7-23-17 “Hero Central” Series - “God’s Heroes Have Wisdom”
We have two very interesting scripture passages this week with which to delve into this idea that “God’s Heroes Have Wisdom.” The one passage, from the Hebrew Bible, shares one of the most famous examples of the much celebrated wisdom of King Solomon, while the other bears witness to the growing wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, even as he is but a child.
And let’s begin by considering just what we mean when we talk about wisdom. Wisdom is different than intelligence; if anything it is intelligence plus; it includes intelligence but also transcends it. Wisdom also includes, I think we would agree, insight; that is the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships that might not be obvious or on the surface.
At the same time, along with these two characteristics, I think wisdom also includes good judgement or good sense. So, a person we would describe as wise would display at least these three character traits, if not others as well. And wisdom is also something that is generally thought of as coming with age or life experience. There are exceptions - we sometimes speak of someone being “wise beyond their years” - but often, those we think of as possessing wisdom also possess a longer life experience.
And wisdom is mentioned in Scripture 334 times, at least in the Common English Bible translation that we use. And in the typical Bible there are six books specifically - Esther, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Psalms - that are commonly referred to as The Wisdom Writings. In fact, the vast majority of those 334 mentions of wisdom found in the Bible occur in these six books which are very different from one another even as they are grouped together under this shared heading.
And in scripture, the idea of wisdom, from the Greek word sophia, is considered a characteristic of God and is described as female or feminine in nature. Just one of the many, many examples of this portrayal can be found in Proverbs 1:20, where it says “Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice.” (Prov. 1:20)
Of all the humans who are considered to be wise in the Hebrew Bible, from priests to powers to prophets, there are probably none thought of as highly as King David’s son, Solomon. Solomon was the second king of Israel and ascended to the throne upon David’s death. And while David was described as being “a man after God’s own heart,” Solomon was not really a chip off the old block, which a study of the book Second Kings will reveal. That said, Solomon is considered, despite his flaws, to possess great wisdom, to which our reading about the two prostitutes fighting over the surviving child testifies. And scripture tells us that he acquired this great level of wisdom because, given the opportunity to ask God for anything he wanted, rather than praying for power or riches, he asked God to give him wisdom. Now honestly, who among us would have been wise enough to make THAT choice in the first place? So, whether or not we could consider Solomon one of God’s heroes (read 2 Kings carefully and decide for yourself), at least in the Hebrew Bible, he is raised up as the poster boy for wisdom.
So, in week one of our series, “God’s Heroes Have Heart,” alongside David the newly anointed king of Israel, we considered the superhero Captain America as
a popular culture hero who also displayed heart. And last week, as we claimed “God’s Heroes Have Courage,” we read of Abigail’s display of courage in 1 Samuel 25, in dealing with her foolish husband Nabal, she averted destruction for the entire household, and how that courage compared favorably to the superhero Wonder Woman. That said, pop culture and wisdom aren’t things we usually consider together, even often thinking them mutually exclusive. But in looking for superheroes who display great wisdom, the consensus among comic book aficionados is that wisdom is a trait most closely associated with Professor Charles Francis Xavier, also known as Professor X, the founder and leader of the X-Men of Marvel Comics fame. First appearing in 1963, Professor Xavier is a member of a subspecies of humans known as mutants, born with superhuman abilities. The founder of the X-Men, Xavier is an exceptionally powerful telepath who can read and control the minds of others. He runs a private school to both shelter and train mutants from around the world. Xavier also fights to serve a greater good by promoting peaceful coexistence and equality between humans and mutants in a world where zealous anti-mutant bigotry is widespread.
From a social policy and philosophical perspective, Xavier deeply resents the use of violent methods by some to end bigotry, and has presented his platform of uncompromising pacifism to see his dream to fruition - one that seeks to see mutants live harmoniously alongside humanity, just the same as it desires full-fledged civil rights and equality for all mutants. In this regard, Professor X’s actions and goals in life have often been compared to those of Martin Luther King, Jr. for his involvement with the America Civil Rights Movement. And having been created in that same era, one has to think King’s methods might have somehow influenced the creation of the Professor X character.
