Some people play music to set the mood. Some look at their mood rings for inspiration. Others adjust the lighting. I hear mod fabrics is even a thing. Some people use candles to set the perfect atmosphere. Me? I tell stories (all three of these stories I found in a Leland Gregory book).
2,300 years ago, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, looked up into the far reaches of the northern sky. There he saw the constellation Ursa Major. Ursa Major, of course, is, as anyone looking at the constellation can easily see, “the big bear,” even though it may appear at first, second and third, and maybe even fourth glance, in the form of a big dipper. In any case, Aristotle named the land mass under it, “the bear.” He then looked in the opposite direction; and since it was indeed the opposite, he named the land mass to the south, “opposite the bear.” So, next time someone asks you where we get the name “Arktos” (Greek for “bear”) or “Antarktikos” (Greek for “opposite the bear”), you tell them Aristotle came up with those names somewhere in the mid 300’s BC. And even though he had never been to the Artic or the Antarctic, he knew his stuff because while polar bear roam the Arctic, there are, sadly, no bears in the Antarctic. Now, there’s a lesson for you!
When Alexander the Great was a student of the philosopher Diogenes, Diogenes took his protégé on a hike. When they came to huge pile of human bones on the side of the street, Diogenes stopped and looked attentively at the bones. Indeed, he seemed to be studying them intently, looking first at this one and then at that one. Alexander finally interrupted his master and asked him what he was doing. Diogenes said, “I am searching for the bones of your father, but I cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.” Lesson taught!
A friend was telling Yogi Berra about a Steve McQueen movie he saw on Sunday night. Yogi responded: “He must have made that before he died.” No lesson learned or taught, but a fun story, nevertheless. In any case, a group of students asked Diogenes how he wished to be buried. Diogenes said that he wanted his body thrown outside the city walls so that wild animals could feast on his corpse. His students were shocked at his callousness. Wouldn’t you mind if we treated your body with such carelessness? Diogenes replied: “Not at all, as long as you provide me with a stick to chase the creatures away.” “But master,” his students interjected, “how could you use the stick since you would be dead and would lack awareness?” Diogenes responded: “If I lack awareness, then why should I care what happens to me when I am dead?” And lesson learned!
Jesus ends his Sermon on the Mount with these words (Mt. 7:24-27):
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
You can be excused if you stopped listening to Jesus about a half a verse into this paragraph and instead, started singing along (“The rains came down and the floods came up, and the house on the sand went splat!”). Honestly, you can’t grasp how much damage is done to the whole Sermon on the Mount when you replace the Jesus who gave these words with a singing cucumber or a talking tomato. In any case, here at the end of the sermon, Jesus addresses us as a wisdom teacher and calls for us to be wise. But that is not the first time we see that wisdom emphasis in the Sermon. In fact, it’s all over the place. Jewish Wisdom teachers loved to contrast two paths. Guess what? This sermon does, too. We have Pharisees vs. the followers of Jesus (5:17-20), hypocrites vs. followers of Jesus (6:1-18), good treasure vs. bad treasure (6:19-21), good eyes vs. bad eyes (6:22-23), God vs. mammon (6:24), and anxiety vs. seeking the kingdom (6:33). This idea continues in chapter 7. Here, we see Jesus issuing a series of warnings which pit one way against another (7:13-27). We have the broad vs. the narrow way, the good tree vs. the bad tree, and doing God’s will vs. not doing God’s will. Now, if that was the only trace of wisdom in the Sermon, we might just give it a cursory glance and move along. However, it is not. Old Testament wisdom rooted its teaching in human observations, things like salt losing its saltiness and towns situated on a hill not being easily hidden and people giving to be seen and vermin eating away at stored treasure. And then, we have the constant call to discern God’s will. In other words, if you were trying to figure out what type of literature the Sermon on the Mount is, you would not do so badly if you argued that it is a form of wisdom literature. Indeed, it is quite clear throughout the gospels that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s wisdom.
