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September 23, 2018

“Conflicting Wisdom”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a

Mark 9.30-37

September 23, 2018

We enter a world full of contention in this Gospel reading. Conflict is everywhere in this passage, and in surrounding passages. The description of the death of the Son of Man portrays conflict and violence. The disciples argue over who is the better servant, creating struggles within the group. Even in the Epistle reading the author of James describes disputes and “cravings of war.” We read another passage fraught with tension.

We have been reading through the Gospel of Mark but the lectionary passage skips over the beginning of chapter 9. This includes the transfiguration, which makes sense, because we usually celebrate the transfiguration during Epiphany. Yet, the passages after the Transfiguration set up the tone for what we read today, so it is curious it is not included. After coming down the mountain Jesus encounters a man who asks for his son to be healed. The disciples had tried to heal him, but with no luck. Jesus helps him and the disciples are shocked. They want to know why they couldn’t cast out the illness, and Jesus tells them that it could only be cast out through prayer. Perhaps this was a commentary on the disciples’ prayer life, or just a minor reminder that they needed to try something new. Jesus is quite livid with the whole situation, and so I would guess the first. Yet, it is a reminder that the disciples do not fully understand what is happening.

So, as we continue through the Gospel of Mark, we are hearing a similar message – the disciples don’t understand and Jesus is attempting to redefine the society and culture. Perhaps this is so repetitive because we also need the reminder – we still do not understand. We still seek answers. Jesus is still redefining. This concept of redefining the culture comes from Dr. Deborah Krause of Eden Theological Seminary, and I’ve focused on her theme because I think perhaps it is a message that not only rang true in Jesus’ time, but also in ours – an attempt to redefine our culture and society.

In previous weeks we have read that Jesus was redefining the places. He traveled quickly from one place to another, testing boundaries. Some territory was known for being mostly Gentiles and some was predominately Jewish, but he challenges that and asks people to expand their borders. He challenges who is included in society by healing outcasts and eating with sinners. He even challenges identity, including the concept of Messiah, in which the Son of Man is someone who must suffer and die, not be a warrior Savior.

So, here is Jesus again, walking through Galilee, teaching, and trying to be anonymous. He has been talking about his suffering and death and the conflict that will ensue when he is handed over to humans. He is very specific about the actions of humans and the actions of God, as well as the wisdom of humans and the wisdom of God.[1] What is the difference? We can definitely tell there is a difference but maybe it isn’t as easy to define. What one person defines as wise might not be the same for someone else. When we pray for wisdom for leaders, sometimes it can be a loaded prayer. It might imply that we are not in agreement with how that person is leading – but when we ask for God’s wisdom, sometimes that also means that we don’t have God’s wisdom, but we trust that God will take care of the situation. Asking God’s wisdom isn’t just a statement that the person we are praying for is lacking that wisdom, but also an acknowledgement that we don’t have the answer, either.

The disciples are looking at this entire Son of Man situation with human eyes – because that is their perspective. They are mostly on board with the concept of Jesus as the Messiah. Peter is jumping all over this and ready to follow God’s will, but the disciples don’t quite understand what God’s wisdom entails. They do not necessarily see why Jesus must suffer and die. So, Jesus is trying to express to them that this is what will happen – this is God’s wisdom – and it might not make sense in the moment, but God has it handled.

Our world needs God’s knowledge and wisdom right now. The news is filled with chaos and disputes and anger and hurtful language. Jesus is saying that when the Son of Man is placed into human hands – into the hands of an angry mob – they will kill him.[2] Is our world any different now? If Jesus were living in this time and challenging the wisdom of humans, would he still have to suffer? Humanity is sinful and our ways are not God’s ways.

I recently heard an interesting podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson. He was asked many questions regarding science, and part of why I love listening to him is because he doesn’t throw in large scientific words that are over my head – which is important to someone who barely passed chemistry. So, the interviewer was wondering if we should be prepared to fight if aliens came to our planet. I know – you’re wondering what aliens have to do with Jesus – and I could probably give you a really great answer, but instead, just listen to his: “If they come here, they are certainly more technologically advanced than we are. If they treat us the way we treat one another then they will completely exploit us, enslave us, put us on reservation, slaughter us. They will have their way with us if they treat us the way we humans have treated each other in the history of civilization.”[3] Whether you believe in aliens or not – I think deGrasse Tyson summarizes the Gospel reading well. How are we treating one another? Our history tells us that we aren’t always kind. Jesus repeated his stories to the disciples over and over because they made the same mistakes over and over – just like humanity makes the same mistakes over and over.

We even read at the end that the disciples didn’t understand this – and no one asked because they were afraid. Now, this is speculation. The disciples didn’t write this, and the author wasn’t inside their minds. Yet, we know this is how humanity works. Even if it wasn’t an accurate statement for that specific incident, how many times have we had questions but hesitated to ask because we were afraid? How many times have we remained silent out of fear?

Silence rings out in this passage, as Jesus asks the disciples why they were arguing and they respond with silence.[4] Yet, he knows, and he begins to reimagine what it looks like to be a servant, and to be first. Jesus tells the disciples that they don’t really want to be first, because the first will be last. He tells them to welcome the children – another redefining of roles. In that time children weren’t held in high regard. Perhaps a way to think about it was that they were to be seen and not heard – maybe not even seen. Jesus is telling the disciples, though, that they need to welcome the children. Welcoming the children is the equivalent to welcoming God. In thinking about the wisdom of God, we see that perhaps children can glimpse the wisdom of God. At times adults think too hard, work too hard, and miss the important parts of life that children can remind us. Being first isn’t important – being together is, and so competition was not what the disciples should be focused on.

The James passage goes on about conflict and wisdom, as well. How does one show God’s wisdom? It can only be demonstrated through action. We can talk a big talk, but if our actions don’t match our words the words mean nothing. This is a theme for the Epistle of James. The author really wanted the actions to match the teachings of Christ. Our actions that do not reflect Christ create conflict and disputes. If we sow peace, we harvest peace. The author writes: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

I have been receiving a daily devotional email from the PCUSA for their Seasons of Peace, and in one devotional I found an example of this sowing of peace. Rev. Abby King-Kaiser, a chaplain at Xavier University in Cincinnati, wrote about her experience in planting small seeds of peace in her work. She is a Presbyterian minister but worked closely with many faith groups on campus, including the Muslim Student Alliance. She listened to them, she worked with them, and supported them. She told about how she accidentally shouted “Merry Christmas!” to them after an open house, and was humiliated, because she knew them so well and knew they didn’t celebrate Christmas. Years later, even after graduation, when Islamophobia was heightening once again, one of the officers of MSA called for pastoral care. She had made mistakes along the way, she felt she had totally flubbed up, but that seed of peace had been planted. The MSA knew she was supportive of them because her actions showed that, even when her words didn’t always follow.

I love the way that Eugene Peterson sums up this passage in his paraphrase translation, and I think it is a good way to summarize our own message and charge: “Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts.” Amen.


[1] Martha Moore-Keish, Mark 9.30-37” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 94.

[2] Sharon H. Ringe, “James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 95.

[4] Harry B. Adams, “James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 94.