This blog provides a meditation on the daily readings of the Episcopal Church along with a headline from world news
JAMES 3: 13-18
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But 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. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Just a few verses but full of robust wisdom. “Works”, that is, our words and actions, are important to James-indeed he seems to offer a criticism of Paul’s view that we are saved by faith. “Faith without works is dead” he tells his readers. Nevertheless, it’s clear in this passage that it’s not just the works that count. We should act “with gentleness born of wisdom.” Even good works can be done out of selfish ambition and envy and when that is the case, they bring about disorder and wickedness. That’s a strong and helpful teaching which throws the disciple back on his/her own motives. Where is the necessary gentleness to be found? In wisdom, James says. If we reflect on the number of times that our haste, envy, selfishness have hurt others, or theirs’ hurt us, we are humbled and made readier to be gentle. In that condition we are willing to receive God’s wisdom, which is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” These thoughts are summed up in the promise that those who make peace with others will be rewarded by peace in this life and the next. We could come back to these words again and again.
12Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ 13They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ 14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ 15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. 17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. 21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.
No doubt the religious leaders and the crowd thought that they were doing something good: getting rid of a heretical rabbi in exchange for a good patriot like Barabbas was surely what the God of Israel would want done. But, as James might have said, their work was done out of bitter envy and selfish ambition, so that what resulted was disorder and wickedness. The behaviour of the Roman Cohort displays the causal brutality of men who know they are in the wrong but have ceased to care.
(The patriotic crowds at Wooton Basset, who have for years showed respect to dead British soldiers, when their bodies are repatriated, have perhaps never wondered if some of these men had behaved with careless brutality towards the enemy or foreign civilians. Certainly the recent report on allegations of torture in Iraq makes it clear that “our boys and girls” can be as brutal as anyone.)
Mark doesn’t need to point out the irony of the soldiers’ mockery: they kneel in homage to a condemned foreigner who is truly the Son of God. Scholars have speculated on the detail about Simon, “the father of Alexander and Rufus”, as if these men should be known to the reader. Were they members of Mark’s church? And would that indicate that the cross-bearer became a believer? Jesus is depicted as utterly helpless, subject to whatever his tormenters decide to do, and yet he loses no dignity. He is the still point around which others move.
Because Christian believers identify with the suffering Jesus, they must never forget they are reading about a crime: a kangaroo court verdict on an inconvenient prophet, routine torture and mockery by the soldiers of a world empire, an agonising death intended to break the spirit as well as the body. Such crimes continue almost daily in our world, in which both torturers and victims need the gospel of the Crucified.