Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
In the Gospel according to Luke, there is a scene where Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”[i] Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious, 12-year old boy from Nazareth (which was a Podunk) and being so smart. There is a somewhat similar reaction after Jesus begins his public ministry. By this time, Jesus is about 30 years old, a relatively old man in first-century Palestine. Once more, people are astounded with him. Luke reports that people asked themselves aloud, “Where did this man get all this?” What are they talking about? Not just Jesus’ knowledge. Luke reports Jesus had grown, and become strong, and was now filled with wisdom.[ii] The crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?[iii] Evidence of Jesus’ wisdom is what we hear in this Gospel lesson appointed for today: “[Jesus] taught as one having authority.”[iv]
In the scriptures, wisdom is the gift extolled above all others for how to make meaning and how to navigate life. Wisdom is a deep knowledge, much deeper than simply information. We have today an information glut. As you well know, it’s possible to browse through a virtually-infinite stream of data with simply a click: an endless array of “horizontal information.” It’s possible to browse life only at the surface, none of which automatically translates into wisdom. Information alone may make us competent, or make us look smart; information alone may breed arrogance; information alone may overwhelm us; information alone may make us conversant in multiple platforms.[v] Information alone is not wisdom. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist, said that, “Wisdom is knowledge and the knowledge of its own limits.”[vi]
Wisdom is not gleaned from this “horizontal axis” but from the “vertical axis,” either from below or from above. Wisdom from above is the higher perspective on life, literally the gift of “oversight.” The psalmist prays, “Lift me to a place that is higher than I.”[vii] Or, to flip the metaphor, wisdom comes from below, from the ground of our being, out of pondering life deeply. The psalmist prays, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord.”[viii] Someone who is a “know-it-all” is probably not wise. For this reason, wisdom most often comes hand-in-hand with its cousin, which is humility. Humility, the word coming from the Latin humilis “lowly,” literally “on the ground,” “grounded,” from humus, “earth.” Wisdom is a humble “under-standing” about life. We read in the Epistle of James, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By their good life, let them show their works in the meekness of wisdom.”[ix]
The English words “wisdom” and “vision” come from the same etymological root.[x] Wisdom is a kind of deep seeing, an “insight” in life. Wisdom is not a skill, it does not form on demand, it is not a pill to swallow. Wisdom is a gift from God. Here are several practices that will help cultivate the ground of our being for the seed of wisdom to grow:
For one, wisdom takes time, time to be attentive to life. Incorporate times to stop, look, and remember, otherwise your life may only be a blur. Parker Palmer, the Quaker educator and theologian, says that how we receive and respond to the experience of our very active lives depends on whether we take time to make our experience transparent. Otherwise it will remain opaque. The soul is prone to black out or burn out, not when people are too busy, but when people are not reflective about how they’re feeling and what they’re perceiving about life.[xi] Wisdom takes time to glean a perspective. God has given you the time of your life. Look deeply at what is, lest you miss the meaning of your life. Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, said that “Life must be lived forwards, but it can be understood only backwards.” Take the time to live your lifetime reflectively. You’re worth it. And you will cultivate the seed of wisdom implanted in your soul.
Secondly, wisdom does not come from getting it right. More often, wisdom comes from the alchemy of getting it wrong. This is why wisdom and humility are so often coupled together. We are so prone to stumble in life. So much wisdom can be gleaned from remembering how we got it wrong, or how we are prone to get it wrong. You may well have some character flaws. Push one of your buttons, and you will, predictably, react, maybe react in a disproportional way. Or you may be prone to a blindness or deafness in some ways that only becomes apparent in retrospect. I certainly do. It’s so important to remember our breaks and our mistakes. And then, also, to remember that everyone else has their own version of not getting it right. When you witness someone else’s flaws, remember but by the grace of God, there go you. And then be helpful to them; at least don’t be hurtful.
