Lent 5 – Who Do You Say That I Am?

“Jesus as Wisdom Teacher,” Susan Ryder

This week, as we continue our Lenten series on “who do we say that Jesus is,” we consider Jesus as Wisdom Teacher. One of the things that made Jesus different from other teachers of his time is that he embraced and taught alternative, or subversive wisdom, not the conventional wisdom taught by the Scribes and Pharisees. Here are a few examples from Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew 5 (selected verses)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Matthew 7:13-14
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Marcus Borg Wisdom concerns a way of life, a path, a way of seeing reality. Wisdom is a way of seeing ourselves and our lives in relation to reality.

A question for you to consider this morning – think of an issue or challenge in your life or in the world. What does conventional wisdom say about it? What might alternative wisdom have to say about it if you were to look at it differently? Think about that as I share a few thoughts.

In his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg invited us to consider two types of wisdom. The first is conventional wisdom, of which he wrote: “Conventional wisdom is the dominant consciousness of any culture. It is a culture’s most taken-for-granted understandings about the way things are (its worldview or image of reality) and about the way to live (its ethos or way of life). It is ‘what everybody knows’ — the world that everybody is socialized into through the process of growing up. It is a culture’s social construction of reality and the internalization of that construction within the psyche of the individual. It is consciousness shaped and structured by culture or tradition.” The early bird catches the worm is an example of conventional wisdom. So is pulling oneself up by ones own bootstraps. What are some other examples of conventional wisdom that come to mind for you?

Borg continues: “Conventional wisdom provides guidance about how to live. It covers everything from highly practical matters such as etiquette, to the central values and images of the good life found in a culture. More importantly, conventional wisdom embodies the central values of a culture — its understanding of what is worthwhile and its images of the good life. Additionally, conventional wisdom is intrinsically based upon the dynamic of rewards and punishment. Life becomes a matter of requirement and reward, failure and punishment. Finally, conventional wisdom has both social and psychological consequences. Socially, it creates a world of hierarchies and boundaries. Some of these may be inherited… Some are more the product of performance: there are some people who measure up to the standards of conventional wisdom better than others. Psychologically, conventional wisdom becomes the basis for identity and self-esteem. It is internalized within the psyche as the superego, as ‘that which stands over me’ and to which I must measure up. The superego is the internalized voice of culture, the storehouse of [shoulds and] oughts within our heads, and it functions as a generally critical (sometimes congratulatory) internal voice. It is the internal cop or judge. Whether in a religious or secular form, conventional wisdom creates a world in which we live. It is a domestication of reality; it is life within a socially constructed world.

“Life in this world often is grim. It is a life of bondage to the dominant culture. … a life of limited vision and blindness… a world of judgment: I judge myself and others by how well I and they measure up. It is a world of comparisons… of anxious striving. There is an image of God that goes with conventional wisdom. When conventional wisdom appears in religious form, God is imaged primarily as lawgiver and judge. God may be spoken of in other ways (for example, as forgiving and gracious), but the bottom line is that God is seen as both the source and the enforcer, and therefore the legitimator, of the religious form of conventional wisdom. God becomes the one we must satisfy; the one whose requirements must be met. When this happens in the Christian tradition, it leads to an image of the Christian life as a life of requirements. [It is worth noting that] Conventional wisdom is not identified with any one particular [religious] tradition; it is pervasive in any tradition.”

The second kind of wisdom is subversive, or alternative wisdom, which ultimately “undermines conventional wisdom and speaks of another way, another path.” Jesus was a purveyor of this second type of wisdom. He was born into a social and religious culture that had been designed centuries earlier around the conventional wisdom of a “purity system,” which began with the purity code found in Leviticus. In Leviticus 19:2, we read these words attributed to God: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” Holiness was understood to mean separation from any and everything that was unclean. Thus holiness equals purity. A whole social, economic, political and religious structure was built around this social vision of purity. People, places, things, times and groups had their “proper places” in society, and Jesus grew up learning those cultural and religious expectations. However, at some point he began to experience God in a dramatically different way – as a God who was concerned with justice for people, a God who valued compassion. What, then, would Jesus do with that contradiction between his religious culture’s conventional wisdom and his deeply personal experience of God? Marcus Borg asserted that, “Jesus deliberately replaced the core value of purity with compassion. Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God.”

Borg pointed out that the wisdom Jesus offers is not about the right information or even the right morals. The wisdom Jesus offers is about a way of seeing the world, a pathway to living that leads to life. Borg wrote, “Conventional wisdom is intrinsically based upon the dynamic of rewards and punishments. You reap what you sow; follow this way and all will go well, you get what you deserve, the righteous will prosper, work hard and you will succeed. And…if you don’t succeed, or are not blessed, or do not prosper, it is because you have not followed the right path.” This conventional way of wisdom is exemplified by the wide gate I read about earlier, the wide road that leads to destruction. Jesus says traveling that road is like being on a freeway during rush hour, packed with travelers. The alternate road of wisdom, which is a critique of conventional wisdom, advocates an alternative perspective about the way reality works and how relationships ought to be engaged, whether with individuals, groups, or institutions – it is like traveling a narrow side street with fewer people; the road less traveled.

