A reflection on the readings for Sunday, September 19, 2021 — The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” (James 4:1) We have little knowledge about the actual happenings in James’s community, but whatever was going on, it compelled James to pose this rhetorical question to his readers. With all the conflicts raging in the world, in our nation, and in the Church, it is a truly pertinent question for us too. Really, where do the wars and conflicts among us come from?
James was no trained psychologist in the modern sense of the term, but his insight into human nature is excellent. Not only does he address the complex issues within his community, but he also provides Christian answers to the questions he raises. For that matter, all the scripture readings today offer a great commentary on human nature. Let us draw three practical implications:
Desires Gone Wild
Let us return to James’s original question: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” James’s answer was: “Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet…” (Js 4:1). James attributes conflicts and wars to covetousness or inordinate passions.
In very human terms, covetousness and passions are a heightened level of human desire. Every human person has desires. Desire is a natural human instinct. For example, we may desire to live long, be secure, have children, be self-sufficient, and control our surroundings. However, James tells us that if desires are not tempered by the wisdom of God and righteousness, they can turn into inordinate passions and covetousness. They can become the source of evil, hatred, and even war. James stressed the importance of desires being reined by the wisdom of God and righteousness.
Both the first reading and the gospel reading give us some instances of desires not tempered by wisdom and righteousness. In today’s first reading from the book of Wisdom, the wicked man desires to test the just man. He says, “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us” (Wis 2:12). No reason is given for this wickedness except the desire to destroy another person’s life. In the gospel, even though the disciples had just heard Jesus predict his own passion and death, and that they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him, the question that has dominated their conversation was, “Who is the greatest?” (Mk 9:34). In other words, their desires were not guided by the wisdom of God and righteousness. As James suggests in the second reading today, desire can turn into jealousy; desire can turn into selfish ambition; jealousy and selfish ambition can bring about disorder, foul practice, and even violence.
The first practical implication for today is that our desires must be tempered by the wisdom of God. Our desires must be guided by righteousness. Unless our desires are tempered by the wisdom of God and righteousness, they have the potential to turn into passion and covetousness. These, then, lead to conflicts and wars.
Desires Guided by the Wisdom of God and Righteousness
What does it mean to let our desires be tempered by wisdom and righteousness? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to say that we bring all our desires before God. As James to his community, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly” (Js 4:3). In other words, our desires should be such that we feel confident in bringing them before God. Good desires are those we feel comfortable bringing before God, and bad desires are those we feel uncomfortable bringing before God. For example, it is good to desire to move into a bigger house if the family has grown, but it would be a bad desire to want a bigger house because one wishes to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ It would be a good desire to want a better job, but it would be a bad desire to want another person fired to get that job. It would be a good desire to want to get married but it would be a bad desire to covet another person’s spouse.
To let our desires be tempered by the wisdom of God and righteousness, in James’ words, is the ability to stand before God with sincerity. He says, “Wisdom from above is, first of all, pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace” (Js 3:16). Perhaps, this is the meaning of Jesus saying to his disciples, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).
Here then is the second practical implication – that our primary attitude is that of servanthood; that everything we want to be and desire, is pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits without inconstancy or insincerity; that everything we want to be and desire, is the fruit of righteousness, sown in peace, and cultivates peace.
Like a Servant; Like a Child
I said in the introduction that we have little knowledge of actual happenings in James’ community. We may not know the specific conflicts that prompted James to exhort them on the issues he did, however, scripture scholars tell us that the purpose of James’ letter was to socialize his readers/listeners to an alternative lifestyle – the lifestyle of those who follow Christ. His purpose was to remind them of the values that separate them from the wider society. It seems that envy or covetousness had infected the life of this community. It had even infected their prayer. For this reason, he says, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Js 4:3).
In the gospel reading too, Jesus attempted to form his disciples as a counter-cultural community. When he realized that envy, jealousy, and ambition has infiltrated his community of disciples, that they had begun to covet power and influence, he exhorted his disciples to be unlike the rest of the world. In Matthew’s version of the same Gospel passage we have, Jesus said to them, “It shall not be so among you!” (Mt 20:26). Instead, Jesus put a child in their midst and exhorted his disciples to approach life with the attitude of a child; to accept Jesus’ life and message as a child does.
We have come a full circle. James asked, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” Jesus and James teach us that the Christian community can give the world the answer to that question. The answer is simple – learn servanthood; learn the meaning of accepting life as a child does; let our desires be tempered by the wisdom of God and righteousness.
Jesus, in the Eucharist, is our model for life, our existence, and our desires. As we receive Christ today, may Jesus’ life and message dominate our conversation rather than “Who is the greatest?” May we be that counter-cultural community that Christ and James want us to be. Amen.
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