Today’s reading from the Letter of James asks and answers a timely question. Where do wars and conflicts come from? All around us on the international scene there are wars and rumors of wars. And there surely are conflicts in our country, local communities, churches and families. Why? James, the master of practical wisdom and spirituality, traces them to jealousy and selfish ambition. This insight also helps to illumine some features in the other readings for this Sunday.
The Book of Wisdom (also known as the Wisdom of Solomon) was composed in Greek in Alexandria of Egypt in the first century B.C. It is canonical for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not for Protestants and Jews. The “just one” described in today’s selection is anonymous. Perhaps he was a real person, or perhaps he was simply a symbol of Israel patterned after Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. His opponents find him to be offensive and even obnoxious to them, since he accuses them of sins and opposes their actions. They explain their plot against him as putting the just one to the test. They want to test his relationship to God (“if the just one be the son of God”), his personal character and his belief in immortality. It is difficult to read the passion narratives in the New Testament without making connections between the just one of Wisdom and Jesus. Both are innocent victims of the jealous and selfish ambition of their opponents.
Today’s selection from Mark 9 features the second of three passion predictions made during Jesus’ journey from Galilee up to Jerusalem. According to Mark and the other Evangelists, Jesus went willingly to his death. As another victim of jealousy and selfish ambition, he proved the quality of his relationship with God, his personal character and his belief in immortality.
What is striking about all three passion predictions is that Jesus’ disciples do not grasp the point and seem to misunderstand Jesus totally. At the second passion prediction we find that the disciples were more concerned with discussing who was the greatest among them. Perhaps they were arguing about their places in the Jesus movement. Or perhaps their conflict had to do with their status in the coming kingdom of God. In either case jealousy and selfish ambition seem to be at the root of their misunderstanding and conflict.
In correcting his disciples’ misunderstanding, Jesus reminds them that in his movement greatness consists in the service of others. And Jesus is the best example of his own ideal of servant leadership. By his teaching he showed us how to relate to God and other persons. By his healings he brought physical and spiritual well-being to those in need. By his passion, death and resurrection Jesus opened up the possibility of right relationship with God. Jesus the servant leader is the opposite of those who are motivated by jealousy and personal ambition.
As a way of illustrating his concept of true greatness as the service of others, Jesus points to a child. For people in Jesus’ time a child was a social nonentity, someone without power, prestige, social status or public importance. Yet this is precisely the kind of person whom Jesus’ followers should serve. And Jesus goes so far as to suggest that those who serve such persons really serve Jesus and his heavenly Father.
In the context of the opposition to both the just one and to Jesus and of the disciples’ conflict over greatness among them, James’s analysis of the origin of wars and conflicts seems to be a perceptive analysis of human nature and sound advice about facing and resolving our all too human conflicts. Besides warning us to avoid jealousy and selfish ambition, James describes by way of contrast true wisdom as “pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity.” That sounds like the basis of a real peace plan to me.
Where then do wars and conflicts come from? James points to the passions within us. That kind of language is seldom heard today. But think of the wars and conflicts all around us. At the very least, James provides a helpful principle for understanding them. He says, “You covet but you do not possess.” Most wars concern land, oil or some other natural resources like water or precious metals. Someone has them, and someone else wants them. Most of our personal conflicts and sins (another unfashionable word), like slander, stealing and adultery, stem from our desire to possess what we do not have.
The Letter of James does not have all the answers to our social and personal problems. But with regard to wars and conflicts, James’s suggestion that they come from jealousy and selfish ambition, disordered passions and covetousness seems to be both perceptive and wise.