5 Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth. 6 Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. 7 The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight. 8 Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. 9 She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”
31 “To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; 34 the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
Today is mother’s day. We recognize and thank all the mothers among us, and also those who care for and nurture us in a mothering sort of way, including aunts, grandmothers, step-mothers, mothers-in-law, big sisters, teachers, mentors, female role models, and all strong and loving women who contribute so much to the fabric of our society.
I’m reminded of the story of a man who was walking along the California beach one day, deep in thought, pondering all the women who had been influential in his life, and in particular his mother who lived in Hawaii. All of a sudden he said out loud, “Lord, grant me just one wish.”
Suddenly the sky clouded above his head and in a booming voice the Lord said, “Because you have tried to be faithful to me in all ways, I will grant you one wish.” The man said, “Build me a bridge to Hawaii, so I can drive over anytime I want to and visit my mother.” The Lord said, “Your request is very materialistic. Think of the logistics of that kind of undertaking. The supports required to reach the bottom of the Pacific Ocean…the concrete and steel it would take! I can do it, but it is hard for me to justify your desire for such worldly things. Take a little more time and think of another wish, a wish you think would honor and glorify me.”
The man thought about it for a long time. Finally he said, “Lord, if I cannot drive to Hawaii and visit my mother, then grant me this wish: Help me to understand the mind of all women–my mother, my wife, my daughters. I want to know how they feel inside, what they are thinking when they give me the silent treatment, why they cry, what they mean when they say “nothing” and how I can make a woman truly happy.”
There was silence. After a few minutes God said, “So…you want two lanes or four on that bridge to Hawaii?”
For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about our church’s new vision statement: To be a church for Wanderers, Wonderers, and Seekers of Wisdom. Two weeks ago, I talked about what it means to be a spiritual wanderer, to be on a journey that sometimes leads us on different paths through different faith traditions and divergent beliefs. Last week, Dr. Craig Field spoke about those who wonder and question, and his own journey of faith through doubt. This week, we conclude the series by talking about the pursuit of wisdom.
I think this is a highly appropriate message for Mother’s day–for many of us, the earliest source of wisdom in our lives came from our mothers, who said wise things like, “How do you know you won’t like it if you’ve never tried it?” or “If you fall out of that tree and break both of your legs, don’t come running to me!”
In the Bible, and especially in the Book of Proverbs, the virtue of wisdom is almost always personified as a female. “Prize her highly, and she will exalt you,” says the author of Proverbs 4. “She (wisdom) will honor you if you embrace her.”
The pursuit of wisdom was important in ancient Israel, and in many ancient Middle Eastern cultures–so much so that it almost takes on the form of a religion itself, with sacred texts and temples dedicated to Wisdom, priests and practitioners like the Magi (or wise men) who visit the baby Jesus in the gospel of Luke, and at the center of it all, the goddess, חכמה (hokmah) in Hebrew, or σοφία (sophia) in Greek. Both are feminine words in their respective languages, and both are translated into English as the word Wisdom.
Eventually the people of ancient Israel embraced monotheism, the belief in one God alone. But there are still traces in our Bible of an earlier time when Wisdom was worshiped as a companion deity alongside Yahweh. Proverbs 8 describes Wisdom (again in female form) as being present with God in the very beginning, sharing and participating as a “master worker” in the creation of earth.
In the Hebrew Bible (what we sometimes call the Old Testament), the books that are part of this wisdom tradition include the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Job, and the Book of Ecclesiastes. Some of the Psalms also have characteristics of wisdom literature.
In the New Testament, the wisdom tradition shows up in many of the parables of Jesus, which are riddles and extended metaphors designed to teach, not in a didactic question-and-answer sort of way, but in a more mystical and imaginative way, subject to interpretation or sometimes left unexplained altogether.
The other book of the New Testament associated with the wisdom tradition is, interestingly, the letter from James, who tradition holds was the earthly brother of Jesus and the earliest leader of the Christian church after the death of Jesus.
So. What then, is so significant about Wisdom, that First Presbyterian Church has decided to single it out as part of our vision statement, a core part of our identity, and our chief pursuit?
For one thing, it represents a shift in a new direction, a new emphasis compared to the Christianity of the past few centuries. The pursuit of Wisdom has always been a thread running through our scripture and our faith, but since the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, the church (like much of Western culture) has tended to place greater emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge, or answers. This makes a lot of sense–we’re living in an age dominated by the rise of the science, data and the scientific method.
No disrespect to any of these things–they certainly have their place, and we have benefited from the knowledge and answers that science has uncovered. Science is great at providing knowledge–facts and details–but it often struggles to answer the question of what we should do with these facts and details. That’s where wisdom comes in.
Knowledge tells us that it’s 80 degrees outside. Wisdom tells us to put on sunscreen.
Knowledge tells us that the road we are about to cross is a one way street. Wisdom tells us we should still look both ways before crossing it.
Knowledge tells us that the tomato is classified as a fruit. Wisdom tells us not to put it in a fruit salad.
Knowledge tells me that I could actually make a strong case that the tomato is really not a fruit. Wisdom tells me that going down that path would derail my entire sermon and not be a good idea.
Knowledge is the domain of science, research, and academia. Wisdom is the domain of poetry, philosophy, and religion.
And yet, too often in the past centuries, religion has emphasized–and claimed to possess–sure and certain factual knowledge of some pretty far reaching things, like the nature of God and what happens when we die, the correct way to interpret the bible and whom we should vote for, whom we should love and hate, the definition of marriage and when life begins (or how it should end), the path to salvation, or happiness, or just wealth and prosperity.
I think it’s time we got back to the business of asking all the right questions, rather than trying to have and provide all the right answers. It’s time we got back to seeking wisdom, not at the expense or rejection of knowledge, but as a higher, more comprehensive calling–one that embraces knowledge but accepts its limits. One that embraces mystery, wonder, and doubt, that weaves together our curiosity, our ability, and our humility.
Jesus, in today’s passage from Luke, compares his generation to those who have heard the sound of the flute (that’s knowledge) but would not dance (wisdom). Those who heard the children wailing (knowledge) but were not moved in sympathy to weep with them (wisdom). Worse yet, they criticize John the Baptist for not eating bread and wine, then they turn around and criticize Jesus for eating and drinking too much. In both cases, the people have knowledge of what the teacher is doing and saying, but do absolutely nothing with what they know, what they hear and see.
This is an important aspect of wisdom: Knowledge fills us and resides within us, but true wisdom transforms us. And it has the power to transform our families, our communities, and our entire world.
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said that wisdom begins in wonder, or doubt–questioning what we think we know.
I believe that, in turn, that kind of wondering begins when we wander off the beaten path, when we wander away from the familiar and the routine, when we see and explore new things, new places, new relationships.
So ultimately, our new vision statement here at First Presbyterian Church is also a path in itself: Wandering leads to wondering. Wondering leads to wisdom. And wisdom (more than all doctrine or dogma, more than all the knowledge or answers in the world) transforms us and leads us closer to the heart and mind of God, to the love and embrace of God’s children–our fellow wanderers, wonderers, and seekers of wisdom.
People of First Presbyterian Church: May we always seek her. May we always embrace her. May we, her children, be the vindication Jesus spoke of, the realization and the tangible evidence of Mother Wisdom in this wide and wonderful world.