My father used to occasionally say, “being smart is not the same as being wise.” Another variation was, “having a lot of information is not the same as having wisdom.” As I’ve learned — sometimes slowly — those are words of wisdom about wisdom. We live in a time of unprecedented access to knowledge and facts — the so-called “information age.” But, in the words of an old cartoon, “if this is the Information Age, how come nobody knows anything?”
There are more than 400 references to wisdom in the Old Testament, with about 75 percent of those appearing in the five works of “wisdom literature”: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach and Wisdom. “Wisdom” is used to describe a variety of things, including the skill of a craftsman, kingly judgment, cleverness, advice from elders and rules of moral conduct. However, the content of wisdom literature can be summarized in a single word: “life.” In the Old Testament, the goal of wisdom is a life marked by old age, prosperity and good reputation.
A key ingredient is right relationship with God: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prv 9:10). That is evident in today’s reading from Sirach, which carries an admonition to keep the commandments and to trust in God, for doing so will bring salvation and life. The wisdom of God is “immense,” being all-powerful and all-knowing. Wisdom is deeply relational and involves both knowing things and, more importantly, knowing others.
The Greek word for wisdom (sophia) is used 51 times in the New Testament, with a third of those appearances coming in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. To better appreciate today’s Epistle reading, look at the prior chapter, especially verses 18-31. Paul explains that the word of the cross — that is, the Gospel — is “foolishness to those who are perishing,” to those who are spiritually dying. The Jews, he observed, look for signs (cf. Jn 4:48; 12:37), and the Greeks seek earthly wisdom, “but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). Jesus is wisdom, precisely because he is the incarnate Son of God, and he is in perfect communion with the Father.
Paul recognized Jesus as the incarnate realization of perfect wisdom, the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation, which he “predetermined before the ages for our glory.” The Torah was the means by which the people of God learned and lived out wisdom (Dt 4:5-6), overflowing as the law was with wisdom, knowledge and understanding (Sir 24:23-25). Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), delivered a new Torah. This new law of the Messiah, wrote Pope Benedict XVI, “is totally new and different — but it is precisely by being such that fulfills the Torah of Moses.”
Rather than to tell us “be good” or “be nice,” Jesus tells us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), and in so doing, he reiterates the law (see Dt 18:13). “True wisdom,” said St. John Chrysostom, “is the Gospel, the means of salvation through the cross of Christ. The perfect are those who believe.”
Everything Jesus taught about murder, adultery and divorce is meant to perfect us, so we will be conformed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the image and likeness of Christ, who is wisdom and life.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.