August 23, 2015 The Reverend Dr. William S. Stafford
Proper 15 B: 1 Kings 2: 10-12, 3: 3-14; Eph. 5: 15-20; John 6: 53-59
Today’s readings all turn around wisdom and folly—being wise, as opposed to being foolish. We started with King Solomon’s great prayer, asking God for wisdom in governing God’s people. Then we went to Ephesians calling young Christians to be wise, not foolish, as, for example, not getting drunk and stupid. And then, in some contrast, we heard Jesus’ call to gain life by eating his flesh and drinking his blood—which seems like a very different kind of wisdom. This morning I want to talk with you about wisdom in the Bible. It is a major, important theme. In the Old Testament, there are several books that concentrate on wisdom and so which, logically enough, we now call “ Wisdom literature.” Some of those books are attributed to Solomon himself. Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Wisdom all make up part of it, although four hundred years ago protestants dropped two of those books from the Bible. Every Bible has the book of Proverbs, however; it’s right after the psalms. It is the elementary textbook for wisdom. Proverbs is filled with—proverbs! Those of us who survived elementary school long ago, or seventh grade civics a little later, will know some of Ben Franklin’s proverbs: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” And we know evil proverbs as well as good: “Don’t get mad, get even.” “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.” The proverbs attributed to Solomon in the Bible are short, pithy words that carry wisdom for life, that you can chew on and slowly get some nutrition on, that you can teach to your children, to see how life is woven together and to find yourself invited to live more wisely. Here’s my paraphrase of three from the Book of Proverbs: “It’s better to have nothing but vegetables for dinner and also love, than to have a thick steak and hatred at the table.” “People who oppress the poor insult their Maker; but those who are kind to the needy honor God.” “A fool takes no pleasure in actually understanding anything, but only in expressing his opinion.” God’s people developed a common sense of what’s good and bad, what works in life and what doesn’t, what happens to your life if you operate a certain way or if you don’t. The Bible shares a lot of that kind of wise advice, not just in those four books, and expects people to build on that wisdom, from generation to generation. And it expects too that some people will accept God’s invitation to learn this practical sort of wisdom, and others won’t. Some of us listen, and think, and learn, and become wise; some of us are more attracted to being foolish. My dear lady mother said more than once: “Willie, you don’t have the wit to come in out of the rain!” Now that’s a proverb about folly, about silliness and playing the fool: she knew the proverbial wisdom that if you’re foolish enough to stay out in the rain, you’re going to catch cold. Every day we have a choice, many choices between this kind of basic wisdom and foolishness. Will I get up early for work, or will I sneak in to work late? Will I mess around with that woman’s husband or that man’s wife, or will I keep faith? Will I burst out in anger, or keep my mouth shut? The path of Wisdom can be very practical discernment about how to life wisely and happily. That’s very basic. It used to be the first part of the Bible that new Christians studied, so as to learn to live wisely as new people.
But when one reads through the wisdom part of the Bible, there’s a deeper perspective that slowly opens up within all that daily common sense. There’s a deep and growing light of moral and spiritual wisdom among those proverbs, and it shines too within the Law. It’s the part of wisdom to love justice; to keep covenant with parents and spouse; to care for the poor; not to love money more than one’s neighbors. Wise people learn to love their neighbors and care for their society, near and far. And beneath that, again and again, is wisdom’s word: don’t ignore God. Again and again we hear: “ The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It’s wise always to factor God in every equation. It is indescribably stupid and foolish to behave as if there were no God. Respecting, honoring, being alert to God and God’s ways is wise, because God is real, and wise people by definition are in touch with reality. Leave folly, seek wisdom—and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Deepest of all: as you love wisdom and grow in wisdom and live in wisdom, you will find yourself in communion with God. Wisdom is something, indeed Wisdom is someone; living with her is to be in communion with God.
