Solomon could have had anything. He is offered a blank check by God. He could have asked for money or peace or satisfaction. Instead he asks for wisdom, and God likes the answer so much that he blesses him also with wealth and long life. Wisdom in an important virtue in the scriptures. In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a whole section known as wisdom literature, texts like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and Job. These are the books that don’t deal with faith in the same way as the rest of the scriptural library. Wisdom literature asks deep questions about unjust suffering and the pursuit of happiness and the nature of God. While much of the rest of Hebrew scripture involves praising God or celebrating virtue or challenging unrighteousness, the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the whole enchilada and says, “It’s vanity and chasing after wind.” This is not to say that Psalmists who sing God’s praises are wrong. Rather, the community of faith accepted that this alternative literature has something important to offer, challenging voices that question some of the foundations of faith. It is as though the early Judeo-Christian communities said, “We need a block of voices that allow us to doubt and to question. This too is part of real faith.” And they labeled it, “wisdom.”
Wisdom is different than knowledge similar to the way that faith is different from belief. I frequently get questions about belief, but not so many about faith. We say the creed as a rendering of beliefs of the church, a set of ideas that unite us, even though we may not believe them in exactly the same way. I am going to guess that when we announce a belief in the “Resurrection of body” we may not think about in the same way that the early Christians who established the Apostles’ Creed did. I am also going to guess that if we went around the room and asked people, “What do you believe about who God is?” or “What do you believe happens during Communion?” we would probably get a variety of answers, probably related but not all the same.
Beliefs are one of the ways were wrestle with faith. We make these statements to see who is on the same page with us. They are Venn diagrams that we can use to see where we intersect. When our church has talked about full-communion relationships with the Episcopalians and the Methodists, what we are really doing is seeing how many intersections there are and how much they overlap. When our synod had a food-packaging event with the Islamic society of Springfield during a synod assembly three years ago, we could acknowledge that there were not many places where our traditions intersect, but caring for those in need is a place where both Islam and Christianity are supposed to hold overlapping beliefs.
Faith is something broader. Faith is the divine-human relationship that inspires those beliefs. It is the canvas on which religion or personal belief is painted. Our tradition says faith is God’s gift to us. God gives us the canvas and then we start to paint on it affected by our heritage, our experiences, our education and our interest. And there may be times in our lives when we touch it up or paint over what we started. The paintings of God we had as children may no longer satisfy us. The painting may look radically different, but the canvas is the same.
And I would say that there is similar relationship between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is pretty easy to find these days. We used to give great value to the cab driver who had an expansive knowledge of a city, who knew the fastest routes and the ebb and flow of traffic. Now anyone with a smartphone can be that cab driver, get from one place to another, and find the alternative routes. We have more access to knowledge than we have ever had in human history, but that does not mean we have wisdom. With all of our knowledge, people are still taken in by Nigerian Prince schemes. We still are tempted to click that one weird trick to a thin waistline or the top 5 ways to meet your soulmate (You won’t believe number 3!). Probably more to the point is that we are not willing to listen to knowledge that conflicts with what we already want to believe or think we know. Liberals tend to listen to other liberals and conservatives tend to listen to other conservatives and both think the other is foolish.
Wisdom is being able to stand back and, like the author of Ecclesiastes, not give so much value to any given piece of knowledge, but look at the pile of amassed knowledge and say, “This is chasing after wind.” Wisdom is being able to stand out, like the author of Job, and question fundamental concepts like, “Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.” Wisdom is what Jesus shows by teaching in parables. He doesn’t give knowledge of the Kingdom of God; he gives us something to pursue, something to mull over. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed or treasure in a field or a precious pearl. And 2000 years later I can’t tell you exactly what he meant but I can invite you to think and pursue and question and discuss with me, which is probably more important than knowing exactly what he meant.
Knowledge is often a statement, like knowing that Force equals mass times acceleration. Wisdom is how you apply that knowledge, taking a formula and turning it into a new form of transportation. Knowledge is accumulated, stored and memorized. Wisdom is cultivated over time, through experience, through trial and error.
There is a difference between simply quoting a passage like the one from Romans 8 – “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” We might hear the passage, come to know it and say, “This means Jesus loves me and its nice.” But seeing it through the eyes of wisdom, imagine if you took that passage and sat with it, letting it speak and inform your decisions and point of view. Imagine how it might change things if you walked around with the idea that nothing could separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Imagine how you might approach people differently, with less fear since nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Imagine how generous you could be when nothing can separate you. Imagine how much you could endure, how you might approach illness or setbacks when nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Imagine how honest you could be; imagine how content you could be when nothing can separate you. That is the power of wisdom at work.
We have a path toward wisdom in the church, it’s part of the painting on the canvas of faith. We have had this path for centuries, started by Jesus and continued through many ways by many different voices. We call it discipleship. Discipleship is the life-growing work we get to do because of the life-giving work that Jesus has done for us. Worship is part of that path (though my experience with many Lutherans is they will say that worship is the path, but it’s not) it is part along with prayer, giving, studying and serving, fasting and sharing and comforting and advocating. All of these actions help us nurture wisdom; help us go to the deeper places of faith. Jesus has given you the path toward wisdom and now he invites you to walk with him. And what is my job, I’m here as someone to help you on that path, not just to tell stuff that I know, but to help you cultivate wisdom. Let us walk together, serving through faith, centered in Christ and guided by the word.