Wise Men

After Peter’s great testimony of faith in the divinity of Christ (“Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God”) Jesus renames him “Peter” founding His Church on the rock as foretold by Isaiah.  But Peter did not receive the faith on his own or through others. About this, Jesus is clear:  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Mt.16:17)

Immediately thereafter, Christ announces He will go up to Jerusalem and be put to death.  Peter objects, and becomes the subject of the harshest rebuke in the Gospel:  “Stand behind me you Satan!”  Peter’s presumption – claiming ownership of his wisdom rather than recognizing he is but a good steward – traces back to the sin of Adam and Satan’s ancient temptation:  “Ye shall be as gods.” Christ didn’t need Peter to be His spiritual director; Christ wanted Peter to grow in the wisdom of the Cross.

So it is with great care that we must approach the Lord and ask Him about the death of John the Baptist. John the Baptist is, in a sense, the last of the Old Testament prophets, the precursor to Christ. Despite his powerful preaching and immense following, John in his great humility and wisdom pointed to Christ:  “He must increase and I must decrease.”  And decrease he would.  But Christ Himself would pay him the ultimate tribute: “No man born of woman is greater than John.”

Yet the “greatest man born of woman” was not to be numbered among the Twelve Apostles.  Jesus chose, instead, Peter – the impetuous man who would deny Him, and even Judas – the thief who would betray Him.

Learning our lesson from Saint Peter, Christ will not allow anyone to second guess His judgment. But the question might be asked with faith seeking understanding (similar to Mary’s faithful disposition in her questions to the Angel Gabriel). Why not choose John the Baptist rather than the weak man Peter as the rock upon which to build the Church? Why not choose John the Baptist over the traitor Judas? Why the apparent waste of all of John’s wisdom and strength of character by his early demise?

The riddle of wisdom and longevity isn’t limited to John’s case. The average life expectancy in the United States is something like 78 years.  We are born, we age, some of us grow up, and with God’s grace some of us truly grow in wisdom. In their own individual ways, the elderly become true oracles of wisdom, and in various ways they graciously hand down their wisdom to the young.  That’s the norm, in any case.  “Gray hair is the crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” (Prov. 16:31)

John the Baptist by A.R. Mengs, c. 1770 [private collection]
John the Baptist by A.R. Mengs, c. 1770 [private collection]

Of course, not all of us grow in wisdom.  For that matter, not all of us “grow up” even as we age.  Hence the saying, “There’s no fool like an old fool” or as Oscar Wilde observes, “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”  For the world weary, we may find ourselves agreeing with H.L. Mencken, “The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”

Frankly, it’s easy to understand the failure to grow in wisdom; but it’s more difficult to understand the apparent “waste” of the true wisdom of the elderly. By the time one connects a lot of the dots, penetrating the mysteries of life, our lives come to an end.  All too soon, it seems, as the sacred hymn has it, “time like an every flowing stream bears all its sons away.”  And with death, except for the books and monographs we’ve written (ha, ha), our accumulated life wisdom dies with us.

Like the apparent early demise of John the Baptist, the death of our wise elders before their time, seems a terrible waste – at least from our perspective.  Most of us don’t realize how wise our parents were until after they have entered eternity. We often feel the loss most acutely by the inability to ask for their advice when we feel to need it the most.

It doesn’t seem fair that just when we’re getting our acts together with so much to offer on the meaning of life – our loved ones die, or we begin to prepare for our own demise.

When we take the Gospel in its totality, however, we can begin to see the wise plan of God. John in his short life serves God’s purposes superbly. He announces the coming of the Lord and fulfills his mission with perfection despite his early demise.  Christ the Messiah increased, John himself decreased, according to plan. Indeed, all wisdom didn’t die with John because the purpose of his life was to point us to Christ, Wisdom Incarnate.

Henceforth Christ chooses the weak – like Peter and Judas – to show His might.  Mission accomplished.

Humanly speaking, there is something audacious, nay miraculous in this most poignant saying of Christ.  Without a single scribe at His side, Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Wisdom Incarnate shall never die.

And Wisdom Incarnate will remain for each of us to discover again and again with His grace reminding us of a fundamental reality: our wisdom is not our own and never was or will be. Wise men are merely God’s good stewards of Divine wisdom, a wisdom to be placed reverently in the service of the Lord according to His plan.

We cannot see our own lives – or the lives of our loved ones – in totality just yet.  We must have the wisdom to be patient in receiving God’s revelation in time and into eternity. This is the reason that charming Christmas card sentiment has great value: “Wise men still seek Him.”



Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.