Now I think that many of us who go to church do so in part out of a sort of wisdom tradition. We want to know the right way for life, the wise way to grow up and to help our children grow up or how to cultivate a friendship or to have a really decent life. We want good values, and we want the deep internalizing of those values that will make a difference in our lives—we want to be wise. Many of us come to church to help build on the wisdom we learned in youth, or in other cases, to recover from a life of chasing foolishness. Some of us value common sense and a desire for a decent life in a decent community, and begin to understand that God is part of that. God is the source of wisdom, and in a confusing world that offers foolishness on every side, we want the straight and even road that Wisdom herself lays before us. God is the crown and the guardian of good, deep, decent common sense. That perspective is rooted deep in faith, and it is rooted deep in the Bible—and I think it’s the way some of us come at being Christians. It always was. We hear that in our NT lesson: live wisely, not foolishly. Many people came to Jesus for his wisdom, and some of them began to think that that he not only knew the wise way to live but he himself was the way, that he was Wisdom here in our daily world—not only by showing us how to live but giving us communion with God.
But there’s a radically different perspective, that is quite suspicious of any kind of common sense and has little time for proverbs. And it has a place in the Bible and the Christian tradition too. Many of us find common sense at best very limited. Did anybody here live through the sixties and seventies, as I did? A lot of people in my generation came to believe that the old proverbs and patterns that people told them were wise were actually just reinforcing a status quo that had a lot that was bad about it. Obviously, science has discredited plenty of old proverbs; you don’t catch cold from staying out in the rain, you catch it from a virus. Revolutions in politics, religion, and society have made an awful lot of conventional wisdom seem not just dated but oppressive, needing to be turned on its head. And also there are times and seasons to be wild and foolish and have fun, to be imprudent, to risk everything for love or beauty or truth or patriotism—or God. And it does seem that there are things that conventional wisdom can’t reach, where proverbs are helpless. Radical evil: in the last generation, who had a proverb that would cure the world of Hitler or Stalin? And death: within the wisdom literature of the Bible itself, the book of Ecclesiastes recognizes the limits of the wisdom tradition it knew. Facing death, which sweeps away everything for wise and foolish alike, that book tells us, everything finally is vanity and waste. Common sense has nothing to say to death. It is that different perspective, in the Bible right next to all those proverbs, that is confronted by the deepest insight of all. When God dealt with evil and death in our Lord Jesus, it was not in a way the wise people in the world would ever consider for a minute. The Cross? In today’s reading, people who came to Jesus looking for wisdom were deeply offended when Jesus told them that they could only have life if they ate his body and drank his blood—if they participated in his saving death. That is God’s wisdom, which can contradict the wisdom of the world. The ultimate issues of sin and evil and death are beyond the range of any common sense, any conventional wisdom; and the way God has saved us from them turns that common sense and wisdom on its head. Many of us in the church come from that side: the side of paradox and mysticism, of God’s radicalism and the incredible senseless foolish prodigality of his love.
What to make of this? Both of these traditions are in the Bible, and both in the church.
In the Anglican tradition, there is a strong conviction that both are true, just in their own place. Both are at Wisdom’s banquet: both ultimately come from Christ, who is Wisdom incarnate. Each just has its own range of applicability. The great Anglican Richard Hooker, for example, thought that one governed political societies chiefly through carefully and critically considered common sense, but that one embraced Jesus’ death and resurrection only in radical faith and prodigal love.
I think myself that people who tend to line up with one of these two differing perspectives need each other in the church. It leads to tension and even conflict, but it’s a tension we are supposed to be in. The common sense folks keep us from doing stupid imprudent things; if you don’t pay the electric bill, the lights go off! But the paradox and prodigal people make us radically reevaluate what’s genuinely stupid and imprudent, and what’s not: some things matter more than lights.
But in all of this, there is finally a central lesson for both: God at center, God the way and the goal. Respect for God really is the beginning of wisdom, of both kinds of wisdom. Follow Christ, in ordinary daily life away from the destruction of folly and toward the solid community-building of wisdom. Follow Christ also to the Cross, to the prodigal wild love that gives all and that shares eternal life. Jesus is himself the Wisdom who took our flesh and dwelt among us, and who spoke the words of life to us, and then who gave his life for us. And so we pray, in the words of today’s collect: “Almighty God, you have given your only son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” To our Lord Jesus Christ, who is wisdom in the flesh, wisdom crucified and raised, be glory and honor now and to ages of ages.