The Use of Wisdom

This is the message that I gave on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 17 September 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for that Sunday were Proverbs 1: 20 – 33, James 3: 1 – 12, and Mark 8: 27 – 38.


Wisdom is perhaps one of the most important concepts for an understanding of what the New Testament says about Jesus. It is central for two reasons. First, Jesus was a teacher of wisdom. Second, the New Testament presents Jesus as the embodiment or incarnation of divine wisdom.

The subject matter of wisdom is a broad one. Basically, wisdom concerns how to live. It speaks of the nature of reality and how to live one’s life in accord with reality. Central to understanding wisdom is the notion of a way or a path, indeed two paths: the wise way and the foolish way.

There are two types of wisdom and two types of sages or teachers of wisdom. The most common type of wisdom is conventional wisdom and its teachers are conventional. This wisdom is traditional and mainstream, “what everybody knows”. Such wisdom represents the culture one lives in and that culture’s understanding of what is real and how to live.

Conventional wisdom provides guidance about how we should live. It goes without saying that we may agree with James about the need to keep our tongue under control. Two weeks ago, we read from James that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. Our wisdom will come not from what we say or do not say but from what we do.

The book of Proverbs is also a source of conventional wisdom. The words of Proverbs offer an insight into the values of a culture, what is worthwhile and its images of a good life. The inclusion of Proverbs in the Bible was to show how people lived and how they learned. Ordinary people did not learn the life they lived through study but rather through growing up in a culture. That is something that still occurs today.

In Proverbs 1: 22 – 27 Wisdom addresses the simple ones. These are young people who have not yet made up their minds about life or the direction they will take. Wisdom ridicules those who reject her when they come to face the inevitable judgement of their foolishness. Yet wisdom laughs with joy at God’s work and has delight in the people of God.

When fools despise wisdom, they must face the results of their choice. Their hatred of wisdom arises out of a refusal to fear God. Verses 31 and 32 of this passage pick up the theme from the previous section that the study of wisdom is a matter of life and death. Rejecting wisdom will ultimately cause one’s destruction. But this passage does not end dismally; rather, it ends with a promise of life for those who will listen. In wisdom and knowledge of God, will people find safety and ease.

But, as the conclusion of the passage from the reading for today points out, conventional wisdom is intrinsically based upon the dynamic of rewards and punishment. You reap what you sow; follow this way and everything will go well. We find this true not only in our religion but our secular work as well. If you work hard you will succeed. Unfortunately, the corollary to this wisdom is also true; that is, if you don’t succeed or are not blessed or do not prosper, it is because you have not followed the right path. In conventional wisdom, life is a matter of requirement and reward, failure and punishment.

Whether in religious or secular form, conventional wisdom creates the world in which we live. It is life that can be and often is grim. It is a life of bondage to the dominant culture; it is a life of limited vision and blindness. It is a world of judgment; I judge others and myself by how well they and I measure up.

There is an image of God that goes with this conventional wisdom. God is seen primarily as a lawgiver and judge. God may be spoken of in other ways but the bottom line is that God is seen as both the source and enforcer. God becomes the one whom we must satisfy, the one whose requirements must be met.

In the conventional wisdom view of Christianity, Christianity is seen as a life of requirements. Another consequence to seeing Christianity in conventional terms is that we begin to divide the world up into two groups, those who have faith and those who don’t. Today, many people see Christianity in terms of requirements (whether of belief or behavior, or most times, both) and of rewards, typically in “the next world” and sometimes in this world as well.

The second type of wisdom is a subversive and alternative wisdom. This wisdom questions and undermines conventional wisdom and speaks of another path, another way. This wisdom speaks of a road “less traveled.” This was the type of wisdom that Jesus offered to people. His road was “a narrow way” that lead to life and subverted the “broad way” that, though traveled by many, was one that lead to destruction.

In the second part of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus offers us an example of that type of alternative wisdom. One cannot make it to heaven by holding on to everything that is part of this world. Peter’s response to Jesus predicting His death, as Jesus pointed out, was a response based on conventional wisdom. Though his response was well intended and was based on fear and concerned, it did not take into consideration God’s purpose or plan. Because he did not understand what the plan was, Peter’s reaction was to rebuke Jesus. Because the Pharisees and scribes did not understand what Jesus’ mission was and what God’s plan was, they began to plan His death.

The image of God that Jesus presented is not one of a lawgiver or judge enforcing the life of requirements but rather that of a loving, gracious, compassionate God. When Jesus spoke of the last judgement, it was to subvert the widely accepted notions about that judgment. Many times what Jesus said about the last judgement was going to be a great deal different from what conventional wisdom said it would be.

Keep in mind that Jesus does eliminate the call for a final judgement. Much like the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus pointed out that blindness to the ills of society will have its consequences.

Most recently, I have been reading a book called “The Four Witnesses.” The author has tried to look at whom the writers were and what story each of them was attempting to tell. Central to this story was the question that was in the first part of the Gospel reading for today, “Who do you say that I am?” Each of the Gospel writers challenges us to see Jesus in a new way, to have a new understanding of who Jesus was and what He was about. But they do not show us what we should know, which might be thought of as conventional wisdom, but rather how to know it for ourselves, the alternative wisdom.

The wisdom that Jesus taught, the path that He shows for us is first an invitation to see God as loving and gracious rather than as a source and enforcer of requirements. It is also a way that leads away from the life of conventional wisdom to one more centered in God. The alternative wisdom of Jesus sees religious life as a deepening relationship with the Spirit of God, not as a life of requirements and rewards.

This alternative path also challenges the way we see religion and Christianity. To follow the alternative path that Jesus shows takes us from a “secondhand religion” of conventional wisdom to a “firsthand religion.” A secondhand religion consists of thinking that Christian life is about believing what the Bible says or what the doctrines of the church say. A firsthand religion consists of a relationship with what the Bible and the teachings of the church point — that reality that we call God or the Spirit of God.

It can be difficult to follow this way, this narrow path. It certainly must have felt that way to those who heard Jesus speak of giving up everything in order to gain everything. Conventional wisdom would say to hold on to everything you have and seek more. But such an approach to life is very difficult; think of all the people you know who seemingly have everything and yet long for something more.

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