who seek this gift of wisdom. “There are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’
t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do” (James 1:25).
Those who experience the fullness of God’s blessing are those who not only receive God’s wisdom, but who are guided by it in their daily lives – in their relationship with God, with one another, and with the world. They discover that the “perfect law” sets them free from bondage to their cravings and free to live into the gracious abundance of God’s kingdom.
Scripture affirms the enduring value of wisdom – of letting our thinking be shaped by the will of God. My relationship with God and my neighbor are more important than any pleasures that might tempt me to do any less than love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself (cf. Luke 10:27). This wisdom leads one to “
walk blamelessly.” And when a person is walking blamelessly – in a way that honors God’
s will and purpose – that path leads to righteousness, justice, and equity. These are the characteristics that mark a covenant community – a community where people are living in right relationship with one another.
The kind of community God desires is not an impossible dream. It is within our grasp, if we will allow God’s wisdom to guide our thoughts and actions. Our goal must be to know God and God’
s ways more fully and to commit ourselves to follow the path of righteousness, to “
walk blamelessly,” to seek God’s wisdom. When people of faith value wisdom – when they accept the challenge to be “toughminded” – we will see our communities transformed into places where the presence of love, hope, joy, and peace flourish.
Rev. Ashley Randall is pastor of Garden City UMC. He purchased his copy of “Strength to Love” during a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and Birth Home in Atlanta. He hopes everyone knows that the “wisdom of the world” is not wisdom at all.
- Where have you seen examples of “softmindedness” ?
- How does practicing patience demonstrate wisdom?
- How are you actively seeking wisdom? What steps are you taking to become “toughminded” and “tenderhearted”?