April 10, 2016
Who is this female figure who sets up her own pulpit in the middle of the public square and starts preaching to the passers-by?
2 On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she criesout:
4 “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.
5 O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
If she keeps this up she’s going to offend someone…
6 Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right;
7 for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
10 Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold;
11 for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
She is Woman Wisdom, or Lady Wisdom, or as Eugene Peterson translates it, “Madame Insight.” In the Bible she is associated with poetry, creation, and God’s own wisdom. John the Gospel-writer turns her into the Logos, the Word existing before time with God the creator -- for John none other than Jesus the Christ.
And she is decidedly female. She is there in Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, embraced by God’s left arm as he reaches out his right to touch Adam’s finger. She is young and beautiful, her hair is golden, her left shoulder is exposed and her hand reaches around God’s forearm to hold his wrist. She gazes at Adam with what looks to me like suspicion: perhaps this particular act of creation is not God’s wisest decision.
We have largely forgotten about this symbol of God’s feminine side. A sermon about the Book of Proverbs could easily be about the momentous loss for humankind that has resulted: the all-male priesthood in Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions and the late acceptance of women as spiritual leaders in many Protestant groups, if they are accepted as all, for example.
But today is the final Sunday of the three-year cycle of Scripture readings that we have been using at UUMC. It’s the last Sunday, at least for a while, on which you’ll hear a sermon based on a book of the Bible that is being studied and discussed by our Gateway Bible-study groups. It seems appropriate, then, to ask not “Where did she go?” but “Who was she – then and now?” She is Chokmah, in Hebrew, and Sophia in Greek; she is introduced to us in the Old Testament book of Proverbs where she asks us to make our own choice between wisdom and knowledge.
Most people know what a proverb is, even if they’ve never read the biblical book by that name. But many people confuse sayings from the biblical book of Proverbs with sayings from other sources of wisdom, like Benjamin Franklin. The most familiar example is “God helps those who help themselves,” which is nowhere to be found in Scripture but is from Franklin’s 18th C publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack.
If you are one who has or who will be reading the Book of Proverbs, you will find plenty of sayings there. But they don’t begin until chapter 10. The first 9 chapters are a long, introductory poem that includes today’s reading from chapter 8.
In these introductory chapters, we listeners are exhorted by Woman Wisdom to learn the wisest way to live so that good things will follow: prosperity, success, long life, security. The Book of Proverbs is one example of Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament. Last Sunday, Pastor Leslee spoke about another example: the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, also poetry but in that case, love poetry.
The Book of Proverbs is a counterpart to a third example of Wisdom literature, the Book of Job, which denies the quid-pro-quo belief that right living results in easy living. Rather than contradicting each other, however, Job and Proverbs work together to give voice to the paradoxes of life: we can recognize what is true in Proverbs, but we also share the questions Job has about injustice and unfairness.
Some of the teachings in Proverbs sound like things that lead more to good citizens than to holy people: hard work, consistent discipline, prudent economics. But we also hear the repeated message that "the fear of the Lord" is the basic starting point for right living. “Fear of the Lord” isn’t cowering anxiety about God but an appropriate and deep reverence and awe before the One who made us, the One who is the source of all true wisdom. It’s not easy to express reverence and awe directly, so it makes sense that this book of accumulated wisdom is introduced by a poem. Poetry appeals to our more expressive, intuitive sense of what is real, true and good.
Woman Wisdom stands right in the most public of places – at the crossroads, at the city gate, in the doorways – to proclaim her message. This is not a secret teaching to be whispered to a select few in a secluded, ivy-covered tower. No, this teaching is for everyone -- the young, the old, the sick, the well, the poor, the wealthy, the strong, the weak, the tired, the rested, the secure, the frightened –to “all that live” verse 4 says. Madame Insight makes her appeal in the most public of places, where everyone can hear her. Again, Eugene Peterson’s translation:
"She's taken her stand at First and Main, at the busiest intersection. Right in the city square where the traffic is thickest, she shouts, 'You--I'm talking to all of you, everyone out here on the streets!'" (The Message).
It’s true, isn’t it? We gain the most in those places and times of diversity and free expression when we can share the accumulated wisdom of our lives and of the cultures in which we were raised.
Wisdom is more than acquiring knowledge. Wisdom is the result of relationships. It emerges from the work of our hearts, not just our minds. Rational thinking and careful observation, yes. But also emotion, imagination, and desire – all these are activities of the heart. And Woman Wisdom speaks to our hearts. Nothing could be simpler or more democratic--after all, everyone has a heart.
The world might tell us that we are connected by computer networks, by electronic banking and trade agreements, by flight paths and shipping lanes and the seeking of profit. But wisdom teaches us that creation is a holy web of relationship, and that we are connected when we stand face to face, speaking and listening with our hearts.
Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner novel, Gilead, is written as a fictional memoir by the elderly Rev. John Ames. Rev. Ames knows that he is dying; he wants to pass on to his seven-year old son an intergenerational sense of identity and the wisdom he has acquired over his lifetime.
