©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

wisdom traditionIn Jesus, the sages’ peaceable way of wisdom gets taken up in the love of God and transformed into the gospel-shaped wisdom for loving not only one’s neighbors but also one’s adversaries. How is that possible? If it seems like a pretty bold claim, a large part of the reason why, I think, must be laid at our feet. The role of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom has been lost to us today. And we are the poorer for it.

This series of posts offers some thoughts about what it might take to start regaining that lost wisdom and get a line on what practicing it might look like today. We began this in the first two posts by getting a good feel for the region and the time in which Jesus lived and moved as a wisdom teacher. The diverse social, religious, and political atmosphere of ancient Palestine under the domineering power of the Roman empire, including its military presence, was felt by everyone everywhere. Including Jesus. Broken relations, sectarian agendas, and political injustices were as common to ancient Palestine’s disturbed polyculturalism as they are today.

Having set the stage, let’s look start to explore Jesus’s wisdom-based way teaching within those roiling waters. To his audiences, Jesus had a strange view about how people with conflicting interests could live more cooperatively and peaceably with one other. Jesus, regularly addressed as “Rabbi,” taught a wisdom-based way of resolving problems of differing interests, decision making in diversity, broken relationships, and community formation. For him, this way was natural. But to his audiences, even to his own followers, it sounded alien. Why was that?

Let’s start from the negative, by first identifying several things that we do not see Jesus saying or doing as a teacher of wisdom. When people came to him seeking counsel, Jesus did not regurgitate the vested interests, sectarian agendas, or partisan politics of the region’s economic and political powers, or those of the pundits in the media or on talk radio. Adherence to such views was often what had landed people in the broken relationships and sorry situations they had come to Jesus to repair. Neither did Jesus affirm the views that they were accustomed hear from their religious leaders. Nor did he, as so many were doing, promote Greek philosophy or faithfulness to Roman ideology – any more than today he would align himself with American Exceptionalism or any other form of nationalism.

And there is this. Jesus did not tell anyone that it would take becoming a Sadducee or a Pharisee, or a liberal or a conservative, or a Democrat or a Republican, or even a Jew or a Christian before they could start to have their relationships and situations repaired. This is quite a different approach, for instance, and to use Evangelical parlance, than getting people “saved” first, before any thought of saving their relationships and situations could move in more peaceable directions. You only need to consider the bloody internecine history of Christianity to see that “being Christian” is no guarantor preventing brother from rising up against brother.

Well, as they say, you can’t build a case on negatives. So what did Jesus to do? What did his wisdom consist of in the roiling cosmopolitanism of ancient Palestine? To his mixed audiences, and to whoever you would have been in those audiences, Jesus said some pretty outlandish things:

Don’t repay anyone violence for violence. Settle matters quickly with your adversary. Go the extra mile even with a soldier. Turn the other cheek. Forgive, forgive, forgive. Stop throwing stones. Drop the hypocrisy. Forget sectarian allegiances. Repent of your tendencies to othering and violence. Love your enemy, even. And if you hold a career in politics you are not excluded from practicing this wisdom.

This is only a small area of what a close engagement with the four Gospels reveals about Jesus the wisdom teacher. We will pick that up in the next post. But what does any of that have to do with the wisdom tradition and the wisdom of Jesus? Let me close this post with the following.

Those “sayings” from Jesus all comes from Matthew’s Gospel, which Ben Witherington calls a Gospel of wisdom (Jesus the Sage, chapter 8). Witherington concluded this after wondering “what it would have looked like to tell the story of Jesus in light of Jewish sapiential thinking about wisdom in general” and about Jesus himself “as the great parable of God’s wisdom, like and yet even greater than Solomon” (p. 335). Because Matthew was put together chiefly for Jewish audiences, and because it carries so much direct and indirect evidence of the Hebrew wisdom tradition, I think Witherington is on to something.

And to note just this also, “contrasts,” especially brief, striking ones, are integral to the Hebrew wisdom tradition. And at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which is in Matthew’s Gospel, which is where most of the above “sayings” are found, Jesus not only makes a striking contrast but one that deftly summarizes the entire (wisdom) book of Proverbs: If you put these word of mine into practice, you are a wise; if you don’t put them into practice, you are foolish (Matthew 7:24-27).

