Sunday, August 19, 2012

Deep Wisdom

The lectionary texts include Proverbs 9:1-6: Psalm 111; Ephesians 5:15-20 and John 6:51-58.

Ever so often the people who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary, apparently accidentally, put together 4 readings that are about the same thing. Today is just such a rare moment and it makes my task a whole lot easier. The subject is wisdom, something rare, both in the past as well as in the present.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines wisdom as "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment." That's a very good summary. Wisdom is not merely knowledge. You can have a lot of knowledge and not know what to do with it. We've seen it when companies hire MBAs right out of college to manage people who have worked for decades in the industry and have practical experience that theory can't teach you. A few years ago, when an oil company was doing a review after a refinery fire, they discovered that nobody at the refinery in question had worked there any longer than 5 years and that included the management!

Wisdom is not merely experience, either. You can have experience and not draw the right lessons from it. After the Great Depression of the early 20th century, Congress examined the causes and passed the Banking Act of 1933, popularly called the Glass-Steagall Act, that, among other things, separated commercial banks and securities firms. Then, in 1999, those provisions were repealed by Congress. And in less than 10 years we had a Great Recession, due in large part to banks creating and selling securities so risky that several clever firms bet on them failing. As George Santayana said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  

The key component to wisdom is using good judgment to critically evaluate and then act on what knowledge and experience yield. Knowledge and experience will tell you what has been done and what can be done; wisdom tells you whether it should be done at all, and if so, how to do it so as to produce the maximum good with the minimum amount of bad side effects. Knowledge and experience will tell you what the price of something should be; wisdom tells you whether it is worth the cost to you and others. Knowledge and experience will tell you what most people value; wisdom tells you what should be valued.

In Psalm 111, we are told that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. A lot of people today do not like that idea. Why should we fear God at all? First of all, the word used in Hebrew has the idea of reverence in it. It is not "fear" in the sense of "dread" or "irrational phobia." It means something more like a healthy respect. In this sense you could say a fear or a healthy respect for the sea is the beginning of good seamanship. Those who go out on the water with too casual or neglectful an attitude towards the sea will usually come to a bad end. A healthy respect for God and his principles will similarly benefit a person, as opposed to someone who is so arrogant as to assume he always knows best and who has no respect for the rules. My wife and I have noticed that the most arrogant chefs on the cooking competition show "Chopped" are inevitably the ones who lose. They are the ones who defend their poor decisions or bad-tasting dishes before the judges. God also condemns arrogance. In Proverbs 8:13 we see it as the opposite of the fear of the Lord.

Humility towards God and deference to his principles is the start of being wise. Why? Well, for one thing, he created us and the universe. He knows how it works and how we work and what's best for us. If you read the biographies of great men who came to tragic ends you realize that they could not be better parables for the fruits of the sins the Bible deplores: arrogance, lust, greed, rage, overindulgence, deceit, betrayal, and folly. Even if these things account for their rise in the world, they also carry the seeds of their downfall. Hitler's arrogance may have fueled his rise from head of one of many fringe political groups in post-World-War-1 Germany but it also led to his military blunders which lost him a war which many historians say his generals could have won. The inability to control one's appetites, desires, emotions or mouth has spelled the fall of people both great and small. Wisdom teaches us the importance of following God's laws, his principles for living in this world of cause and effect, of short-term actions with long-term consequences. People who ignore the law of God seldom fare better than those who ignore the law of gravity.

This doesn't mean that in every instance following God's ways will bring you wealth, comfort and acclaim. When you are moving against a general rush to be the first to jump off a cliff, you will be bruised and battered. Jeremiah was. So was Elijah. To which we can add John the Baptist, Stephen, Paul and, of course, Jesus himself. The wise person follows God even when there are few social and material rewards for doing so. Because he knows that, whatever the temporal penalties, the eternal, spiritual and moral benefits are greater.   

There are worldly parallels. Nouriel Roubini was one of just a handful of financial analysts who said the housing bubble of the early 2000s was going to come crashing down and take the economy with it. Roubini was usually brought on financial talk shows to provide them with some novelty and as an object of ridicule. They called him Dr. Doom. That had to be hard on the Yale economist. And then everything he predicted happened. But while vindicated, I'll bet he wishes that the people who could have made the right changes had listened to him before everything came tumbling down.

Giving warning to those who are heading for disaster is actually a Biblical duty. In Ezekiel 33, God uses the metaphor of the watchman, whose duty it is to blow a trumpet to warn the people against an approaching army. If he fails to warn them, though the people are killed by the army, God says he will hold the watchman responsible for their deaths. Then God tells Ezekiel "I have made you a watchman…When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you must certainly die,' and you do not warn the wicked about his behavior, the wicked man will die for his iniquity but I will hold you accountable for his death. But if you warn the wicked man to change his behavior, and he refuses to change, he will die for his iniquity but you will have saved your own life." That puts Ezekiel on the spot. And us as well.

Before I let inmates speak to me I warn them that I am legally bound to report any confessions of a crime, whether past or planned for the future. I am also bound, as a nurse, as clergy, and as a decent human being, to report any suicidal talk. Contrary to popular thought, people usually talk about harming themselves before they do it and so all such talk has to be taken seriously. It turns out they often talk about harming others before they do that as well. So if a disgruntled coworker or classmate talks about shooting up your workplace or school, don't dismiss it, especially if he is also very knowledgeable about weapons.

