Opening the Word: Passion and wisdom

The word “passion” is fascinating, for it can refer to emotions and impulses of many different types. For example, having “a passion for life” or “for learning” indicates an enthusiasm that is admirable, as long as it is rightly perceived and pursued. It draws upon the fact, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, that the “most fundamental passion is love, aroused by the attraction of the good. Love causes a desire for the absent good and the hope of obtaining it; this movement finds completion in the pleasure and joy of the good possessed” (No. 1765). Yet the Catechism further explains, “In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will” (No. 1767). When our unchecked passions go contrary to reason, the result is sin.  

St. James wrote with a poetic bluntness about the grave danger posed by passions severed from sound reason and wisdom. “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” he asked. His answer: “Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” His first-century readers were Jewish Christians facing tension and conflict within the Church, as seen in his exhortation to not show partiality to the wealthy over those who are poor (2:1-13). They also lived in a time of tremendous political and social turmoil, which eventually erupted into the catastrophic war of A.D. 66-70, in which Jerusalem and the Temple were conquered by the Romans. His words — “you fight and wage war” — indicate that some Christians were being tempted to use violence as a means of responding to such difficulties. James exhorts them to instead pursue peace, righteousness and wisdom. 

The Epistle of James, in fact, bears many similarities to Old Testament Wisdom literature, such as the Book of Wisdom, from which comes today’s first reading. The second chapter of Wisdom focuses on the words (1:16-2:9) and deeds (2:10-2:20) of the ungodly, or wicked. Having given in to sinful passions, the wicked are not content to let the “just one” — that is, the holy follower of God — go about his business in peace. Instead, they are drawn to destruction, for their passions, whether good or evil, are oriented to some end beyond themselves. “Let us beset the just one,” they say, “because he is obnoxious to us … ” He angers them because his words and deeds are a direct renunciation of their sinful deeds. 

Their logic, at it were, takes on a perverse twist: “For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him and deliver him. …” The Church Fathers often interpreted that passage, quite understandably, as a messianic prophecy, referring to the Just One, Jesus Christ, who would be reviled, tested, tortured and then condemned to a shameful death. In today’s Gospel, Jesus spoke once again of his passion: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him … ” The plan and logic of his passion did not conform or come from the wisdom of men. Rather, it came from the radical, supernatural love of Wisdom Incarnate. 

The disciples struggled to comprehend; worse, they gave into the same prideful skirmishes that James would later address, arguing over who was “the greatest” — as if true greatness was found in power. The Passion of Wisdom Incarnate, Jesus Christ, is the only true and lasting antidote to our often unruly passions. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of