Two Kinds Of Wisdom Teachers

Wisdom concerns a way of life, a path, a way of seeing reality.
Wisdom is a way of seeing ourselves and our lives in relation to reality. ~ Marcus Borg

Wisdom comes in two forms: conventional and alternative.

Wisdom teacher as a cross-cultural religious personality

Wisdom teachers are known in every culture throughout history as either:

  • Teachers of conventional wisdom
  • Teachers of subversive or alternative wisdom, such as the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus

Wisdom teachers speak of two ways or two paths:

  • wise way and a foolish way
  • narrow way and a broad way
  • righteous way and a wicked way

They encourage their hearers to follow one and avoid the other.

Wisdom teachers make observations about life and speak out of experience.

  • Contrast this with a divine law-giver who says: “Thus says the Lord, you shall…” or “you shall not…
  • Contrast this with the inspired prophet who says: “Hear the word of the Lord…

Conventional wisdom teachers say things like: “You reap what you sow…

Alternative wisdom teachers say things like: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…

Understanding conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom is cultural consensus.

Conventional wisdom tells us how to live: it is what we are socialized into as we grow up in any given culture.

Conventional wisdom is based on rewards and punishments: “you reap what you sow” is standard in every culture.

  • Secular version: “work hard and you’ll succeed
  • Religious version: “God will reward or condemn you depending on what you’ve done

Conventional wisdom has social and psychological consequences.

  • Social: creates social boundaries by giving greater value to some roles than to others
  • Psychological: self-worth, identity, and self-esteem becomes based on how one measures up to social norms

Conventional wisdom is a culture’s domestication or map of reality built of language, words, systems of ordering.

  • Imposing words on reality means we categorize and label reality or place a grid over reality and relate to categories instead of what is.

We cannot live without conventional wisdom, although it has some negative aspects:

  • Creates a sense of self-preoccupation about measuring up to the standards of culture
  • Is a world of bondage to the messages of culture
  • Is a world of alienation and exile, separation and estrangement from meaning
  • Generates blindness that flows from thinking reality is as we have labeled it; we miss out on the depth and wonder of reality if we limit it to the words we use to describe it

It is important not to confuse conventional wisdom with reality itself.

Questions to ponder…

What are some of the conventional wisdom ideas you know?

How do they affect your image of God?

Jesus as an Alternative Wisdom Teacher

Jesus invites his hearers to leave conventional wisdom behind in order to live by an alternative wisdom.

Jesus Alpha and Omega

Jesus Alpha and Omega

Jesus as Wisdom Teacher

The eye is the lamp of the body… Jesus uses wisdom teaching to invite his hearers to see differently. ~ Marcus Borg

Jesus invites his hearers to leave conventional wisdom behind in order to live by an alternative wisdom.

Jesus as alternative wisdom teacher

Jesus’ wisdom teaching takes two forms.


  • Great one-liners
  • Short, pithy, memorable sayings
  • Crystallizations of insight that provoke and invite further insight
  • Examples:
    • If a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.
    • Leave the dead to bury the dead.


  • Short stories
  • Invite the hearer to enter the world of the story and to see differently in light of the story
  • Example: story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

Both aphorisms and parables are evocative and provocative forms of speech.

Most importantly they are invitational forms of speech

  • Invitations to see something you might not have otherwise seen
  • Invitations to see differently

Jesus spoke his aphorisms and told his parables many, many times.

No great speaker of one-liners tells a great one-liner only once, no great teller of great stories tells a great story only once.

The gospels are plot summaries.

Jesus’ invitation to see differently

Seeing is central to the wisdom teaching of Jesus. There are many sayings and healing stories about seeing. How you see makes all the difference.

  • What does Jesus invite people to see?
  • What is this new or different way of seeing like?
  • What is the different vision of life to which Jesus points and to which he invites his hearers?

Jesus’ alternative wisdom teaching undermines and subverts the social boundaries generated by the conventional wisdom of his day and ours.

Jesus’ wisdom teaching points to the world of conventional wisdom as a world of blindness. His aphorisms and parables invite us to see differently.

Conventional wisdom Jesus’ alternative wisdom
God is punitive lawgiver and judge God is gracious
A person’s worth is determined by measuring up to social standards All persons have infinite worth as a children of God
Sinners and outcasts are to be avoided and rejected Everyone is welcome around the table and in the kingdom of God
Identity comes from social tradition Identity comes from centering in the sacred, from relationship with God
Strive to be first The first shall be last…; those who exalt themselves will be emptied…
Preserve one’s own life above all The path of dying to self and being reborn leads to life abundant
Fruit of striving is reward Fruit of centering in God is compassion

Source of Jesus’ alternative wisdom

  • Where did this alternative wisdom of Jesus come from?
  • Why does he see the way he sees?
  • Why does he speak of conventional wisdom as way of blindness?
  • How does he know of alternative wisdom?

Jesus himself must have had an enlightenment experience. The reason Jesus sees differently is because he knows differently.

The radical change in perspective which characterizes the wisdom teaching of Jesus comes from a radically different experience of reality, the experience of the spirit of God.

The path Jesus travels, and invites his hearers to travel, is a way radically centered in God and not in culture.

Questions to ponder…

How do you apply Jesus’ alternative wisdom?

Think of an issue in your life or in the world today.

  • What does conventional wisdom say about it?
  • How does Jesus’ invitation to see differently affect your perspective and response to the issue?

What would it mean to radically center your life in God instead of culture?

This page is borrowed from

Biblical references are from The Scholars Version translation (SV), published in The Five Gospels, 1993 by Polebridge Press and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. The images include portrayals of Jesus from a wide variety of traditions and experiences.

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