Ten teachings ago, we learned that wisdom will be enduring when our good deeds exceed said wisdom. Today we turn to a strikingly similar teaching–with drastically different results.
3.22 This was a favorite teaching of his:
When a person’s wisdom exceeds his good deeds, to what may he be compared? To a tree with many branches but few roots. A wind blows, uproots it and topples it over, as it is written, “He shall be like a desert scrub that never thrives but dwells unwatered in the wilderness, in a salty, solitary land” (Jeremiah 17:6).
However, when a person’s good deeds exceed their wisdom, to what may he be compared? To a tree with few branches but with many roots. All the winds of the world may blow against it, yet they cannot move it from its place, as it is written, “He shall be like a tree planted by the water that spreads its roots by the stream. Untouched by the scorching heat, it’s foliage remains luxurious. It will have no concern in a year of drought and will not cease from bearing fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8).
A its surface, this teaching seems so remarkably familiar that some might suppose a link to Proving Wisdom might do more good than a new post. I disagree: though incredibly alike, these teachings are not truly identical.
Teaching 3.12 told us how to make wisdom enduring–by doing good deeds. This teaching aims at something different: it makes no allusions to endurance (at least none directly) and instead talks a lot about trees.
Trees are important metaphors, especially in a Biblical context. There are the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that leads to Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, the strong trees of Lebanon, and the tree that grows over Jonah and shrivels in the heat, teaching us a solid lesson about caring for others through an analogy to the city of Nineveh.
Today these trees either topple or stand tall. What at first seems to suggest a statement of strength, possibly even endurance, I think is in truth a discussion about our foundations and focus.
When our wisdom exceeds our good deeds, the teaching tells us, we are like a tree with many branches but few roots–so even a small wind will make us quiver and fall. When the inverse is true, we have fewer branches, but more roots and cannot be felled. I like to think the above/below ground dichotomy is not a parable of what-meets-the-eye-is-true, but something that begs a deeper understanding, a quantum of metaphor.
Good deeds ground us. They make us wise and compassionate, fulfilling us on an emotional and spiritual level. Wisdom makes us knowledgable, hopefully effective and aware, broadening our horizons but not necessarily giving us a firm footing or purpose. Likewise, these roots reach down not into the earth, but into our inner world, our deepest passions and positions. By performing good deeds, we gain the depth of character that defines us–not merely to others, but also to ourselves. This awareness and understanding of ourselves allows us to create a personal foundation upon which to build our entire lives.
When we have but wisdom, we have built connections to the around us–the world outside us–that has failed to connect us to our deeper selves or gain a true understanding of the world we live in and the world we want to create. I’ll be the last to argue against wisdom, against learning and being connected to facts and figures–but too often wisdom only connects us to facts and figures, and we need more than either of those to make our lives complete.
We need faces. The faces of the community we live in and the faces of those we serve, no matter which capacity we serve them in–as a leader, a friend, a teacher or a doctor, a parent or a stranger on the streets. When we perform good deeds, we begin relating those facts and figures granted by wisdom to the faces we see. With this unification comes a new tree–a third tree–the growth of a tree so tall it can be seen far and wide, a tree so firmly rooted no winds can bring it down.
Many years ago, I would meditate and visualize myself as a tree digging my roots into the earth and reaching my limbs toward the heavens. I’d never seen the image as the unification of service and learning until today, but with all the service-learning I’ve been given, it’s no surprise this seed has grown into every facet of my life.
It is the experience of any person that life will continuously try to pull us down and force us to the ground, but take your wisdom and take your hands and do something good with them–spend a few moments helping others, and when the world rises up to greet you, have no fear: Your foundation and your focus, formed by the faces of those around you, will keep you standing tall no matter what winds of the world blow against you.