Sermon: A Different Kind of Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Micah 6:1-8)
Feb. 2, 2014
I suspect that this section on the wisdom of God versus the wisdom of the world (which extends to 1 Cor. 2:16) was prompted by the spiritual arrogance of some in the Corinthian church who were claiming to have special wisdom and knowledge of God, and therefore were deserving special honors and status.
When Paul talks about the wisdom of the world he is not talking about Greek philosophical wisdom. The wisdom of the world that Paul has particularly in mind is the wisdom that crucified Jesus. The wisdom of the world Paul is referring to is the kind of wisdom expressed in domination systems. In our context it would be powerful governments and corporations who wield enormous power and wealth to shape society in view of their own self-interests.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (“The First Paul”) call the wisdom of the world “the normalcy of the world, the way life most commonly is, the way things are.” You could say that the wisdom of the world is expressed anytime individuals, organizations, institutions, communities, and whole societies act in their own self-interest. It is the wisdom of “might makes right” and the end justifies the means. It is the wisdom of “What is mine is mine” and some would add, “and what’s yours is mine, if I can get it.” It’s the wisdom expressed in the popular At&T commercials: “It’s not complicated, bigger is better, more is better.” How different is the wisdom of Jesus where all through the Gospels Jesus invites his followers into lives of simplicity where “less is more.”
Is our country controlled by the wisdom of the world? There is much talk about American exceptionalism isn’t there? We hear it from our president and everyone else in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats. If there is one thing both parties can agree on it is American exceptionalism.
Are we exceptional when it comes to being controlled by the wisdom of the world? All empires, including the American empire, regardless of their operating systems are controlled by the wisdom of the world.
In our country we see it in the huge disparity between average people and the very wealthy who wield much influence over politicians and people in power.
We see it when our country can invest huge sums of money to stockpile weapons of destruction or acquire large sums of money by selling these weapons to other nations, and yet we do not invest the kind of basic resources needed to create conditions that will lift the poor out of poverty.
We see it when people migrate to this country to escape war, poverty, oppression, and in some cases almost certain death, and we deport them back into those horrible conditions because they are here illegally. There can be a world of difference, sisters and brothers, between what is legal and what is moral, just, and right.
We see it when our drones fly into other countries to kill our enemies, with the inevitable collateral damage, meaning that innocent fathers, mothers, and children are killed or maimed or harmed for life.
But let’s not overlook the way you and I are duped by the wisdom of the world. When we as individuals care more about upward mobility and climbing the ladder of success, when we care more about appearance and achievement, when we are concerned more with our place, position, and prominence, than we are about the common good or loving our neighbor as ourselves or treating others the way we would want to be treated, then we are operating by the wisdom of this world/age.
How different is the wisdom of Jesus who told his power and position grasping disciples who kept arguing about who would be the greatest that while the rulers of the world seize and wield power, it must not be so with you. Jesus said to them, “You want to be first, you want to be great, then forget about being first or great. You must be the servant of all.” Not a servant of a select few who can advance our cause and support our climb up the ladder, oh no. We are to be the servants to all people. And if Jesus is our model, then that especially means the excluded and marginalized, as well as the poor and the impoverished.
Paul finds the ultimate expression of the wisdom of God in “the message of the cross,” the message of “Christ crucified,” which he claims was utterly ridiculous and absolutely absurd to the rulers and leaders of this age. I would add, it was ridiculous and absurd until the church turned the cross into a theory of atonement which God required for the forgiveness of sins. When the church did that, then the rulers of this world/age no longer took offense in it. Then, belief in the cross simply became the means to enter a heavenly world. It was no longer offensive.
The church has paid a heavy price for this dumbing-down of the message of the cross into a theology of hell evasion and heavenly bliss. Let’s not forget what the cross was. It was an instrument of torture and execution reserved for those who dared to challenge the imperial might of Rome. Crucifixion was a horrific way to die imposed by Rome to display publicly what traitors and rebels of Rome could expect. So how does Christ crucified become, as Paul says, the wisdom and power of God?
Jesus’ death cannot be separated from the life he lived that led to his crucifixion by Rome. I have no doubt that when Paul references Jesus’ death in his letters, which he does quite frequently, usually in sacrificial terms, he is succinctly and poignantly summing up the entire life and career of Jesus.
Jesus centered his life in the rule of God. He gave himself over to God’s will, preaching good news to the poor, freedom for captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. He crossed borders, broke down boundaries, accepted the unacceptable, forgave sinners, healed lepers, included the marginalized, loved enemies . . . and what happened? Paul sums it up in two words, “Christ crucified.” They put him to death. He threatened the normalcy of their world.
