Posts Tagged ‘wisdom’

PSALM 124

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
    —let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
    when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
    when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away,
    the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
    the raging waters.

Blessed be the Lord,
    who has not given us
    as prey to their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
    from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
    and we have escaped.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

The Bible gives expression in a wide variety of ways to the human experience of salvation,  not as achieved by individual effort but brought about through an outside agency. The intercession of Esther for her people is just one well-known example of this key idea.

Because salvation nearly always involves a liberation or rescue from something – an oppressor, an approaching disaster, a destructive habit, a limiting belief – that is currently preventing our progress, inhibiting our freedom or threatening our life, the Bible counter-balances our typically modern gospel of self-reliance with its witness to faith as reliance on what is beyond us.

It may at first sound weak to say that had not the Lord been on our side we would have been done in, but such an honest admission of our need is really the avenue, and not the barrier, to the experience of true strength in our life. In the story of Esther, the Jewish people would have been defenseless against Haman’s pogrom had it not been for the queen’s effort on their behalf.

In fact, it is probably true to say that many if not most of our troubles in life which develop into serious hardships are due to our ignorance or stubborn refusal to acknowledge our personal limits, inadequacies, and shortcomings. As a rule, the wisdom of the universe brings the counsel, the helper, the resource, or the sign within reach at the critical moment of need.

JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

“You do not have, because you do not ask.” Is James saying that we can have anything we want just by asking for it? Not quite. He goes on to accuse the readers of asking wrongly “in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” In other words, our asking (and seeking and knocking, to quote Jesus) needs to arise out of and be inspired by a deeper awareness of our true need.

And what do we truly need? Not wealth or power or a competitive advantage over our rivals, but rather a pure heart, inner peace, and sufficient love for even our enemies. Now these are not things we typically pray for – frankly, they are counterproductive to our usual efforts toward self-promotion. And that is precisely the point James is making.

What are we unhappy in life? Why does it seem that frustration, and the insatiable appetite for excitement and accumulation that it arouses in us, is the prevailing temperament of our society today? The answer is deceptively simple: it is because the things we ask for – among them money, sex, and power (the Big Three) – are unable to satisfy the essential aspiration of our nature as human beings, which is to grow into the fullness of our God-given capacities for freedom, creativity, wisdom, fidelity, and love.

How will we ever find fulfillment if we consistently tether the upward realization of our divine potential to the obsessions and cravings of the infantile ego? Resist the devil indeed! It’s not that many or most of the things we “ask for” are inherently evil, but that our inordinate expectations (“This will make me happy!”) put demands on them which they can never satisfy.

JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

As bodies we are biological organisms animated with a life impulse that is billions of years old. Our fortunate evolution has achieved emotional, intellectual, and intuitive levels of such complexity and power, we can easily believe that we have fully and finally transcended the base urges of our prehistoric origins.

However, just because we possess abilities for artistic creativity, city planning, and abstract thought doesn’t mean that we have been liberated completely from the unconscious thrust and reflexes of our animal nature. Indeed, it is exactly this animal nature with all its urgencies that contributes the energy for such higher cultural formations and uniquely human expressions.

If all went without a hitch, this evolutionary adventure of ours would be a happy tale. But there is a hitch, and to some degree for every one of us without exception: our natural animal self-interest is compounded with a self-obsession that grows in proportion to our ego insecurity, which  makes for an often nasty, selfish, and violence-prone personality.

This human fall into selfishness is the original sin from whence spring our ambitions for superiority, dominance, and glory. In the Jerusalem church, a mere twenty years or so after Jesus had left them to carry on his message and mission, the Christians were at each others’ throats, overtaken by animal rivalries for power and position.

JOHN 6:51-58

51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”

The Christian sacrament of Eucharist or communion has its origins in the practice of Jesus, of hosting a simple meal of bread and wine for any and all who accepted his invitation. It is very likely that Jesus took his inspiration from the ancient traditions regarding Wisdom, personified as a woman (Sophia) who spread her table of bread and wine for the earnest seeker of truth (see Proverbs 9:1-6).