Ames’s manner is marked by circumspection and humility. He defers to the opinions of others, including his pacifist father and violent, abolitionist grandfather, his more-doctrinaire clergy colleague, and theologians with whom he disagrees. It is not that he is without opinions; in fact, he holds deeply considered and well-formed opinions. But he also respects the views of others and believes that it is impossible for any individual to legitimately judge a matter without the help of differing perspectives.
Ames is acutely aware of the inevitable gap between what we say and what we mean, as well as between what we mean and what is actually true. The truth, he believes, abides beyond our judgment. So all of his debates in the book – both the debates he holds within himself and those in which he engages others – are as respectful of opposing points of view as they are of his own point of view. He allows his own thinking to be shaped and made stronger by differing opinions.
Just as it says in Proverbs 27:17 -- Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.
The theological wisdom that Rev. Ames wishes to impart to his son is that in matters of faith it is seldom fruitful to look for “proofs,” but always fruitful to try to live in obedience to Christ. Proofs, he writes, are “never sufficient to the question…because they claim to find for God a place within our conceptual grasp.” Ames is not being anti-intellectual or simplistically pious. He recognizes, and wants his son to recognize, that we human beings cannot fully grasp the wisdom of God.
Which is why we read and study the Bible together.
It is possible, of course, to read it by oneself. When I was young and very new to Christianity, I bought myself my first Bible, a paperback King James Version, and – that very evening - set to reading it. I got to Genesis, chapter 2, before I fell asleep.
There are wiser readers than I who know that they need some help. A study Bible and a good commentary will help. But even then, reading the Bible alone can easily encourage what scholar Huston Smith calls “fact fundamentalism”: the equation of truth with factuality.
If the truth of the Bible rests on its factuality, it becomes impossible to move beyond the passages that make no sense to us in the 21st C:
- Why is there animal sacrifice?
- Why so much military imagery and stories of warfare?
- Why so many rules that seem absurd today: "do not touch" the carcass of a pig, for example, in Leviticus 11:8. (There goes football!)
- Why do churches that interpret a portion of Timothy's first letter ("permit no woman to teach, or to have authority over a man") so literally that they won't allow women to teach small boys in Sunday school, ignore other sections of the same chapter (women should dress themselves modestly ... not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes," 1 Tim. 2:9)
- Why were the early Christian churches fussing over women's hair to begin with?
Trying to read the Bible as if its wisdom were matters of factuality can lead even the well-intended to end by throwing it across the room. For writer Kathleen Norris, this is a good place to start. At least it’s sign of real engagement with the God who is revealed in scripture, she says.
It’s a good place to start, I would add, if it means you ask someone else – or more than one someone else – to get together to talk about why you threw it across the room.
Discussing the Bible with others helps us to recognize that in its pages a human voice is speaking, and speaking not only to me or even to us, but to the entire communion of saints: those who first heard the Bible story and those who hear it now. Conversation with others liberates us from our personal mode of interpretation (and we all have one, whether we acknowledge it or not). It gives us room to breathe.
- Does the Book of Psalms have over one hundred authors?
- Do ancient manuscripts suggest that Jesus himself did not literally say this or that passage in the gospels?
- Are some of the Pauline letters known not to have been written by Paul?
All of these questions may be helpful to ask, but as we consider the texts and our questions together, we find that answers may matter far less than the “fact fundamentalists” – whether they are university scholars or literal Bible readers – seem to think.
In conversation with others, one can still hear the biblical text as tradition and as the living word of God. One can consider what it meant at the time and what it means now. The tension between the desire to acquire knowledge and the desire to know God does not mean they cancel each other out. What our intellects perceive as opposites – knowledge and wisdom, flesh and spirit, human and divine – can be held in creative partnership together.
But it’s practically impossible to do that alone. We need to speak aloud our questions and curiosities, and listen to the words of others, in order for the Word to come alive. In fact, wisdom requires that we listen to all words –
- not just the words of friends, but the words of enemies,
- and the silent words of nature,
- and the words of Scripture –
all of them flowing in and out of our lives like a river current.
Which is what the Bible is at its best – not static words captured and frozen between two covers, but a current of wisdom, flowing among us, and between us and God.
Kathleen Norris. “The Bible: Illiteracies and Ironies.” Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Riverhead Books, 1998.
John C. Holbert. “Trinity Sunday, The Delight of Wisdom: Reflections on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31.” May 19, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Trinity-Sunday-John-Holbert-05-20-2013
Beth Scibienski. “Lady Liberty, Lady Justice and Lady Wisdom.” May 20, 2013. http://www.bethscib.com/lectionary-reflections1/lady-liberty-lady-justice-and-lady-wisdom
Kate Huey. “Reflection: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31.” http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit_weekly-seeds_wisdom-calls
David Lyle Jeffrey. “Sharing Wisdom as an Act of Love.” Where Wisdom is Found. Christian Reflections: A Series in Faith and Ethics. Robert B. Kruschwitz, Gen. Ed. The Center for Christians Ethics. Baylor University. 2009.