But the mandate in Ezekiel makes us uncomfortable. We all know people who are engaging in risky behaviors health-wise, like drinking too much or eating too much or smoking. And we are often quiet about those because we are afraid of their reaction if we nag them about such behaviors. Does this mean we also have to bring up the things they do that negatively affect their spiritual health, like their sexual promiscuity, their unforgiving attitude towards their relatives, or their habit of talking about everyone behind their back?

I don't recommend standing outside their house with multi-colored Westboro Baptist-like signs denouncing them. But if you know the person well-enough to talk to them about personal things, and if you are alone with them and if it seems appropriate, like they have just had a major problem with their behavior, and are looking remorseful or reflective, you could ask if they want to talk about anything. And if you were willing to listen to them and really hear them out, and share a little about you facing a similar problem, they might be open to some friendly advice. But only if it's truly done in the spirit of friendship and not from a holier-than-thou position. And if they respond positively, you have saved your friend as surely as if you had convinced them not to drive drunk.

But you won't get far if you are being hypocritical. Jesus paints the satirical image of a person trying to get a splinter out of his neighbor's eye while walking around with a log in his own. His point: fix yourself before you presume to fix others. And a lot of Biblical wisdom is about that--about how the individual should conduct himself morally. It's about controlling your tongue and your behavior. It's about being honest and faithful and generous and hard-working and chaste. It's about not starting arguments or being violent or lying or getting drunk or being lazy or hanging around with bad people. Much of it is basic. But then so is much of sin and folly. Outside of movies, evil masterminds are rare. The insidiousness of evil is that it is often banal.

There are more subtle insights in the Bible's wisdom literature. The Book of Proverbs offers some tidbits. Like the fact that the righteous care about the welfare of their animals. That the naïve believe everything while the wise consider each step they take. That hard work brings a profit but not mere talk. That fools are often both arrogant and careless. That wise words heal. That it is better to have only a little but have a healthy respect for the Lord rather than have a lot of wealth with needless turmoil thrown in.

The closest the New Testament has to wisdom literature is the Book of James. It is full of pithy sayings and common sense. Such as we must be doers of the word of God and not just hearers who deceive themselves that they are doing God's will. Such as the fact that faith that does not result in good works is dead. Such as the fact that the church should not treat the rich differently than they do the poor. Such as comparing the tongue to a flame that can get out of control and burn down a forest.

There is another kind of wisdom in the Bible and that is the profound kind we see in our passage from John. This is not the "a prudent person behaves this way" sort of wisdom. This is about pulling back the veil and getting a glimpse of how God saves us.

The last few Sundays we've been reading about the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000. The people are ready to make Jesus their king, the conventional understanding of the Messiah. Jesus doesn't want people following him for mundane reasons like he makes a great fish sandwich. He wants them to realize that what they really need him for is their spiritual life. And so he tells them that in the most graphic manner possible.

John's gospel is known for not showing certain key events in Jesus' life. As the last to write a canonical gospel, perhaps he figured he didn't need to rehash what the others covered. And while he tells us of events immediately before and after the Last Supper, he doesn't have the words of institution. But that doesn't mean the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is missing. Here we get a fuller explanation of what Jesus meant when he said "This is my body" and "This is my blood."

How does the death of the Jesus give us eternal life? We are speaking of God and things that are really beyond our ability to totally comprehend. And so, just as we do when explaining relativity or quantum physics, we use metaphors. Usually we use legal metaphors to explain how Jesus took the death penalty for us. But, taken too far, the metaphor breaks down and it sounds like God is trying to save us by pulling a sneaky legal trick that requires the death of his son.

But the connection between Jesus' torn body and shed blood and our life in him is more essential than that. Life requires food and drink. That's the metaphor Jesus uses here. "If you're going to live my life, eternal life, you need me. You need me like you need food and drink." And Jesus doesn't pretty it up. He's going to die in a particularly gory way. It's a necessary part of the process, the way a heart donor must die and be cut open and have his heart removed for someone else to live. And Jesus must get into us, as a transplanted heart must get into the recipient. But for that time and place, the idea of eating a sacrifice, the Passover lamb, whose blood must be shed to save others from death, whose body nourishes those freed by God, was more accessible to his audience. And they still didn't get it.

Throughout the Bible, we get metaphors for what God is to us--Father, Shepherd, Husband, etc. All of them capture some part of the essence of that relationship. This picture of Jesus' flesh as our food and his blood as our drink is the most disturbing one but it is absolutely vital. Food is not optional. The fact that all food was once living, either plant or animal, is inescapable. But that is how vital God to us. If we do not feed on him, regularly, our spirits will weaken, sicken and eventually die. The world is hungering for what God offers in Jesus Christ. And yet, most people would rather do without. We like our spiritual junk food that fills us and yet leaves us empty of true nutrition. Or we are like anorexics, starving for the Bread of Life, but loathe to allow more than a few crumbs of God into us.

Worldly wisdom says, "What you see is what you get." A piece of bread is just ground, baked grain. Wine is just fermented juice of the grape. It's just matter and it doesn't really matter in the long run. True wisdom doesn't stop at appearances. It knows the difference between the form of something and how it functions in our intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual lives. God's wisdom knows that reality has layers and meanings that don't show up on an electron microscope or in a chemical analysis. If we have a healthy respect for God, for his living Word and his Wisdom Incarnate, if we open up and take him into our life, if we draw our spiritual sustenance from his life, we will be able to see that which is not apparent to the eye but which is now written in our hearts and we will live our lives according to his deep wisdom.

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