But somewhere along the line, we’ve lost interest in wisdom as a spiritual qualification and as an essential ingredient in our spiritual development. Think about it: how often have you been encouraged by your church to grow wise? My guess is not that many times. I fear when it comes to wisdom, we would rather be knowledgeable, smart, successful or rich. In fact, in our way of thinking, wisdom seems quaint and old fashioned. But wisdom is the critical component of our faith, a case Jesus sets before us in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as elsewhere. Why is this so important? Because wise people sound like their teacher.
But it is more than that. Kevin Vanhoozer, as well as many other scholars, see the Bible as a five-act script in which the fourth act is missing. Unfortunately for us, the fourth act is where we come on stage. We know where we’ve been (we have the script from Act One which revolves around eternity past, and we have the next two acts which we call the Old and New Testaments), and we know where we are going (Act 5 concerns our future hope, life in the new heavens and the new earth); but what we don’t have is Act 4 which concerns life today. And so, our job is to know Acts One, Two, Three and Five so well that we can improvise our role in today’s world faithfully. And good improvisation takes wisdom. See, it is not enough to argue, “Thou shalt not lie,” and apply it rigidly in every situation (I had a friend whose pastor prohibited him from practicing magic because magic was nothing but lying to one’s audience). I would argue that Jesus would not consider doing stage magic a violation of the “do not lie command.” And even though the command is quite clear that lying is a sin, I would also argue that if you lived in Holland in 1943 and a Nazi asked you if you were hiding Jews in your attic, and you were, in fact, hiding them, saying, “Absolutely not!” would not be a sin. And how about selling a used car without bringing up all of its issues? Is that lying? Here’s my point: it is not enough simply to follow the Bible’s commands rigidly. Instead, we have to look at each command and ask, how are we to live out that command today? And that takes wisdom. That is also why we don’t always greet one another with a holy kiss. We wisely look at the command, at its intent, at our surroundings, and at fifty other things and then wisely seek to follow the way of Jesus in our world in a way that is faithful and good and true to the Bible. How important is wisdom? If you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, it is everything.
But how do we grow wise? We read, we listen, we process, we absorb, and we internalize the words of Jesus and the Bible, not so we can follow them mechanically, but so we can live them out in our day in a wise and faithful way. And we wrestle and debate and grapple with the text so that we understand its purpose and intent. That’s wisdom.
But there are other things we can do to grow wise. Part of wisdom is living each day in the conscious awareness of God’s presence. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Living daily in light of the awe of God makes one wise. Thinking also makes one wise. We need to think deeply about what is wise, what is best, what is faithful and what is good so that we can live wisely in an age where foolishness abounds. Advancing Jesus’ kingdom causes also helps us grow wise. A little advancing done each day not only serves the cause of Christ out there in the world, but also in our own hearts. Before Jesus’ kingdom can come to earth with its full force, it has to come in us fully. Living a life of love also makes us wise. The more we live by Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbors and to love our enemies, the wiser we will become.
Jesus says to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Mt. 12:42): “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.” Jesus is the wisdom of God; and that means that if we want to be his disciples, we will need to follow him and grow wise. Scot McKnight sums up everything we have been saying wisely with these fine words: “A Christian is one who follows Jesus by devoting her or his One.Life to the kingdom of God, fired by Jesus’ own imagination, to a life of loving God and loving others, and to a society shaped by justice, especially for those who have been marginalized, to peace, and to a life devoted to acquiring wisdom.” If you would rather hear it from James, then please do. James writes (James 3:13, 17-18):
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
When Jesus says, “follow me,” this is what he means.
We started with three stories of great philosophers, so we ought to end with three quotes from a great philosopher. Here’s what I know, if Socrates can’t speak wisdom in your life, I certainly can’t! Socrates said:
- “By all means marry. If you get a good spouse, you’ll become happy, while if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.”
- “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
- “We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”
Let us strive to live better by seeking to become better by seeking to grow wise in Christ.