There is a scene in the Gospels where 12-year old Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions.[i]And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious boy from Nazareth (which was a long ways from nowhere), and Jesus’ being sosmart. He dazzled them with his knowledge.
Something happens in the ensuing nearly 20 years, the “hidden years,” before Jesus begins his public ministry. When he emerges from his seclusion, he does great deeds of power, healing, and provision; however something else “astounds” the people. Astounds. They ask themselves, “Where did this man get all this?” And what are they talking about? It’s not just about Jesus’ powerful ministry; it’s not just about his knowledge. Jesus is now filled with wisdom. So we hear in today’s Gospel lesson: the crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”
In the New Testament epistles, Jesus is named “the wisdom of God.”[ii] Jesus is the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[iii] “Wisdom and knowledge,” which are cousins. Wisdom and knowledge are related, but they not one-in-the-same. Jesus was not born wise.
The English words “wisdom” and “vision” come from the same etymological root. 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, nor gleaned from an academic course or best-selling book. Wisdom is a gift from God, a gift that needs to be cultivated. I’ll name two practices to cultivate the gift of wisdom.
For one, it’s to live in the present. Not the “virtual present,” but the real present. Not to anesthetize ourselves; not to live in denial; not to live in the delusion that when something external is fixed, or completed, or inaugurated, or finished, all will be well. It’s not to presume the “geographic cure,” the great escape from whatever things are now that will make all things well. To live in the present is to presume God’s presence in the present with us now.
Now is the gift. Which is oftentimes so unideal. Whether it’s to do with people with whom we live and work, or the setting where we find ourselves, or family-or-origin stuff (ours and others’), or whether we are chosen, or whether it’s fair, or whether it’s about the weather, or the government, or if the soup is cold… so many things, so many things unideal about life. Living in the present is living on speaking terms with the life we’ve been handed. Not the life we could have had or maybe think we should have had, but the life we’ve been given, the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s being present to life, being really present to God’s real presence, now. This will cultivate wisdom. This is countercultural; however living life in the present will cultivate wisdom.
And secondly, it’s to not squander our mistakes. So much wisdom is gleaned from the redemption of what went bad in life. Deep down inside the black hole of failure, of wrong-doing (ours and others’), of disappointment, of grief and suffering… deep, deep down in that black hole is not emptiness but gold, which is waiting to be mined.
What was going on with Jesus during those 20 “hidden” years when he was growing up? We don’t know for sure. But his humanity must parallel our own, or he cannot be our Savior. I presume that Jesus was as lost as many of us were, and for long stretches of time. I presume that Jesus made as many mistakes as I have, as you have, in finding his way into life. I presume that Jesus was as much as clueless as you were, as I was, trying to find and claim his identity and destiny. Lots of bumbling. Some days, some years, I think he was an absolute mess. I remember in seminary, one of my professors saying to us 20 year-olds who were to become priests: “The problem with young priests is they haven’t lived long enough, to have sinned long enough, to have repented long enough, to have anything to say.” I don’t impugn sin upon Jesus, but I do presume plenty of mistakes and lots of confusion during Jesus’ hidden years. Jesus, as an adult, was no longer just knowledgeable. Jesus’ knowledge was now complemented by wisdom. Wisdom tempers knowledge with humility. Jesus was not intimidating; he was accessible.
From the early centuries in the Egyptian desert, Abbess Syncletica, a wise, holy woman, 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.” Out of the refiner’s fire of life comes wisdom. It’s a gift. Wisdom is cultivated over time, and is purified by the crucible of life. Wisdom is the real deal.
[ii]1 Corinthians 1:24.
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