Sermon Illustrations on Wisdom


Prudence: Practical Wisdom

Prudence is a form of wisdom. The ancients distinguished between two kinds of wisdom: speculative wisdom (sophia), related to the world of abstract ideas, and practical wisdom (prudentia), related to the concrete world of particular actions. As Tom pursues the story’s heroine, his beloved Sophia (wisdom), he must also pursue and acquire prudence, or applied wisdom. Wisdom is so rare today that distinguishing between speculative and practical wisdom seems overly nuanced.

But we’ve all heard advice or a principle that seems right—yet is impossible to apply to a particular situation. One notices this often with pundits and commentators who are wont to spout platitudes that sound wise in theory yet prove disastrous when applied to an actual situation.

I think, for example, of a man I know who, after his wife divorced him to be with another man, was fired from his job assisting a ministry leader. The ministry leader thought it wise not to sully his family-centered ministry’s reputation by working so closely with a man whose life didn’t live up to the ministry’s values. Years later, however, when divorce hit closer to home within the leader’s family, his understanding of divorce tempered, and he realized that his views, although seemingly wise in theory, couldn’t stand the test of application in the real world. By then it was too late. The man he had fired, who had done no wrong, was embittered and hurt beyond easy repair.

Another example is the rule among some male leaders not to meet alone with a woman, which sounds moral and wise but generally becomes impossible to practice without falling into other errors such as disrespect or discrimination. Yet many today assume its prudence and adopt the rule without examination. Prudence is wisdom at work on the ground, doing good and avoiding evil in real-life situations.

Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Baker Publishing Group.


Preach or Pray: St. Francis Seeks Guidance from Holy Friends

Early in his career, St. Francis of Assisi was in great agony of doubt about how to proceed. Should he devote himself to prayer and meditation alone or to preach? A humble man, he sought out the wisdom of others to know God’s will for his ministry.

He sent a messenger to Sister Clare and Brother Silvester asking them to “pray devoutly to God, with one of [their] more spiritual companions” about whether he should only devote himself to prayer or to also preach.

When the messenger returned with their answer, Francis first washed his feet and prepared him a meal. Then, kneeling, Francis asked the messenger what had been revealed to them. The message from God, both Clare and Silvester agreed was: “He wants you to go about the world preaching, because God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.”

As soon as he heard this, Francis got to his feet and said with fervor, “So let’s go—in the name of the Lord!”

William Rowley, source: “The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi,” The Book of Jesus, edited by Calvin Miller (Simon and Schuster, 1998)


Skin is Meant to be Touched

Brenda Peterson is an author whose work crosses multiple genres, including fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books. In an essay entitled In Praise of Skin, Peterson shares a true story from her own battle with painful skin rashes. Similar to the woman with the hemorrhage in the gospels, Brenda visited multiple doctors, but was unable to find a cure. One day she was visiting with her grandmother, who came up with a different solution than the ones offered by the many dermatologists Peterson had already visited. 

“Skin,” she exclaimed, “needs to be touched!” After that, the grandmother began regularly massaging Brenda’s skin, and eventually those massages were able to cure what all the those prior, fancy medicines were unable to:  she was cured of the painful rashes. The grandmother, it turns out, was right: “skin is meant to be touched.”

Stuart Strachan, Source Material from Brenda Peterson, Ballantine Books, 1993.

When Words Fail

Ronald Rohlheiser tells a true story of a Jewish boy named Mordechai who could not be coaxed into going to school. When he turned six years old, his mother forced him to go, but the process was miserable for both mother and son. The boy cried, kicking and screaming the entire way. Once he had been dropped off, the mother began her return home, only to find Mordechai already there, having run home immediately after getting dropped off.

Each day, the mother would drag the boy to school, and each day he would fight her tooth and nail, then run back home as soon as he could. At this point, the parents resorted to the usual carrots and sticks, bribes, and threats that most parents resort to when no other meaningful path presented itself.

Finally, they decided to visit their rabbi, hoping he might have some deeper wisdom to offer. To their relief, the rabbi was happy to help, telling the parents that if the boy wouldn’t respond to their words, to “bring him to me.”

