WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE WISE?
          A sermon preached by Simon Barrow of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland on 25 July, 1999.
                                               First published by the Church of the Annunciation, Brighton

(1 Kings 3. 5, 7 - 12; Romans 8.28 - 30; Matthew 13. 44 - 52.)

What I want to invite us to think about for a few minutes this morning is wisdom. Exactly one month ago today, on 25 June at around this time, I was sitting in front of my television set watching the funeral mass for a very wise person, Cardinal Basil Hume. I imagine a number of you were too. Occasions like this are immensely personal in the impact they have on us. So I guess that everyone who shared in that memorable event has taken away at least one moment which will remain with him or her. For me it wasn’t any of the sights or sounds, or even the words of tribute, moving though they were. It was this one phrase in the first reading chosen by the Cardinal from the Book of Wisdom:

"
For if human beings had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?" (Wisdom 13.9)

In a month where we are being continually reminded of the thirtieth anniversary of the first walking on the moon and of our technological ability to investigate not just the world but space itself, this question seems particularly appropriate. Is what we see and marvel at around us evidence for intelligence and purpose at the heart of the universe? Or does it simply amount to the imposition of our own fevered desire for order on the things we see? These are the kind of questions which have agitated theologians and philosophers of science for many years … but don’t worry, I’m not going to inflict them on you this morning!

Because what interests me about why we so often fail to discover "the Lord of these things" is not the notion that God is made evident to us by looking at the world — actually that seems to me a pretty dodgy assumption, since the world is a rather messy place. No, much more important, I’d suggest, is the idea that the writer of the Book of Wisdom also had that the way we human beings exercise power over the world (and one another) determines whether or not we are open to the possibilities of love, which people of faith call the purposes of God. Now maybe that idea also leaves you scratching your head at the moment, so let’s turn to the Scripture readings we’ve just heard and see if they might help us make a bit more sense of it.

First, if you go to any dictionary and look up the word ‘wisdom’ it’s certain that one name will spring out at you — that of Solomon, the subject of our Old Testament lesson. Even in a plural and relatively secular society, most people still know what you mean if you say that someone has ‘the Wisdom of Solomon.’ Or at least they think they do. It means, doesn’t it, that he or she is pretty smart, able to make thoughtful judgements and also (by implication) able to be recognised in such a way as to get those judgements acted upon.

Now this, of course, was precisely the inadequate understanding Solomon himself had. His recognition of his lack of experience and his desire to be a servant king may have been genuine enough. But his presumption that a discerning judgement for himself would be enough was dangerously short of the truth. Even so, God counted it a definite improvement on the usual requests for wealth and superiority (can I win the lottery please, and can my wretched neighbours have more weeds in their gardens than me!) and duly granted the request.

And that’s precisely where we usually stop the story. Oh sure, we remember that Solomon, the third king of Israel, justified his reputation for wisdom by making some pretty shrewd interventions in a few nasty personal disputes — like the one where two women were fighting over the ownership of a baby, and he deftly suggested sawing it in half in order to find out who really loved the child as a gift rather than a possession. But we forget that his dynastic rule was also fatally flawed. Under Solomon’s tutelage Israel remained wedded to a centralised monarchical model — "like the other nations" — that is, like the Canaanite city-states with their aristocracy, temple elite, bureaucracy, royal harem, large standing army, oppressive economic system and alliances with despotic superpowers. For political pundits and those who were wealthy this perhaps counted as the fruit of wisdom. But in the end it paved the way for Israel’s undoing. "Not by might, not by power but by my Spirit says the Lord," as the prophet reminds us.

So the first lesson about wisdom is that if we ask for it within the confines of the existing way in which the world is run (our tribe first, might is right, speculate to accumulate and so on) then we can expect to be confounded, because God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts not our thoughts. Which is why we rely on prayer — but that’s another sermon!

The issue here is that Solomon, devout and smart though he may have been, was trying to build an earthly kingdom on conventional top-down lines. But as St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Christians in Rome, the true image of the wisdom of God is Jesus Christ. And his form of ‘kingship’ is very different indeed. Instead of building an empire Christ calls a group of people who he names siblings, equals, and in whom he invests the task of demonstrating the practical love of God in even the most daunting of circumstances.

