Proper 20B: Humble Wisdom

Humble Wisdom (Blog)OLD TESTAMENT: Proverbs 31: 10-31

Read the Old Testament Passage

We continue with readings from the Hebrew Wisdom Book of Proverbs. Of course, there is no doubt here that this passage draws from the patriarchal assumptions of the culture in which it was written. But notice, too, that it is not presenting a role of a wife as subordinate to her husband. This passage is neither egalitarian or inegalitarian. It doesn’t compare women and men but rather presents the roles as ones of mutual support in their own way. It doesn’t say that a woman’s value is derived from her husband. She is not a sub-standard version of the male as many traditions began in later centuries to assert. And her value doesn’t come from the fact that she can bear children. There is nothing mentioned about childbearing at all.

The NRSV translation really doesn’t do her justice, though. Rather than “capable”, the Hebrew connotes a “strong woman”, a “woman of worth”. She is a mysterious figure that somehow brings rewards to everyone who settles into her household. She IS Wisdom. The wife here is seen as the embodiment of wisdom. She helps her husband not because he holds power over her but because her character is trustworthy and her work is fruitful. She is in her own way a true partner. But the phrase, “Who can find…?” is significant. This woman inspires generations but no one can compare to her. Who is so trustworthy today and so competent that the Lord can delegate authority so freely and so confidently?

James Hopkins makes the case that perhaps the woman depicted here is not, as she may seem, a sort of “all good things” Wonder Woman but, rather, a composite character of who women are and what women can be. Perhaps it is a redemption of the role of woman in a very patriarchal society.

And to take it a step further, perhaps it speaks to all partnerships, to all relationships. What is Wisdom? How does Wisdom relate to others? Perhaps this composite is the mythological ideal of Wisdom and how to be Wisdom in the world. Wisdom participates in the needed work that is best accomplished together, work that expresses faith, hope, and love in ways that build others up and brings people together. The “capable wife” here is the ideal believer. I would offer the notion that perhaps it is not even gender-specific. Maybe it’s a metaphor of who we are all called to be—trustworthy, of strong character, and deep and abiding faith. The “capable wife” is meant to convey the full significance of the wise, well-run household, the household that is run within the wisdom of God. It is the household that is a powerful emblem to teach and guide future generations. And she calls us to follow in her ways. It is a portrayal of faithful living.

It is interesting that this is the last chapter of Proverbs. After all the “words of wisdom”, we have this. Keep in mind that Wisdom literature was put together with intentionality. It is not an accident. It is also an interesting thing to note that it is the woman who ushers Sabbath in, the woman who invites us to see wisdom, to see the world to come. When all work is brought to a standstill, the candles are lit. Just as creation began with the word, “Let there be light!” so does the celebration of creation begin with the kindling of lights. It is the woman who ushers in the joy and sets up the most exquisite symbol, light, to dominate the atmosphere of the home. And the world becomes a place of rest. An hour arrives like a guide, and raises our minds above accustomed thoughts. People assemble to welcome the wonder of the seventh day, which the Sabbath sends out is presence over the fields, into our homes, into our hearts. It is a moment of resurrection of the dormant spirit in our souls. (From The Sabbath, Abraham Heschel, 66) But it must be ushered in by one who longs to be with God.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • We have talked a lot about wisdom the last couple of weeks. Does this shed any new insights into wisdom for you?
  • What stands in the way of our being this ideal?
  • What would it mean for our society if we embraced this as the ideal, as the “ideal believer”? 

NEW TESTAMENT: James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

More wisdom…The wisdom of James continues with a challenge to the hearers not to embrace a polarizing and fractious stance towards people. Many people who most want to be known as wise are anything but peaceable. History and today’s world both abound with people who think they are right and are prepared to die or kill for their truth. On the other hand, James is not advocating that Christians become doormats. Clearly the writing itself shows that the author is assertive and prepared to challenge others.

The gentleness being advocated here is not abdication of responsibility. It is an attitude which comes from a different kind of purity consisting not in pure doctrine nor in pure anger, but in pure love. Wisdom is about purity and purity is about wholeness, singleness, oneness. That oneness is held together by being full of compassion and produces genuine goodness towards others. There is no phoney-ness. The word righteousness (which also means justice and goodness) rightly belongs here. Rightness or righteousness is about being in right relationship with God and with oneself – and so also with others. The point is that true wisdom does not talk about faith but, rather, lives a faithful life.

