28th Sunday – The Call of Wisdom

Wisdom, Titian

Wisdom 7:7-11, Mark 10:17-30

Whence comes Wisdom? And what is wisdom? Wisdom, simply put, is insight into the good life. But what is a ‘good’ life? And how does one find it? When the Wright brothers created the first flying machine, they did what everyone considered impossible. That man could fly, defying gravity, like a bird. They did that by grasping the laws of aerodynamics, something that could not be seen, but only observed and reasoned. In so doing, they revealed something of how the world works. This would be properly classified as scientific knowledge, which our world today values highly. The Bible would consider this as one level of wisdom. As wonderful as science may be, there are principles greater than that. Understanding the laws of physics can give us mastery over the material world. But why are these laws even in place? And where does this world come from? Even more importantly, who is this creature which seeks such mastery, something that other creatures do not? Birds fly, but don’t wonder about it; monkeys don’t try to figure out a way to fly. Why do we wonder about such things? What does it mean, then, to be human? If we don’t understand that, we could be skilled in achieving the seeming impossible, like travel to space, but completely miss the point of our existence.

Ludwig Josef Wittgenstein

There is an interesting story of how Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the last century got into philosophy. He came from a family of geniuses, and the second wealthiest family in Austria at the time. He was an Engineer, designing a new propeller blade in Manchester, England (it was too advanced for the day and couldn’t be produced). But in doing this, he started questioning why numbers worked as they did. I don’t know when you last wondered why two plus two equals four or why zero has such special properties? He quit his promising career and started on a pursuit of philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge. His doctoral work was considered one of the biggest breakthroughs in Philosophy at the time. But no sooner had he finished that, than he left Cambridge to teach poor, elementary school children in village (the villagers didn’t always appreciate his Cambridge standard of teaching); he inherited billions from his father, but gave it all away. Someone found him living a very poor life in this village. Nothing of fame or fortune fascinated him, because his ultimate quest was wisdom, philo-sophia in the proper sense. He once wrote to his sister, saying, ‘Call me a truth-seeker and I will be satisfied’.

What Wittgenstein was pursuing from Engineering to Maths to philosophy was the meaningful, or good life. Wisdom is the ultimate ordering principle of everything, the meaning of everything. But where does one find this ordering principle? More importantly, what orders our own lives? Even for the most disorganised among us, there is usually, some method to our madness! We spend most of our waking hours at work, the marketplace. Do the principles that inform our marketplace, economics – do they – and should they rule us? Do we adopt different values when we are at home, and with our friends? In the Church? We switch so many different contexts; we don’t always think of what drives us in these different places. We can become completely fragmented. Who are we in all these places, and what is it finally that gives us meaning? These questions of who we are, why we are here, where we are going – are difficult, sometimes painful, and the answers don’t come easily. It’s easier to occupy ourselves with the immediacy of things than face them. But everywhere we are, this call to go further presses in on us. The book of Proverbs speaks of this call of Wisdom:

Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice;
on the top of the walls she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks
 (Prov 1:20-21)

She is not crying out simply in Church – but in the marketplace, where we work, as she did with Wittgenstein; she cries out in our living places, and in our public squares, as we deliberate as a community, prompting us to go deeper. She cries out to the young and old, the rich and poor, whatever our state of life might be. The ancients, across cultures, took this search for wisdom seriously. It was as important for Israel as the other cultures. But the great gift that Israel had was the Law. This Law was the revelation of the God who made everything. Physics gives the laws of matter, but God’s Law says something about what it means to be human. This was wisdom, divinely revealed. Because if God created the world, us and everything there is, then, then, there is a purpose to the world. Only the Creator can tell us why he created in the first place. Ultimate Wisdom, then, is the mind of God himself – and it can’t be found simply by studying the universe. It has to be revealed. The good life is to know life from God’s point of view.

This Wisdom, which cannot be reached, is what became incarnate as a person, in Jesus Christ. This is what we find in today’s gospel. This young man has been trying to live the Law to his best – and that is important. But even within this divine Law, wisdom calls forth; there should be more. For God’s mind cannot be captured in anything of this world, even the Law. And his upright life helps him recognise that there is something ‘good’ about this Rabbi. This is the purpose of the Law, to help us recognise Christ. As he comes up, it says Jesus was setting out on a journey. Jesus is always on the way, to the Father. And he invites him on this journey. Wisdom always involves a journey; one that doesn’t challenge and change us, is not the journey of Wisdom. And it is not one we can make by ourselves. But in one of the saddest instances of the Scriptures, he goes away sad, because the price is too great. 

This is the challenge of today’s gospel. This journey is unique for each one of us. We cannot know in advance what it will be like. Sometimes it will involve giving up things we are holding on to. But God is very gentle, he only invites. We can take the next step if we know that the one who calls us, truly loves us. And we trust in the promise of wisdom, the good life. Then, our life can come together. And those who discover this, find, like Wittgenstein and Solomon, that there are greater things than gold and silver. Maybe this week, pray, telling God, ‘Lord I want to go deeper in my faith. Call me and help me respond’.  And God will give generously of his spirit of Wisdom. Amen.

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