Continued in the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

wisdom traditionIn the previous post I offered a thumbnail sketch of the domineering political and military presence and rule of the Roman Empire over ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day. The empire brooked no quarter whenever uprisings were considered threats to its national, regional, or local interests, which were believed to be under the protection of the Roman pantheon of gods, with “Jupiter Great and Blessed” as its head. The imperial system of the magistrates, with its diverse military forces, keep the people of Palestine in line with the Pax Romana.

I admitted in the previous post that it was not until researching the new book that I began to consider Jesus’ role as a teacher of wisdom in ancient Palestine. I also should admit that I had never grasped the region’s religious and social cosmopolitanism. I had been taught as a young Christian that the region was uniformly Jewish. Any diversity was Jewish diversity. There were Pharisees, Saducees, political zealots, rich and poor Jews, that sort of diversity. And of course the were “the Romans,” whom the Jews despised.

But think with me for a minute about what the religious and social chemistry of Palestine in Jesus’ day was really like. That land, it was crazily pluralist, not unlike ours today. Besides Pharisees, Saducees, or ordinary Jews, Jesus’ audiences could at any time have included any cluster of Jews, Romans, Greeks, non-Jewish religious figures, government officials, political zealots, a magistrate’s political spies, apostates, pagans, philosophers, fishermen, soldiers, tax collectors, lawyers, you name it. One only has to visit the opening scenes of the book of Acts chapter two to see that Palestine under Roman occupation was a land of great diversity.

Further, and significantly, just as today, any number of ethnic, social, religious, political, or other interests and agendas would have been daily in close contact with one another, vying with each other, contributing to every conceivable kind of relational problem in a community or town. It was into this disturbed, regional context, under Roman rule, that Jesus was born and raised. Discovering how Jesus handled this as a teacher of wisdom held many surprises for me.

As discussed in earlier posts, it was the ancient sages who developed the wisdom tradition. Sometime during the Second Temple period before the birth of Jesus, the word “sage” began to be displaced by the word “rabbi” in the Jewish community, although connotations of wisdom remained strong in the emergence of rabbinic Judaism. As a Jewish rabbi of his time, Jesus would have been skilled in the Hebrew wisdom tradition. Exploring what this meant allowed me to start seeing Jesus as a sage for the first time. I began to see his wisdom-based way of reasoning about life and decision making and how much it squared with that of the Hebrew wisdom tradition, with its emphases on shalom, relationships, human diversity, and mutuality. (See previous posts.)

Focusing on Jesus’ role as a teacher of wisdom amid the contentiously disturbed cosmopolitanism of ancient Palestine added a dimension to his life that became so obvious I wondered how I had ever missed it. But because I had missed it, I had missed just how much the wisdom tradition informed what Jesus taught his mixed audiences. And what the might mean in a very practical way for us today.

We will pick it up from here in the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

So far in this series of posts on the wisdom tradition we have been considering two core features of wisdom that are vital for building and sustaining more cooperative relations amid human diversity. These two core features are peaceableness (shalom, as flourishing) and human mutuality (wisdom is for all humankind). And we have been considering reliance on them chiefly in local community and regional contexts.

Soon the posts will be going international. We will be exploring biblical and related narratives in which the wisdom tradition played prominent roles in the international relations and foreign policy of the old-world Middle East. Afterward, we will experiment with ways in which the agency of wisdom may be relied on in international relations today, with a special focus on U.S. – Middle East relations and foreign policy decision making. But just before we go international, I thought it would be good to dedicate several posts to the disturbed, regional context of ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day, and how Jesus as a teacher of wisdom handled it.

Roman empireFocusing on Jesus as a teacher of wisdom can be a bit difficult at first, at least it was for me, because other views of Jesus were prominent in my mind. As a Christian in America, I was taught to see Jesus as a healer and miracle worker, and as someone who was angry with the pharisees, and as someone who told great stories, and as the leader of twelve disciples, and so on. And especially as the savior. “Reading” Jesus’ life through such frames, however, as true as all of those are, gave me a blind spot. I was unable to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher. Sure, I knew that Jesus was a teacher and that the New Testament called Jesus the wisdom of God. And I knew that Jesus told a lot of parables and that the parables were part of the wisdom tradition. But I had never linked “teacher” to “wisdom” or heard any Christian instruction which emphasized that.