So, Professor X is certainly a viable candidate for superhero wisdom accolades. But, as I move by a couple of degrees of separation, in the recent movies, Professor X has been portrayed by the great British actor Patrick Stewart, who some of you might remember played Ebenezer Scrooge in the version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that we showed last winter as part of our Advent Series. But Stewart is even better known for is his portrayal of Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard, unlike the swashbuckling Captain James T. Kirk of the original series, is by all accounts, a wise, reasoning, cerebral sage of a captain who uses his brains, his intellect, his insight, and his good judgement to navigate not only the galaxy, but the pitfalls that regularly envelop a ship boldly going where no one has gone before.
So, with these ideas of what wisdom looks like in modern pop culture and in Old Testament scripture, how does our Gospel reading today fit in? Well, first of all, let’s consider where this passage fits into the context of Luke’s overall gospel narrative. This story follows after that of Jesus’ circumcision and presentation at the temple to Simeon and Anna, where both declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised one.
And it comes immediately before the story of Jesus’ baptism, where Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is affirmed by God and where the Holy Spirit descends on him. So today’s passage is the stepping stone passage that marks a milestone in that journey.
At twelve years old, Jesus is one year shy of what is considered adulthood for Jewish males at age thirteen.
In the larger context of the New Testament, we need
to always remember that in each of the gospels we’re learning at least two different things:
First, of course, we’re learning about Jesus: we learn of events, things he said, things he did, and so on. But second, we’re also learning about how the author thinks about or views Jesus. So, in that sense, the gospel writers are no different than anyone else, they bring differing points of view about who Jesus is into their work. This understanding of point of view in scripture is called their “hermeneutic,” and we see different hermeneutics in the different gospel writers. But hermeneutics aren’t exclusive to Bible scholars. I heard an interview on the radio this week with a songwriter who was asked to write a song about a book of the Bible for a collection celebrating the 500th anniversary of the first printing of the King James Bible. The songwriter, not a religious person, responded to the request saying, “send me a book from the New Testament where Jesus acts like a socialist and I’ll write about that one.” So they sent him Luke’s gospel and he wrote a song titled “Do Unto Others.” The point I want to impress upon you in that story is that while we’re reading about Jesus, we’re reading about Jesus as interpreted through the lens of one of four gospel writers who all chose what to include or not include in their gospels, who all chose how to tell these stories, based on their own personal understandings of and feelings about Jesus. We should never forget that fact when we read the gospels or we might, in fact, misread them.
Now in ancient civilizations, it was common for great leaders, Alexander the Great, Caesar, and others in more recent times for example, to have qualities of greatness ascribed to them at a very early age. Alexander, Caesar, and later Napoleon Bonaparte were all said to be child prodigies of one sort or another.
Luke, writing about Jesus within the context of the Roman Empire, in telling this story of Jesus as a child - and he’s the only one of the gospel writers to include this story - does the same, seeking to demonstrate that Jesus is superior, not just to all other Jewish prophets, but superior to the greatest emperors and powers in history to that point.
And it’s also helpful to remember, since Luke is not writing primarily to Jews but to Greeks, that at the time Luke was writing in the 70s or 80s of the first century, the Temple that he describes has already been destroyed, and the kind of Temple ritual that he describes is no longer possible. So, he’s not only looking back through time in his telling of Jesus’ story, but also in telling of the context in which it took place.
Now, another thing we should consider in thinking about this story, is what this story is NOT about. And to do that, let’s look at it more closely.
41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom.
So we understand that this is a devout family.
It wouldn’t be cheap for a family to make this journey. The trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem would be about a two hour drive now, but in Jesus’ time it was a days-long walk. Families traveled in large groups mainly for safety purposes, but also to share in the expenses and because this was a family time of worship.