The wisdom of this world had no use at all for the wisdom embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. His death on the cross was the culmination of a life lived sacrificially for the cause of God and the good of others. So when Paul speaks of the cross it represents the suffering love of God and, unfortunately, what we can expect when the domination system (the wisdom of the world) is confronted and challenged by the wisdom of God.
The cross was not an answer to some sort of cosmic dilemma in the mind or character of God about whether or not God should forgive sin; it was not a solution that satisfied God’s honor or justice as if God’s honor or justice needed satisfying. And certainly the death of Jesus was no appeasement or propitiation of divine wrath. Jesus didn’t bear the wrath of God; he bore the wrath of the powers that be, he bore the wrath of the religious and political establishment.
Unlike other ancient deities, the God of Jesus forgives freely by divine grace. The God of Jesus does not require human sacrifice. The sacrifice that God wants is a pure heart, a readiness to receive and share God’s love with others.
Isn’t this what the prophet says? “Shall I come before the Lord with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (6:6-7) If God doesn’t want that from us, surely this is not what he wanted from Jesus.
What does God want? What does God require? What is “the good” that God expects? It is this: “to do justice (that is social justice, restorative and distributive justice, working for a just society), and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This is the sacrifice God wants, sisters and brothers: lives and communities committed to social justice, to deeds of mercy and compassion, and to authentic humility.
I know it’s the Old Testament, but could there be a better summary of what it means to love God and love your neighbor as yourself? This is the wisdom of God. This is what saves. This is the main course. Everything else is an after dinner snack that we probably don’t even need. If we just focused on these main things – social justice, deeds of kindness and mercy, genuine humility before God and one another – then everything else would take care of itself.
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This antithesis that Paul develops between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God should not be understood as an antithesis between what in our culture is commonly distinguished as the secular and the sacred. The wisdom of God can be found anywhere, right in the midst of the so-called secular. You don’t have to be in some holy place to encounter God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom can show up anytime – anywhere to challenge our assumptions, expectations, commitments, and priorities rooted in the normalcy of this age.
A beautiful expression of this plays out in the movie, “I Am Sam.” Sam, who has the mental capacity of a seven-year old, father’s a child with a homeless woman who then abandons them. He is left to raise the child himself. He gets by for a while, but when his daughter, who can read better than he can starts to drop behind in school, he gets in trouble.
The child is taken from him and placed in a foster home. Sam is allowed two supervised visits per week. He picks a law firm, quite by accident, and ends up in the office of Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) who tries at first to get rid of him. She has a reputation of being cold and unfeeling, but in order to prove that she is not heartless, in a case of office one-upmanship, she takes the case pro bono.
I am not going to tell you what happens, you will have to watch the movie, but in the course of her developing relationship with Sam and his daughter, his honesty and humility and love for his daughter changes her. She becomes a different person. It is a vivid portrait of how the wisdom of God can transform a person who formerly was thoroughly immersed in the wisdom of this world.
Paul wrote, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God choose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” Humility and generosity and forgiveness are the only appropriate responses to the wisdom of God. Indeed, they are expressions of God’s wisdom.
In an article in “The Christian Century,” Pastor Matt Fitzgerald wrote about a shocking encounter with the wisdom of God when he visited a man on death row who had been convicted of brutally murdering a teenage girl 21 years earlier. This man had claimed God’s love and had experienced God’s grace.
Fitzgerald wrote: “This man had claimed the love of God as his own. He had claimed what I preached. And yet when the evidence was in front of me, I could not believe it. I’d spent a lot of energy trying to contain God’s presence. I had carefully learned rituals and chosen music and crafted sermon sentences that aimed to cultivate grace.”
“What I had either forgotten or never learned is that right next to all of us is something that’s out of control: the power of God. It’s a surging and crackling energy, a wideness that the church hints at but doesn’t own. When I felt it come alive in that prison it made me jump because it defied a deeply, ingrained belief in justice and decency [justice as in getting what one deserves]. How could a murderer grab hold of the same love I’d been given?”
The wisdom of God is all about this kind of undeserving love and the way it brings about humility, honesty, generosity, and forgiveness. Forrest Gump captured the wisdom of God in a single line: “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” Whenever love is present, God is at work; whereever love is, God is.
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Our Good God, help us to be discerning enough to know the difference between your wisdom of which the cross is the ultimate expression, and the wisdom of the world. Give us a desire, a hunger, a deep passion for what is good, true, and just, for what is compassionate and uplifting and will promote human flourishing – in the world, in our communities, in our families, and in our lives. Amen.
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Chuck is the author of “Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith.” Read the Introduction at Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com