wisdom & tradition

SODAThis message was shared at the Tuesday evening chapel service on campus at Nebraska Wesleyan University on September 15, 2015.

Scriptural Reference is:
Proverbs 4:5-12 ESV

A recording is available here.

Pre-Worship Icebreaker: What’s the strangest tradition in your family?
STORY: Renaming of the GMP to Grand Market Place in college.

We’ve been talking about a parent heaping advice upon his or her children in the last few weeks, but this week our scripture includes two additional reminders that wisdom is passed down from generation to generation. Chapter Four begins with an extended parental invitation to learn what is to be shared: “Hear a father’s instruction…be attentive…gain insight…”[1] for the parent gives good information – don’t miss out.

Skipping forward to our specific verses tonight we’re again told: “Get wisdom; get insight; don’t forget, and don’t turn away…”[2] Wisdom, knowledge, information…tradition. It’s all so very important that it is regularly handed down from generation to generation. Knowledge came from listening to the elders.

That’s why the scriptures were transcribed from oral tradition. We have stories of people sitting with Christ to hear his stories. We see women literally sitting at his feet – cleaning his feet – all for the chance to offer Christ the respect that an elder dispensing wisdom deserves.

STORY: A favorite movie – Whale Rider – is about the Maori people of NZ. Kaumātua are elders in Māori society, and are held in high esteem. They have a variety of roles in their whānau (wider family), hapū (sub-tribe) and iwi (tribe):

  • being the storehouses of tribal knowledge, genealogy and traditions
  • acting as guardians of tikanga (Māori customs)
  • nurturing children – traditionally kaumātua looked after children while their parents worked or went away to fight, and often brought up the first grandchild
  • providing leadership
  • helping resolve disputes.[3]

Proverbs teaches explicitly that parents are the faithful mediators of wisdom to the young. Accordingly, “good parental teaching seeks to put children in touch with reality and its norms, and to engender those habits of the heart and mouth and hands that constitute the good life.”[4] As the parent teaches, they insist on the child listening, “turn your ear to me” because the parent refers beyond him/herself toward Wisdom for the child.

However, as we see tonight, it’s not just the parent’s role to make sure that wisdom is obtained – the child is the party responsible for grabbing hold of the wisdom offered to them – for chasing after the knowledge of God and life. Wisdom is seen as “something out there” to be gotten hold of, to be loved, to be embraced, to be prized, to be respected. Human wisdom is love of reality, of the world, and of norms…

SHARE: What is the most bizarre tradition in your family?

TELL: My house must have “the perfect spot” for the Christmas tree – near a window near the front of the house, but in a space where I can comfortably sit in my pajamas late at night or early in the morning and stare at it’s glow with all of the lights off.

Traditions – we are warned about them in this text. While we seek wisdom, that which will set us on the path of our life journey, we must also be cautious. Our wisdom is a matter of tradition – the passing down of knowledge, stories, experiences, to those who need to know by those who do know. This is for the “normalizing” of society, culture, of laws. Much in life, in culture, in our society is “traditional” – that is, it’s handed down from the past. We live in a world that’s philosophy is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

We should be asking ourselves, however:

  • What from the past should be retained and conserved and continued?
  • What from our fathers, mothers, etc. should we keep, and what should we reject or change?

ASK: How does that particular family tradition keep you from fully enjoying the experience? Can you bring a guest into the tradition easily and have both them and you fully enjoy the time?

Biblical wisdom appeals to created order and the distilled experience of the past generations to provide the insight for meeting the new. Godly wisdom and experience is that which equips us to recognize the things that really matter in life, the people who are important in past and future, and the events/situations that make up both dangers and opportunities in life. Godly wisdom – that we should all actively seek – is the perception that every novelty manifests permanence and stability. Basically, “there is nothing new under the sun.” For all of creation is designed with limited human wisdom – we must continue to seek God’s wisdom and guidance and path for our lives so not to repeat damaging behaviors.

Tradition, while amazingly excellent in theory and sometimes in reality, can do irreparable harm. Traditions are powerful. Traditions are also very damaging to those who reject them. Think for a moment about a situation where you’ve shunned someone because they didn’t “do it just this way” or “know how we always do it.” When a person chooses to reject a tradition, a custom, a norm, they are limited to choices that are “not the tradition” which uproots people. We end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. TS Eliot wrote “the surest thing to drive out old evil is new evil.” We see people with disdain, as evil, when they choose to reject or turn away from “the way we’ve always done it.” When people reject tradition, we think they are rejecting the genius of those who created the said thing; we take rejection personally. How could a person possibly think they know better??

In the wrong hands, traditions can become so important that they block people from renewing, life-giving change – particularly the change that comes from life in Christ.

VIDEO: Stephen Colbert on Eucharist.

“Having been gifted with life everlasting and the incarnate Word of Life, it becomes our responsibility to keep traditions, laws and rituals from allowing ourselves and others to live more fully in communion with God.”[5]

Christ is the wisdom of God, revealed in the person of Jesus. Christ is God’s wisdom in the flesh. When we focus too much on the way knowledge has been passed down, the ceremony, pomp and circumstance surrounding the sharing of wisdom, we become fools. We forget that the important thing is the knowledge itself: “Get wisdom; and whatever else, get insight” – verse 5. Prize the wisdom above the tradition. She, wisdom, “will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”[6] When we focus on “lady wisdom” we gain the wisdom of God, revealed to us through Christ Jesus. Obtaining wisdom and knowing God in Christ are inseparable – “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Respect the tradition, but fear the Lord. Understand the past and strive for the knowledge that will make your paths the paths of uprightness. Gaining the wisdom of God, thus knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ means that: “when you walk your step will not be hampered (by traditions that may prevent us) and if you run (the race of a life of faith), you will not stumble.”

To God, the bestower and creator of all wisdom and knowledge, be the Glory.
[1] Proverbs 4:1, ESV.
[2] Proverbs 4:2, ESV.
[3] http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/kaumatua-maori-elders
[4] Proverbs 4:1-27 commentary from
[5] ©2015 Rev. Katie Barrett Todd. Sermon “Words” delivered at First Presbyterian Church, Wayne, NE on August 30, 2015.
[6] Proverbs 4:8-9, ESV.

2 thoughts on “wisdom & tradition

  1. Thank you, Pam! We’re doing well…moving into busy times for us in a new exciting writing contract I’ve been offered, so more about that to come. Y’all doing well??


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