The passage depicts wisdom as coming from above. This wisdom is identified as God’s Word or God’s Spirit. This is a ways of speaking of how God comes to people. So, as it says at the end of the passage, humility means not pious pretending and not being self-deprecating. Humility is about being genuine and not finding you have the need to establish your sense of worth by making others smaller than yourself. When we are genuine, we are never far away from God, because that is God’s very nature: self-giving, choosing not to take up the whole space, giving space for others to be, evolve, and grow. It is not a denial of our desires, but a reshaping of them so that we desire and “thirst” for God.

The passage depicts our life as a movement between two opposing forces. Once again, keep in mind that this first century writer and the writer’s first century readers probably did not understand the term “devil” as we do. This was not probably intended to be an opposing entity in some sort of cosmic war with God over possession of our souls. Rather, the writer is contrasting two wisdoms—the wisdom of this world that is so easy for us to convince ourselves is what we need to do, the wisdom that calls us to work hard and make money, that calls us to take care of ourselves and our own first, the wisdom that calls us to show ourselves as right above all else and the wisdom that is God. The writer calls us to BE the wisdom of God. It is not about being right. It’s not even about being righteous the way we think of it. It’s about listening and opening yourself up to knowing a different way, a way that probably does conflict with most of the ways of this world. It’s about becoming Christ in this world, the very image of the Wisdom that created you. It’s about living a life that is tuned in and turned over to God, about drawing near to the God who draws near to us all.

    • How does this passage speak to you?
    • What does this passage say to you about wisdom?
    • How does this speak to our own society?
    • Why do we struggle with humility?
    • What would look different in our society if we got what humility actually is?

GOSPEL: Mark 9: 30-37

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

In this passage, Jesus foretells his resurrection, chastises his disciples for arguing amongst them as to who was the greatest, and points to a child as a model for discipleship. Obviously, Jesus and his followers are not on the same page here. In spite of the fact that Jesus has already told them part of what was to come, they are all still absorbed in measuring their own greatness, in proving that they were the “best” in the eyes of Jesus.

And then Jesus turns and asks them what they were arguing about. They must be embarrassed, because their awkward silence is palpable, or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “deafening.” We would probably feel similarly uncomfortable in their place: Harry B. Adams asks “how often we would be silent if Jesus were to confront us and ask us what we have been talking and fretting about.” Even more, we “would fall silent if we were asked to explain how what we are doing and saying accords with the way of life that Jesus sets before us.” Talk about a lesson in humility!

We humans have mostly attributed value to those who have power. At some levels that has been physical power. It is equally about having the power of wealth, political power, family system power. It is having a sense of one’s own importance on the basis that you can make others inferior, putting yourself up by putting others down. Such powerful people are engaging in the subordination and demeaning of others. It can also be that some people are powerful and have authority without such motives. They may simply be physically strong. They may have been placed in positions of responsibility. People then attribute greatness to such people – because of their power and authority.

But Jesus is challenging this whole idea. True greatness is not about either of these relations to power. True greatness is to be like Jesus, a truly powerful person, but who valued himself not because of power but because of his being and his doing the will of God, which meant lowliness, in his case including following the path to the cross.

The image of the child, in itself, throws the focus more on the lowliness. The child is vulnerable. But then the focus shifts from the child back again to caring, this time for the child. Caring for vulnerable human beings is part of what caring is about. To take on a child in this way is to take on Jesus and to take on Jesus in this way is to take on God. And once we remove our lenses that call us to look for greatness, then we will see the cross—and the Resurrection. Once we see those who we do not see, we will also see Christ.

It is interesting to note that abandonment of infants in this ancient world was a normal and acceptable practice. Sometimes it was because of a lack of finances or food. Sometimes it was seen as a sort of postnatal birth control. So the wailing child in the garbage, the child of lowliest status and uncertain parentage is seen here as the image of Christ. In a sermon on this passage, Joel Marcus says this:

A student came into my office at a time when I was busy writing. I reluctantly agreed to talk to him, trying not to let my impatience show. My fidgetiness increased when I noticed how long it was taking him to get to the point. Suddenly, however, something about the student got through to me. I realized that he bore an uncanny resemblance in appearance, manner and voice to one of the great leaders of our age. And it came to me in a flash — this guy could turn out to be the next______! And here’s the next ______sitting in my office, and I can’t even concentrate on what he is saying!

