In Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It, Touchstone the clown says, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
This idea of knowing that we don’t know everything seems to be one of the hallmarks of wisdom. It’s recognizing our limitations and knowing that there are things we don’t know. That’s sort of a classic understanding of wisdom. For Christians, it’s also a point of engagement with God.
Apophatic Understanding of Wisdom
If I know everything, I don’t need God.
If I don’t know everything, I need something.
When we see our limitations and recognize that God does not have those limitations, then God can be, as Psalm 46 says, “a very present help in times of trouble.”
It wasn’t just Shakespeare though. Elsewhere in antiquity, wise people connected true knowledge with acknowledging our limitations. According to Confucius, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance.” Socrates says, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Kataphatic Understanding of Wisdom
These apophatic sayings point us in the right direction of understanding wisdom. But wisdom is more than being foolish or doubting everything. Wisdom carries the weight of both knowledge and knowing how to apply it. It’s having a high epistemological bar. For the wise person, what we know and how we know requires evidence and a fair amount of convincing. Sirach 24 tells us that wisdom is all around: “I came forth from the mountain… I dwelt in the highest heavens… I ruled over all the earth and the ocean waves.”
In the Bible, wisdom is personified. We see this in Proverbs 1.20-22. It says, “Wisdom cries out in the street.” Likewise, in our reading from Sirach, wisdom has a voice and can speak. It says, “Wisdom praises herself.”
Placing our reading from Sirach alongside other ancient understandings of wisdom shows the movement of wisdom between God and humanity. In James, this movement reaches a peak because God responds to requests for wisdom. James 1.5 says, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”
Wisdom in the New Year
Right now, as we begin a new year, we need some wisdom. We’re going to have big choices in the new year and tremendous opportunities. I am not predicting the future. Each year brings choices and opportunities. Looking forward, we need more of God’s wisdom, so we are not like Touchstone’s fool in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and think ourselves wise.
Learning from the Apocrypha
Our passage this morning from Sirach 24 is probably unfamiliar to most of us. Once I was participating in an ecumenical worship service. The other worship leaders were other ministers and good friends of mine. It was at the Lutheran minister’s church. The was also a Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist (me). When we were dividing up the readings, the Lutheran minister who was organizing the service said, “Who wants to do the reading from Ecclesiasticus?”
My Presbyterian and Methodist friends said, “I don’t have a copy of the Apocrypha.”
I happen to be holding my Bible that includes the Apocrypha, so the Baptist got to present the Apocryphal reading.
As I thought about this passage from Sirach and its message of wisdom, I thought about that experience and how it helped me grow, even though I wasn’t expecting it.
My Bible happen to include the Apocrypha, but I had never opened it. Being there and being open helped me learn something new. It was a service to honor health care workers. I read from Sirach 38, “Honor physicians for their services, for the Lord created them, for their gift of healing comes from the Most High…”
Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, was written by Ben Sira, also known as Jesus ben Sirach or Jesus Son of Sirach. The name Ecclesiasticus implies that it is instruction for the church. The book is existential. It connects with universal struggles and daily life. Taken as a whole, Sirach is amalgamation of Jewish tradition and Hellenistic culture.
Apocryphal Understanding of Wisdom
Throughout Sirach 24, wisdom praises herself, but remains within the bounds of divine law. When Catholic Churches encounter Sirach 24, the common reading is to connect it to Mary in a Mass for the Blessed Virgin. In 1950, Pope Pius XII wrote Munificentissimus Deus. In it, he argues that Mary is “always sharing [Jesus’] lot.” Vatican II further developed this idea, but that’s not our theology of Mary or how we can connect with an Apocryphal reading from Sirach.
Leonardo Boff, who was a Franciscan priest in the Roman Catholic Church, sees the personification of wisdom in the passage foreshadowing Christ.
When we read Sirach, we can see wisdom is all actually around us. In the first-person voice of Sirach 24, Wisdom says she ruled over “all the earth and the ocean waves, over every nation, over every people.”
Like the Logos or Word in John 1.1, Sirach presents wisdom as eternal, present with God at the beginning of time.
Our reading follows the priestly creation story in Genesis (1.1-2.4). The “pillar of cloud” reference in Sirach 24.4 points to the cloud leading the Israelites in Exodus (13.21-22).
Listening to Wisdom
We want to know what to do as we enter a new year. James (1.5) tells us to ask God for wisdom, and God will give it to us. The challenge is to accept the wisdom that is available. Sirach (24.1) says to “Listen to Wisdom!”
Sometimes, that’s the challenge. We know what to do, but actually doing it is hard work. It’s like exercising or eating healthy foods. Praising wisdom is only the first step. We have to be willing to receive what God so freely gives.
An Algerian Folktale
A man named Jha sold wisdom for a living. He shouted in the streets, “I’m a wise man! And I’ll sell you my wisdom!” [Today, we would call him a consultant.]
One day Jha met some soldiers. They were armed for battle, had on shields, and carried spears and bows. They held full quivers of arrows.
Blustering up to the soldiers, Jha said, “Where are you going in those disguises?”
“We’re not wearing disguises,” one of the soldiers said. “We’re soldiers. We are obviously on our way to join a battle.”
Another added, “From what we’ve heard, this battle is going to be rough.”
“Wonderful!” cried Jha. “This is my chance to see what happens in these things that I’ve heard about but never seen with my own eyes.”
He paused. “I will go with you and watch this battle.
The soldiers all protested. “No sir… it will be dangerous… it’s no place for civilians.”
“Nonsense,” Jha erupted. “I am Jha-the-wise and must witness this battle.
The soldiers looked at one another and shrugged. One muttered, “What difference does it make to us if he wants to come and get himself killed?”
The captain of the soldiers said, “Okay. Come on.”
They arrived at the battlefield. Jha’s eyes were huge. He had never seen anything like it. He stood upright, didn’t carry a shield, and watched with his mouth agape. Almost immediately, an arrow flew through the air and hit Jha right in the forehead. He fell down and realized how little he truly knew.
Several soldiers pulled Jha back to the safety of the camp. A doctor rushed to his side and examined him. She looked at Jha and said, “The arrow has gone in deep. Removing it will be easy, but if it has the tiniest piece of brain is on it, he will die.”
Jha, in his wounded stupor, grabbed the doctor’s hand and kissed it. He said, “Thank you, Doctor. Don’t worry. You can remove the arrow without fear. There will be no brain on it.”
The doctor snatched her hand away. “Be quiet, you fool! Let the experts work. How can you tell that the arrow hasn’t reached your brain?”
Jha-the-wise said, “I know only too well because if I had the slightest particle of a brain, I would never have come here.”
We can all see ourselves as wise when we really should be listening, watching, learning, and growing. Sirach reminds us that God’s wisdom is all around us. We don’t have to bluster or boast. We can enter this new year in hope and trust that God is with us and giving us opportunities to see the path we should take.
In 2021, be open to God. Listen to the Holy Spirit speaking world. See the positive steps ahead. Learn something new. Grow in Christ. God’s divine wisdom is available. According to James, all we need to do is ask. Wisdom is actually all around us.
 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, ed. Alan Brissenden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 208.
 Leonardo Boff, Trinity & Society, trans. Paul Burns (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 41.
 Margaret Read MacDonald, Peace Tales (Atlanta, GA: August House, 1992), 21-22.