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, 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)



‘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)