Well, I don’t know if that student will really turn out to be an incarnation of this person — but does it matter? “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me. Menachem Schneerson, the famous Lubavitcher rabbi from Brooklyn, used to stand every week for hours as thousands of people filed by to receive his blessing or his advice about matters great and small. Once someone asked him how he, who was in his 80s, could stand for so long without seeming to get tired. The rabbi replied, “When you’re counting diamonds you don’t get tired.”

The abandoned baby on the street, the stranger at the door, even our own husband or wife or child or friend, is a diamond, and in receiving and treasuring these diamonds we are receiving the “pearl of great price” that was once hidden on earth as a destitute child of uncertain parentage. ( Joel Marcus, “Counting Diamonds”, which appeared in The Christian Century, September 6, 2000, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1995, accessed 16 September, 2009)

A story is told about a man who asked his rabbi why people couldn’t see the face of God.  What had happened that they could no longer reach high enough to see God?  The rabbi, a very old man, had experienced a lot in his life and was very wise. “My son,” he said, “that is not the way it is at all.  You cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low.  How said that is, but it is the truth, Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and stoop and you will be able to see God face-to-face.”  (From “The Challenge of Humility”, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat)

    1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
    2. Who are those who are invisible to you?
    3. What do they say to you about Christ, about the Resurrection?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. (Helen Keller)

 

Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. (T. S. Eliot)

 

What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God. (Monica Baldwin)

Closing

 

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,  And when we find ourselves in the place just right, It will be in the valley of love and delight.                            

When true simplicity is gained, To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed. To turn, turn will be our delight, ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right

‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return, ‘Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn, And when we expect of others what we try to live each day, Then we’ll all live together and we’ll all learn to say,

‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be, ‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”, And when we hear what others really think and really feel, Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real. 

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,  ’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right, It will be in the valley of love and delight.

(Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr., 1848)

Proper 19B: Unconventional Reality

crossing-the-roadOLD TESTAMENT: Proverbs 1: 20-33

Read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

We continue with readings from the Hebrew Wisdom Book of Proverbs. Wisdom literature is often a little odd for us to read because it doesn’t really mention God. In fact, oftentimes, God appears to be absent completely. But we need to remember and understand that at its very core, Wisdom literature presupposes and recognizes that God is the source of everything. Essentially, God IS wisdom, the source of us all. Wisdom is not merely a moral code or a list of prescribed principles. That would limit its significance for human beings. Wisdom, rather, is present in all of Creation, the work of God. The elusive quality of Wisdom is grasped only by God, the source of it all.

The Biblical roots of Sophia go back to the personification of Wisdom (chokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek) that we read in our Scripture today. Wisdom as a Woman draws us to God as the source, womb, and nurturer of all life.

Here, Wisdom appears in symbolic form as a woman who is an active and assertive force in humanity. The woman is at times an angry prophet at the end of her rope decrying the way we humans neglect to pay attention to the world around us and continue to go on down a path that we have ourselves created. Here, the images of the simple, as opposed to the wise, are those who are foolish, who instead choose to ignore Truth as it is presented. Essentially, it is a warning to those who think they have it all figured out. It is a warning that there are consequences for failing to live aware of Truth in our lives. She warns of death to the foolish, to those who choose not to live and follow wisdom, and life for the wise.

Wisdom is not a compilation of things learned and known.  And while knowledge and intellect are helpful things in gaining wisdom, greater knowledge does not necessarily increase one’s wisdom.  Wisdom is not gained.  It is, rather, lived and pursued.  It comes from an openness to exploration of all that life holds, of all the gifts that God has given us. Lady Wisdom warns us here not to miss that which God offers because we think we have it all figured out or because we are so distracted by the ways of the world.

We read the words, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.”  The Jewish midrash tradition (midrash meaning, literally, “what comes between”) from Sefer Ha-Aggadah tells of Rabbi Judah, a Patriarch, who forbade his students to teach Torah in the hustle and bustles of the marketplace.  When one of his disciples taught his nephews outside, his teacher was upset.  When the disciple found out that his teacher was upset, he stayed away for thirty days.  When he came again to see his teacher, the elder rabbi asked why his student had ignored his prohibition to teach Torah outside.  The student answered that Proverbs says that wisdom cries aloud in the streets.  His teacher retorted, “You have read the passage once but not twice.  Or perhaps you have read it twice but not three times.  Or, if you have read it three times, then you have not understood it properly.  When Proverbs says that, it means that wisdom will proclaim the good deeds in the street of the one who studies Torah inside.

