Long ago, there was a plaque hanging in my grandfather’s woodshop. He had carved it himself, out of redwood, and it bore the following saying: “You get so quick old, yet so slow wise.” A proverb. We are hearing much these liturgical days from the Book of Proverbs, that collection of wisdom sayings from ancient Israel. This is an accrued wisdom, passed from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons, all for the sake of an ordered life, a life directed toward God.
Such accrued wisdom makes very good sense when we’re old, looking back on all the ways we have been unwise. It was written down by older people, for the benefit of the young. To be young is to yearn for wisdom, but also to postpone living by it. For those of us who are not young, wisdom is that thing that we have to keep relearning, given our mistakes and sins, but also our recurring experience of the grace of renewal. Yet we lose track of that wisdom so easily.
Yesterday I received from a friend here in the Valley a text message containing an expression of contemporary wisdom:
Happiness is the new rich.
Inner peace is the new success.
Health is the new wealth.
Kindness is the new cool.
This is perhaps not far from the wisdom of Jesus, and we can find similar sentiments in the gospels. But there is a big difference: For the wisdom of Jesus takes us beyond ideals of happiness, inner peace, health, and kindness—good and needed as things are in themselves. The wisdom of Jesus is discovered in pouring out our lives on behalf of others. It is a wisdom borne of love—a suffering love.
Jesus was in possession of this kind of wisdom. As Paul describes it (Phil. 2) He emptied himself and assumed the status of a slave—to identify with the suffering of others, especially the least. And he did this by listening to the voice of God. Listening to that voice, he could almost do no other. That is why he could say that those to whom he felt the most close were those of similar orientation: those who desired to be attuned to the voice of God, and to act on it (Luke 8:18–21)—as he did, all the way to the Cross.
The ancient church, considering the full picture of Jesus, took this one step further, echoed again in Paul: Jesus not only exemplified wisdom, but was himself the Wisdom of God, a wisdom that is foolishness to the “wise” of the world (1 Cor 1:24). God had spoken wisdom, formerly in proverbs and other sayings, but now in the humanity of the Son, a human being who would enter fully into our chaos. Wisdom is now not a matter of wise sayings, aphorism, proverbs, or precepts, but of living after the self-emptying pattern of Jesus: loving for one another, caring for the weakest among us, tending to the sick, the homeless, the frail, the hopeless, the despairing; seeking justice where it is absolutely required, and proclaiming hope with our very lives: each in our own way, but together as the body of Christ in the world.
So, we might ask: What shall we choose?
To allow lives to be distorted by an empty set of goals about what matters: a successful life and the sense of accomplishment it seems to confirm in ourselves? That’s a great temptation at the university, where we measure ourselves by the numbers of accolades we receive, and also here in Silicon Valley where we measure ourselves by how much money we make. It is easy to feel good, even smug, when we can tout such successes.
Or will we choose to focus, as Jesus did, on the only thing that ultimately matters: the fact that our lives are, whether we like it or not, hurtling toward an end—toward a fulfillment that, in our freedom, we can only find in God? Will we seek what Jesus did when he faced his own death, giving of ourselves humbly in love toward one another, expending ourselves in that love up to our very last breath?
This is the fundamental option—the wisdom of Jesus—and worth every fiber of our being to learn and to live.