All of the readings for today concern wisdom, either its nature or its acquisition. Wisdom is a significant theme within the canons; it is the name of a genre with several books in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, and a major part of the tradition inherited by both Jews and Christians. A visual representation of wisdom and its six gifts appears here in the cathedral on a stained glass window in the bridge to the old synod building. The readings from 1 Kings and John approach wisdom through narrative, while the Psalm and Ephesians try to expand on the practical results of possessing wisdom. All of them posit wisdom as essential to living righteously in the world.
1 Kings 2:10–12; 3:3–14
The first reading, from the Old Testament, comes from the broader context of the narrative of the establishment of Solomon’s reign and the subsequent division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. This is a long narrative history that offers a number of reflections on living as a community in the light of G-d’s presence. More immediately, our story of Solomon’s request for wisdom is preceded by an example of the exercise of secular wisdom which goes wrong and is followed by the famous story of Solomon arbitrating between two mothers.
The difference between these two stories is Solomon’s encounter with G-d and the Lord’s granting him wisdom. This vignette offers three comments on the nature of wisdom. First, it is divinely granted, although one must seek for it. Gibeon, the place where the Lord appears to Solomon, was an old Israelite sanctuary. Such sanctuaries in the Ancient Near East were places where one went to inquire of G-d by various technical means. Solomon was seeking a divine conference, and he received one in the form of a dream—nearly universally considered to be a divine medium at the time. Second, the text presents wisdom as something for which one ought to seek for its own sake, rather than for ancillary benefits. Like Jesus’s command to seek first the kingdom which brings other rewards in its wake, the author of this story posits that wisdom also brings its possessor extra benefits when it is sought first. Third, wisdom involves the ability to discern good from evil and to practice justice. Too often in a modern context one can be tempted to think of wise people as sitting aloof with useless head knowledge; our present story makes it clear that wisdom has real, practical implications for life in society. It demands and enables a life of justice.
The Psalm for today places wisdom in the context of worship, the people of G-d praising Him for his works. For the psalmist, wisdom is knowing the works of G-d and his commandments, all of which start with the ‘fear of the Lord.’ Wisdom starts with an orientation or worldview, not with apologetics: in other words, the reality of G-d’s presence is taken as a given and as something which demands a response. It is not an intellectual hypothesis. This wisdom is more than worldly knowledge or shrewdness, it is the ability to discern how G-d works in and through the mundane world and the ability to evaluate and appreciate things properly. The Lord’s deeds are acknowledged as worthy of praise, full of compassion, and effective. Those who are wise can see how the Lord works, and they understand the importance of emulating them by practicing justice, following his commands, and in remaining within a worshiping community.
The epistle to the Ephesians draws the theme of wisdom into a broader context of how one ought to behave. The author, perhaps St Paul or a later follower, makes clear that wisdom has practical implications for lifestyle—it is not sufficient to know things, but to live them. Our present extract comes within a long description of how the church should live as a community and as a community distinct from the non-Christian society around it. The author’s advice includes a large number of specific moral examples for how this difference ought to be effected. However, within our passage this emphasis on praxis is predicated not upon rules or law, but on wisdom. Wisdom—with its elements of discerning between good and evil, of practicing justice, and of discerning how G-d works—requires that the people of G-d must move beyond mere rules. Wisdom demands a higher calling, one that recognizes the outcomes and side-effects of our choices. The example given is alcohol—something fine by itself but capable of destroying lives, relationships, and communities if used unwisely. In line with other Pauline teachings on freedom, wisdom demands that for a community to live together as the people of G-d, it needs to be able to discern where one’s freedom can negatively impact upon the lives of others. ‘All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.’
Today’s gospel reading comes from a complex passage which interweaves a number of themes from previous literature: the story of Israel’s deliverance in the wilderness with Manna, the use of signs, the Eucharist, knowledge, and salvation.
In the prologue to the gospel, the evangelist utilized the tradition of the divine wisdom that had created the world, a motif which appears in several Jewish wisdom texts. For the evangelist, this divine wisdom was made incarnate in Jesus. The present chapter takes up this idea and uses the story of Manna from the Exodus and of Jesus’s miracle of feeding five thousand people to make two important, interrelated points.
First, the parallel between the crowd’s response to Jesus’s miracle and the story of the Manna in the wilderness highlights the tendency of basic human needs to distract us from what our true needs are. How easy it is to think that G-d is happy merely providing for our physical needs! Both the manna in the wilderness and the bread in the Galilee kept its eaters alive, but the people of G-d missed that these provisions point to the greater concern the Lord has for his people: their welfare spiritually and eternally. The crowds listening to Jesus fixated on the physical nature of the bread and missed its true salvific nature. The evangelist wants to point out that Jesus is salvation not just sustenance!
