The desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom


The desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom

Published: 28th December, 2023

Remembrance Sunday
12th November 2023
Wisdom 6:12-16
Wisdom 6:17-20
Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

There is a story about a conversation between a king and a philosopher in which the king sets out his plans for military conquest.

First, he says, I will conquer Italy.

And what, the philosopher asks, will you do when you have conquered Italy?

Why, then, replies the king, I will conquer France.

And what, the philosopher asks, will you do when you have conquered France?

Well then, says the king, I will conquer Spain.

And what, asks the philosopher, will you do when you have conquered Spain?

The king considers briefly, before replying: well, then I shall retire to my garden and live out the remainder of my days in peace.

To which the philosopher replies: but there is nothing stopping you doing that already.

Today we have heard the same passage of scripture as our Old Testament lesson and also as our canticle, sung in place of a psalm.  The canticle is simply a continuation of the Old Testament passage.  Both are from the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the most fascinating books in the Old Testament, because more than any other it reveals the extent of the fusion of ancient Jewish religion with Greek philosophy in the decades before the birth of Christ.

And yet, if you go home and open your bibles, and look for the Wisdom of Solomon, in all likelihood you will not find it.  The reasons for this are too complex to go into in detail this morning.  The short explanation is that a combination of reformation scruples and the financial interests of the publishing industry led to the Wisdom of Solomon, along with the other books of the Old Testament that exist only in Greek manuscripts, being very largely being dropped from English bibles in the nineteenth century and ever since.

This is a great pity, because these books are hugely important in understanding what happened in the period between the end of the Hebrew Old Testament and the beginning of the New; and also because, most especially in the case of the Wisdom of Solomon, there are important passages that Christians cannot help but understand in the context of the Christ who would appear perhaps within a century or less of its writing.

The beginning of wisdom is
         the most sincere desire for instruction,
         and concern for instruction is love of her,
         and love of her is the keeping of her laws,
         and giving heed to her laws is
         assurance of immortality,
         and immortality brings one near to God;
so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.

The idea of Divine Wisdom is taken up from the earlier Hebrew wisdom literature, especially the Book of Proverbs, in which Wisdom is already personified.  But the Wisdom of Solomon takes this idea a great deal further, using the philosophical tools of Platonism and Stoicism to develop earlier Jewish concepts.  The great prologue of John’s gospel, speaking of Christ as the Logos, the Word, the Reason, the Wisdom of God made flesh, grows very naturally out of the earlier Jewish wisdom tradition.

I imagine we’re probably all familiar with the idea of wisdom as something distinct from cleverness or cunning or craftiness.  We know that there are forms of human intelligence that are either morally neutral, or in some cases actually bad.  There is a cleverness that can be put to good or bad purposes; and there is that cynical cunning that is bad in itself.  Wisdom on the other hand, especially in the biblical tradition, is always a good thing, and a gift from God.  It teaches us not only how to accomplish our goals, but also what those goals should be.  And the biblical wisdom tradition teaches us that the pursuit of Wisdom should itself be our aim and purpose.  How different our education system would look if it prioritized the pursuit of wisdom; how different our nation and our world would look if politicians did the same.  In the biblical wisdom tradition, Wisdom is to be prized not because it can help us to attain riches and power, but because it brings us closer to God.

The desire for Wisdom leads to a kingdom, the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon tells us, and so on this Remembrance Sunday we might note that the first part of the Wisdom of Solomon is addressed to kings and judges, exhorting them to seek and honour Wisdom.  Political power and authority is something necessary and good so that human beings can live ordered and peaceful lives, and so that justice can be administered.   It is not something to be sought for its own sake, nor is it something to be used for personal gain.  But nearness to God is itself a kingdom, greater than any other, and the desire for Wisdom is the way to it.  When so much of politics, whether at a domestic level or on the world stage, is driven by aggrandizement, greed and lust for power, Christians have a duty to proclaim the kingdom of God as humanity’s highest good and goal, and the Divine Wisdom made flesh in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life.

Whether in the affairs of states and nations, or in domestic politics, or in our own private lives, the frenetic senseless chasing of humanity for material gain and domination can never lead anyone to peace.  Like the king in the conversation with the philosopher, we seek to conquer one kingdom after another in the hope that in some imagined future we will be able to retire to a secluded contemplation, not noticing that the very best of all, the pearl of great price, is available to us right now as a free gift if only we would earnestly desire and seek it.

So this Remembrance Sunday we remember both in gratitude and in sorrow those who have died at the hands of those who senselessly pursue greed and gain, those who have died seeking to defend that which is good and noble and true.  We pray for the leaders of the nations, that God would bless them with the wisdom that they need to govern their people justly and to seek peace in the world.  And we commit ourselves afresh to seek out the Divine Wisdom made flesh in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.