In the early centuries of Christian monasticism, in the Egyptian desert, there is the story of a brother in Scete who committed a fault. The elders assembled, and sent for Abba Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The elders again sent the Abba a message, saying: “Come, the community of the brethren is waiting for you.” So he arose and started off. He took with him a very old basket full of holes. He filled the basket with sand, and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet him, and said: “What is this, Father?” Abba Moses replied: “My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today you have called me to judge the sins of another!” They, hearing this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him.[xii] The people who are truly wise and truly humble would, themselves, be the last people to know it, or claim it in themselves. Learning from our mistakes will cultivate wisdom and engender humility.
And thirdly, to cultivate wisdom is to remember that we are not God. Wisdom is seeing deeply, but there is a limit to our vision. We should not presume that we will be omniscient or omnipotent. We have very creaturely limitations. We ourselves are not the source of wisdom; we are the recipients of wisdom. Jesus, in the New Testament, is eventually called “the wisdom of God.”[xiii] Jesus is eventually called “[the one] in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[xiv] By clinging to Christ, we tap into this divine wisdom.[xv]
Wisdom is finding the Way. Wisdom is being able to figure out what really matters in life. Wisdom is getting the full picture. Jesus is the incarnation of wisdom. Jesus was recognized by both prelates and paupers to be so wise, and yet he lived and spoke the truth with such simplicity. “The Kingdom of God,” he would say, “well, it’s like a pearl; it’s like a treasure in a field ” He would say: “I’m like a vine and you are the branches…”[xvi] Jesus would say, “You know how happy an old woman would be if she found a coin she thought she had lost…? That’s just like you. I have found you. Welcome home.[xvii] Jesus said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is you’re as lost as sheep; the good news is I’m the shepherd; you don’t have to find yourself.”[xviii] Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, could have taught in many different ways, but we hear him, again and again, wide-eyed, going right to the core of the matter, speaking with wisdom’s profound simplicity.
Jesus was not born wise. All those years, between his appearance in the temple at age twelve and the beginning of his public ministry – that’s 18 years hidden years – Jesus was stumbling around by fits and starts learning about his identity, his weaknesses, his passion, his power, and his voice. Jesus bumbled as much as you and I have, I’m sure. In the end, and after many years, Jesus becomes wise.[xix] And he tells us, what is mine is yours. The seeds of wisdom are implanted within your own soul.
To cultivate wisdom you need not read another book, watch another Ted talk, visit another monastery, find a new therapist, earn another academic degree, travel to the ends of the earth. Be where you are. Pay attention to your life now. Expect God’s real presence in the present moment, in the best of times and in the worst of times. Compost your mistakes, which will make for rich soil in your soul. From the early centuries of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert, Abbess Syncletica, a wise woman of holy memory, said that “those who want to light a fire first are plagued by smoke, and the smoke drives them to tears, yet finally they get the fire they want.”[xx] Out of the refiner’s fire of life wisdom is burnished, if you desire it. Wisdom is a gift from God. Collaborate, co-operate with God to grow and refine the gift of wisdom in your own soul. The gift of wisdom is a treasure that awaits you.
[i] Luke 2:46-47.
[ii] Luke 2:40.
[iii] Mark 6:2.See also Matthew 13:54; Luke 2:40, 52; Luke 21:15.
[iv] Mark 1:22.
[v] “All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
[vi]Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997), Austrian psychiatrist, in The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1975), p. 142.
[vii] Psalm 61:2.
[viii] Psalm 130:1.
[ix] James 3:13.
[x] The English word “vision” comes from the Old English witan “to know;” Gothic weitan “to see.”
[xi] “Action and Insight; An Interview with Parker Palmer,” published in The Christian Century, March 22-29, 1995; pp. 326-329.
[xii] The Wisdom of the Desert, trans. by Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Book, 1970), p. 40.
[xiii] I Corinthians 1:24.
[xiv] Colossians 2:3.
[xv] In the Scriptures, intimacy with wisdom, wisdom herself, is not distinguished from intimacy with God.
[xvi] John 15:4-5.
[xvii] Luke 15:8-9.
[xviii] Luke 15:3-6.
[xix] Jesus would have known the writings of the Wisdom of Solomon (6:12-14) which says: “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.”
[xx] Merton, p. 55.
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