Is there anyone in particular who comes to mind when you hear the word “wisdom.” Do you look upon any person as the embodiment of wisdom? Perhaps you think of someone like the humble old martial arts teacher from the “Karate Kid” movies, Mr. Miyagi: quiet, calm, with penetrating insights and with the ability to cut through the chaos of emotion and the smokescreen of rationalizations in order to unveil the truth with a few poignant words.
Perhaps a parent or grandparent comes to mind when you think about wisdom. When the rest of the family is in a tug-of-war about sibling quarrels, family financial priorities or about where to go on vacation, this patriarch or matriarch of the clan steps in and with firmness but gentleness brings a sense of balance into the situation, resolving the conflict with the skill of a true diplomat.
Those of us who are familiar with the biblical tradition cannot help but think of King Solomon as the epitome of wisdom. The Scriptures tell us, “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east … for he was wiser than all other men” (
Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said, “Common sense, in an uncommon degree, is what the world calls wisdom.” That’s a pretty fair definition, wouldn’t you say? But when we look to our Scripture text, we are given a very different vision of wisdom, one that does not immediately inspire admiration, one that may not appear to be particularly balanced. The apostle Paul called it “the wisdom of God.”
Paul brought the message of God’s wisdom to the ancient city of Corinth where he established a congregation of believers. Corinth was no backwoods village full of yokels. Archeological excavations have revealed ruins of what was once a bustling commercial and entertainment center. Travelers from all over the Mediterranean world found their way to Corinth, as ships from far and wide docked in the nearby harbors.
The city had the kind of mixture of people found in every metropolitan area; there were businessmen and beggars, artisans and courtesans. Corinth displayed a considerable amount of affluence and sophistication. Not only could the city boast of its impressive architecture and marvelous array of statues, but evidently the Corinthians had acquired a taste for religious mysteries, philosophical intricacies, and masterful orators.
Philosophers and spokespersons from the various pagan temples competed for the hearts and minds of the population. The Corinthians put a premium on eloquent speech and speculative flare. Since their city had so much to offer, they were not easily impressed. In order to make much of an impact on the people, the philosophers and religious leaders had to have a mastery of words and a power of presentation that was dazzling. In order to be taken seriously a person would have to be a top-flight orator who could keep the people of Corinth spellbound by skillfully weaving an intricate web of ideas. They kept the people coming back for more by promising that mystical knowledge and esoteric wisdom would eventually be revealed to those who proved themselves worthy, those who were received into the inner circle.
Like the Corinthians, we are also more attracted to glitz than to substance and more impressed by a polished image than by truth. Our recent political campaigns bear witness to this fact. So many voters apparently are of the opinion that if a candidate doesn’t look good, that candidate must not be very good. Early in the primaries in the last presidential campaign a friend told me that she was giving her support to Senator Paul Simon. But she went on to say, “I know he doesn’t stand a prayer of a chance. Politics aside, the people simply won’t vote for him.” “Why not?” I asked. She responded, “His glasses are too thick, his ears stick out from his head, and he wears that silly looking bow tie.”
Every culture has its methods by which significant events, people or ideas are recognized and measured. For the Corinthians rhetorical excellence played a central role. For us to a great extent it is media coverage, and in particular television coverage. If something is worth noticing, you’ll see it on the TV screen. If an event or person or idea is truly significant it will be given some broadcast time. Sometimes we get so fixated on the flickering image that we lose touch with the reality that lies beyond the image.
Author E. B. White tells of an evening when there was a total lunar eclipse. He stepped onto the balcony of his apartment in order to watch the phenomena. From where he stood he could see into the living rooms of several other apartments. He saw people sitting in front of their TVs watching a report about the eclipse. Instead of stepping outside to see the actual event taking place, they kept their eyes on the small screen. They chose the image over the reality.
In our culture it is a positive media presence that lends credibility to the speaker and his or her message. With the Corinthians, credibility was derived from the speaker’s rhetorical skills. The apostle Paul wasn’t willing to play by the cultural rules. He did not try to compete on an oratorical level. To the contrary, he writes to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstrations of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in human wisdom but in the power of God.”
Try to imagine Paul bringing the gospel into our time. Can you visualize him on TV? It is highly unlikely that Paul would embrace the master of ceremonies model or adopt the chatty entertainment style of a talk-show host. From what the apostle says in our Scripture text, it is easier to see Paul in front of the cameras with beads of sweat breaking out on his brow. Not knowing what to do with his arms, he folds and unfolds them nervously. In obvious discomfort, his eyes look down as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Haltingly, he begins to speak, his voice cracking and unsteady. All in all, he doesn’t project a very impressive image, does he?
But then, as his words begin to tumble from his lips, what does he have to say? Is it a message that will readily win the hearts of his hearers? Does he say something that will have immediate appeal, something consistent with the best minds of his day, or something that will distract his hearers from all the ugliness and pain that can be found in their world? That would be a wise approach. Instead, Paul says “I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified.” In the midst of the splendor and sophistication of Corinth, Paul preaches about the gruesome reality of the brutal and unjust execution of the Son of God. This is hardly an eloquent message for an elegant people, nor is it something light and lively for those who want to be entertained. Frankly, if Paul took this approach on TV, his Nielsen rating would be “in the pits.”
If wisdom is, indeed, “common sense in an uncommon degree,” Paul didn’t display very much of it either in his manner or in his message. Yet Paul contended that in spite of all of its scandalous foolishness, the cross is the focal point of the wisdom and power of God for our salvation.
The cross is a judgment against much of what is considered humanly wise. It was political wisdom that led to the crucifixion, in the first place. A politically pragmatic high priest in Roman-occupied Israel reasoned that this renegade preacher Jesus was causing such a stir that the wrath of Rome was likely to come down upon Israel. In light of this it was wise to get rid of Jesus. As the high priest said, it is better that one man die than the whole nation perish (
Yet God overthrew the wise intentions of the people with a truer wisdom, the wisdom of divine love. The cross — ghastly, cruel and horrifying though it be — is the embodiment of the wisdom of God “for our glorification.” Christ crucified is not what human wisdom would choose as a means to glory but, for us who have faith, it is a demonstration of the extremes of God’s love and the source of forgiveness and life. The cross tells us that true wisdom and the use of hope that comes with it are not ours by means of human accomplishment or speculative reason, but as a gift from the God of suffering love.
Such a gift seems too good to be true and so we seek other ways. In our century probably no greater wisdom can be found among non-Christians than was present in Mahatma Ghandi. Longtime missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones tells a story of one of his visits to Ghandi’s ashram. While there a man came to Ghandi and asked him how he might find God. After receiving Ghandi’s answer he came to Jones and asked the same question. Before replying, Jones asked the man how Ghandi had answered. The man said that Ghandi told him, “To find God you must have as much patience as a man who sits by the seashore and with a straw takes up a drop of water on the end of the straw, transfers it, and thus empties the ocean.” Ghandi saw the way to God as a matter of patience and diligent self-purification.
Jones then gave his answer: “I came to Jesus bankrupt, with nothing to offer except my bankruptcy. To my astonishment God accepted me and sent my soul singing its way down through the years.” Such acceptance is made possible by the cross, the wisdom beyond every wisdom.