©2014 by Charles Strohmer.
In 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
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