The king was looking for someone possessing great wisdom to join his council of advisors. So he contacted the elders of the 12 regions of his kingdom and asked them to send their wisest man or woman to his palace to participate in a challenge. The winner would then be invited to join his council.
The elders selected and sent 12 people of great wisdom to the palace. When they arrived, the king summoned them to his royal court, where there were 12 desks in a row, each with a pen and stack of paper on it.
All the doors and windows were open and they marvelled at the beautiful gardens and majestic buildings surrounding them. Then they noticed a man, half-naked, tied to a wooden pole in the middle of the courtyard directly in front of them.
The king pointed to the man and said he had been charged with defying the king and was now going to be punished. The king explained to them that the man was innocent, but the royal court had decided to make an example of him.
“This man will be sentenced to 40 lashes and one year in prison,” the king said, “unless one of you can set him free with your wisdom. It won’t be easy, for I am a harsh man, but if any of you can do this, you will be invited to stay as a member of the royal council. Now there are 12 desks, paper and pens. You have one hour. Begin!”
The wise ones quickly sat down and began writing their best arguments for releasing the man, except for one very old woman wearing a purple shawl. She slowly walked out into the courtyard, took a sword from one of the bewildered guards and cut the ropes that bound the man to the pole. She then took off her shawl, placed it on his shivering shoulders and told him he was free to go home.
The royal guards stood motionless and speechless, in shock over the old woman’s boldness. Finally one of them turned to the captain of the guards and asked what they should do.
“Arrest her!” he said. “She has defied the king.”
The guards seized her and threw her before the king’s throne.
“You dare to defy me?” the king asked. “Explain your actions!”
“Well, sire, you told us an innocent man would be beaten and imprisoned unless one of us set him free. So I set him free,” she said.
“Did you not see I was willing to punish an innocent man? How much more do you think I will punish you for defying me in my own court? Only a fool would do such a thing!”
“I’m sorry, but I beg to differ, sire. Only a fool knows what to do—but doesn’t do it. Don’t you agree?”
“But you didn’t do what you were supposed to do!” the king shouted. “You were supposed to set him free by using your wisdom. By writing your wisdom down on paper to convince me to set him free.”
“Forgive me, sire, but that is not what you said. You only told us to set him free with our wisdom. So I did. Now, if I did what you are now suggesting I should have done, it wouldn’t matter what I wrote down on that paper, it would not have been wisdom.”
“Why not?” the king demanded.
“Because knowing what ought to be done isn’t wisdom until you’ve done it.”
A wise old woman indeed.
This story echoes Jesus’ teachings on wisdom. In Matthew 11:19 he says “wisdom is vindicated by her actions” or “justified by her works.” This means that wisdom is validated by its results. Or to put it another way, wisdom isn’t truly wisdom until it does something.
Wisdom is understanding in action. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:24: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like a wise person who built their house on the rock.” Twice Jesus stresses that wisdom is action in this verse:
- People are only wise by acting on what they understand.
- People are not wise by knowing how to build on a solid foundation, but by actually building on it.
James puts it this way: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (1:22).
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.