There seems to be a contradiction in the messages found in today’s readings. James teaches that the way of righteousness leads to peace, while the author of Wisdom describes a conspiracy plotted against a righteous one. In the Gospel, Jesus first informs his disciples that he will be the victim of just such a conspiracy, and then he subverts their standard for judging importance. What are we to make of this?
Any wisdom tradition is based on some form of the theory of retribution: good or wise behavior brings forth success; wicked or foolish behavior yields misfortune. Wisdom teaching itself is a collection of maxims gleaned from experience, each providing a vignette exemplifying this theory.
The Letter of James describes several situations that we all know well. Jealousy and selfishness do indeed spawn disorder, as we have witnessed in the recent financial and sports scandals. We also know that desiring the land or natural resources of other nations often leads to war. If we are honest we will admit that only when we learn to bridle our inordinate passions will we experience true wisdom, which is “peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy.”
The ideal that James offers is not beyond our reach. We have already tasted the kind of life he sketches. We have known happiness and satisfaction in our families and communities. We know from experience that certain options are set before us, and we have decided to choose the path leading to peace.
Though the wisdom tradition offers a high ideal, its teaching is not unrealistic. The sages knew that those who choose the way of righteousness may be confronted with obstacles that seem insurmountable. The reading from the Book of Wisdom describes such a situation. People who try to live lives of integrity are not always appreciated. In fact, they are often ridiculed and sometimes even persecuted. Their very lives can act as a rebuke of the lives of others, their goodness an accusation. There are people who seem to take delight in pushing decent individuals to their limits, trying to show that they are no better than the rest. If they cannot corrupt these good people, they try instead to get rid of them.
Jesus is the ultimate example of such victimization. He was the righteous one par excellence. When those who opposed him were unable to undermine the success of his ministry, they plotted to get rid of him. He knew it, and yet he was not deterred. In this he became the model par excellence of how one should continue faithfully on the path of righteousness despite immense obstacles, leaving the outcome in God’s hands.
We all try to fashion our lives and our world for ourselves and for our children in such ways that the ideal presented by James might become a reality. But one does not have to live long to realize that the other scenario too often forces itself upon us. The people upon whom we relied seem to betray us; unbridled violence locks us in a state of terror; hatred and crime victimize whole populations. Goodness does not guarantee success and happiness, and shameless behavior seems to win out.
When we are caught in the throes of such peril, we do not need the wicked to say, “Let us beset the just one.” We ourselves might question the value of clinging to our noble standards. Once again a choice is set before us. Will we discover that our integrity is nothing but a veneer? Will we succumb to the temptations of the “low road”? Or will our trust in God carry us through? Will we choose the “high road” of loyal discipleship despite the cost that this may exact?
The Gospel reading ends on what appears to be a strange note. After Jesus reveals the tragic end that he faces, the disciples argue about status within the community. Hadn’t they been listening to him? In response to their quarreling, Jesus turns their expectations, and ours, upside down: the greatest becomes the least; the first becomes the last. He insists that it is in receiving society’s most vulnerable that we receive Jesus himself; and in receiving him, we receive God. This is the epitome of true wisdom.
Perhaps the messages found within these readings are not contradictory after all. Wisdom urges us to choose the right path. Jesus gives us a glimpse of the character of that path—namely, embracing the vulnerable in our midst: the defenseless children, the despairing poor, the terrified mentally ill, the marginalized disabled, the refugees of war. The vulnerable are all around us. The world seems to say, “Get out of life what you can. Let others take care of themselves.” The disciple of Jesus asks, “How can I help?” This is foolish in the eyes of some, and they may ridicule and even persecute those who follow this way. But it is the way of the wise, and the fruit of such righteousness is true peace.