The Nature of Wisdom
By Charles Rush
June 25, 2006
I Kings 10: 1-2, 6-7, 23-25
the bible, the figure of Solomon is most often held up for us as the model of wisdom. He was born into the royal household in Israel, presumably given the best education that could be had at that time. He was vested with power at a very young age and became seasoned in the art of political diplomacy in his early 20’s. He also commanded a substantial army and was very good at warfare. Reportedly, he was a very handsome man, and had, it is said, one thousand wives. Tradition credits him with the erotic poem on the sensuality and love that is the Song of Solomon. Presumably, he was successful in the art of love. Reportedly, he traded in rare and beautiful gifts to his neighbors, so we can presume that he was able to develop good taste and had the means to surround himself with things precious and aesthetic.
also built the First Great
Temple in Jerusalem,
expanded the City Walls so that they encompassed, more or less, the area of the
city walls today, and put up a huge Royal complex that defined Jerusalem
as a leading capital city in the Ancient world
The story is
told about him that in mid-life, two women came to him with a dispute over a
baby, both claiming that the baby was theirs. After hearing the impassioned
pleas of both of the women, Solomon called for the baby to be cut in half, with
half of the child to be given to each
woman. At that moment, the real mother renounced her claim to the child and
offered to give the child whole to the other woman. It was a story that was
remembered about Solomon to illustrate his moral and psychological insight. He
was a very accomplished man. He was a model of success.
And yet, in his
mature years, in the book of Ecclesiastes, which is also traditionally
associated with him, the writer says over and over, after surveying the delight
of sensuality, the headiness of exercising power, the contentment of moral
integrity, and the beauty of precious gold, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
It is an arresting observation, coming from someone that has experienced so
much success in life, someone that has drunk so deeply from all the good things
that life has to offer.
observation of the vanity of all things precious need not end in cynicism or
despair, let me hasten to add. Last summer I had a short moment that was packed
densely with what Solomon was trying to describe poetically. It was the end of
the day, standing on the edge of a sheer cliff that fell several hundred feet
to the North sea in the
northern most part of Scotland. The wind
was blowing probably twenty miles an hour, cold wind. The waves crashing at the
base of the cliff were twenty, thirty feet high. I’d hiked a couple miles to
get to that point and there was no one around. It felt like staring out over
the end of the earth. I just stood there absorbing the energy of the wind, the
sea. The sun was going down in the west and the moon was coming up in the east.
It was a concentrated encounter with nature and I was so far away from home and
the space of literally just a long minute, I reflected on the age of our
universe, 15 billion years, the changes that had gone on around me to create
these seas and the cliffs. At the same time, I reflected on the civilizations
that had risen to power and ceased to exist in the past 5000 years, almost the
sum total of what we know about our own history. I thought about how even great
writers like Geoffery Chaucer only live on through
their work a few centuries, how even the greatest buildings only last a
millennia, how the vast majority of us have just a few short decades here.
filled with what Jean Paul Sartre used to call ‘the existential lonliness’ of human existence. I could suddenly
feel in my soul the fact that we are born alone, that we all make the journey
from life to death alone, even if we are surrounded in support, that even great
relationships come to an end and that nothing lasts forever. I could feel the
evanescence and transitory character of my life. Those moments drove Sartre to
despair because, he said, he had no faith in God. It is a moment of sadness but
it doesn’t have to be despairing.
And in that moment, I just wanted to really
know, why we are here? what
is the purpose of our life really? And I asked myself, “Are you
really living? It is a short ride, are you doing what you are
supposed to be doing?” It is so easy to get side tracked by our
anxieties or our desires. But it is a good question to raise
internally. Are we fulfilling our purpose? Are we authentic?
tried to share that with my wife later in the day. I think she was chopping
carrots, never looked up, after I finished the story. She said, ‘honey you
didn’t eat any of the mushrooms in the field going up to that point?’ And she
said, ‘honey, you are just getting older and you feel the passing of time
differently. It’s normal.’
is right. Aristotle said that you have to be a certain age before you can begin
the process of reflection on the world that leads to wisdom. He said, you have to have been a good citizen and been involved in
the life of community, building up programs for the next generation. You have
to have lived through war. You have to have engaged yourself honestly in
personal failure. You have to have developed certain disciplines in your life
so that you have some strength of character in some areas. You have to
understand the possibilities and the limits of human character. And then, he
said, there comes a time in your life. He thought it was around 50, when you
could retire, because a good life in ancient Athens only lived
to be 60. But at that age, he said, we ought to retire from running everything
and begin to think on things eternal. The culmination of that process of
putting the bigger picture together by thinking on things eternal is that we
become wise and can pass on that wisdom to the younger generation.
journey to wisdom, quite obviously, begins much earlier. Socrates used to say
that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ He meant that we should reflect
periodically on what we are doing and why we are here throughout our life.
all around the ancient Near East, you can find similar injunctions. Frequently
you see a carving on a pillar or a post in bas relief of a skull and cross
bones. Underneath this inscription is written, “know
thyself”. It meant know that you are only mortal. See your life in
terms of your death and make sure that you are living a meaningful life even
now. Make sure you are actualizing your mission statement and developing
those of us shaped by biblical faith, a large part of that is remembering who
we are. Elie Wiesel says
that you can sum up the Old Testament in one word, “Remember”.
