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Wisdom: Thought for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Ephesians 5.15-20,  John 6.51-58, Psalm 111

Part of the first reading in today’s lectionary is the following:

1 Kings 3.3-14

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt-offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’  It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’

 

The price of wisdom is, as we know, above rubies Job 28:18 and even Bob Marley sang:

Don’t gain the world and lose your soul; wisdom is better than silver or gold.

 

But what is it, and how are we to get it? I use the word ‘get’ because the book of Proverbs does, and because it makes the process of acquiring wisdom sound like a lifelong search for buried treasure, which perhaps it is.

 

As I suspect the recommendation of early to bed, early to rise will not in itself make you wise, let us begin by agreeing with Clifford Stoll what wisdom is not.

Data is not information,
Information is not knowledge,
Knowledge is not understanding,
Understanding is not wisdom.

Data on its own is certainly not the answer, although the teacher Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ would disagree with me:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. And then there was his colleague Mr. M’Choakumchild: Orthography, etymology, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling… were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers… If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!

 

Rachel Carson said:

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow, and it was three wise men, not three know-alls, whom God sent to visit Jesus in the manger.

 

King Solomon knew the importance of wisdom, as well as knowledge of the law, in attempting to rule his people, and the difference between knowledge and wisdom is of more than academic interest, as Professor Sir Roy Calne pointed out in his ‘Creator’s Testament to Modern Man’:

God speaks: I have given you DNA programmed by evolution through millions of years…many of the secrets of nature are now revealed to you by your probing curiosity and rational analysis. This knowledge can be used for good or evil. The legend of the serpent who gave Eve the fruit of knowledge is a terrible warning…you will have many hard decisions to make but I have given you the ability to choose…I hope you become Homo Sapiens; the alternative is Homo Extinctus.

 
There is a very real danger that our thirst for knowledge may lead us after years of hard work to a wise conclusion already reached by God, and freely available to any onlooker who cares to observe: (‘Green Blackboards’ by Michel Quoist)

The school is up to date. Proudly the principal tells of all the improvements. The finest discovery, Lord, is the green blackboard. The scientists have studied long, they have made experiments. We now know that green is the ideal colour, that it doesn’t tire the eyes, that it is quieting and relaxing. It has occurred to me, Lord, that you didn’t wait so long to paint the trees and meadows green. ..thank you, Lord, for being the good Father who gives his children the joy of discovering by themselves the treasures of his intelligence and love. But keep us from believing that – by ourselves- we have invented anything at all.

 

Wisdom, in fact, has little to do with IQ. As Groucho Marx said:

A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.

 

You don’t even have to be human, as the following piece on dog wisdom by Anon. points out (cat lovers are free to substitute their own version):

If your dog were your teacher, you would learn stuff like…
Be loyal. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
Take naps and stretch before rising. Delight in the simple joys of a long walk.
When it’s in your best interest – practice obedience.
Tolerate cats – humans love that. Avoid biting, when a simple growl will do.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it, wherever that leads you.
In fact:
If you can start the day without caffeine;
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains;
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles;
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it;
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment;
If you can face the world without lies and deceit;
If you can relax without alcohol and sleep without drugs;
If you can honestly say you have no prejudice against anyone based on their creed, colour, or politics…
then, my friends, you are ALMOST as wise as your dog.

 

It was Cicero who pointed out the moral dimension: the function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil.

And for Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Little Prince’ the secret was very simple:

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

 

Seeing, even if through a glass darkly, to the essence of things, is an important part of wisdom, as we learn in C S Lewis’s ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader‘.

In our world, said Eustace, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas. Even in your world, my son [said Aslan], that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.

 

So how are we, then, to get wisdom? According to Proverbs again, it is easy enough to give the appearance of wisdom:

even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise:17:28 and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

 

But if only the real thing will do, Confucius, of course, had the answer:

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

 

It may be bitter, but as Proust said:

we don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.

 

And Herman Hesse added, in Siddhartha:

knowledge can be communicated, but wisdom cannot. A man can find it, he can live it, he can be filled and sustained by it, but he cannot utter or teach it.

 

Nevertheless, the hope of learning wisdom from others, whether a hermit in a cave in Tibet or, more likely, the man next door, is universal. Did you see the 1979 film, ‘Being There’, in which Peter Sellers played the part of Chance, the gardener or, as he was understood to say, Chauncey Gardiner? His simplistic responses (usually related to his gardening experience) to the most difficult questions are interpreted as pearls of wisdom. On the vagaries of the stock market:
first comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
On economics: In a garden, growth has its season…as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well in the garden.
By reflecting the forgotten truths of nature, Chance is hailed as a hero and introduced to the president who, impressed by his political analysis, quotes Chance as his guru and turns him into a national prophet.

 

Let’s leave the last word to Piet Hein‘Grooks’:

The road to wisdom? –
Well, it’s plain,
And simple to express:
Err and err and err again,
but less and less and less.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Both illustrations are taken from murals in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. They are by Robert Lewis Reid. The top one is of  Understanding, captioned  ‘Wisdom is the principal thing. Therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding‘ (Proverbs 4.7). The bottom on is Wisdom, annotated ‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers’.

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