As a young girl, I loved the lead-up to the first day of school. My mom would take my sister and me shopping for new clothes and shoes. We eagerly selected the coolest Trapper Keeper and colorful folders to hold our assignments. There’s nothing quite like the smell of a new box of crayons or freshly sharpened pencils. I relished in my big-sister responsibility to guide my little sister in the ways of elementary school. At last the first day of school would arrive, and Andrea and I would stand side-by-side at the end of the driveway, laden with backpacks and lunchboxes, new shoes shining, while my mom proudly took our picture. Some things never change. Already a few first-day-of-school photos have dotted my Facebook feed, and I look forward to more in the week ahead!
As we send our students back to school, it is a good time to pause and reflect on what it is we hope they will learn and the kinds of people we hope they become – and a chance to remember that we are all still learning and becoming. Like a collection of back-to-school photos, Paul’s remarks at the beginning of today’s reading remind us just how fast time slips away. “Live wisely,” Paul says. “Make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” We could linger awhile trying to figure out just what Paul means about evil days, but at the very least, I think we can all agree that the days seem evil when they slip by carelessly or we stumble through them in a stupor, missing opportunities to live a good life and shape a good world. We remember that the days are evil when we look at our babies and wonder where their childhood went. The days seem evil when look back at our lives and wonder why we planned to enjoy them but never managed to find the time. The days seem evil when injustice and violence are roaming free but good people are too busy or too comfortable to speak out. Live wisely. Make the most of every opportunity.
Hebrew and Greek, like English, make a distinction between knowledge (gnosis) and wisdom (sophia). Knowledge is that important stuff that we send our children off to school to learn: how to write a formal letter; that water evaporates from the ground to the clouds and then falls again as rain; that the constitution of the United States guarantees people certain rights. Wisdom usually includes knowledge but is orders of magnitude different. Wisdom understands that a text message cannot replace a hand-written note; that wasting or polluting our water is bad stewardship of a precious resource; that those inalienable rights of citizens require advocates if they will be lasting and universal. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, wisdom is an attribute of God which humans can and ought to seek. Wisdom is the key to a good and abundant life where time does not slip carelessly away and evil is not the defining force.
Isn’t this kind of wise life what we want our children to learn? Aren’t these the kind of wise people we hope to become?
Thankfully, wisdom is not a commodity accessible only to the elite. Wisdom longs to impart her ways to humankind, if only we will sit in her school and complete her homework. We learn from Solomon and from Paul what a wise life looks like in practice. Those who are wise are marked by gratitude instead of grumbling; by humility in our relationship, and by the ability to discern between right and wrong.
Let’s start with gratitude. The call to gratitude in Ephesians is clear: “always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Solomon’s gratitude was more subtle: he recounted the steadfast love that God had shown to his father David and the blessing of kingship which now rested on him. I have always liked the discipline of gratitude because it is such a simple, tangible practice. Earlier this week I was at MUSC to make a visit, and I noticed a dry-erase board in the hallway between the hospital and the parking garage. At the top was a question: “What are you thankful for?” The tray was full of markers, inviting passers-by to articulate their gratitude, even in a place that most of us hope not to visit too often. What are you grateful for? How has God been good to you and your family? Write it down. Say it out loud. Pray it to God. Practicing gratitude teaches us wisdom.
We also see from Solomon and from Paul that wisdom is known by the high value it places on relationships, especially relationship characterized by servanthood. The primary relationship for the wise person is the relationship with God. In three verses, Solomon refers to himself as God’s servant three times. Paul often speaks of himself as not only a servant, but a slave, to Jesus Christ. Our prayers sometime betray us when we get confused and think of God as our servant: “Give me this;” or “Do that for me.” A good bit of wisdom has to do with humility in our relationship with God.
But Paul and Solomon also know that wisdom is learned by humility in our relationship with our neighbors. We see in Solomon a desire not to rule over the people of Israel but to serve them with justice. Paul all but assumes that Christians will live in community together, “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs.” And when Paul goes on to describe the relationship between brothers and sisters in Christ he says this: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submission used to be a bad word to me, one that I mainly understood as a tool to keep women or minorities in their place. (The word I now use for that practice is “subjugation.”) As my faith has matured, I have come to see submission as an act of my own will, not something someone else forces upon me. It is a conscious choice to stop demanding that things be done my way. It is a chance to say, “I do not have to be right all the time.” Our families, our friendships, our workplaces, even our churches are built up when everyone seeks the opportunity to serve the other instead of the self.
Practicing humility in our relationship with God and neighbor teaches us wisdom.
The central request of Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 3 is that God would grant him an “understanding mind . . . to discern between right and wrong” particularly as it related to governing God’s people. One of our goals for the youth ministry at Sea Island is to teach young people how to make wise choices. However, discerning between right and wrong is not always as simple to practice as the discipline of gratitude. We are sometimes prone think of discerning between right and wrong as a matter of knowledge, and is often goes like this: “I know that I am right, and you are wrong.” This is what happens when we draw lines in the sand and declare that everything (or everyone) on this side of the line is good, and everything (or everyone) on that side of the line is bad. The triumph of knowledge over wisdom is how we end up with tee-totaling piety that says all alcohol or dancing is bad. It destroys marriages by a refusal to compromise. It tolerates a presidential candidate who declares that most illegal immigrants are drug runners or rapists. This is not the wisdom that comes from God.
True wisdom recognizes that these are false dichotomies. We see this played out in the next chapter of Kings when Solomon is called upon to rule on a child claimed by two mothers. Which is the true mother? Knowledge would ask which woman gave birth to the baby. In wisdom, Solomon recognizes that the true mother is the one who loves the child enough forsake her own claim and save the child’s life. Discerning between right and wrong requires more than knowledge of the law or the facts. Discerning between right and wrong calls us to ask whether a given action or choice builds up or tears down; helps our neighbor or hurts her; makes Christ known or obscures him. To discern we must see the big picture, we must listen well, and we must seek the leading of the Holy Spirit through prayer and Scripture.
The reality is that seeking wisdom through gratitude, through servanthood, and through discernment may not lead to worldly riches, long life, or victory in the face of enemies. Solomon received wisdom and all kinds of worldly blessings. Paul, on the other hand, died young and poor at the hands of the Roman government. As our children fill their backpacks and tie their new shoes, we must vigilantly teach them and remind ourselves that wisdom is not a means to the end of worldly success. If we seek wisdom so that we can get rich, live long, and triumph over our enemies, we are foolishly missing the point. The wisdom of God – as it is made known through Solomon, through Paul, and especially through Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh – offers us a chance to make the most of time and live a life of abundant love in the name of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself up for us. That is the point! Whether you are young or old, a parent or a child, a student or a working professional, may you find yourself sitting in the classroom of Lady Wisdom, receiving her teaching and learning her lessons for a good and abundant life.
May it be so. Amen.