James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’
That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.
‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.
James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.
Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.
There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.
But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.
We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?