Given that wise men from the east figure in our Liturgy today, I would like to say something about wisdom itself. So what is it and how do we acquire it. Well, on the question of what it is, it’s one of those areas where it’s easier to say what it isn’t than say what it is. It’s certainly not intelligence. Intelligent people can do very clever things, but that does not mean that they are wise. Highly intelligent people invented the nuclear bomb. to know. But was it a wise thing to do? Novels and films are filled with mad scientists and evil geniuses causing havoc for the world, perhaps the best known example in recent years being Jurassic Park. In the film, intelligence and technology recreated the dinosaurs, but the underlying question at the heart of it was whether it was either wise or right to so?
It was a Hollywood Blockbuster, but behind all that it was asking a very fundamental question about the future of humanity. There are all kinds of things we can do in the areas of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, sophisticated weaponry and so on. But should we? Would it be wise to do so? Do we have the wisdom we need to cope with them? Or would it be like giving a disturbed ten tear-old a machine gun for his Christmas?
Nor is wisdom the same thing as knowledge, a particularly important question at a time when, through the internet and social media, we have access to more knowledge than anyone in the past could have dreamt of. But can we trust it? Do we know what to do with it? Does it do us any good? A lot of it is very good and well-worth having, but there’s so much of it that is not. People in the past did not have access to a fraction of the information we have, but they were not in any way diminished as human beings by that. A society that puts too much emphasis on a certain kind of intelligence runs the risk of judging everyone by far too narrow a standard. There are many different kinds of intelligence. And when it comes to what really matters, people without access to a computer, who don’t read books, who have learning difficulties, can show a level of wisdom you would struggle to find among some learned professors at Oxford or Cambridge.
But we have still not defined wisdom, and beyond that, lies the question of how we acquire it, how we become wise. Well, I came across one definition of wisdom which I offer you now. “Wisdom” it says, is “putting good judgement, sound reasoning and knowledge into practice,” In other words, it’s about the way we live. It’s about living well, not in the sense of having a nice house or a big car, but in the sense of living – dare I say it - ‘wisely’. So how do we do this? How do we become wise? Well, to some extent it’s a case of just growing old. There is no guarantee that this will work. There is, after all, no fool like and old fool. But growing in wisdom is closely linked with growing older. Old age is often referred to as our wisdom years. And this is because we learn through experience, through making mistakes, through listening to those who are further along the road to wisdom than we are. As I approach retirement and look back over the years, I am struck by the thought that things would have been so much better if I had known then what I know now. And, of course, this has implications for a society which worships youthfulness and undervalues the elderly. It’s a very dangerous thing to do.
But perhaps the main way we grow in wisdom is to listen to what is going on deep inside ourselves, to take our own experience seriously. Now this may sound strange. Surely that’s a recipe for selfishness: just doing our own thing, an attitude often associated with the worst aspects of youthful foolishness rather than mature wisdom. Surely we learn wisdom from listening to others and learning from them, rather than focusing on ourselves and doing our own thing. But what I said was listen to the things going on ‘deep’ within ourselves, where the Spirit of God lives and moves. Do you remember the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit you received at Confirmation. “Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel – which means right thinking – Fortitude , Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.” True wisdom is a gift from God. It is to listen to the One who is the source of all true wisdom. It is to begin to see the world and everyone in it as God sees them. It is to begin to see things as they really are. It is to search for the truth in all its shapes and forms. And that is what the Magi or Wise men in today’s story represent. The star they follow is humanity searching for wisdom, searching for the truth about who we are as human beings. And it brings them to Jesus.
And what did they find? They found a helpless child who, as he grew into manhood, would have had a very rudimentary education. He knew no more than the people around him knew about the world he lived in. He thought the world was flat and had no idea that places like Scotland even existed. He lived most of his life in a remote village in Galilee working as a carpenter or handyman. Even when, prompted by the Holy Spirit, he began to teach people about God, there was nothing complicated or intellectual about it. In fact, it was very simple, and all I ask you to do now is listen closely to some of the things he said.
Love you enemies / it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven / if one blind man leads another, both will fall into a pit / the Sabbath exists for man, not man for the Sabbath / do not cast your pearls before swine / you can’t put new wine into old wineskins / do to others what you would have them do to you / the greatest among you must be the servant of all / you see but do not perceive, listen and do not understand / you cannot enter the kingdom of God unless you become like a little child / give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God /
Reflect on these words. Ponder them in your heart, and, like Jesus himself, you will grow in wisdom and stature before God and men.
As a new year begins, we pray for the world and its people. We face at this moment in history a whole series of challenges. In so many ways, we are in crisis. Issues around the environment raise serious questions about the future of the planet. We are in danger of losing our sense of what is true and what is untrue. In so many ways, we cannot go on living the way we do. And so, we ask God to pour into our world his Spirit of wisdom…. Lord hear us
And we ask for this gift of wisdom in a very special way for those who exercise political power at this moment in our history. Power has always had the power to corrupt and always will have. In so many parts of the world, we see the rise of leaders who seem to want to take us back to ways of thinking we thought we had left behind in the middle of the last century. And so, we pray for the wisdom we need to challenge this…. Lord hear us
The advances in science and technology over the last fifty years have been truly astonishing. In themselves, most of this has been for our good. But, in the end, it depends how we use them. And so, we pray for the wisdom we need to use the fruits of science and technology well, so that they increase, not decrease, the capacity of every man woman and child on the face of the earth to live a fully human life…. Lord hear us
We all need the gifts of wisdom, understanding and right thinking, but young people today need them in a particular way. Born into a world awash with people selling different versions of the truth, it is very hard for them to sort out truth from falsehood. They are also vulnerable to people who are after their money and use highly sophisticated ways of getting it. And so we ask God to guide our young people today…. Lord hear us
The modern world is a very noisy place where it is not easy to find time and space for silence and reflection. But, without such times it is very easy to live shallow and empty lives. Silence allows us to listen, to ponder, to think things through and to reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it. It also opens us up to the movement of God within ourselves and we pray for the wisdom that we need to make such times in our lives…. Lord hear us