43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. 44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends.
In our current atmosphere of “helicopter parenting,” the idea that parents would not know exactly, down to the latitude and longitude, where their child was seems prehistoric at best and negligent or criminal at worst. But this was a different time wasn’t it? In fact, not that long ago was a “different time” in that respect. I don’t know about you, but I know that when I was twelve years old I was “free” all day long. My mom worked, so I got myself off to school in the morning and came home to an empty house in the afternoon until she returned home. And in the summers I was outside on my own from the time I got out of bed until dinner time - rarely coming home during the day. We didn’t have cell phones to “check in” throughout the day. I would walk or ride my bike all over town. I certainly wasn’t scared to be alone in that way and I don’t believe my mom was overly concerned - she trusted me to stay out of trouble, which I did…for the most part.
Nobody was overly concerned about child abduction or anything like that then. Aware, yes - but worried, no. Some people are of the belief that issues of child abduction or child molestation occur more frequently now than they did then, and while I haven’t done any empirical research on that issue, my inclination is to believe that not to be the case. Rather, I think because we didn’t have the 24 hours news cycle then that we have now with cable news, we just didn’t hear about these things with the regularity that we do now.
When we now hear about this kind of event with the hourly drumbeat of constant news geared towards keeping and maintaining viewers and ratings, combined with amber alerts and milk carton ads, I think it leads to a hyper-awareness or even, in some cases, a paranoia that didn’t exist when we only received or watched the news once a day from Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley or from a daily local newspaper.
And I say all of this because I have often heard this section of the passage talked about as an example of bad or negligent parenting by folks looking back at this event and trying to superimpose a 21st century lens or standard on a 1st century event. That rarely works out well for anyone.
So, this passage is NOT about helicopter parenting, nor is it a critique of Mary and Joseph’s parenting style. In fact, it says they looked for him among their family and friends as they traveled, so they weren’t being negligent, but they did make an assumption that turned out to not be the case. And so the passage continues:
46 After three days (notice in this passage, written forty years after the fact, the symbolism Luke uses, the emotional memory he appeals to here in his use of 3 days, like the legend of Jonah in the whale or, more pointedly, Jesus in the tomb), After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers.
Now clearly Jesus was pretty smart for a twelve year old, but he was still a twelve year old. I’ve heard this passage interpreted, as perhaps you have as well, as suggesting that Jesus was somehow teaching the teachers, but that is not the case; that’s not what the passage says. It says he was sitting among the teachers, listening to them, asking questions of them. And that everyone was amazed by his understanding and his answers. Jesus is a good, inquisitive student, and for a twelve year old he’s got a good head on his shoulders. And that points us toward what I think it the key to this passage, at least for us today, and it’s summed up in the last verse.
52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.
Jesus matured in wisdom and years, it says.
“Maturing in wisdom and in years” is what we’re all supposed to do, right? I mean, we don’t maintain a twelve year old’s wisdom when we’re 30, 40, 50, or older. We’re to grow in our wisdom as we grow in our years.
As people of faith, we’re to grow in our faith as we grow in our years as well. As the film For the Bible Tells Me So that we offered last year suggest so succinctly, “a fifth grade faith is perfectly fine… if you’re in the fifth grade.” We’re all called to grow and mature in our faith, but Jesus, Luke suggests to us, was wise beyond his years. And he emphasizes his point, in part, through his borrowing of some wording from the Old Testament passage with which Luke’s passage is paired in the revised common lectionary, from 1 Samuel.
In our passage from Luke, the last verse of this section reads
Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.
The corresponding line from 1 Samuel 2:26 reads
the boy Samuel kept growing up and was more and more liked by both the Lord and the people.
So while it’s a subtle reference, the Jewish readers of Luke’s gospel would have understood immediately the comparison Luke makes between Jesus and one of the great and wisest of Jewish prophets and Judges, Samuel, the one who, when he grew into adulthood and wisdom, anointed David to be king.