It was not until I was well into the research for this new book that I started considering Jesus in his role as a teacher of wisdom. That led to some surprising discoveries in how Jesus handled his own version of our contemporary, pluralist regions, with their great ethnic, political, and religious diversity. These discovers have added immensely to how I see Jesus, and in ways that I would not want to live without.

These discoveries began after I decided to get a good picture of the cultural, social, political, and religious scene of ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day. Here are few vignettes.

It was the time of the Roman empire and the empire’s occupation of Palestine, which affected your aspirations across the spectrum of life. At the top of the empire was the emperor and his imperium, exercising absolute control, with the blessing and favor of the gods. Just as Israel’s political and social life was rooted in its belief in Yahweh, Rome’s was rooted in belief in the Roman pantheon of gods, with “Jupiter Great and Blessed” as its head.

Just below the emperor and his imperium were the aristocratic families and the Senate. These aristocratic families were what we today would call the elite. The fathers had absolute control over these families, and the fathers could be summoned by the emperor at any time for their counsel. Well-reputed fathers of aristocratic families could become elders in the famed Roman Senate, which was an advisory body on both domestic and foreign policy. But the Senate did not legislate or have executive power.

In short, you lived under the dictatorial powers of the emperor and his imperium who, when analyzing a situation or making policy, may or may not listen to his elite advisers in the Senate or to the counsel of the aristocratic fathers.

But there was more still: the complicated and powerful imperial system of the magistrates. It was through the complicated hierarchical structure of the Roman magesterium that the tremendous political and military power of the empire was exercised over its vast holdings. The magistrates were tasked with keeping society moving along like a well-oiled machine. It was a system of government that had authority and power to legislate, to put down rebellions, and even to wage regional wars. In his writings, Luke gives us poignant glimpses of the power, authority, and functions of this system of governance (Luke 23; Acts 16).

And then of course there were “the people.” The empire grew by increasingly conquering and absorbing under its rule all sorts of diverse societies, ethnic populations, religious people-groups, tribes, city-states, and so on. This eventually hugely pluralist enterprise came to be know as the populus Romanus, the people of Rome. But having been conquered, you did not automatically become a citizen of Rome. In fact, one of the more ingenious political and social features of the empire was to make it possible to become a Roman citizen. We know from historians and from Acts chapter 22 that if you were not born a citizen you could pay a large sum of money for the privilege. You then gained the rights of Roman citizenship. But in return for that you served the empire, especially if required to during times of war.

Last but by no means least was the Roman military. Rome was an empire of war, as are all empires. Before Rome conquered the many and diverse peoples that came to rule, those peoples often waged regional wars against one another. It was the increasingly vast military superpower of Rome that clamped down on local and regional aggression and thus held the widespread empire at least somewhat peaceably together. Roman emperors ensured that their military forces – typically arranged throughout the empire as “legions” and “century units” –  suppressed revolts and kept social order. This was done under the authority of local and regional magistrates. The narrative recounted in Acts chapter 19 is a clear example of this authority being exercised during a riot at Ephesus.

We will pick it up from here with the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.


the better angels of our natureIn his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln had the unenviable task of speaking to a country on the verge of civil war. In the speech he walked a fine line between the North and the South to try to hold the Union together. Perhaps he sensed that was impossible, that war was inevitable. Five weeks later the civil war began.

What, you may ask, does the U.S. civil war have to do with the wisdom tradition. Not much, I grant you. But many years ago when I was racking my brain to call up some apt metaphors for the wisdom-based approach to diversity that I write about, “the better angels of our nature” came to mind. It seemed promising, but I could not recall who said it or in what context. I found it at the very end of Lincoln’s first inaugural.

Having spoken about “so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric,” Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” And then this, in which you can sense Lincoln’s gut telling him that the tipping point toward destruction had been reached:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature” (March 4, 1861).

After mulling that over, I saw what Lincoln was on about. His use of the metaphor, in context, shows us his deep understanding of human nature – its penchant to swing from listening to a devil at one ear and an angel at the other ear. But more than that, although he was realistic about human nature, Lincoln was not a cynic, a pessimist, or an anarchist. The last sentence of his speech reveals a president who preferred relying on angels better than war and who wished Americans would go and do likewise.

Being someone who likes to discover origins, I went searching, but concluded that the phrase “the better angels of our nature” originated with Lincoln. A shout-out to Gene Griessman, however, for pointing out Dickens. In Dicken’s novel Barnaby Rudge, the narrator muses: “the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.”

