13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of justice is sown peacefully by those who make peace.
This passage is full of key words from the ethical vocabulary of the Greek tradition, many of them found in Aristotle and the Greek dramatists of the classical era. As I read the passage in Greek I had to use the dictionary frequently in order to inofrm myself. I emphasise this point because James is writing about wisdom that comes from above. Yet the words for the reception and fruits of this wisdom are already present in Greek culture. This proves that he does not think of this wisdom from above as a magical revelation but as a historical process involving his Jewish ancestors along with Greek thinkers. It is a human wisdom which has come down from God through the moral experience of generations.
This is an important characteristic of The Bibilcal tradition: the gifts of God are not some esoteric spirituality or solemn mumbo-jumbo, but rules for communal justice, prevention of human evil, encouragement of human flourishing. God’s gifts could as easily be ascribed to the moral intelligence of human beings, but the Bible insists that they also come from God. People may imagine that they alone are masters of their existence, but in reality they are always choosing the wisdom that comes from God or the worldly wisdom that comes from the Adversary, the Satan.
The heart of worldly wisdom is arrogance and a desire to dominate, the classic sins of humanity defined in the Eden story, while the heart of heavenly wisdom is pure, that is, uncontaminated by wordly values, so that it issues in gentleness, rationality, mercy and goodness. This is the same wisdom as is praised in the songs of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs chapters 3 and 8 and is dramatised in the books of Ruth and Jonah, as well as in the tales of the Patriarchs. It is the wisdom demonstrated and taught by Jesus. Its fundamental character is humility, the opennness to receive, as opposed to the arrogance which closes a person to gifts from above.
The final sentence is a splendid summing up of the importance of this wisdom: the wise person does not achieve justice by imposition or force, but by sowing peace, that is, by small acts of protection, compassion and reconciliation, that may seem ineffectual, but in time grow into a harvest of justice. In facing appalling situation like that of Syria today, the international powers often neglect that quiet wisdom and its duties in favour of the worldly wisdom that prescribes military intervention.
There is a beautiful balance in this section of James that has not been remarked by any commentator I have read.