Second, the above point notwithstanding, salvation is only available through a physical medium. The Eucharist is the symbol for this—incarnation of salvation and of wisdom. Not only was the Wisdom of G-d made incarnate in the person of Jesus, but we can only experience G-d’s salvation as physical beings. Only G-d can provide the wisdom to understand that salvation is in Christ, the Word Incarnate, and to understand the Eucharist is a perpetual symbol of the tension and symbiosis in our reality as both physical and spiritual beings.
Doctrinal debates over the meaning of the Eucharist aside, the church’s practice of the rite is enjoined well before the writing of the present gospel. The evangelist makes a deliberate attempt in our passage to identify the salvation available through Jesus’s incarnation with the salvation available through participation in the Eucharist. This practice can be understood as a source of wisdom. The physicality of the Eucharist reminds us both of the incarnation of Christ and of our own embodiment, while it simultaneously calls us higher to participate in the spiritual meaning of Jesus’s incarnation and of the Eucharist itself. Neither incarnation, nor salvation, nor our own existence is possible without both the physical and the spiritual. This is true regardless of how one feels about the exact nature or symbolism of the communion wafer and wine.
In this respect, the traditional rabbinic distrust of asceticism can help increase our wisdom concerning salvation. We are created as physical beings, and our physical natures must not be ignored or overly denigrated in our quest to respond to the presence of G-d appropriately. The Eucharist is a sign pointing in this direction. We are created with bodies and spirits, and our salvation must be worked out with both.
With the previous rapid thoughts on today’s readings, what can be said about wisdom in these texts?
Both the passages from Kings and the fourth gospel emphasize that wisdom is divinely given, although we can and ought to seek for it. The passage from Kings and from the epistle emphasize that true wisdom involves the ability to discern ethics, morals, and justice, and to put them into practice for the benefit others, in particular for the benefit of G-d’s people.
Wisdom involves the ability to discern how G-d is working in the world and, more importantly, to act accordingly by joining in his work. For the Psalmist this means justice and his commandments and for the evangelist it means seeking spiritual gifts and participation in the Eucharist.
Lastly, today’s readings call for a response in communal life; the author of Kings, the epistle, the psalmist, and the evangelist all envision wisdom as inhabiting within and enabling the life of a community. None of the writers seem to imagine that a wise person will attempt to be a lone wolf or hermit. No, instead they see a response in communal life and worship.
What does this mean for us?
Perhaps it is not too denominationally partisan to suggest that these readings support the Anglican formula for discernment through scripture, tradition, and reason. Scripture is the life-blood of Christian faith—it contains the distilled wisdom of generations who struggled with the presence and demand of G-d. But even the wisdom texts themselves point to the need to weigh both tradition and reason. Wisdom was a definite tradition within Israel, but it wrestled with difficult questions and refuses to give pat, once-for-all answers. In fact, the wisdom tradition nearly embodies a practice of dialogue and debate. The traditions associated with Solomon themselves show diversity of perspective: compare the celebration of human sexual love in the Song of Solomon with the critique of Solomon’s polygamy in Kings; or the different attitudes to the problem of the suffering righteous in the Book of Ecclesiastes (which pretends to be by Solomon) and the Book of Job. Engaging with these texts demands an exercise of reason and discernment in their application. To follow a biblical understanding of wisdom we need to delve into scripture aware of our own tradition and to utilize all the reason and knowledge at our disposal. Our readings this week, however, emphasize that this process is a communal rather than solitary endeavor. Solomon’s wisdom was for the benefit of the nation; the Psalm explains wisdom through communal worship, Ephesians emphasizes its necessity for communal life, and John draws it into the ritual life of the early church in the Eucharist. If we wish to obtain wisdom we need to seek for it—through prayer, as a community, in dialogue with scripture, tradition, and reason. Unlike Solomon, however, we should not expect wisdom to descend suddenly upon us in the night. Rather, it comes as the fruit of long, patient, continuous reflection as a community of faith. And we need to be prepared to utilize it in action when G-d answers our prayers.
Further, wisdom as described in the above readings calls us to take care to maintain a dialectic between the physical and the spiritual. We must not succumb to a modern form of Gnosticism or Manichaeism, whereby the physical is denied or seen as evil; on the other hand, we must not let the physical distract or overshadow the spiritual and ethical realities to which G-d calls us. Wisdom demands action in the physical and social sphere in social justice, in ethics, in ritual; wisdom also calls to the spiritual reality in orientation, in salvation, in worship.
If we are not living in justice and in community, aware of our position as created beings before G-d, working out our salvation and place within G-d’s designs both in body and in spirit, we are not living in G-d’s wisdom.