Importantly, Wisdom is yet another name for the will of God at work in the creation and governance of the universe. On the social level, her bounty was enjoyed in a life of moral integrity, temperance, and compassion for others. The disciple of Wisdom was promised fulfillment in this life and an honored memory in the generations to come.

The opposite of wisdom in the Bible is foolishness, following the lure of countless temptations and indulging the lower impulses. A fool lacks moral vision and is forever baffled or embittered over life’s apparent meaninglessness. As he moves across the surface from one attraction to the next, his spirit gradually expires.

To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus sounds grotesque and repulsive to us, but when we see the symbolism – blood=wine=joy; flesh=bread=sustenance – Jesus as Wisdom (his principal identity in the Fourth Gospel) is inviting us to make him and his way our life’s devotional purpose.

EPHESIANS 5:15-20

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit,19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20 always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

‘Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.’ Wise people therefore are careful people – or, remembering the psalmist’s proverb, who live their lives in the ‘fear of the Lord.’ Again, this does not mean that the wise are anxious or scared, or that they are afraid of what God will do to them if they should displease Him. To be full of care is the opposite of being indifferent or negligent or reckless. It is rather to be concerned, responsible, and deliberate in the choices we make and how we live.

The wise men and women of every generation are those who have sought the eternal and universal truths in life, and who seek to put their own lives in accord with the deeper principles that guide and govern all things. In the language of the Bible, these deeper principles are referred to as the ‘will of God’ – not some fickle and changing impulse in the divine life, but the current of destiny and fulfillment underlying, animating, and carrying forward the grand adventure of existence itself.

Our human sense or perception of that deeper force of God’s will is what stands behind the constant arrival of best-selling titles on the seven habits of this, the ten laws of that, and the four agreements that will improve our odds for success and happiness in life. Beneath the particular prescription of a given author, in other words, is an awareness open to everyone – that life is most meaningful and rewarding when we find a focus, keep our balance, and direct our energies to the things that truly matter.

1 KINGS 2:10-12; 3:3-14

10 Then David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David. 11 And the time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. 12 So Solomon sat upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was firmly established.

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; only, he sacrificed and burnt incense at the high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings upon that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “Thou hast shown great and steadfast love to thy servant David my father, because he walked before thee in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward thee; and thou hast kept for him this great and steadfast love, and hast given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.And thy servant is in the midst of thy people whom thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude. Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?”

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”

Solomon’s choice of wisdom from among all the things he might have preferred provides us with yet another moral lesson. His particular station in life, serving as his father’s successor to the throne of Israel, set upon him the special obligation of being responsible for the governance of his people.

While the self-indulgent side of Solomon might have rather had riches and power, the other side of him, the side that humbly acknowledged his own inadequacy and dependency on God in the face of such a daunting task, admitted him need for a wisdom far beyond his years.

In fact, wisdom as a virtue is not the same as having expertise in a given field. It is not so much about the expanse of one’s knowledge or the focus of one’s specialization. You can have all the information at your fingertips, but if you can’t discern what is the right thing to do in a critical moment of decision, your knowledge is practically useless.

Wisdom, then, is about the application of what we know to the situations of life, guided and inspired by the moral values we hold in highest regard. Our values, and ultimately what we value most deeply, steer our decisions along the path of the greatest good.

1 KINGS 2:10-12; 3:3-14

10 Then David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David. 11 And the time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. 12 So Solomon sat upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was firmly established.

Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father; only, he sacrificed and burnt incense at the high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the great high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings upon that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said, “Thou hast shown great and steadfast love to thy servant David my father, because he walked before thee in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward thee; and thou hast kept for him this great and steadfast love, and hast given him a son to sit on his throne this day. And now, O Lord my God, thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.And thy servant is in the midst of thy people whom thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude. Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?”

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”

Talk about hitting the jackpot! The young King Solomon asked only for wisdom, and was granted wealth, honor, and the prospect of a long life as well. Solomon’s name is derived from the root-word meaning “peace,” and his reign from the throne of Israel was indeed the most peaceful on record. This particular version of the “Three Wishes” that is common in the folk traditions of world cultures is intended to help the reader, and not just Solomon, sift through our mixture of urges and desires for that one thing (or three) we hold in the highest priority.

