I had lunch the other day with a friend whose 18 year-old granddaughter was struck and killed by a car in June while jogging near her home in Mill Valley. He told me about what happened, and its aftermath, and of his struggle to make sense of it. And he said that he’d kept thinking about all the time that she wouldn’t have, all the life that she wouldn’t live, all the years she should have been in the world but wouldn’t be. And the injustice and flat-out wrongness of it was heavy on his heart and made him angry at God. But then, he said, something shifted in his thinking, and he stopped brooding on his granddaughter’s death, and began to remember her life. Instead of dwelling on her absence, he began to give thanks for her presence. And about that time she came to him in a sort of waking dream, and he knew that God had not abandoned her, had not forsaken him.
We like to think that God is wise, by which we mean that God knows the right thing to do, and does it. And if we are good and sincere people, we might hope that God will give us wisdom, too. The biblical figure who traditionally exemplifies this wisdom is Solomon. Solomon, who, thanks to the crafty politicking of his mother Bathsheba, won out over all his brothers and succeeded his father David on the throne of Israel. The story says that he was young and inexperienced and overwhelmed by the responsibility of governing the nation, so he went and made sacrifices to God. And though Solomon sacrificed in the wrong places, God answered his prayers anyway. God came to Solomon him in a dream and asked what he could do for him, and Solomon didn’t ask for long life or riches, or to be rid of his enemies, but for understanding and discernment, so that he might make wise judgements and be a good king.
The idea that God is the source of wisdom, and desires to teach that wisdom to us, is one of the great themes in the theology of the Bible. The scriptures not only say that God has created the world, and called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants to be his people; God has not only made a covenant with them, and liberated them from bondage; has not only brought them into a good land, and driven out other nations before them, so that they might dwell there in safety and peace; but God has also given them laws, ordinances, and commandments so that they might gain understanding and learn how to choose what is right.
The anti-Jewish polemic in the New Testament has caused us to think of the religion of Jesus as legalistic, as if the point of the law in the Hebrew Bible was to follow the rules literally and exactly, so that in doing so, God would find you righteous and favor you. Of course, that’s one way to interpret it, but that legalistic streak runs through all religions. There are a lot of Christians who read the Bible as a set of laws, absolute obedience to which, is our ticket to heaven. But if you read widely in the Bible you find a lot of places, especially in the Psalms, that speak of a very different understanding of the law.
This is the view that the commandments are the handiwork of God, much like the created world and the great acts of salvation history. They are not simply arbitrary requirements, but they reveal that God’s purposes are faithful and true. The point for us is not simply to obey the letter of the law, though that is important, but to study the statutes of God, to keep them in one’s heart and meditate upon them, to delight in them and allow them to illuminate one’s path in life, so that, in time, one might gain insight into the mind that gave them. It is the contemplation of the awesome grandeur, the sublime justice, the boundless compassion and mercy of that mind, that the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.” It is called “fear” not so much because of the threat of punishment for those who disobey, but because one has had first-hand experience, a little taste, has dabbled ones toes in the shallow ripples at the edge of the ultimate mystery. This fear, the Bible says, is the beginning of wisdom, the way that leads to knowing what God wants and even who God is.
That wisdom is partly the ability to make good choices even when the rules don’t tell you what to do. We may not have to govern a kingdom, like Solomon, but we all regularly face decisions where there is no clear-cut right-and-wrong, when there are competing principles at stake and it’s not obvious which should prevail. It is like this for me almost every time someone comes to our parish office asking for financial assistance. Sometimes the request is simple and I can meet it whole-heartedly without thinking about it very much. But more often the situation is complicated and I have to weigh my choices carefully.
I have to consider all different kinds of factors—have I helped this person before, and how recently? Will the assistance I give have a decisive positive impact, or will it just delay the inevitable? Is there something else this person needs more than money, and if so, what is it, and is there someone else who can meet that need more effectively than I can? In the end I have to make the best choice I can, within the limits of my power and my knowledge, and then I have to let go. The same goes for all kinds of choices I have to make, as a pastoral leader, as a husband and a father, as a citizen of my town and country, and a member of the human race. I assume it goes for all of us—we make the best choice we can, within the limits of our power and our knowledge, and make the best effort we can to follow through on the consequences, but at certain point, we just have to let go.
Because there are even more fundamental choices we have to make; we have to choose not just between different courses of action but between different basic orientations to life. It’s like the choice my friend had to make between agonizing over his granddaughter’s death and being grateful for the gift of her life. There are things we have no power to alter and no way to understand, realities that confront us with the choice between hope and despair, between love and hate, between peace and retribution. The wisdom that enables us to affirm the goodness and worthiness of life in the face of these realities is indistinguishable from faith. It is grounded in humility about the limits of our power and knowledge. It is freedom from the burden of having to know why everything happens the way it does, or of having to find the one right course of action that will make everything turn out okay. Wisdom is trust that there is one who will take up where we leave off, who will tie up the loose ends, and catch what falls through the cracks.
I think our faith in Jesus is faith in this kind of wisdom. It’s not so much that he sets us a practical example of good habits and sound decision-making. What I mean is that Jesus lives by what he knows of the living God. The love and goodness of God is nourishment for him, more essential than food. And everything he says and does is for the purpose of sharing that heavenly food with us, even giving his body like bread to be broken and his blood to be spilled like wine.
That gift, raised again and renewed by the Spirit, makes Jesus’ whole life a revelation of the wisdom of God. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have an inexhaustible subject of contemplation, disclosing depths that theological theories cannot penetrate, but only the radiance of love. Such love subverts all worldly wisdom, with truth and power that could only come from an infinite source, from the one who alone can tie up all the loose ends of our ignorance and suffering, and catch what falls through the cracks of death. And so we give thanks at all times and in all places, because in Jesus we have the bread of eternal life, the wisdom that satisfies a hunger nothing else can fill.