The parents brought the boy to the rabbi’s study. The rabbi didn’t say a word. Instead, he simply picked the boy up and held him in his arms, close to his heart. He did this for a long period of time, until finally, he set the boy down. This connection was all the boy needed to have the courage to go to school. And go to school he did, Mordechai would grow up to become a great rabbi and scholar. Ultimately, when words fail, a silent embrace may be all that is needed.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source material from Ronald Rolheiser, Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist


Jazz as an Analogy for Wisdom

All great jazz musicians have at least three things in common: (1) they have gone into the practice room and learned and internalized all the scales, which are simply organized sequences of notes, until they can play them forward and backward; (2) they have put in the time to learn all the standard jazz songs (in jazz parlance, they’ve “learned the book”); and (3) they can play every one of those standards in any key. “Oh, you want me to play Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ in C?” No problem! “How ’bout we play ‘A Night in Tunisia’ in D?” You got it.

“Hey, man, you good with playing Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ in E-flat minor?” Sure thing. If these three things are in place—knowing all the scales and all the songs in any key—a great jazz musician can walk into any club, on any night, in any city, and be ready to play. Living a life of wisdom is a lot like becoming a great jazz soloist. As counterintuitive as it may seem, we have to practice for spontaneity. We have to do our homework ahead of time, so we’re able to creatively improvise when the moment arises. A life of wisdom is about learning to think on our feet, about learning to be responsive to the actual conditions of life.

Daniel Grothe, Chasing Wisdom: The Lifelong Pursuit of Living Well, Thomas Nelson, 2020.

A Reservoir or a Canal

The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself…Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare…You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.

Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs


The Difference Between Intelligence and Wisdom

There’s a difference between intelligence and wisdom, as illustrated by the old story of the favorite course at the University. The favorite course? A survey of the New Testament. It was a favorite because there was no homework, no reading, and no tests before the final. And on the final, for 25 years, the same professor had always presented the same question: “Describe the Missionary Journeys of Paul.”

A young man by the name of “Meathead,” a star on the school’s football team, took the course. And a tutor helped him prepare, all semester long, for the final exam. When the day of the test came, Meathead was ready. He knew everything about every journey Paul ever took. He knew about Philippi and Thessalonica, Rome and Tyre. He knew about Timothy and Barnabas and Luke. He was ready.

But when the final exam was passed out, students all over that great auditorium were stunned to see a new question. For the first time in a quarter-century, the professor decided to ask a different question. Instead of a question about Paul’s missionary journeys, there was this question: “Critique the Sermon on the Mount that was preached by Jesus.”

The shock was felt across the room. And a young man got up, took his blue book – a little book that was designed to hold his essay – and threw it down on the professor’s desk. It was empty. He didn’t know how to answer the question. And one by one, all of the students left, none of them able to answer the question … except for Meathead.

Meathead opened his blue book and began to write. He wrote and he wrote and he wrote. The professor’s assistant came back an hour later, and Meathead was still writing. Two hours later, and Meathead was going at it. For a full three hours, Meathead filled up his blue book.

That afternoon, the professor had two stacks of blue books. On his right, a tall stack of empty blue books, all with the grade of F. On his left, one, single blue book, with a big, bold A+ right on top. It was Meathead’s.

“What in the world did you write about?” Asked a classmate. “Read it,” said Meathead. And on the first page was the opening sentence. “Who am I to criticize the Sermon on the Mount? Instead, let me tell you about the missionary journeys of Paul.”

Meathead . . . had discovered wisdom

Andy Cook

Get the Knowledge

Muhammed Ali served as a role model to many young people during his boxing career. When one student had the opportunity to question Ali, he asked him whether he should continue his studies in college or try and make his fortune in the world. Ali’s response was nothing if not unique: “Stay in college, get the knowledge,” Ali said. “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can make something out of you!”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The Seminary Faculty Guest

There’s a story out there about an angel that showed up at a seminary faculty meeting. In order to honor the dean, who had been a man of unselfish and exemplary behavior, the angel said God had decided to reward him with his choice of limitless wealth, infinite wisdom or unmatched beauty. Since the entire staff was on hand, the dean asked for advice. To a man, they quickly agreed that infinite wisdom was the best choice. And so, the dean chose to become the wisest man on earth.

“Done!” says the angel, disappearing immediately in a cloud of smoke.

Every head in the room turned to the dean. He sat perfectly still, surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispered, “Say something.” They were all anxious to hear what the wisest man in the world would say first. What wisdom had he been given?

Very slowly, carefully, and certainly, he said, “I should have taken the money.”

With all that new-found wisdom, he only knew that he’d had some bad advice!

Andy Cook

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