"God co-operates for good with all in whom love dwells" is one of J B Philip’s marvellous renditions of Romans 8.28. The point is not that everything is rosy for people who have faith in God. Far from it, those who follow Christ in rejecting the ways of over-bearing power are more likely than most to end up being crucified by its exponents. No, what Paul is saying (and what he says even more explicitly later in the same chapter of this Epistle), is that God’s love will not be overcome even by the power of death. It is this resurrection promise that we Christians are called to wager our lives on, not the false allure of privilege or prestige. This is decidedly Good News (though not necessarily easy news) for those of us who have little of either privilege or prestige. But it is threatening news for anyone who thinks that it is OK for human beings to lord it over each other, that it is wise to trust in the power of destruction, or that technical mastery of the world is the same as moral stature.

At the heart of the Christian Gospel, then, is a vulnerable wisdom which runs entirely counter to what we (and Solomon, it seems) routinely take to be wisdom, that is ‘common sense.’ Common sense says that the topdogs stay topdogs and the underdogs stay underdogs. That only violence can counter violence. That charity begins at home (by which we actually mean it ends there). That loving our neighbours is only realistic when we have created enough wealth by keeping their wages as low as possible. Jesus, on the other hand, insanely suggests that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, that it is the peacemakers who are blessed, that strangers and even enemies are to be treated as friends, and (in one parable) that those who turn up last to work should get as much income as those who barely turned up at all.

Now you might well ask what kind of impossible, topsy-turvy world it would be in which things like this actually happened. And the answer is the kingdom of God. That is, the world run along the lines of love rather than greed, divine wisdom instead of human might. Matthew, we should note, uses the term "kingdom of heaven." In the past this has enabled some Christians to rest comfortably in the belief that these rather terrifying reversals of fortune which Jesus talks about in his parables are reserved for a life with God beyond this one. But that is a misunderstanding. The term "kingdom of heaven" was the phrase employed by pious Jews who could not possibly countenance uttering the divine name in public speech. God’s name was far too holy for that. So they used the term ‘heaven’ (meaning where God dwells) instead. But the idea that God dwells only in remoteness would have generally been as foreign to them as it should be to us. And Jesus makes it quite plain that this kingdom of which he speaks begins here and now, even if its fulfilment cannot be fully realised within the world we presently inhabit. So, as that excellent Christian Aid poster puts it, "We Believe in Life before death" too.

But how is the God-given life, the ‘kingdom’, to come about? Well, says Jesus in Matthew 13, it is already here in our midst … but it will only come into fruition when we have the eyes to see it and when we have the courage to abandon other less worthy attachments. As Martin Luther King used to say, the crucial thing is "to keep your eyes on the prize", or as Matthew’s Jesus puts it, "seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s justice."

For this kingdom (or commonwealth, as we might appropriately say to distinguish it from Solomon’s version) is of inestimable worth. It is like an enormously expensive pearl or a pot of treasure — but on the other hand, it is completely unlike those things. That’s the whole point. You can’t quite describe it, but you know it when you come across it. Let those who have ears hear. It ‘s also, however, like a fishing dragnet which brings in all kinds of odds and ends, some of which turn out to be wholesome and others of which are necessarily destined for the scrap heap. (I should add that there’s another element of the Gospel which also talks about gathering things that are lost, so we should take Matthew’s bonfire of vanities as a severe warning rather than the last word.)

What Jesus offers us, then, in his talk about the kingdom of God, is an entirely different way of imagining, conceiving and seeing the world. One in which people, especially suffering people, are valued so much that we recognise them and all creation as being in the image of God. It’s in this vision that true wisdom lies, not way out there is space or in our impressive scientific capacity to manipulate the world as if it was a commodity rather than a mystery to be loved. And it’s also in this vision that a universe capable of reminding us of "the Lord of these things" (as possibly Solomon himself put it) begins to emerge, in spite of — or perhaps even in the face of — the baffling terrors which we see in the world and experience in our scarred daily lives.

Which brings us to one final point. Although this divine wisdom which Jesus embodies in his metaphor of the coming kingdom or commonwealth of God is rooted in the faith we have inherited, and therefore in the past, it is also (in the words of Matthew 13.35 last week) "hidden since the foundations of the world." That is, it is still to be discovered, and is therefore breathtakingly new. This is why Jesus reminds the scribes (those who passed on the wisdom of ‘the faith once delivered’) that "the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of the storeroom things both old and new." That’s an apt reminder to both traditionalists and innovators in the Church today that in some odd way — and for some of us it can seem very odd indeed! — we need each other. For insofar as the wisdom of the Christlike God is very radical indeed, we need to be remember that the word ‘radical’ means both thoroughly rooted and thoroughly open to change.


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Further links:

Simon Barrow - theology pages

Sermon: 'The world made strange'