What does it mean to be “wise”?
I have a priest friend who regularly sends emails that always address me as “O Wise One”. You can hear in that greeting just the tiniest bite of irony. Yet I think of him and his slight smirk whenever I hear the story of Solomon asking for an understanding mind. Hearing this story, I cannot help but think that Solomon manipulated God pretty well. Because Solomon asked for wisdom and not for long life or riches, God gave him all three. Solomon was not only wise but canny. He played the big guy. With good reason, the phrase, “the wisdom of Solomon”, is proverbial to this day.
Anyone who has read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will never forget the colloquy between Huck and the runaway slave Jim about this proverbial Solomonic wisdom. As they travel down the Mississippi on a raft, Huck and Jim get into an argument about the claim that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. Huck affirms it, but Jim is not so sure. He remembers the story of the two women who came to Solomon both claiming to be the mother of the same baby. Solomon solved the dilemma by ordering that the child be cut in half. The true mother, of course, objected to the plan, thereby proving her authenticity and gaining custody of the child. Perhaps she played Solomon the same way Solomon played God.
Nevertheless, Jim will have none of it. He says,
I don’t care what the widow says, he wasn’t no wise man neither. He had some of the dad-fetchetest ways I’ve ever seen. Do you know about the child he was going to chop in two? . . . What use is half a child? I wouldn’t give a darn for a million of ‘em.” [Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 14]
Huck is scandalized by Jim’s seeming inability to understand Solomon’s judgment. "But hang it, Jim, you've clean missed the point—blame it, you've missed it a thousand mile." But has Jim missed the point? To Jim, a runaway slave separated from his family, children are precious. Threatening to cut a child in two is about the stupidest thing he can imagine. If he could imagine such a thing, Solomon couldn’t have been all that wise.
We tend to think of “wisdom” as a depth of character that comes from a long or virtuous life. Jim seems to understand wisdom as an empathic ability to feel the joys and pains of others. The Bible seems to use the word “wisdom” in an entirely different sense. What’s with all these different meanings?
Let’s start with the conversation between Solomon and God. Over the past several weeks we have been reading the story of King David’s rule—his ascension to power, his sin regarding Uriah and Bathsheba, the revolt of his son Absolom against him. In today’s Old Testament reading, David has died and his son Solomon ascends the throne. Solomon shows himself to be a pretty canny politician by travelling around the country, offering sacrifice at all the local sanctuaries, a kind of Bronze Age campaign road trip. When God asks Solomon what he wants, Solomon is already smart enough to know not to ask for a long life or riches but for wisdom. God responds by praising the request and granting him all three.
The term used both by Solomon and God in this dialogue is chokmah, the Hebrew word for wisdom. There are two words used in the Bible that we translate into English as “wisdom”: one Hebrew, the other Greek. The Greek word is sophia—the root of our word “philosopher”-- and it comes to us from the world of Western philosophy. But the wisdom that Solomon and God are talking about is Near-Eastern pragmatic, not Western, philosophical wisdom. It is not sophia. It is Jewish wisdom, chokmah, and Jewish wisdom is a much more practical affair. Here is how one Old Testament scholar describes it:
The Hebrew word for wisdom (chokmah) carries no theoretical or abstract connotations; nor is it the equivalent of “thought” or “philosophy”. . . Chokmah is used often to denote technical skill, and in other contexts “experience or shrewdness” in practical and political affairs. [Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr., Israel’s Sacred Songs, p. 171]
Remember that Solomon has just become a king, and the first thing he’s done in his new role is make strategically important appearances at the holy places in his new realm. He doesn’t particularly want philosophical, reflective wisdom. What he wants is the skills to do his job, to run his country. So when Solomon asks for wisdom, and when God grants it to him, what they’re talking about is chokmah, practical shrewdness in managing human affairs. He wants to be able to navigate the rapids of human relationships, politics, and motivations. He wants to be able to hold his own in his dealings with other people.
In this as in so many other ways, the Bible and the faith made real in it are essentially pragmatic. The Bible is a book about God being known in the stuff of human life and relationships. It is not idealistic or particularly pious about how human beings behave. Again and again, God’s work gets done through the complex human matrix of double dealing, bad faith, and aggression. The miraculous aspect of biblical faith, if there is one, consists in God’s consistent ability to bring love out of hate, goodness out of evil, life out of death. Today, when people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, I know what they’re saying but I think they’ve got it exactly backwards. The Bible—and biblical faith—is religious but not particularly spiritual. It understands that there is a decorum to the relationship of people with God, but it is not at all Romantic about it. Solomon and God read each other like a couple of old men playing gin rummy. Each knows what the other is up to. But they find a way to go forward together because they’re not at all deluded about what’s really going on.
This morning we said, in Psalm 111, one of the most familiar sayings in scripture:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom [chokmah]; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding. [Psalm 111:10]
those who act accordingly have a good understanding. [Psalm 111:10]
From the Bible’s point of view, from Christianity’s point of view, real wisdom begins in an orientation toward God. Because wisdom is finally about relationship, it appropriately starts with a stance toward God. You cannot be wise relative to your fellow human beings if you are not first wise toward God. And you cannot get wise with God casually. Just as a human relationship takes care and nurture, so a relationship with God needs continual attention. That’s why people like me talk so much from pulpits like this urging coming to church. Sure, I want you here so that our numbers look good. But more than that, I want you here because this is a focused way for God to get your attention. I don’t doubt that you can meet God on the golf course. But I know that, on the golf course, you’re thinking more about your swing than about the Deity. And while that may be prayerful thinking—God help me not to slice or hook here!—in the moment the ball’s flight and not God are at the center of your attention. If you want a relationship with God you’ve got to plan to spend some time together. And the long experience of Christians, Jews, and Muslims is that regular corporate and individual prayer is the only reliable way to do that.
I think that the connection between wisdom and developing a relationship with God is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel this morning:
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." [John 6:51]
This “bread of life” discourse takes up several weeks of our Gospel readings this summer, and because it’s a complex passage there are many smart, ingenious, sophisticated things to be said about it. But in the terms we’ve been thinking in this morning, Jesus’s talk about the bread of life says something profound to each of us about where real wisdom—real chokmah, real skill in navigating the rapids of life—can be found.
Jesus is the bread of life. That is true both literally and figuratively. Jesus is the bread of life literally because the Eucharist, the bread and wine of thanksgiving, is the ongoing sustenance we need for the work of relating to each other and the world. If you want to get to know someone, have a meal with them. When we gather together to share the bread and wine of communion, we are dining not only with each other but with Jesus and God. Over the course of a lifetime, we become familiar with each other. Jesus is the bread of life literally because as we eat this bread we become more sensitive and attuned to what God is up to. We can read God just as Solomon could when he asked for wisdom.
And Jesus is the bread of life figuratively. Think about how he lived. He gathered people uncritically and generously around his table. He healed and taught, blessed and forgave. Living as Jesus lived—simply and courageously, with grace and compassion—this is real living as God intended it. Living as Jesus lived is finally what human life and human wisdom are all about. If you want to be wise in the Bible’s sense of that word, you don’t need to read more books or live to be 150. All you need to do is to come to church, say your prayers, and keep your eyes on Jesus. He is the bread of life, and the nourishment of this bread is real wisdom. And as Solomon knew, once you have that you really have everything else, as well. Amen.