Bishop Lee: Wisdom for living
Of proverbs, axioms, parables and wisdom for living
BBC Swindon/Wiltshire has had a brief daily feature called ‘Wiltshire Words of Wisdom’ on its early morning show when a listener shares a favourite and pithy guide for life. Some have been things we heard from our mother’s knee and others bizarre. However, one lodged in my mind and I have been turning it over for several weeks: 15 minutes of courage can change your life.
Courage can dramatically alter a person’s life for the worse- an act of heroism for example - and one person’s courage can have life-changing implications for family and loved ones. Bravery can also be misguided or foolish, such as standing on a cliff edge. That said, I heard this word of wisdom through a positive and challenging filter. Finding the nerve to say what needs to be said or do what ought to be done is not easy. Plucking up courage has the potential to change the course of a person’s life decisively and for the good.
Words of wisdom, whether from Wiltshire or elsewhere, are essentially proverbs or axioms which capture reflections on life which have stood the test of time. Maximising the benefit and minimising the burden and Every yes has a corresponding no are personal axioms which have served me well in leadership roles. The former helps to weigh up whether a course of action is worth pursuing, or how to best to apply measures which must be taken. The second helps set priorities and strengthen my ‘say no’ muscle which has been historically weak. Proverbs and axioms can prove significant reference points for good decision-making.
Jesus of Nazareth was a master of proverb and axiom, sprinkling them liberally in his speaking and teaching; Going the extra mile did not originate with Halfords! But Jesus also used parables, a related but rather different animal. Phrases associated with Jesus’ parables have not only entered our vocabulary but our collective imagination in The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son, to name two. He used parables to cast fresh light on attitudes and behaviours. The most memorable were simple stories which left his hearers turning over the meaning in their heads or reacting strongly because they understood it too well. “Go figure” was the watchword.
The pre-eminent theme in Jesus’ speaking and activities was the Kingdom of God. In so doing Jesus took an idea with which his listeners connected: the sovereign authority of God over people, nations and unseen spheres, earthed in his people’s sense of identity and history. Yet at the same time Jesus recast that idea, subverting deeply ingrained presuppositions including militaristic and xenophobic notions of what God’s reign looks like. Jesus described the Kingdom of God in multiple ways: it was near, it could be entered, some were trying to grasp it by violent means, and the despised in society were discovering it while the respectable obscured it. Jesus likened it to treasure buried in a field or a pearl of great price which required selling everything else to obtain. He opened its content with images which inspired, puzzled or threatened his listeners.
One of my favourite parables is about workers in a vineyard (Matthew’s gospel chapter 20). Put simply, Jesus tells of a landowner sending out the foreman to gather labourers from the marketplace at the beginning of the day; they are told they will receive a day’s wages (a denarius) for their work. At various times during the day the foreman is told to round up some more workers with the promise they will be paid whatever is right. As everyone queues to receive their wage, the first group is labourers who have worked for only one hour. Remarkably they are given a full day’s pay, raising the expectations of the others as to what they will receive. Yet every person in each group gets the same - a denarius - no matter how long they had worked. As you might imagine this did not go down well with the workers who had toiled all day. In response to grumbling the vineyard owner pointed out he had paid what he promised and it was his prerogative to be generous. This parable can generate heat today; imagine what shop stewards would say in a comparable situation! Nevertheless, it invites reflection on the way generosity can provoke dissension and hostility rather than be rejoiced over.
Just as a Wiltshire word of wisdom rolled in and out of my thinking so Jesus’ parables invited his listeners’ to reappraise their attitudes and assumptions, particularly in relation to the way in which Jesus lived out his teaching. For the early Christian community, this embodiment of man and message came together as they recognised that Jesus was not simply the bearer of a word of wisdom from God – he was The Word and The Wisdom of God - the Word made flesh as the opening to John’s gospel describes Jesus. It is a wisdom which met suspicion, derision and rejection from the outset. Yet wisdom is proved right by her actions. I wonder who said that.