Be Careful What You Ask For

Prof. Jonathan L. WaltonSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. 



God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” — Genesis 3:3-5


Wisdom and her pursuit have been honored through the ages. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Maat, the goddess of truth, justice, and balance, The Greeks had Sophia, wisdom’s personification and the beginning of all knowledge. Aristotelian ethics professes that phronesis, practical wisdom, is all of the virtues personified. And among the Swahili in East Africa, wisdom is wealth—the sort of wealth that can never be consumed, but only shared. As the literature of the Hebrew Bible encourages us at one point, “It is better to get wisdom than gold. And understanding should be chosen over silver.”

Think about the life of one of the Bible’s most memorable characters, King Solomon. Communities revere King Solomon as a moral paragon of wisdom and virtue. He reigned in the early tenth century before Christ, and legend has it that Solomon was offered a blank check by God. When God said, “ask for whatever you will, Solomon,” he did not ask for a long life. He did not ask for fortune. Nor did he ask for fame. But rather in realizing the limitations of his cognitive capacity and deficiencies of his own discernment, Solomon asked God for wisdom. Solomon said, “Give me an understanding heart, so that I might discern between good and evil.”

And because God was pleased with Solomon’s seemingly humble request, the legend contends that God gave him what he asked for and a whole lot more. Thus Solomon becomes the model of wise counsel. He becomes the epitome of honorably earned wealth. He becomes the archetype of responsible power.

Now it is easy to see why ancients may have hoisted the pursuit of wisdom as the height of noble leadership. Then, like now, so many linked wealth with power. So many linked money with might, and might with right. The virtues of honesty, sincerity, and decency are too easily trumped by power, privilege, and long purse strings. The character attributes of intellect, integrity, and curiosity are trumped by mendacity, deceit, and entitled ignorance.

Then, like now, many felt more comfortable with autocrats than intellectuals. Then, like now, many preferred the certainty of tyrants over the ethical questions of philosophers. And then, like now, many would rather defer to a rich buffoon than a poor person of virtue.

Too many confuse aggressiveness for intellect, as if those of us who talk the loudest and longest really have something to say. And too many confuse hubris for high-mindedness, as if we make the world a better place just by waking up each morning.

This is why ancient sages gave us this particular legend of Solomon’s ascendancy to the throne. Solomon was meant to serve as a reminder that true wealth is a moral concept, not a material possession. Wealth flows from wisdom, which is one’s capacity to live a thoughtful life of love and virtue. And virtue entails a generosity of spirit located between unhealthy extremes.

Wisdom, for instance, is learning how to live between the extremes of blind faith and dogmatic certainty. For those are just two sides of the same ideological coin. Wisdom is learning how to live between debilitating fear and impulsive rashness. For courage is not just the rejection of cowardice, it involves being caring and contemplative. And wisdom is not about being the smartest person in the room, by defeating others in the room. Wisdom is about being the most effective person in the room to improve the overall quality of life for everyone in the room. It’s about skill. It’s about creativity. It’s about sound judgment. Wisdom is not just about having or knowing information. It’s about having the appropriate moral disposition to develop insight, foresight, and application. In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, wisdom is learning how to hit a straight lick with a crooked stick.

This is why some ancient writers depicted the legend of Solomon in the way that they did. Solomon’s life was intended as an ethical archetype. He was presented as a moral guide.

But humble pursuit of wisdom is not the only lesson that we can learn from the ancients.  Yes, there is a tradition that exalts Solomon as the epitome of wise leadership. But wisdom among Hebrew sages was always a contested category. There was a class of sages in ancient Israel who were skeptical of the pursuit of wisdom. Many saw a dangerous underside to its pursuit. In human possession, the same gift of discernment can just as easily lead even the best of us on a path to destruction.

In other words, the very moment that you and I become aware of our wisdom and/or conscious of our humility, the greatest of all temptations (VANITY) infects us like a spiritual virus. So though the pursuit of wisdom is recommended by some ancient sages, it was denounced by others. And those others were the ones who obviously drafted this version of the creation narrative in Genesis. We all know it. How is the serpent depicted? He is wise and crafty. He then promises Adam and Eve that they will know the difference between good and evil. In fact, the writer of this text has the serpent use the same language of Solomon’s seeming humble request. “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

So some sages were trying to provide another moral lesson about the pursuit of wisdom. While it could be an example of humble leadership, it might also be an example of vain temptation. For the very moment that we think that as finite, limited creatures we have the right answers to life’s confounding questions, our garments of humility become the armor of hubris. We become like the kid who wears the T-shirt that declares, “I am so humble.”

Adam and Eve fell prey to their own vain desires. Adam and Eve fell victim to the scam that any one of us can really know the difference between good and evil. The great neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described this as part of the nature of humanity. The only thing in which we can be certain is our uncertainty. The only doctrine of the church that can be empirically verified is the human penchant for sin. So it is at the moments when we are most sure and confident that we must then learn to temper what some may call our entitled ignorance.

Consider how many wars are raging this moment—wars fought by those who believe that they alone know the difference between good and evil.

Consider the nature of obstructionist politics in this country—partisanship that is based on the view that our side is absolutely right, for we alone know the difference between good and evil.

Or consider religious violence sparked by devotion to an angry and absolutist God. Too many of us have been so quick to claim God on our side. Why? Because we alone know the difference between good and evil.

The ancient sages had a profound point. Any claims to rightness or ethical absolutes should be treated with suspicion. This is not about a crass moral relativism. But it is about having an intellectual openness and humility. For ego will tempt us to forsake what we want most—truth and justice—for what we want now—winning the day. And this is the kind of intellectual and moral myopia that causes too many of us to claim fruit of knowledge that only belongs to God.

We become like Adam and Eve. We accept the serpent’s offer. We think we know the difference between good and evil. Yet we do not realize that we might just end up serving as the Devil’s advocate here on earth.

Some of you may remember a movie of this title from twenty years ago. The Devil’s Advocate starred Keanu Reeves playing a young and gifted lawyer from Florida. In fact, he never lost a case. This is why a high-powered attorney from New York shows up named John Milton played by Al Pacino. Milton brings the young lawyer to New York. He gives him a beautiful apartment. He has him defend in court cases that are indefensible. Yet the entire time he keeps playing to his ego, “you can’t win them all kid. I guess we all have to lose sometime.” This only catalyzes the young lawyer to further compromise his own moral convictions. Winning—dictating and deciding himself what is good and evil—is his only moral standard. By the end of the film, the young lawyer has lost his career, his wife to suicide, and most importantly his soul to John Milton, who he has come to discover is Satan. And in a powerful climactic scene, the young lawyer pulls a gun out on Milton and declares, “you did this to me.” To which John Milton replies, “you made choices. I only set the stage.”

This is the situation that you and I will repeatedly find ourselves. Satan will promise us all the wine, wealth, and ego-laden wisdom that this world can provide. And like John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, life will tell us that “it’s better to reign in Hell, than serve in heaven.”

Let’s use this season of Lent as a reminder that there are just some things in life that we can’t have. There are some things in life that we cannot know. And, most importantly, there are some things that we should never seek. For we can never sit in the chair of Almighty God. Thus, my friends, let’s be careful what we ask for.