That is why we come together every week, to remember who we are and where we
a powerful thing remembering can be. When I was in college, back packing around
Europe, I met another student, my age,
studying at Columbia university. We were in Germany at the
time and both of us visited one of the concentration camps still open after
World War II. He was very moved by the experience, though the both of us just
took that afternoon in without speaking. Later that night, he was still
pensive. I asked him what he was reflecting on. He was quiet for a long time
and then he said, “I realized that I am a Jew.” His name was something
like Weinstein, so I was thinking to myself, “you’re
just now figuring this out?” He was remembering.
parted ways… but I saw him again later that summer. It was a Friday afternoon
in Jerusalem, the
beginning of Shabbat. There were hundreds of people that were dancing their way
down to the Wailing Wall in the Old City to begin
their prayers, remember the Covenant that God made with them, and worship
together. I saw him in the midst of this throng of people and we spoke. He said
to me, “I’m staying. This is where I belong. I’m transferring. I’m coming
back to my home.” Again, I’m thinking, quit your future, move to this
overcrowded, over-taxed, militaristic hassle… interesting place to visit but…
Wow. But there was something beguiling about remembering who you are and really
knowing it and being able live it. That has spiritual power to change our
direction and set us off on a new path.
course, it doesn’t stay fixed. Life is a lot more complicated than that. I
haven’t heard from him in fifteen years. I wonder what he is doing now. I
wonder if a couple years ago, he didn’t wake up again and remember that he is
an American and he is getting the hell out of the nightmare that Israel has
Nothing stays fixed… Remembering is an active,
ongoing, adventure that takes us to new places we have never been before. St.
Augustine used to say that what we need to
do is to ‘think after God.’ In the bible, God has given us a
direction to think after. God who delivered slaves from oppression and bondage,
made a covenant with them, gave them the 10 commandments, established a
structure for living with spouse, relatives, neighbors near and far.
purpose that God has for our lives is not something simply abstract and
unknowable. It is also personal and intimate and it has been revealed to us.
The prophet Isaiah, speaking of the Messiah, said “And the Spirit of the Lord
shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding… and his delight
shall be in the fear of the Lord… and he has judge with righteousness for the
poor and decide for the meek of the earth.”
after God for Wisdom. Think after Jesus as well. The wonderful introduction to
the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with
God and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” St.
Augustine said, if you want to know what God wants for your life think after
the Christ, in whom we can see God’s will reflected for us in authentic
humanity. Wisdom is not simply abstract speculation; it is also -- indeed
primarily -- an intimate reflection on how to live well.
is interesting that the bible when you do this, you attain Sophia, Wisdom,
which is a feminine word. The word Sophia is sometimes used as a name for God
introducing a gender polarity into the divine being, a kind of ying and yang, that balances
somewhat the overwhelming male images for god in scripture. And there are other
times that Sophia, Wisdom, is used as a synonym for the Spirit filled life that
we can live through the Christ.
on the meaning of this is voluminous, I only here highlight the obvious, the
very important leadership of mature, wise women in our lives. Most of our
models for wisdom implicitly patterned after some mature, wise woman that we
is something about having not only lived through youth and young adulthood,
birthing and raising the next generation, nurturing, cajoling, and pushing them
out into independence, understanding the changes that take place in the
different stages of our living, getting a handle on how to negotiate
relationships, dealing with disappointment and tragedy, understanding the
vulnerability of making a huge investment in other people when it is not clear
that it will be worth it. There is something about starting to raise your
children’s children and understanding what actually lasts, what is important
about living, what people need to flourish… All of these are spiritual issues
and wise women know what makes for rich living. They have a special kind of
knowledge. They know what they know in here. They have lived it. And wisdom,
unlike simple knowledge has a lived quality to it, an intimate learning to it.
graduate school, we had to translate letters from kids in college writing back
home to Rome, young
adults writing back home from their first big positions in Egypt to their
parents in Rome. I was
struck by the pattern all these letters had. Regularly, they would ask Dad
about political life and what was going on in the Capital and then make a
subtle or not so subtle request for investment from the Bank of Dad. And to
Mom, they would pour out all the concerns of their heart- how to mend this
relationship they had botched up, how to compromise with their spouse without
giving in, all the daily issues, the concrete spiritual issues that give our
lives meaning. I asked my Latin professor about it and he said, “then as now.”
have always needed the leadership of mature women and one of the main reasons
that the Church is vital today is that we have had it. It is such a vital time
of life for growth and passing on to the next generation.
my wife heard I was preaching on Wisdom, she commented, “Dear, this
should be one of your shorter sermons…” And so it shall. Think and
reflect on the big picture. Find your place within it. Return your focus to why
you are here and what you are supposed to be about. Learn from the Elders. Pass
it on. Amen.
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