“A capable wife who can find?” Our first reading from Proverbs seems all at once both timeless and hopelessly out of date. Men, do we really need a wife who is a seamstress, merchant, chef, home administrator, property realtor, and wine maker? Women, how do you warm to the thought of rising before the sun and staying up after everyone else has retired; providing for your family and taking care of the poor; keeping yourself always attractive while being tasked with promoting your husband in the eyes of others; eschewing idleness whenever a task-free moment arises while maintaining a perpetual sunny disposition that even your children acknowledge? And you thought walking on water was a tough act to follow!
Still, within these lofty expectations and charmingly outdated duties, there remains something that is timeless; that rings true even in our day. More precious than jewels is a relationship that can be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables both to see in each other the image of God. Is there anything more attractive in a partner than inner strength, a sense of dignity, a light heart, the habit of speaking words of wisdom and kindness, demonstrating a concern for others, and possessing a sense of awe related to all that is holy?
If there is a fulcrum verse in this morning’s readings on which all others rest, it comes from the Letter of James: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” There is something of this behind all the qualities and characteristics put forward in Proverbs, isn’t there. This gentleness born of wisdom is both a disposition we cultivate on our own as well as a gift that we receive from beyond ourselves. James goes on to say, “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.” Yes, these are traits that we can and should pursue through our own efforts, but they will never find their fullness in us – be able to establish deep abiding roots and bear consistent fruit in our lives – unless we seek the nourishment of God’s Spirit in our souls.
In this morning’s Gospel reading we see Jesus’ disciples in a mode that is about as far from gentleness as you can get. Some context to the reading is helpful. Jesus has led his followers out of the region controlled by Herod Antipas after the ruler had ordered the beheading of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus has been in seclusion because he fears being arrested, because he is grieving, and because he needs to rethink his mission in light of this tragic loss. He emerges from this period of discernment realizing that he is the Messiah – God’s anointed one – but also with a new understanding of what this means. At the time, people anticipated God was going to raise up a Messiah to be a political leader – someone who would rally the people of Israel to rise up in revolt, overthrown the Roman rule, and reestablish a Jewish monarchy through David’s lineage. After John’s death and a period of reflection, Jesus begins to see that the power of oppression, like the power of sin, can only be conquered through his death and resurrection.
Do you recall from last week’s reading how Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and in response Jesus orders his disciples not to breathe a single word of this? It is easy to understand his reasoning. If word spreads that he is the Messiah and if people believe that the Messiah is sent from God to lead a revolt, then Jesus will find himself at the forefront of an uprising, not offering himself on a Cross as a demonstration of God’s love for the world. Jesus chooses to embody the words James would write some decades later… he will show the good life through his work done with gentleness born of wisdom.
His new mission only sharpens the irony that, while he is teaching this message to his disciples, they are arguing privately about whom among them is the most important. No doubt they were looking toward their imagined future and pondering one another’s place in King Jesus’ palace. Jesus responds to this with a teaching and a living parable. The teaching: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he shows them what this means in practical terms by placing a child in the midst and saying that greatness is demonstrated not through positions of power but through the manner you receive the powerless. A trait that will do you no good in welcoming a child is self-importance. A trait that will never fail is gentleness.
Last May, when a group of us met to evaluate our Sunday School program, several people mentioned how positive it is that Al Reese comes out of the church after the sermon and leads the children in a song before they come in to join us. Our kids love Al and enjoy their time with him very much. It speaks volumes to us that a person as talented and gifted as our music director/organist is willing to do this. He is not demeaning himself, but rather is highlighting the value of children. Al uses his gifts with great gentleness and wisdom and I am extremely grateful for both his ministry and his witness.
In early August, David Brooks, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, wrote a very thoughtful piece weighing in on the debate about the roots of success – to what degree are we self made and to what degree do we owe our success to forces beyond ourselves? Brooks offered the following insight:
There were many different chefs of the stew that is you: parents, friends, teachers, ancestors, mentors and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. It’s very hard to know how much of your success is owed to those people and how much is owed to yourself.
Given this, Brooks writes:
You should regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements and as the grateful beneficiary of all your past successes.
It seems to me that if you had this outlook your works would be done with gentleness born of wisdom. Throughout his column Brooks notes how we approach the question of credit differently at various stages of our life:
In your 20s…, you should imagine that you have the power to totally transform yourself… This sense of possibility will unleash feverish energies that will propel you forward...
In your 30s and 40s, you will begin to… have a lower estimation of your own power and a greater estimation of the power of the institutions you happen to be in. You’ll still have faith in your own skills, but it will be more the skills of navigation, not creation...
Then in your 50s and 60s, you will [develop an], understanding that relationships are more powerful than individuals… You will find yourself in the coaching phase of life, enjoying the dreams of your underlings. Ambition… is most pleasant when experienced vicariously... You’ll find yourself thinking back to your own mentors, newly aware of how much they shaped your path…
Then in your 70s and 80s,… your mind will bob over the decades and then back over the centuries, and you’ll realize how deeply you were formed by the ancient traditions of your people — being Mormon or Jewish or black or Hispanic. You’ll appreciate how much power the dead have over the living, since this will one day be your only power. You’ll be struck by the astonishing importance of luck — the fact that you took this bus and not another, met this person and not another.
In short, as maturity develops and the perspectives widen, the smaller the power of the individual appears, and the greater the power of those forces flowing through the individual.
Brooks is suggesting that gentleness emerges in us as time works on us. We are not a finished product at any point in our lives. Rather we are on a constant journey to grow into what St. Paul calls the “fullness of Christ.” Those disciples who argued amongst themselves about their importance were not rejected because of their misguided self-estimation. Jesus continued to nurture them toward a good life where their works were done with gentleness born of wisdom. It took time, to be sure, but Jesus never gave up on them – neither before his death nor after his resurrection – and Jesus never gives up on us either.
Brooks ended his column with these words:
[You] are right to preserve your pride in your accomplishments. Great companies, charities and nations were built by groups of individuals who each vastly overestimated their own autonomy. As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.
We who follow Christ give our best in everything we do, knowing that our best – if laced with pride, arrogance, or selfish ambition – is all for not. Our best, when put in the service of others, fulfills what Jesus teaches… if you want to be great you must be last of all and servant of all. I pray that this life continues to emerge in me as it continues to emerge in each one of you.