August 15, 2021
The story we read in 1 Kings this morning always conjures for me a Genie in a Bottle: “Ask what I should give you,” God says to Solomon. Sounds pretty awesome…or tempting. We all know stories where the punchline is: “be careful what you wish for.”
If God came to you today with this offer, what would you ask for? No doubt there would be a variety of answers. A quick internet search to see what people would ask of a Genie who offered three wishes turned up everything from curing illnesses, feeding people, the ability to fly(?), well-being of loved ones, and of course riches, material possessions, good looks, and a perfect romance. Even a very cursory search on this topic is pretty fascinating. What would you ask for?
Solomon asks for wisdom. God is pleased with this request. But why? What is wisdom? And why does it matter to God? Should it matter to us?
Let’s begin with what wisdom is NOT.
Wisdom is not piles of facts and data. In this information age, a steady stream of input is bombarding us (and, increasingly that input is peppered with all sorts of made up stuff). Like water from a firehose, information overwhelms us and numbs us. But with all this information at our fingertips are we any wiser? Are we any closer to God or to God’s design or intentions for life? We may understand how things work; we may be able to describe the pieces, the causes and effects of measurable data. But this is not wisdom. My sense is that there are some people in the world who know a lot of things, who are brilliant with observing and manipulating data and ideas, but who do not possess what anyone would call wisdom.
Also, wisdom is NOT something that you just “get” if you live long enough, something we automatically receive while passively meandering along the paths of life. It’s not like a good wine that simply becomes better as it ages. Wisdom must be cultivated—more like the work of the vineyard—in order for it to grow. In other words, wisdom is not guaranteed for adults and it is not beyond the reach of the young. As sister Joan Chittister puts it, “Wisdom is not a passive virtue—wisdom is not just something we soak up if we live long enough not to be able to avoid it. We have to work at getting wisdom or we will live a very shallow life.” Chittister says that wisdom is available for everyone who pays attention to their lives and to God. This paying attention is, it seems, at the heart of how we “work at getting wisdom.” The story is told that soon after the death of the greatest rabbi in the region, a traveler said to one of his disciples, “Your rabbi was renowned for his wisdom. What did he give greatest attention to in life?” The disciple thought a minute and said, “To whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.”
So wisdom is NOT information and data or something we can expect to mature without any effort on our part. But what is it?
The concept of “wisdom” is translated a number of different ways in different versions of the Bible: an understanding mind (NRSV), a discerning mind (CEB), an understanding heart (KJV), a heart with skill to listen (NEB), a hearing heart (ASV), a God-listening heart (MSG). Translators seem to labor to find a way to capture a union of head (mind), heart (soul/spirit/emotion), and will (discerning, understanding, listening, etc.). So at least one aspect of wisdom is being an integrated person (head, heart, and will) who, as a result, can be fully present in each moment. Maybe that is why some children seem so very wise—for they tend to live in the moment, to see and look around at the world with awe and wonder. And many children haven’t been “dis-integrated” yet…
This aspect of wisdom is cultivated through doing our own personal work, it requires doing whatever it takes to know enough about yourself, through loving and careful observation, to be conscious of yourself—to perceive and understand what you are feeling and thinking (and why!)—so that you can observe the present moment with clarity…and then to act or respond based on your observation. This is the wisdom required to not get “triggered” or “hooked” by things that can take you out of your center, out of your mind, out of your heart—things that can carry you off into irrational and reptilian and damaging behaviors or feelings or thoughts.
And, to be frank, this is increasingly difficult and important. We are currently in a crisis of civilization in which every single thing seems more fragile than ever—our planet earth, any semblance of peace, right relationships of care and justice and trust and solidarity—everything is teetering on the edge of or already well down the slippery slope. In the midst of the complicated mess we humans have made through foolishness, shortsightedness, greed, and fear, a mess that has and will continue to have painful consequences for all life, I believe that God is yet at work. All day long. But can we perceive it?
So many of the great spiritual traditions of the world agree that the practice of a healthy self-awareness (not neurotic self-obsession!) and attention to the present moment is at the heart of growing in peace, love, and wisdom. The integrated, conscious person is able to look at self, others, and the world with love and compassion, with patience, with a capacity to perceive God’s presence and power and grace—even in the midst of conflict or danger or discomfort or pain—or the complete mess we’ve made of things. This doesn’t mean that a wise person doesn’t feel fear or pain. It means that the wise person can modulate their response toward self and other that does not add harm.
Sr. Chittister says this: “Wisdom is life peeled and cored, it is attention and consciousness lived to the hilt…Wisdom calls us, the Scripture says, to know ourselves, to squeeze out of every moment of life whatever lesson it holds for us, whatever responses it demands at that time.” This is what we are being asked to do all the time. But in moments of struggle and confusion—like right now—a focus on this kind of consciousness is particularly important in order to keep any kind of solid ground under our feet or to hold on to any semblance of healthy perspective. Wisdom understood as Chittister describes it pulls us out of the shallows and into deeper places where simple categories don’t always work and decisions aren’t necessarily checking this box or that one. Wisdom allows us to perceive the complicated, intricate, confusing, beautiful intersections of the people and world all around us and to learn what they have to teach us.
So to be wise is to be integrated and conscious—of self, others, and what’s happening in the present moment. But there is another piece to wisdom. Discernment and action. The wise person doesn’t simply do no harm, but also seeks to do good. Solomon asked for a shomea lev, an understanding/hearing heart so that he might discern between good and evil and provide wise leadership for the people in his care. And, Lord knows, that is what we need more of at every level right now. A wise leader will be self-aware, digest all the relevant facts and data, will listen to a variety perspectives, will weigh the potential outcomes for the common good, and will make the best decision she can. None of us are inheriting a throne at a young age like Solomon, but every one of us is confronted on a regular basis with tasks, decisions, and responsibilities that will impact others’ lives and our own.
I found it interesting that the Hebrew words for “good” and “evil” are not defined as philosophical concepts but rather point to concrete outcomes of welfare or harm. What is “good” is that which benefits others and “evil” is that which causes injury or calamity. Wisdom is not value neutral. Wisdom—in our spiritual tradition—is ordered to what is good. Wisdom seeks to discern and act with the intention of doing less harm, of serving the common good.
Solomon starts off with a beautiful humility and a beautiful request of God. The way the story is told is that God responds with extraordinary generosity and fringe benefits.
If God came to you today, in the midst of all that you are experiencing in your life and all we are experiencing in the world, and said to you, “Ask what I should give you,” what would you ask for? Perhaps we can all learn from Solomon and ask for wisdom—not because we think we’ll get fringe benefits or because things will immediately get easy, but because wisdom is what we need to know what else we need! Wisdom is what we need to navigate this fraught, roiling, dangerous stretch of history without losing heart, mind, or soul. Wisdom is what we need to stay connected with God. Without true wisdom, our desires can carry us off into all sorts of confusion and worry and heartache. Without wisdom, we will struggle to discern between good and evil or to choose in ways that benefit ourselves, others, or the common good. Without wisdom, we cannot see what is right in front of us, we cannot discern what is most real and true, we do not know ourselves and therefore cannot truly share ourselves with others, and we miss the beauty and wonder of God’s presence and grace that is always dancing in and through the present moment.
Wisdom and the grace to actively cultivate wisdom in our lives—may this be our humble desire. May this be our prayer. For God’s sake and the sake of all that is…
 Sr. Joan Chittister, “Wisdom: A Gift or a Task?”