In most all of the stories the world round, wisdom does in fact top the list, with honor next in descending order, followed by wealth and personal gain, with pleasure at the bottom. There is obvious wisdom in such a hierarchy of life aims, and so it’s perfectly understandable that wisdom itself should be the highest of them all.

We would do well to pause for a moment and consider what our personal hierarchy of life aims would be, or is. Is our value system centered on hedonism, or the experience of pleasure? Or is it centered on capitalism and the accumulation of wealth? Perhaps our values turn around a life focused on moral achievement and social acclaim, what we might name heroism. Finally (staying with the list of four) do our aims in life orient around a deeper wisdom of how our lives fit within the greater whole?

Hedonism, capitalism, heroism, and holism: where are you?

JOHN 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

If we didn’t know the background tradition of John’s Gospel, we would think that Jesus is calling attention to himself as the historical-specific savior figure who is the world’s only way to God. Isn’t that exactly what’s going on in this text?

Actually, this Gospel is rooted in a deeper stream known as the Wisdom tradition, which surfaces also in the New Testament letter of Colossians and elsewhere, but reaches back into the so-called intertestamental writings of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, and still farther back into the First Testament books of Ecclesiastes, Job, Proverbs and the Psalms. On the larger world stage, the Wisdom tradition moved across the cultures of Israel, Greece, Egypt and even into the Far East.

The basic idea of this great spiritual philosophy was about a creative principle behind the cosmos and everything we see. In Israel this principle was named Hokhmah, in Greece Sophia or Logos, in Egypt it was called Ma’at, and in China is was named the Tao. Often in feminine representation (but not always), Lady Wisdom was regarded as the intelligence, purpose, grace, and glory that holds everything in unity.

An arrangement of five apples on the ground, for instance, would be counted as six things – the five apples and the order of their arrangement. This was one aspect of Wisdom. But also, each apple is a certain arrangement of elements; and the tree from which it fell, the ecosystem around the tree, the provident planet of Earth, the solar system, our galaxy and universe entire – this vast complexity of patterns within patterns,  how it all holds together and turns as one, was contemplated as divine in nature.

                                                                                            

As we said, the Hebrews named her Wisdom and the Greeks honored him as Logos: the Word. And this is where John’s Gospel picks up the thread. In the opening chapter we are introduced to the Word that was with God, as God, from the very beginning, through whom all things were made (John 1:1-3). This Word, we are told in verse 14, was made flesh and lived (literally “pitched its tent”) among us in the person of Jesus. This passage, by the way, clearly has Sirach 24:1-12 as its inspiration:

Wisdom praises herself,
    and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
    and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
    and covered the earth like a mist.
I dwelt in the highest heavens,
    and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
    and traversed the depths of the abyss.
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
    and over every people and nation I have held sway.
Among all these I sought a resting place;
    in whose territory should I abide?

“Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
    and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
    and in Israel receive your inheritance.’
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
    and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
10 In the holy tent I ministered before him,
    and so I was established in Zion.
11 Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place,
    and in Jerusalem was my domain.
12 I took root in an honored people,
    in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.

It’s important to remember that in John’s Gospel, Jesus – the historical-specific figure who is the chief protagonist of his narrative – is functioning as the human mouthpiece of this Wisdom/Word which is universally present throughout creation as the creative intelligence and will of God. It would have made no sense in the larger tradition to say that this Wisdom/Word was only here or there, in this individual person from Nazareth and nowhere else. Wisdom is everywhere, or nothing would exist.

Through Jesus (John’s Gospel is saying) the Word of God spoke with a power and clarity unmatched anywhere. While this self-same Wisdom/Word was driving the sprouting seed and guiding the stars in their courses above, in Jesus it was revealed as love for all the world, setting people free by the gift of God’s unconditional forgiveness.

In our passage, Philip asks to see “the Father” – this Gospel’s favored term for God. Jesus replies by inviting Philip to look through him (Jesus) to the divine wisdom of God’s love. The development of Christianity increasingly became about looking at Jesus instead of through him; making him into an object of worship rather following him as the way to love.

