Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Search for Wisdom

1 Kings 3. 5-12
Matthew 13. 31-33 & 44-52

Today’s readings invite us to consider the quest for Wisdom.  First, we encountered King Solomon, who rather than ask for wealth or power first asked God for wisdom.  God was pleased with this request, and in what is, frankly, rather a Trumpian response, told Solomon that he would be given a ‘wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you’.  Very Donald Trump!
Then, in our Gospel reading, after a series of short parables about the diligent search for the Kingdom, Jesus teaches his disciples with a rather enigmatic phrase.  He says, ‘every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’.  Jesus is telling his disciples that the wise teacher of faith will use the best of the old knowledge, and combine it with the new, in the task of bringing the Kingdom to pass. Wisdom requires the acquisition and then the wise use of knowledge.
A key theme of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus is the living, breathing personification of Divine Wisdom.    The Hebrew Bible often sings hymns of praise to Divine Wisdom, and, often, wisdom is given a personality.  Take for example, these lines from the first chapter of the book of Proverbs:
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice - {…}
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
I find these lines encouraging.  They remind me that teachers and writers throughout the ages have always despaired of how the mind of the common man seems to work.  Just like I do. Human beings have always been subject to spin, fake news, and they have always acted on instinct, rather than fact.  Fools have always hated knowledge.  And they have always scoffed at those who do put in the hard work to find out what is true and good and right.  ‘What do these scientists know?’.  ‘Theologians?  Pah!’
Four and a half centuries before Jesus, there was a famous man in Greece, called Plato.  He was a philosopher – a word made up of two Greek words, ‘philia’, meaning love; and ‘sofia’ meaning wisdom.  A philosopher, then, is simply someone who loves wisdom.    Plato had a tremendous impact on his time, and in the centuries afterwards.  His thinking was widely known, and often quoted.  I would be extremely surprised if Jesus had never heard of him.
Plato offered the World a simple metaphor for the accumulation of wisdom…the metaphor of a cave.  Imagine, he said, that you were born in a cave, facing the wall.  And that this is the only life you had ever known.  On the wall of the cave in front of you were shadows of things which you believed were real.  Trees, houses, people. This was your whole life.  A tree was just a shadow of a tree.  A house was just a shadow of a house.
Imagine, then, said Plato, that one day something made you turn around.  To your surprise, you found that there are people standing behind you, who are holding up wooden silhouettes of the trees, the houses, and the people.  Suddenly, your eyes have been opened.  You realise that there is a cause of the shadows.  Your whole world-view has shifted.
Then, said Plato, imagine that you notice the daylight, shining behind the people with the silhouettes.   Your enquiring mind has been awakened…and so you make your way to the entrance of the cave.  And then, stepping into the sunlight, you find our exactly what a real tree looks like, and a real house, and real people.
You might be interested to know that Plato’s cave is the reason why many Nativity scenes are shown in a cave.  Jesus is shown as the Divine Light, the Divine Wisdom, emerging from the Cave of human ignorance and lazy thinking.
The Cave, suggested Plato, is a metaphor for the quest for Wisdom on which we are all invited.  It is a way of life, which anyone can follow, just like the Way of Jesus.  And it is a prize worth selling everything you own to possess – just like the pearl of great price, or the treasure hidden in the field of Jesus’ parables.
But isn’t Jesus talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, not wisdom per se?  Well, yes.  But, the Kingdom of Heaven is first and foremost a place in which Divine Wisdom reigns supreme.  
It is Divine Wisdom, for example, which teaches us that in giving things away, we accumulate great wealth.  Or as I said a few weeks ago in the Corona Chronicle, ‘true wealth is what you find you have left when all your possessions have been taken away’.  (You might want to think about that one, for a moment).
It is Divine Wisdom which teaches us that forgiveness is the only way to deal with hatred.
It is Divine Wisdom which teaches us that God’s voice is best heard in silence.
It is Divine Wisdom which teaches us that servants make the best leaders.
It is Divine Wisdom which gives us a King who has a Cross as his throne.
The Kingdom of Heaven is an upside down place.  There is almost nothing in the Kingdom which feels normal to a society which values hatred, greed, fake news, celebrity, and worldly power.  That’s why it is such a hard message to communicate to the world.
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice - {…}
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?

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