THEOLOGY as a discipline is not a Christian innovation. We know that there were Jewish theologians in first century Palestine, principally exegetes of Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy). And although the body of rabbinic interpretative literature we possess comes from the second century and beyond (eg Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash), in Jesus’ time there were already schools of thought (eg Hillel and Shammai), principles of interpretation and academies of learning (eg Beth Midrash). There were also authoritative interpreters (eg Gamaliel) acknowledged for their expertise in applying Torah to all aspects of life, enabling Jews to live faithfully within the covenant.
Interestingly, although the Hebrew Scriptures were clearly foundational for Jesus (cf Matthew 5.21-48) and whilst he could hold his own in disputation with other religious authorities over matters of interpretation (eg Mark 2.23-28; 7.1-23), judging from the composition of the Gospels Jesus was celebrated and sought out principally for his wisdom. Evidently, it was the testimony of many that to be in his company was to be in the company of wisdom personified and to be nurtured in wisdom’s ways, in truth, to be enlightened.
The way of wisdom speaks of a particular approach to theology and it is one Jesus shared not only with the sages of his own faith tradition (eg Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom), but also of other religious traditions and philosophical outlooks. Unlike much theological discourse, wisdom is not a derivative pursuit where one needs to establish principles or construct arguments or apply rules before conclusions can be drawn; wisdom is like discovering treasure – it possesses an inherent persuasiveness and, once uncovered, becomes a singular preoccupation. Significantly, Jesus tells us as much:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13.44-46)
What kind of theology does Jesus’ wisdom offer us? The first thing to say is that it isn’t systematic or scholastic. He neither uses technical nomenclature and concepts nor draws on recognised authorities. He makes no attempt to provide a consistent and all-encompassing framework of belief, although Jesus’ wisdom embraces the essential and generative ingredients of a faith capable of equipping us to live wholeheartedly in God’s world. In this respect, wisdom has the potential to be universal because it relates to all of life and draws on all of life to make its point. Perhaps, we could say that wisdom makes visible the unseen truths underpinning and informing life.
Jesus preferred to communicate wisdom using one of two forms of speech, the aphorism or the parable. The first is a memorable saying bringing clarity, perspective and judgement to the business of living with integrity in a fleeting world, infused with eternity. For instance:
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
No one can serve two masters.
Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.
You will know them by their fruits.
Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown.
Love your neighbour as yourself.
The eye is the lamp of the body.
What profit is there in gaining the whole world and forfeiting one’s life?
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.
The second form of speech is a narrative invitation to inhabit a situation in life that initially seems comfortable and familiar, but once within we are surprised by its strangeness – how it overflows with new challenges, insights and opportunities. Again, let us attend:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’. (Luke 10.30-35)
So who is my neighbour? And what does neighbourliness require of me? And where can I find the motivation and means to be neighbourly? At one level, of course, these may appear secular questions, but they are in their very secularity questions about human identity and about the resources accessible to us when we begin to explore who we are, why we are here, where we belong and what is the purpose of it all. Then their theological and spiritual quality emerges, even though God is never mentioned in as many words.
One of the remarkable qualities of Jesus’ wisdom is its credibility – its power to command attention and to convict those whom he encountered, even on an occasional basis:
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.’ (Matthew 7.28-29)
Wisdom is like that – it needs no propping up or recourse to plausibility structures; it possesses its own authority because it communicates truth – the uncovering of what is. And truth, as Jesus reminds us, is its own advocate: ‘wisdom is vindicated by all her children’ (Luke 7.35).
How urgent is the need for Jesus’ apprentices of today to value wisdom and to discover how to embody and communicate wisdom without disguising it in theological techno-speak which makes it all but inaccessible and leaves many people, initiated and uninitiated alike, with the strong suspicion that we have found nothing in our faith of universal significance or appeal. For, if we had, we would be able to let its truthfulness out. We must find ways of becoming wise stewards and practitioners of sacred wisdom.