In an earlier post, I hinted that the sages were realistic about the human condition. I now want to a little more about that. The biblical wisdom literature is utterly realistic about human nature. No question. The literature repeatedly warns about folly, deceit, lying, laziness, cruelty, adultery, and many other all-too-human penchants. And often in stunning images. The point is to show why habitual acting on such impulses will devastate the life of an individual, a community, a nation.

Paradoxically, however, almost in defiance of that realistic picture, the sages seek to enable the kind of living that can seem a bit idealistic. They repeatedly call us to rely on the better angels of our nature. This comes into sharp relief in Proverbs, which stresses developing and cultivating attitudes, forms of communication, and ways of individual behavior and collective living that have as their goals the harmony and flourishing of our lives as communities and nations. And our political lives do not get to opt out of this.

In previous posts in this series on the wisdom tradition, I have stressed wisdom as a vital agency that advances shalom, healthy relationships, and mutual good amid human diversity. But there is with us everyday, day after day, that which seeks to run us into the ground, the shadows that seek to darken our paths.

So over the years, I have tried, and continue to try, to learn how to draw on the better angels of my nature when the devils are holding forth. I hope that you are too, and if you’re not, that you will begin to. Taking ongoing steps to learn wisdom and to make the wisdom way part of my DNA has been the best way I know to make the better angels more prominent. As a psychologist-friend once said to me, “Between stimulus and response is choice-point between being foolish or wise.” Choose wisdom, friends. Nothing that may be desired and sought is as precious as wisdom (Proverbs 8:11).

I think that the old-world sages of Scripture would have said a hearty “Amen!” to Lincoln’s image of the better angels, especially during that time when we were destructively divided, tearing our land apart, and killing one another. I also think the sages are turning over in the graves at how many devils are being listened to in our land today.

And I hope and pray for leaders with peaceable wisdom to arise and to be listened to, that perhaps by the mercy of the God we claim to believe in, our land may be spared a fate worse than that of a civil war.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.



©2014 by Charles Strohmer

wisdom traditionA number of posts in this series on the wisdom tradition have looked at ways in which our deepening reliance on wisdom helps foster cooperation and peace amid human diversity.  This is easy for some people to accept. It can be quite difficult for others, especially for some religious people.

Timothy Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, knows something about this. Since its humble launch in 1989 with fifteen people, Redeemer has grown to three locations that now see thousands of worshipers every Sunday. But it’s not the numbers I want to call attention to. It is the fact of Redeemer’s growth in Manhattan, which may be America’s most culturally diverse city. Tourists can even go on multicultural sightseeing tours to experience the diversity close-up. No joke.

You never know what to expect in Manhattan. Some years ago after meetings at the Council of Foreign Relations, I had to catch a cab to the airport. The driver was a young guy recently arrived from Pakistan, and I will tell you that not only was it hard to understand him, but we were suspicious of each other early on. But he was very chatty and we soon were talking about Pakistan’s politics, where we discovered during the half-hour drive a lot of common ground in that area. We also discovered how much about “politics and religion” that we agreed on. When I was paying the fare, we both quite naturally by then commented about how good it would be if we had more time to talk.

It is in that Manhattan where Tim Keller honed his diversity skills, for which he has become well known around town. Some unkind souls may say, well, what do you expect? He has compromised the faith. No, no. This is not that. The wisdom-based, peaceable possibilities of diversity that we have been considering can take place among Christians, Muslims, and Jews who know what they believe and what each other believes. They are fully aware of the irreconcilable differences between their faiths. They are open and honest with one another about that.

I remember a meeting where Muslim and Christian leaders in the room said: I wish you would convert to my faith, but that is not what we’re here for; this meeting has been convened to try to find a way to work together across boundaries to solve a problem. These leaders knew that their irreconcilable core differences need not prevent public collaboration on an initiatives of mutual good.

If you are a Christian who struggles with this, note what Keller has to say. I asked him about it a few years ago during a conference call. He locates this kind of pluralist engagement and “learning from the other” in the Bible’s teaching of common grace. Simply put, all human beings, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, or whether they believe in God or not, share gifts of wisdom, insight, creativity, and beauty because these gifts come to everyone. Christians call this common grace, Keller said, because they consider these as gifts that come from God. “If that’s the case,” he concluded, “then I could expect that my neighbor who does not believe anything like I believe might still have wisdom from God that I have to listen to.”