Both passages tell the stories of two pillars of our faith when they were children. And Luke, in telling this story of Jesus - and he’s the only gospel writer who does - is careful in selecting the words he uses in his Gospel, what he says in chapter 1 will be a “very orderly account.” His words are nearly the exact words used in 1 Samuel to describe the boy prodigy Samuel. Luke didn’t choose to borrow words about Moses as a child, or David as a child in describing Jesus, he used words about the prophet Samuel, who lived to be a very old man, who was considered very wise and powerful and who clearly had the ear of God. He chose these words of description to end this singular, post-birth story that we have of Jesus as a child because he knew that Jewish readers of the time would make the connection that is primarily lost on us.
And why is this connection lost on us?
Well for a couple of reasons - besides the obvious one that we’re not Jewish. In the Revised Common Lectionary three-year cycle of readings, this pair of passages from 1 Samuel and Luke fall on the 1st Sunday after Christmas, which is typically a pretty low attendance Sunday in churches, so many don’t hear this passage preached often. Another reason, though, is that when we do hear it we often bring our own hermeneutic to the hearing, and consider it primarily through the lens of divinity, taking what we know now about Jesus and trying to impose our understanding onto a twelve year old who didn’t yet understand. And because we want this story to be just about Jesus’ precociousness, it takes the heat off of us. We expect the Son of God to be wise, he’s the Son of God, after all.
And so we feel justified in lowering expectations for ourselves when it comes to growing in wisdom.
But what Luke shows us is a gradual transformation into wisdom on Jesus’ part that reflects the meaning of incarnation, of God taking on flesh in the person of Jesus. If Jesus is just a fully developed, all-knowing, all-powerful God in a boy’s body, then he means nothing to us. Of course God is wise, and God dressed up as a boy will be wise as well. But the incarnation is not about God donning a costume and pretending to be one of us, it’s about God literally becoming one of us in the life of an infant human who grows into a boy and finally into a man in Israel. If Jesus didn’t live a real human life, feel real human pain, go through real and authentic life experiences, and learn and grow from them just like all humans do, then Jesus means little or nothing to us. No, this story fills in the gap between Jesus’ dedication to God in the Temple as an infant and his baptism and entry into ministry as an adult by showing us that Jesus grew in and into his wisdom and understanding, it wasn’t just bestowed on him or kept secret within him for some grand unveiling later on.
And Theologian Wes Avram affirms this gradual growth process in both Jesus and his followers when he writes of this passage,
“There is a theme of slow growth and transformation. Jesus is always already Messiah, and yet he also grows into that role. As Mary protects, holds, and treasures what she already sees of her son in her heart, so the Spirit moves in protected ways within us, and within God’s people, through the many experiences of grace we receive. Transformation may not be instantaneous. It may grow slowly. Yet even so, it may still become every bit as dramatic as the promise it fulfills.” - Wes Avram
The promise that this growth and transformation in wisdom fulfills in Jesus is quite dramatic, I think we would all agree. But remember in John’s gospel, Jesus proclaims that his followers will do things even greater than what he has done. That seed of wisdom, that of God which we see in full bloom in Jesus is planted in us as well as Children of God. So just as “heart” and “courage” are not exclusive to those people we think of as “superheroes” in the faith but are available to us as well, so too is wisdom. We grow and transform in our faith through study, through prayer, through worship, and through the practice of spiritual disciplines, so that we too might grow in wisdom and in favor with God and God’s people.
So as we go into the world this week remember that it requires heart, courage, and wisdom to grow in our faith. It takes wisdom to be open to think differently about something you’ve always thought of in one way or another. It requires courage and is a sign of wisdom when we allow ourselves to be transformed in ways that we may not even think was possible, remembering that scripture tells us that all things are possible with God.
So, go into the world this week looking at people’s hearts, not as the world does but as God does, displaying the courage that God gives us in grace so that God’s Spirit might transform you, and grow in you the wisdom that God plants within all who truly seek God’s way. Amen.