Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

WisBits Archive

May 2010


If I were to ask you, Who are the wise people you know?  Who would you pick from your friends, from those within your church, in your workplace, in your neighborhood, from politicians, from writers, from fitness or diet experts, from news sources?  Even more to the point, how do you measure their wisdom?

I’ve recently watched my views on this change.  I’ve always loved James’ description of “wisdom from above” (3:17 ). I’ve put myself in James’ place as a second born (as I am) to the most stunning first born ever (my big sister’s pretty stunning, just not as stunning as Jesus). I’m guessing he was inspired to understand “wisdom from above” based on how he watched his big brother Jesus “father” their family after Joseph died, how Jesus treated their widowed mother, how Jesus managed the family carpentry business, how Jesus taught in Nazareth’s Sabbath school (most likely), and how Jesus the laborer help build Herod’s palace and theater in Sepphoris, only 4 miles away (most scholars agree he would have been involved), dealing with both slaves as well as Herod’s royal cohorts. I especially like the small business angle:  how he dealt with creditors, dissatisfied customers and grumpy supervisors when they worked for others.

Here’s how he did it: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17).

As I focused on that verse recently, I started at verse 13a:  “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Because I was surprised by the next phrase, I asked you that question at the beginning. Think back to the people you picked. Why did you pick them?  Is it because they act this way: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13b). In this case, James didn’t base Jesus’ wisdom on what he said or taught but on his good life, particularly his gentleness, a quality which is repeated as part of the “wisdom from above.”

Isn’t this odd? Don’t we think of wise people as strong and gentle people as weak? Yet James knew (experiential knowledge of living with the Holy One) that gentleness grows out of wisdom.  And wisdom isn’t as much about head knowledge as about leading a life of deep, attractive inner goodness. The in-between verses are about envy and selfish ambition, describing the arrogance and know-it-all attitude we fall into when people think we’re smart (vv. 14-16).  Because I know a few things, I think I know everything. I begin to think I’m usually right and am not “willing to yield” (v. 17).

The word used for gentleness in v. 17 is epiekes.  Lexicographers say epiekes is hard to define. It is described as “better than justice” because it “steps in to correct things when the law itself becomes unjust.” An epiekes person knows how to make allowances, when not to stand upon his or her rights, and how to temper justice with mercy. It is often translated sweet reasonableness  (Barclay). I think of it as the wisdom to hold back at times and the wisdom to go the extra mile at other times.

Wisdom then is not about what I know. It’s about who I really am or who I’m in the process of becoming. This is one more piece of Jesus I wish I’d explored and written about in Invitation to the Jesus Life.  But some of the things I did think to include hint at the gentleness with which Jesus lived:  he listened well;  he was full of compassion and went the extra mile; he served in hidden ways and chose to die to self (could do without having what he wanted); and he spoke with simplicity (chapters 2, 6, 9, 13, 14, 15).

 From Jesus I learn that it’s silly to try to seem clever or try to impress people. He shows me that to be deeply concerned for others is “gentleness born of wisdom.”

Grace and peace,
Jan Johnson




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