Ever since humankind discovered fire and used it to keep the darkness and wild animals at bay, night fires have been places for telling stories. I remember Girl Scout and church camp evenings spent around a campfire, hearing and telling the scariest stories we could think of. The best stories were the ones told by our counselors, maybe because they had more practice but maybe because they remembered what scared the bejabbers out of them when they were our age and wanted us to have similar experiences and memories.
Storytellers became very important and welcome people. They were the custodians of the history of the people. Whether around a fire in front of a cave or tent or on a hearth in a cozy home or great hall, they told the stories of how the world came to be, how things got their names, and why the people did certain things a certain way. This is how the children learned and how the adults were reminded. Besides, there’s nothing like a good story to convey a message in a way usually more memorable than just plain lists of don’ts and dos. Jesus was a master storyteller, conveying fundamental truths with imagery that people could identify with, making the truths more easily remembered.
Most storytellers were elders with years of experience as well as a knowledge of the tradition. Gradually, though, rich and powerful people became the adjudicators and the leaders. The poor, however, often still continued to look to elders and wise men and women for guidance. Sometimes, though, like in the story in the reading, the wise are ignored while the powerful are heard, much to the detriment of all.
Wisdom is defined as the possession of good judgment, experience and knowledge but not all who possess those things are really wise. Perhaps wisdom comes with another tool or two, like vision and understanding. Wise people look at the world through their experience and knowledge, understand what they are seeing, have a vision of the future can be made better and brighter, and make judgments based on the combination of all of these.
There is a group of people called The Elders. Founded by Nelson Mandela, it brings together people of vision who also happened to have been leaders of different nations and whose expertise span a number of topics from world peace to gender issues. The focus of The Elders is making the world better in a way we would consider prophetic. They see the world as it is, have a vision of how it could be and encourage right action and judgment in order to make it happen. It is a quiet group, but its voice is worth heeding, like the voice of the wise man in today’s story. They may not be conventional storytellers but they are a council of people, both men and women, who speak truth quietly but with authority, weaving the stories of their own experience as well as those of others into conversation on topics that affect all of us, directly or indirectly.
Jesus saw the world as it could and should be. His prophetic teaching echoed those who came before him and those who lived and still live after him. The complex problems of his time are somewhat akin to the complex problems of our own period — hunger, homelessness, oppression, imprisonment for expediency’s sake, rampant illness, death, the sense of entitlement on the part of some whose words and actions ignore the humanity of many others who they see as of lesser value than themselves. Jesus’s answer was to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Seems like a simple solution, but we haven’t managed to do more than scratch the surface of it in the past 2000 or so years. Groups like The Elders remind us of this, even without ever using the name of Jesus or even referencing a specific religion or religious practice at all. Still, the message is distilled: if we treat our neighbor as ourselves, we will empower them and enable them to be the best they can be, with all the privileges and obligations we ourselves have. We will have eliminated poverty, conflict, hunger, desperation and all the things that accompany them.
The voice of wisdom is frequently quiet but often grows louder. Voices like Mandela, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Graca Machel and Desmond Tutu echo the messages of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and a multitude of others leading back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The more urgent the situation, the louder they have to speak to be heard over the false prophets who seek their own welfare and well-being while ignoring the plights of those without their resources or ability to protect themselves.
We claim to revere the wise but we usually choose the ones who most agree with us on topics that matter. Real wisdom seems elusive — and unpopular. Preserving the status quo and personal rights take precedence over the well-being of all. Examples are all around us, and we think that because the voices that are speaking to us are wealthy or powerful they are speaking the truth and we have no need or ability to change. Perhaps we need to seek out the quiet voices, the ones who are seated around a figurative campfire, waiting for us to join the circle, hear the stories, think about what is really true and important and then rise to make it so.
I ask myself to whom am I listening and what am I hearing? Am I tuned in to the right channel? Am I hearing the message I want to hear or the one I should hear? I’ve known a lot of very wise people, soft-voiced people, over the course of my life. What have I learned from them and what do I need to teach those who are coming after me? What have I done for the least of my brothers and sisters, to make their world a better place?
It’s time to seek the quiet voices of wisdom and really hear what they are saying. The Kingdom depends on it.