Essentially, Wisdom is the “something else” that we all crave in the deepest part of our being, that longed for connection with the very Source of Being, the God who Created us and moves through our life beckoning us toward the Image of God that is already in us.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What for you is wisdom?
  3. How do we usually think of wisdom is our world?
  4. What lesson do you think this passage has for us in our society?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: James 3: 1-12

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

As we discussed last week, the Epistle of James continues giving advice and exhortations for good and righteous living. Here, the writer is speaking about words and the way we use words for communication. Essentially, it is about “bridling” your tongue. The issue is not about making errors but rather about how and what we communicate. At a deeper level, it is asking us to look at the base or foundation from which our communication comes. It is about how we relate to others.

As the metaphor implies, we essentially control our direction. It is a spirituality of getting some basics right in order to avoid dissonance and disunity. “Taming our tongue” is more than just being tactful. It points to who and what we really are. We are what we communicate and we exist in relationship to others. Mistreatment of others runs contrary to the attitude of God, it is against the wisdom of God. It is the wisdom of realizing that we must become and must be a whole person.

The writer claims that even as small as the tongue is compared to the whole body, it has the power to steer the entire being into a different direction. With our words, we name the world and each other, and in some sense we create a genuine reality. Once our speech takes hold, it has power for either good or evil. It can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down.

This an interesting passage to read in light of what goes on in our world today. We read of bullying by children toward their classmates. We know that there is bullying in the workplace, when one who has power inflicts that power in force (whether physically or emotionally) rather than wielding power as a creative and life-giving force. And in the midst of this campaign year, we know that the rhetoric that we hear is anything but conducive to good human relations. There are often times when our speech and our words in this world and society are indeed toxic.

Words are powerful things. They can harm, incite violence, wound, and inflict deep and sometimes irreparable pain. But they can also heal and soothe, comfort, and bring life. The Epistle of James includes the longest passage in the Bible about the role of speech in our lives. The truth is, our words cannot be separated from our being. They exhibit our true character, our true self. Maybe that is why the silences between them are so important. Words unchecked become toxic. Life-giving words are balanced by listening, by thinking, by silence. It’s hard to hear that in this passage. We take it more as the writer’s somewhat austere exhortation to watch what we say. And as members of a society that proudly practices freedom of speech, it almost flies in the face of what we believe. But with great freedom comes great responsibility. So what is our responsibility with that freedom? What is our responsibility with those words?

And yet, perhaps implicit in the message is also the call to listening, to contemplation, and to silence.   Perhaps it is the call to create space between our words and let the Word of God breathe into them. Because even though we have a hard time realizing it, silence is as much a part of speech as words. Maybe it is a call to a balance between speaking and listening, between words and silences. Maybe it is a call to allow them to feed each other.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What power do you think what we say has on others? What about on ourselves?
  3. Is there such a thing as “good gossip”?
  4. What does this have to say about wisdom?
  5. What is your feeling about silence?

GOSPEL: Mark 8: 27-38

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This passage is often seen as a turning point in the Gospel According to the writer known as Mark. It signals a recognition and a confession that Jesus is the Messiah. But apparently that is not enough. Attributing status to Jesus, even adoration of Jesus, is focusing on human ways. The point is to focus on God’s ways.

It is not unlike what we talked about in the Proverbs passage. Peter knows and acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah. But he really did not grasp the full meaning of what that entailed. Understanding Jesus as the Messiah is about much more than following Jesus’ teachings. After all, as we have seen, Jesus was not a typical “rule follower”. It also means to let go of the life that we have created for ourselves and to embody the wisdom, the source of us all, the Word made flesh, the very essence of Christ.

So Peter got it right in form, but wrong in substance. He rejects the idea that Jesus would not prove to be a success in this world. He misses the concept that Jesus is part of another way, another type of wisdom. Following Jesus is not done for gain or to get ahead in this world. It is not the “right” thing to do. Following Jesus is about realizing where God exists and where God calls us to be. But Peter was still living in the tradition of the return of a David-like king, a mighty conquering hero. He had an image of who Jesus was—it was just the wrong one. He was following the Jesus of Peter’s image rather than the Jesus who was God Incarnate.

But we are probably just as guilty. Much of our commitment is about doing what we should be doing so that God will do certain things for us. As Wiley Stephens says though, “Jesus is not your therapist; he has come to be your Savior, the Messiah, not to soothe your pain.” There is danger in trying to hold onto that which cannot be held. There is joy in finding the greater way when we finally let it go. And the only way to figure out which way to go is to realize that we have to look at things differently. Take up thy cross and follow me.

