Toorak Uniting Church

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The Getting of Wisdom

Epiphany 4
Luke 2: 22 – 40
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
3 February 2013

By three methods we may learn wisdom:
First, by reflection, which is noblest;
second, by imitation, which is easiest and
third by experience, which is the bitterest. ~ Confucius.

It is interesting that there is little known about the life of Jesus between his birth and when he began his ministry at the age of perhaps 30 years old. We do have the story of his parents losing him on a visit to Jerusalem and then finding him in conversation with the scribes and learned men in the temple, but in our four gospels there are no other references to him growing up.

Now if we went to what is called the non-canonical gospels like the Gospel According to Thomas, then we do find some rather fanciful stories about Jesus’ boyhood. This is one of the early stories in The Gospel of Thomas which may have been written in the middle of the 2nd Century and seems to try to fill in some of the missing bits from the early Christian tradition. But also it represents the tradition that valued the magical. Here is one story from this gospel concerning Jesus as a young boy:

This little child Jesus when he was five years old was playing at the ford of a brook: and he gathered together the waters that flowed there into pools, and made them straightway clean, and commanded them by his word alone. And having made soft clay, he fashioned thereof twelve sparrows. And it was the Sabbath when he did these things (or made them). And there were also many other little children playing with him.

Do you notice the connection there with Jesus and the other gospels? He did this on the Sabbath, which already put him as a child on the wrong side of the law. What scholars often value about the Gospel According to Thomas is that it seems to represent an oral tradition which was separate from the tradition that we find in our Bibles today.

Jesus Grows Up:
The passage read earlier is associated with Jesus as a baby being presented to the priest Simeon in the temple. In this account, Jesus’ parents fulfil their obligation under the law. They bring an offering and the child is blessed by the priest. In this case Simeon is overwhelmed as he takes this child into his arms and sees in this baby the future transformation of his nation.

…. my eyes have seen your salvation, prepared in the presence of all peoples, [he shall] be a light that will bring new sight to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.

Mary and Joseph are also surprised by these words, for they see in them the life and the struggle that their son will experience as he grows to manhood. The narrator of the Gospel of Luke ends with the words:

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. There the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

A few verses later they are back in the temple. Jesus is now perhaps 12 years old and we have the story I mentioned before of his discussion with the religious leaders. And that passage also ends with the words: And Jesus increased in wisdom and years and in both Divine and human favour.

Jesus and the Getting of Wisdom
Much of our contemporary discussion about Jesus of Nazareth has focused on his role as a sage, or as a wisdom teacher. Some of this is strengthened by the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus who was born a few years after Jesus’ death. He wrote of Jesus:

A wise man … who performed surprising feats and was a teacher of the sort of people who accept the truth gladly. Teaching outside where the Jewish people were [assembled] was a common mode for Jewish sages (e.g., Mt. 13). With this accessibility, He won over many Jews.

When I was at Theological College the emphasis was on Jesus as a prophet. Now these two things are not mutually exclusive. Jesus was of course both. His formation and message was certainly grounded in the ancient prophets of Israel. But this insight that Jesus’ method was to introduce his followers to a way of life that would take them on a journey, that would lead them toward wisdom, insight and understanding, is a helpful corrective to the idea that he taught in a prescriptive way that required his follows to just believe what he said. On the contrary, Jesus’ audience had to engage with his teaching. The best example of this is his use of parables. Parables are intended to intersect with the listener's life; with his or her experience of life. And they don’t give easy answers. Rather, they often take the listener on a journey around in circles sometimes, but with the goal being wisdom.

While wisdom is difficult to define, it is different from knowledge and information. It has something to do with being able both to see the big picture and also to live into it. So a simple modern example might be something like "Oh, it’s raining. There goes my tennis game. It’s not fair, this is the second Saturday I have missed because of rain." Umm, not a lot of big picture thinking in those words. Wisdom is the capacity see that the parched earth needs rain and my desire is perhaps subservient to that. But wisdom is also the capacity to live with and live into all the paradoxes and inconsistencies of life. You only get wisdom by living fully into life. It is said that: A wise man can see more from the bottom of a well than a fool can from a mountain top. Why? Because wisdom comes from within; from that encounter with God who holds all things together and gives insight to those who pay attention and are aware.

This is why parables are so important. They raise the questions without necessarily giving the answers. This infuriates the literalist in all of us. But the wise know that not every question has a yes or no answer. And the big questions may have several answers.

I have wondered at times where Jesus got his wisdom from. How, at the age of 30 years, could he have the maturity and insight into both the heart of God and the human condition, so as to begin the transformation of the lives, first of those around him and then the world at large? I have rejected long ago the idea that he was God and therefore he knew everything. That’s a cheapening of the life he lived in Palestine two thousand years ago. If Jesus’ message of love and redemption is of value today, then the wisdom he gained and passed on to his followers must be available within this world, not as if it comes from outside of the universe.

For me, the wisdom of Jesus is a combination of three things:

First, wisdom grows in still and quiet places. The willingness to withdraw from the society in which one is planted and to observe that culture from the outside creates the ability to reflect on the deeper truths of life. At the opening of the current exhibition at Kinross House, Christina Rowntree, who was giving an introduction to the work of the artist, used this quote from the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to…bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which [we] deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of [the children's] world.

The wisdom of Jesus and the wisdom to which we have access today are gained not by conforming to the current orthodoxies, but by challenging them.

Secondly, and perhaps paradoxical to the first principle I just put forward, is that wisdom is nurtured in community. While Jesus stood against much of the religious culture of his day, he was nevertheless nourished by those parts of the tradition that stood true to him, and so he gathered his community around that life-giving tradition. The one moment of levity I had during my interview for the Uniting Church ministry almost two years ago now, was when I was asked what I thought of the Nicene Creed. To which I replied, "It was very helpful to the Christians in the 4th Century but I’m not sure it has a lot of relevance for us in the 21st Century. Not everyone around the table laughed.

Thirdly, wisdom is a doing word. Perhaps the strongest criticism Jesus had was toward the religious people he called hypocrites. A hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does the opposite. Of course this is a common charge brought against those of us in church today: with some justification. Someone will say, "I don’t go to church because there are too many hypocrites there." The best retort I heard was when someone replied, "Well, there is always room for one more." One does not become wise by consuming more and more books, but by putting into practice what one already knows to be true and real.

The wisdom of Jesus was nurtured through his childhood, not by having a perfect mother and father; nor was it because he had a special channel to the heart of God which is unavailable to us. No, he became wise by integrating all the experiences in his life into the whole of his life. His openness to the God of life and to life itself in all its vicissitudes: whether it is joy or sorrow; hopefulness or despair; love or fear - all these experiences shape him as a wisdom teacher from his childhood into his mature adult life.

That wisdom is available to us today as we enter more fully into the kind of life that Jesus lived.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.