ROMANS 8:6-11

6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Earlier the point was made that resurrection is different than recovery, revival, or resuscitation, in that it involves not just a “return to life” but a transformation through life to a higher level of freedom, fulfillment, and joy. In myth and literature it is commonly represented metaphorically in the raising of a dead body back to life, but what resurrection symbolizes is much more than a mere miracle.

We also learned that in Hebrew anthropology (view of human nature) the familiar split of body and soul, favoring soul as the real and immortal identity of a person, has no support. (The split and bias towards the soul came into Western thinking from the Greek and oriental cultures.) Hebrew thought regarded “soul” (nephesh) as the temporary and inherently conflicted “agreement” of two more primary things coming together, body (basar) and breath (ruach). These two “things” were later abstracted in Hebrew thought into matter and spirit,”or the material and spiritual principles coming together in and as the living person, or soul.

Paul considered these principles as opposing forces, acting on the personality from “below” (flesh, body, instinct) and from “above” (breath, spirit, wisdom). While the soul (ego, person) is the product of these two forces coming together, it is also where they are experienced as counter-forces pulling the soul in one direction or the other. So Paul would sometimes speak of life “according to the flesh” and life “according to the spirit,” by which he meant two opposite ways of living depending on whether your focus and commitment are on the “lusts” of the flesh or the “gifts” of the spirit.

So, you can give in to the flesh and allow the cravings and lusts of the body to drive your life (to selfishness and ruin, in Paul’s opinion), or you can surrender yourself to the spirit and allow the will and wisdom of God to guide you. Attachment to a life according to the flesh only brings suffering in the meantime, to the extent that its cravings can never be fully satisfied, and catastrophe in the end, since the body must eventually expire. And yet (as Paul sees it) this is where each of us is, until we can open ourselves to the breath (spirit) of God and be filled with new life from above.

We must “die” to the flesh and be “raised” in the spirit. That is resurrection.

1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-31

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards,not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

The complex systems of philosophy that religion constructs in its pursuit of a comprehensive worldview have often wandered into the fabulous and bazaar. Mythical beings, metaphysical dimensions, and elaborate theories of immortality of the transmigration of the soul can strain the limits of logic and common sense.

But then again, that shouldn’t surprise us. The primary language of religion is more imaginative than intellectual. There is nothing inherently wrong with such musings, and the exquisite world pictures described in the religions are successful for many in getting them connected to a universe of higher meaning.

What Paul observed, however, is the way that all this “wisdom” can so fascinate and occupy us that we float off the earth and away from the real situations of life. So what if there are seven realms of angels surrounding the throne of God, or infinite Buddha-fields in the dimensionless expanse of nirvana – how does that help me “work out my salvation” (a phrase of Paul’s) in the face of today’s challenges.

Yes, it is helpful to know that I’m not alone in this sometimes crazy world, and that a greater wisdom is available to me if only I can transfer the focus of my awareness to a point beyond the urgencies of this moment. But how do I find my way back? And how can all of this help me become more authentic, more present to my life?

The “way back” for Paul was represented in the cross of Christ, the image of Jesus dying for the sake of his gospel.

                                                                                  

Now, lest we think that Paul had a morbid obsession with torture and death, we must proceed into his theory of the cross with patience and care. To start with, it is imperative to know that, for Paul, the cross of Christ did not stand in utter isolation as the vertical axis around which world salvation turned.

He understood it, as it must be understood, in the light of Jesus’ message and life. Without that context the cross can easily take on an almost magical power, or else get appropriated into a theory that completely contradicts the spirit and teaching of Jesus’ gospel.

The cross as a talisman for warding off evil is a popular superstition still today, and atonement theories that interpret the crucifixion as serving to placate God’s anger and pay sin’s penalty are also prevalent among the mainline traditions of Christian orthodoxy. In each case, the way to understanding the cross of Christ as “the power and wisdom of God” is abandoned for something far less demanding.

The great revelation that came through Jesus had to do with the superiority of love in its aspect of compassion. Compassion is not love from a distance, or love in the abstract, or love on principle. It is love that “suffers with” another under the conditions of pain, brokenness, or bereavement. Jesus revealed the heart of God to be compassion, which to him meant that God is fully present with us in our struggle.

The “power and wisdom” of God’s compassion hang on the cross in the midst of our world.