Marcus Borg talks about two types of wisdom.  One he calls “Conventional” wisdom, which describes the mainstream or dominant “voice” of a culture—essentially what everyone knows–and the other he calls “Subversive”, which is from a different path outside of the mainstream.  It involves heading in a different direction, toward a different reality than conventional ways.

Conventional wisdom provides guidance on how to live.  It’s pretty much based on a typical system of rewards and punishments.  If you do right, if you act right, you’ll get good things; if you don’t, bad things will happen to you.  In this type of wisdom, living well is the best revenge.  Conventional wisdom creates the world in which we live.  There are rules and instructions and a call to “measure up” to a life of requirements.  Conversely, “Subversive” wisdom is a world of paradox and reversal of the norm.  Think about it…what kind of world is it where outcasts are invited in as heroes, where long lost children who have squandered their family’s inheritance are welcomed back, where wealth and power is possibly seen as a source of idolatry, and where death is life?  This is certainly different from the world in which we live.  This subversive wisdom is the wisdom of Christ, the wisdom of God.  Remember, Jesus didn’t walk this earth so that we could be handed a list of rules.  Jesus came that we might live.  But “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus did not teach wisdom; Jesus did not give us a “how to guide to Wisdom”; rather, Jesus showed us the way to become it.  It’s about incarnation, about being.  Jesus was the incarnation of the Word, the embodiment of the Wisdom of God, and called us to follow down the same path.

There is a wisdom story of a traveler who came upon three masons cutting stone.  Curious as to what the workers were doing with the stones, he asked the first worker, “What are you doing with these stones?” Without hesitation the worker quickly responds, “I am a stone cutter and I am cutting stones.” Not satisfied with this answer, the traveler approached the second worker and asked, “What are you doing with these stones?” The second worker paused for a moment and then explained, “I am a stone cutter and I am trying to make enough money to support my family.” Having two different answers to the same question, the traveler made his way to the third worker. The would-be philosopher asked the third worker, “What are you doing with these stones?” The third worker stopped what he was doing, bringing his chisel to his side. Deep in thought, the worker slowly gazed toward the traveler and shared, “I am a stone cutter and I am building a cathedral!

There is truly always something more. Life is not the simple thing that we have allowed it to be, living by a set of rules within our limited understanding of God. It is something much, much more glorious. The way of wisdom invites us to look at life differently, to walk a different path, and to follow Christ. Several years ago, popular religious culture told us to ask ourselves the question, “What would Jesus do?” The interesting thing is that the answer is probably not the one that we would ever imagine. Perhaps a better question, then, is “What would Wisdom do?” After all, I’m thinking that’s the way that Christ was probably trying to get us to go anyway.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. In what ways do you identify with Peter?
  3. What is it that you need to let go of in order to truly follow Christ?
  4. What does it mean to “take up your cross”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we come upon the truth (Pierre Abelard, 14th century)

A [person] who won’t die for something is not fit to live. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

 

He became what we are that [God] might make us what he is. (Athanasius, 4th century)

 

 

Closing

 

Here in this place new light is streaming,

Now is the darkness vanished away,

See in this space our fears and our dreamings

Brought here to You in the light of this day.

 

Gather us in the lost and forsaken,

Gather us in the blind and the lame;

Call to us now and we shall awaken,

We shall arise at the sound of our name.

 

We are the young our lives are a mystery,

we are the old who yearn for your face.

We have been sung throughout all of history,

Called to be light to the whole human race.

 

Gather us in the rich and the haughty

Gather us in the proud and the strong,

Give us a heart so meek and so lowly,

Give us the courage to enter the song.

 

Here we will take the wine and the water,

Here we will take the bread of new birth,

Here you shall call your sons and your daughters,

Call us anew to be salt for the earth.

 

Give us to drink the wine of compassion,

Give us to eat the bread that is you;

Nourish us well and teach us to fashion,

lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

 

Not in the dark of buildings confining,

Not in some heaven light years away,

But here in this place the new light is shining,

Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.

 

Gather us in and hold us forever,

Gather us in and make us your own;

Gather us in all peoples together,

fire of love in our flesh and our bones.

 

(Marty Haugen, “Gather Us In”, (1982, GIA Publications), The Faith We Sing, # 2236)