This is the intent behind the familiar sayings that are structured, “You have heard it said (insert conventional wisdom), but I say unto you (insert alternative wisdom).” I shared some in our opening litany. “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say ‘turn the other cheek.” Many of Jesus teachings have an obviously subversive edge to them – and these are what are considered to be alternative wisdom (and most likely actual sayings of Jesus). Borg points out that like Buddha, Jesus did not see himself as a founder of a new religion. Rather, they were the leaders of renewal movements within Hinduism and Judaism. “Jesus and Buddha were teachers of a world-subverting wisdom that undermined and challenged conventional ways of seeing and being in their time and every time,” writes Borg. “Their subversive wisdom was also an alternative wisdom. They taught a way or path of transformation.” That is key – the narrow path of alternate wisdom leads to transformation.

Jesus invited his hearers to leave conventional wisdom behind in order to live by alternative wisdom. Jesus’ wisdom teaching generally took two forms – aphorisms and parables. Aphorisms were his great one-liners – short, pithy, memorable sayings. They were crystallizations of awareness that provoke AND invite further insight. Examples of these are, “If a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.” Or, “Leave the dead to bury the dead.” His parables were short stories that invited the hearers to enter the world of the story and see things differently – such as in the Good Samaritan, which was a smack in the face of conventional wisdom about who was considered to be the neighbor to the man in need. Both aphorisms and parables are evocative and provocative forms of speech. Most importantly they are invitational – they invite you to see something you might not have otherwise seen, or to see it differently. And seeing is central to the wisdom teaching of Jesus. There are many sayings and healing stories about seeing. How you SEE makes all the difference. Ultimately, Jesus’ alternative wisdom teaching undermines and subverts the social boundaries generated by the conventional wisdom of his day and ours. Jesus’ points to the world of conventional wisdom as a culture of blindness; his aphorisms and parables invite us to see things differently.

Let me share a modern day parable as an example of alternative wisdom. On August 22, 2013, less than a year after the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, 20 year old Michael Hill entered Ronald McNair Learning Academy in Decatur Georgia armed with an AK-47-style assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. Inside the school were 870 children between five and eleven years of age, plus staff and teachers. Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper in the elementary school, was the first person Michael encountered when he entered the school. He confessed to her that he had not been taking his medication, and told Antoinette he had nothing to live for. Antoinette later recalled “My pastor, he just started teaching on anchoring, and how you anchor yourself in the Lord…I just started praying.” Antoinette not only prayed, she also began talking to the young man with respect and compassion. Much of the conversation was recorded on cell phone as she spoke with Michael, talked to emergency dispatchers, negotiated with police, and prayed. Antoinette said things like, “We’re not going to hate you,” and referred to him as sir and later as “sweetie” and “baby.” Antoinette went on to tell Michael about her own struggles, her divorce and disabled son, all while reassuring him. “I love you,” she said. “I’m proud of you. We all go through something in life.”

If you are as unfamiliar with the story of this strong African American woman who helped this broken young white man as I was, it is probably because it all turned out peacefully. No one was killed. No one was hurt. There was no repeat of Newtown, Connecticut that day. Antoinette kept the police at a distance, persuaded Michael to give up his weapon, lie on the floor and give himself up. Following the mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA offered these words of conventional wisdom, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Antoinette’s words exemplified alternative wisdom. In his article about the incident, author, Gary Younge notes what the wide way of conventional wisdom often looks like in our country, “Our politics,” says Younge, “particularly in an age of terror, austerity and growing inequality, are predicated on the basis that people are basically venal, selfish, dishonest and untrustworthy. The poor are assumed not to be looking for work, but cheating on welfare, foreigners are assumed to be taking something from a culture rather than contributing something to it; public sector workers, like Tuff, are assumed not to be devoted to public service, but a drain on our taxes. The disabled are assumed to be well. When we look at others, the default position in much of western political culture is not to see ourselves in them, but to see a threat.” Younge goes on to add, “Antoinette Tuffs courage stands as the most dramatic illustration of the degree to which we are, and can be, so much more impressive than our politics suggest.”

Although Younge never uses the language, he is nonetheless describing two different types of wisdom. The dominant or conventional wisdom of the world says, know your enemy, arm yourself with protection, and assume the worst in people. The alternative wisdom of Jesus, the subversive wisdom of the narrow way, insists on treating everyone with love. Walking the subversive wisdom path Jesus invites us to walk is the path that leads to life, but as Jesus also says “the road is hard,” it is no easy path. Gary Younge writes that when Antoinette Tuff hung up on the dispatcher and the police took Hill, she uttered through her tears, “Woo, Jesus.” The narrow gate, the wisdom path Jesus invites us to walk is the path taken by Antoinette Tuff, who anchored herself in the wisdom of Jesus and told a troubled young man with an assault rifle in his hands, “We aren’t going to hate you. Sweetie. Baby. I love you. I am proud of you. We all go through something in life.”

Back to the question I asked earlier – think of an issue in your life or in the world today. What does conventional wisdom say about it? What might alternative wisdom have to say about it if you were to look at it differently? For instance – conventional wisdom says if a woman dresses provocatively or drinks and flirts at a party, she deserves whatever happens to her. Or that a woman working in what is typically considered to be a man’s profession should not be surprised when she is harassed or overlooked for a promotion because of her gender. What would alternative wisdom say? #MeToo #TimesUp Conventional wisdom says that it’s not appropriate to get political after a school shooting, or that mental illness is what needs to be addressed, not gun control. Alternative wisdom is exemplified by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their courage standing up to the NRA, and organizing the March 14 school walk-out and the upcoming marches on the 24th. #NeverAgain

How does Jesus’ invitation to see differently affect your perspective and response to conventional wisdom?