When we think of what makes a wise person, certain images come to mind. We think of someone who knows everything, someone who always has an answer ready, someone who’s an expert at the ready. Very rarely do we think of someone actively learning. Wise people, after all, are the ones we come to for an answer, not the people coming up with questions, or so it would seem.
This certainly seemed to be the case around the time of Jesus’ ministry. It seems for every time Jesus opens his mouth to speak there’s a pharisee at the ready with a tantrum.
In Mark 12, we find Jesus once again going head to head with the religious leaders. Time and time again, they try to trap Jesus in his words and make him stumble. They use their place of power and knowledge to attempt discrediting him, showing in the most painfully transparent terms how threatened they are by him. Instead of being men who lead other people to wisdom, they are nothing more than puffed-up peacocks too concerned with their own standing and status to admit just how little they actually know.
Then into this mess, a man pipes up. We don’t know much about him. All Mark tells us is that he was a teacher of religious law and that he had been standing by listening to Jesus and the others debate. While everyone else is trying to shore up their own wisdom against Jesus, this man has been listening to what he was actually saying. Because of that, things start to click. Mark tells us “He realized that Jesus had answered well.” (Mark 12:28) and because of that, he decides to speak up.
But unlike the others who have been debating Jesus for their own gain, this man asks a question and the following conversation, however brief, tells us a great deal as to what makes a truly wise man.
“So he asked ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ Jesus replied, ‘The most important commandment is this: Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second is equally important. Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.’ The teacher of religious law replied ‘Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.’ Realizing how much the man understood, Jesus said to him, ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God.’ And after that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.” (Mark 12:28-34)
Not for his already existing knowledge, but his ability to listen and learn does Jesus single this man out from his supposedly knowledgable peers. He’s not wise because he knows everything. He’s wise because he knows how to learn.
I’d argue that teachability is the greatest mark of a wise person. No one is ever a complete expert, so the person who owns that fact and tries to gain knowledge in their weak spots will be a thousand times wiser than the person who postures as if they already know everything.
A wise person is not the one who knows everything but the one who knows how to learn well.
And this is not easy to be. Because to do this we have to set aside our self-importance and actually be honest when we don’t have the answer or are unsure what to do. We have to be strong enough to humble ourselves and ask others who do know. We have to be willing to have others see that we don’t have it all figured out. If the unnamed religious leader had been more concerned with his standing and public image he very well may have kept quiet like the others, but instead he waded into the shallow waters of his understanding in the hopes they would get deeper.
The move likely felt counterintuitive to his group. Certainly, it didn’t occur to any of the other religious leaders to join him in curiosity. To them, that was to admit a lack of knowledge and they would look all the more foolish for it. But would you rather possibly look foolish for a moment and gain answers, or pretend you have the answers and then be proven foolish?
If you want to find answers and truth, you will have to admit that you don’t know everything. There’s absolutely no way around it. If you want the status of wisdom you must carefully hide all your unknowns and weak spots. You will have to be constantly mentally on guard lest someone ask you a question you’re unprepared for. You will be seen as wise, but only because the people you’re speaking to don’t know any better. It’s a lonely, miserable business.
But if you want to actually be wise, then you need to be constantly open to learning. You need to be unafraid of admitting when you don’t know and you need to be just as hungry for finding the truth. You need to not care if others are impressed by you and worry more about your attitude towards learning. It’s uncomfortable, and it requires thinking a little less of yourself, but by golly, you will become wiser for it. And isn’t that the point in the first place?
Take a lesson from our unnamed friend in Mark. Pay less attention to how you’re viewed as a teacher and focus more on if you’re teachable. You’d be surprised by how much follows.
Let’s find some joy,