O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
O Wisdom. When God speaks, he speaks wisdom. But what is formed by his mouth is not words, but The Word. God is love, and when he speaks, what he speaks is a person. We usually think of ‘person’ as a human category, but God is much more a person than we ever are. Surely the Platonists were right in this instance at least. We are people because we are made in his image.
This person, who is God’s Wisdom, is the order and the purpose of creation, the strength which fires up super novae, and sends glaciers scraping through granite mountains, and is the desire which kindles the fawn in the deer. And all of this is very poetic and beautiful and moving. Inspiring, even.
Until we get to Jesus of Nazareth, who is Wisdom and shows us the way of prudence. Yes, right. We get to Jesus who is an extraordinary way of showing either of these two virtues. As Kenneth Bailey’s books show (Poet and Peasant: Literary-cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke; Through Middle-Eastern Eyes), he spent most of his public ministry firmly committed to a path guaranteed to exasperate and distress the religious and civil hierarchies. A path which alternately delighted and appalled the crowds, and which was, much of the time, clearly a mystery to his closest followers, never mind his family. The Wisdom of God in person.
And actually I believe he was. Wisdom does not lie in dodging conflict, or trying to escape it. It lies in just how you confront it. Jesus does not confront conflict by blaming others. It is striking how rarely in the Gospels he ever blamed individuals. He blamed that which creates false barriers between people: the mix of closed minds, impossible purity standards and bumptious self satisfaction which has people hiding behind masks which disguise their inner failings, and their inner selves. Faced with individuals, typically he asked for hospitality, or offered forgiveness, without ever seeking an admission of guilt. So Jesus accepted Simon’s hospitality (Luke 7.36ff.). Simon failed to offer Jesus the usual courtesies, and Jesus made no accusation then. Later, he took an opportunity to comment on what actually happened.
Jesus’s very reaction to others sparked more anger and more controversy. In my experience, it still does. When we are hurt, or despised, we very naturally want to hit back, to prove our worth, and to point out the failings in our attacker. To be pulled up short in the enjoyable pursuit of seeing all the failings in the other is painful. Naturally we want to aggrandise our own virtues by contrasting them with their failings. To forgive, and to advocate forgiveness, is generally misunderstood. People think one is condoning the failing, or admitting one’s own guilt.
Naming sins, wrongs done to self or others, is healthy. It always needs to be balanced by an awareness of the humanity of the other and a lively sense of one’s own weaknesses. Otherwise one gets dragged into a spiral of accusation and counter accusation. You don’t even need to believe that Jesus is the wisdom of God to see how pointless that soon becomes.
Jesus avoided tit for tat, dodging it by wit, or evasive answers or silence. He did not do much spelling out of what is and is not the right moral code, and gave his followers few chances of scoring against others. He did not give simple, clear and easy to follow moral codes. He would not make his people into ‘the good guys’ and he would not turn any of the expected figures of hate into the bad guys. On the other hand, he was impossible to turn from what he believed to be true. He would not keep silent and he did not take a path which lead to appeasement. He kept right on speaking the truth. He had no discernable interest in keeping others on board, and less in keeping any faction of the Jewish faith together.
He saw the need of the people, and also their desire for him to be a leader and a ruler of a kind he had no intention of being, and he refused to fulfil it. He took his own chosen and principled path. That is how one acts out the Wisdom of God.
He sparked a huge anger, and a mix of disappointed hopes and unreal expectations. Mere common sense suggested his death, which was facilitated by one of his own followers whom he had failed to keep on board. O Wisdom. He died in agony.
Christian leaders would do well to bear all this in mind. Easy moral codes are not wisdom. Wisdom lies in taking a principled path, which does not blame others, but holds to what is true. Not yielding one’s own agenda, but not heaping blame on those who do not follow it. The only trouble is that this is also the path for all of us, and it leads to various kinds of crucifixion, although it is actually the only path that really works.
Many will rightly comment that the distinction between boldly naming wrong done, and not getting drawn into recrimination, is at best a fine line, and very hard to maintain. But that is the trouble with having a Wisdom which is not words, but a person.
Rosemary Hannah is a historian and writer who lives near Glasgow.