Jesus: Teacher of Wisdom (Richard Rohr)

When I talk about Jesus as a wisdom master, I need to mention that in the Near East “wisdom teacher” is a recognized spiritual occupation. In seminary,

I was taught that there were only two categories of religious authority: one could be a

  1. priest or a
  2. prophet.

That may be how the tradition filtered down to us in the West. But within the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was also a third, albeit unofficial, category: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being.

These teachers of transformation—among whom I would place the authors of the Hebrew wisdom literature such as Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs—may be the early precursors to the rabbi whose task it was to interpret the law and lore of Judaism (often creating their own innovations of each). The hallmark of these wisdom teachers was their use of pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables rather than prophetic pronouncements or divine decree. They spoke to people in the language that people spoke, the language of story rather than law.

Parables, such as the stories Jesus told, are a wisdom genre belonging to mashal, the Jewish branch of universal wisdom tradition. Jesus not only taught within this tradition, he turned it end for end. Before we can appreciate the extraordinary nuances he brought to understanding human transformation, we need first to know something about the context in which he was working.

There has been a strong tendency among Christians to turn Jesus into a priest—“our great high priest” (see the Letter to the Hebrews). The image of Christos Pantokrator (“Lord of All Creation”) dressed in splendid sacramental robes has dominated the iconography of both Eastern and Western Christendom. But Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God. Jesus was not that interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him.

His message was not one of repentance (at least in the usual way we understand it; more on that later this week) and return to the covenant. Rather, he stayed close to the ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked timeless and deeply personal questions:

  • What does it mean to die before you die?
  • How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one?
  • Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself?

These are the wisdom questions, and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Dying by Brightness

But the human ego prefers knowing and being certain over being honest. “Don’t bother me with the truth, I want to be in control,” it invariably says.

Most people who think they are fully conscious or “smart” and in control, have a big iron manhole cover over their unconscious. It does give them a sense of being right and in charge, but it seldom yields compassion, community, or wisdom.

.. Divine perfection is precisely the ability to include imperfection; whereas we think we must exclude, deny, and even punish it! The flow of grace is an increasing ability to forgive reality for being what it is—instead of what we want it to be!

.. The beauty of the unconscious, whether personal or collective, is that it knows a great deal, but it also knows that it does not know, cannot say, dare not try to prove or assert too strongly. What it does know is that there is always more—and all words will fall short and all concepts will be incomplete. The contemplative is precisely the person who agrees to live in that kind of blinding brightness. The paradox, of course, is that it does not feel like brightness at all, but what John of the Cross (1542-1591) called a “luminous darkness” and others identify as “learned ignorance.”

We cannot grow in the integrative dance of action and contemplation without a strong tolerance for ambiguity, an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and a willingness not to know—and not even to need to know. What else would give us peace and contentment?

Richard Rohr Meditation: Mother God

Marcus Borg points out many other good reasons to identify and honor the female (as well as non-gendered) images of God throughout the Bible:

  • Male images for God are often associated with power, authority, and judgment. When used exclusively, they most often create an image of a punitive God. God must be appeased or else.
  • Male images for God most often go with patriarchy—with male primacy and domination in society and the family.
  • Male images of God most often go with domination over nature. Nature is often imaged as female (“mother earth”) and domination over women extends to a rapacious use of nature.

Female images of God suggest something different. God is the one who gave birth to us and all that is. God wills our well-being, as a mother wills the well-being of the children of her womb. God is attached to us with a love that is tender and that will not let us go. And like a mother who sees the children of her womb threatened and oppressed, God can become fierce.

It is also important to realize that male and female metaphors for God are not intrinsically incompatible. God as “father” can be compassionate. This is the point of the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). So also in both Old and New Testaments, “the Lord” whom we are to love with all our heart, strength, and mind is also compassionate—a word whose semantic associations in Hebrew mean “womb-like.”

Moreover, just as God as Lord is demanding, so is God as Wisdom/Sophia. Both images of God combine imperative and compassionate.

.. “The way”—the way of wisdom—is also what “the father” at his best teaches. The issue is not that mothers are better than fathers, but that a particular way of imaging “father” can produce a distorted form of Christianity—as if Christianity is about meeting the requirements of an authority figure who will punish us if we don’t get it right.

Christianity is not about avoiding punishment or gaining reward. It is about loving God and loving what God loves.

The President’s Self-Destructive Disruption

his repeated use of the word “fake” to describe news coverage when he actually means “unpleasant” and his style of rhetoric in front of the United Nations, where he called terrorists “losers” and applied a childish epithet to the head of a nation in whose shadow tens of thousands of American troops serve and with whom nuclear war is a live possibility, are all cases in point. There is no way to formalize conventions of maturity and dignity for presidents. Custom fills that void.

.. When he violates such customs, Mr. Trump is at his most impulsive and self-destructive. It may sound ridiculous to invoke James Madison or Edmund Burke when we talk about this president, but that is part of the problem. Mr. Trump could profit from the wisdom of his predecessor Madison, for whom the very essence of constitutionalism lay not in what he derided as “parchment barriers” — mere written commands there was no will to follow — but rather “that veneration which time bestows on every thing.” The Constitution, in other words, would be only as strong as the tradition of respecting it.

.. Burke is generally seen as the progenitor of modern conservatism, but Mr. Trump, who came late to the conservative cause, is said to be so hostile to custom that his staff knows the best way to get him to do something is to tell him it violates tradition.
.. demagogic campaign rallies masked as presidential addresses
.. because many elements of his base associate these customs with failed politics, every violation reinforces the sense that he sides with them over a corrupt establishment.
.. Historically, conservatism has tended to value light governance, for which custom is even more essential. Aristotle writes that “when men are friends they have no need of justice.” In other words, rules enter where informal mechanisms of society have collapsed. The philosopher and statesman Charles Frankel summed it up powerfully: “Politics is a substitute for custom. It becomes conspicuous whenever and wherever custom recedes or breaks down.”
.. Since Woodrow Wilson’s critique of the framers’ work, progressive legal theory has generally denied that the meaning of the original Constitution, as endorsed by generational assent, wields authority because it is customary. Much of libertarian theory elevates contemporary reason — the rationality of the immediate — above all else.

.. The president’s daily, even hourly, abuse of language is also deeply problematic for a republic that conducts its business with words and cannot do so if their meanings are matters of sheer convenience. The unique arrogance of Mr. Trump’s rejection of the authority of custom is more dangerous than we realize because without custom, there is no law.