Another vital characteristic of Jesus’ theology of wisdom is its profound this-worldliness, giving expression to a trusting faith in a Creator who creates good things and whose creation is impregnated with divine life, even though it may not always be apparent:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? (Matthew 6.25-30)
We can describe this as a natural theology of sorts and one that bears witness to discovering God through reflecting on creation and our place within it. In Jesus’ experience, such an undertaking opens us up to the otherness of being where we are able to encounter the One who made us thus. For this reason, Jesus not only draws on creation to make God visible, but uses people and their preoccupations:
A sower went out to sow . . . . .
There was a man who had two sons . . . . .
Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child . . . . ..
For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed . . . . .
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle . . . . .
Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
This kind of wisdom is the fruit of discerning reflection not only on the natural order, but also on the challenge of living authentically, meaningfully and sympathetically within an ambiguous world characterized by community and enmity, beauty and pollution, vitality and decay, health and disease, justice and oppression, responsibility and recklessness, generosity and greed, stability and entropy, joy and sorrow, opportunity and constraint.
How refreshing and reassuring this is! That our new identity as God’s children enables us to find God not by becoming less than human or indeed by claiming to be more than human. It becomes accessible not through abstract thinking that dislocates us from the grist of existence or through withdrawing from the world of secular pursuit and discourse into a sanitized enclave. Quite the contrary, the wisdom of Jesus plunges us into an all-encompassing vocation to explore what it means to be an human being along with other human beings in a universe beyond our creating. And it is here, in this common quest, that Jesus’ Artistry of Faith proves its worth.
For this reason, it is vital that we do not allow our churches to become arks of salvation for those seeking to escape from the evils of the present age. Rather, let us cultivate oases of creativity and fruitfulness where all people can find refreshment through delighting in wisdom’s ways and become rooted in those sapient resources enabling us to body forth Christ’s wisdom into the world. And let us not so preoccupy congregations with churchy affairs that they have little time to find God in the Cathedral of Life or to engage with the challenges and opportunities that await them there.
But what about evil and sin, salvation and eternity – what does wisdom have to say here? Let me offer a number of observations. Interestingly, when many Jews had all but given up on this life, Jesus announced, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1.15), seeding the present with salvific potential. And it appears that wisdom’s role within this perception is discerning where and how and among whom.
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. (Mark 4.30-32)
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ (Matthew 9.35-38)
Equally, as Jesus’ ministry was an embodiment of that wisdom characterising kingdom living, he also recognised himself to be engaged in a struggle against evil that ultimately would only be decided by decisive divine intervention: ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’ (Mark 9.1). There is a tension here that, overlooked, misinterprets Jesus’ vision and vocation, between his very positive, life-affirming outlook on this world as a place where the blessings associated with God’s presence can be experienced and his keen awareness that the fulfilment of God’s saving purposes entailed the overcoming of those forces of domination and oppression that infect human existence at every level and hold us in thraldom:
But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you … And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day? (Luke 11.20; 13.16).
Further, Jesus could be blistering in his criticism of religious leaders who, knowingly or otherwise, alienated people from their heavenly Father:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. (Matthew 23.13)
And those who demonstrated a desire to follow him were confronted with the uncompromising demands of that vocation:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me … Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God …No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Mark 8.34; Luke 9.60, 62)
Yet, for all that, he adopted a more generous and forgiving attitude towards ‘sinners’ – a category that in all probability included those who deliberately contravened God’s commandments and exploited their compatriots. It seems that Jesus went out his way to seek their company, earning a reputation for doing so, in order to extend to them the blessings of heaven (cf Matthew 11.19; 21.28-32; Mark 2.15-17; Luke 7.31-50; 15.1-32; 18.9-14; 19.1-10). Wisely, he recognised that grace is the catalyst for change, including repentance, rather than its reward.
Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘Speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.’ (Luke 7.40-47)
Finally, it is St Paul who reminds us that Jesus’ most definitive exposition of wisdom was in the offering of his life to restore a broken humanity into fellowship with its Maker:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1.18, 22-24).
Wisdom may not be the most intellectually satisfying approach to doing theology; certainly, it leaves many questions unanswered (although, perhaps, this too is wisdom!), but it was Jesus’ preferred approach and those of us who seek to share his faith need also become proficient in the art – to practise wisdom, to preach and teach wisdom, to identify and celebrate wisdom wherever it is to be found, and to build communities rooted in wisdom’s ways.