Wisdom Is as Wisdom Does

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds (v. 19).

Have you ever considered how nonsensical nursery rhymes can be?

Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top,

          When the wind blows the cradle will rock;

          When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,

          And down will come baby, cradle, and all.

I mean, come on!  Who’d even put their baby in such a precarious spot in the first place?

Or how about,

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

          Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

          All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

          Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Sad!

Or, one more:

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick;

          Jack jump over the candlestick.

Okay, kids, now that I’ve told you that one, don’t try this at home.

Nonsense, right?

Well, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there’s nothing new under the sun; for in today’s Gospel Jesus makes a reference to a nonsensical children’s rhyme.

His generation, he says, is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to each other in game-like fashion, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

Now there are a number of questions that come up if we try to make sense of Jesus’s words here:

  • In the first place, what are children even doing in the marketplaces—the agora, the forum—places in the ancient world generally inhabited during the day by adult males?
  • Supposing the children in the marketplaces are in fact working. Well then, what are they doing playing games—playing when they should be working?
  • Or, supposing it’s a day off, when the agora is closed for business. Supposing the community children have indeed gathered to play. Well then, why aren’t all the children dancing to the flute or joining the dirge; why are only some of the kids playing?

Any way we try to look at it, it’s nonsense.

But that’s Jesus’s point.  Nonsense!  This generation, he says, is responding to John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah in ways that amount to nonsense.

For John came fasting and wearing a camel shirt, and people say he has a demon; whereas Jesus came eating and drinking—generally rejoicing in the coming of the New Kingdom—and people say he’s a glutton and drunkard, a friend of riff-raff.

What nonsense!

Then Jesus says these words: “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Right here, right after stating that his generation is being nonsensical—or, to use another word, foolish—right after stating that his generation is being foolish, he drives his point home with a stark contrast: wise vs. foolish.

You see, his generation—especially the religious leaders of his generation, those men who would have conducted business day after day in the marketplaces—considered themselves wise.

They had studied the Torah since early childhood, working through the ins and outs of Jewish history, memorizing the subtleties and complexities of the law.  They had been schooled in their present cultural context—able to worship their own God in a temple built by that Roman, Herod.  They were looking for a militant savior to free them from Roman domination, a savior they just knew would come.  They knew all these things and more.  They were savvy in the knowledge of how to get around in their world.  They were wise.  And they knew it!

Yet Jesus calls them foolish!

Their wisdom is folly.  Real wisdom—the kind of wisdom shown by people like John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth; the kind of wisdom we too can possess—real wisdom will be vindicated by its own deeds.  Or, to put it even more simply: wisdom is as wisdom does.

Today, we are a lot like the “generation” Jesus addresses here.

We live in a world where expertise is highly valued.  We challenge little kids to think a lot about what they want to be when they grow up.  We encourage our college-bound adolescents to pick a field of study that will make them money when they enter the workforce.  As adults, we like to hear what the “experts” have to say on a given topic; other voices are less trustworthy.  We value expertise.

But godly wisdom is not the same thing as expertise.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Expertise is a good thing.  Without it, we would not have the technology, comforts, conveniences, and arts we all enjoy.

But none of this expertise is necessary for a person to possess true wisdom.  That’s what Jesus is telling the experts of his generation; and that’s what Jesus is telling us.

Godly wisdom comes only to whom the Son chooses to reveal it.

And here’s the really good news: Jesus’s yoke is easy and his burden is light—not like the yoke and burden of pursuing expertise in a chosen field.  Jesus is gentle and humble in heart; in him you will find rest for your souls.

So then, what does this godly wisdom look like?  How do we acquire it?  For the answer I turn to Jesus’s prayer in our passage, which begins:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

Two things stand out to me.  The first is thankfulness.

“I thank you, Father,” Jesus begins.

The significance here comes when we realize just where Jesus is in his earthly ministry.  Things aren’t going well, to be sure.  Jesus has begun his ministry, he’s preached some sermons and performed some miracles.  He’s sent out the twelve on an early mission.  And now he’s being persecuted.  The religious leaders of his day, his generation, do not like what he is about.  They do not like the non-violent changes that Jesus demands.  Jesus finds himself, then, in the midst of a great deal of inter-personal angst.

But he’s thankful!

Which leads me to wonder.  How thankful are you?  How thankful am I?

When life seems to be caving in around you, when a project at work or school doesn’t go the way you planned, you’re about to miss an urgent deadline, a client isn’t happy with you, or you’re being reported by a disgruntled co-worker—or whatever—I wonder: do you thank God?

What do you mean, you ask, do I thank God?  How can I thank God in these situations?

Well, I answer, have you ever tried?

Just last week my car broke down.  My whole family was with me in the car.  We drove to MICC, for Family Camp.  Just after arriving, however, the car wouldn’t start—dead battery!  So, ugh, major hassle.  I called a local parts supplier, who had a battery in stock and the tools to replace it.  And, half an hour later, the job was done; we were back in business.

That’s when it occurred to me just how many little blessings had occurred.  The breakdown happened at the conference center, where my family could sit comfortably inside an air-conditioned room—not up the road, in the middle of nowhere, where we’d stopped for gas.  We had arrived early, so that I could go through some pre-camp training; as it turns out, I had enough extra time to fix the problem without interfering with my other obligations.  And so on.  The more I thought about it, the more I found myself thankful and grateful, until I heard myself say out loud, “God is good.”

Turn a bad situation good.  When things go wrong, look for the blessings in it all.

And the second thing that stands out to me: humility.

“Father,” Jesus prays, “[you] have revealed them to infants.”

Wisdom to infants.  But what is an infant?  Perhaps you’ve heard this statement before:  “Of all mammals, the only one that cannot swim on its own shortly after birth is the human being.”  Now I don’t know if it’s a true statement or not.  But it does convey the idea of just how helpless an infant is; or, another way to look at it, just how utterly dependent an infant is.

This infant-like dependency is the attitude God is looking for.  For here there is no theological sophistication; here there is no illusion about powers of understanding.  A heart that is teachable, a mind that is not already made up—this is what God asks of you.

And what is this but humility?

God is not looking for you to be an expert theologian.  God does not expect you to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek as you grow in your understanding of the scriptures.  God does not require you to be a spiritual leader of hundreds of souls in order for you to grow in your own spirituality.

Instead, whenever you meet Christ, whether here at the altar, in daily prayer, in reading the scriptures, or in spiritual conversation—whenever!—come in an attitude of thankfulness and humility, asking him to increase you in godly wisdom.  You may be surprised at what happens.  In fact, your newfound wisdom may even confound some of the “experts.”

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