Sunday, July 09, 2017

Proper 9

Matthew 11
16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

It’s time again to play “What on earth is he talking about?” The rules are simple: I will give you a series of clues, from the obscure to the obvious, and we’ll see who can guess first. Here we go.

Some people have it, and some do not.
Overall, the world needs more of it.
It’s a virtue, and is also the name of a book in the Bible.
Someone clever might call it sagacity or sapience.
They say it comes with age.
Thomas Aquinas called it the “father of all virtues.”
It’s symbol is an owl.
Athena and Minerva are goddesses of this virtue.
The OED defines it as the "capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct.”
Solomon had lots of it.

Well done for guessing wisdom, the virtue de jour. And while I didn’t know if you knew the word sagacity (the quality of being sagacious or wise), you should perhaps have got it at sapience, since it’s who you are. We are “homo sapiens,” literally wise men and woman—a species name that doesn’t always translate into practice.

(Just as an aside, researchers confirmed last year there are were occasions of contact between homo sapiens and Neanderthals, and one thing led to another and we ended up with some Neanderthal DNA. So when someone does something decidedly unwise, we can just say they got mixed up with the wrong crowd.)

So we are homo sapiens—wise men and women—who try our best to live up to the name. We try to demonstrate the "capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct” and try to increase it over time. Our friends at the Collins English Dictionary say that wisdom includes “knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight,” a comprehensive list to be sure. You could obviously spend the entire day defining and debating these aspects of wisdom, but it feels like a good list: knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight.

Just act according to this list, and you get Jesus’ saying brought to life: “wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” Or perhaps you prefer Luke’s version (7.35): “wisdom is proved right by all her children,” meaning the things she gives birth too, like knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight.

But Jesus pithy and someone puzzling aphorism is far for the first word on wisdom found in the Bible. In fact, entire books are dedicated to wisdom, including (of course) the Book of Wisdom found in the Apocrypha. The others—Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach—round out the formal group of “wisdom books” but still don’t encompass all that scripture has to say on the topic. Paul has plenty to say on the topic, as does Jesus himself.

But before we return to Jesus and Paul, we should do a bit of a survey and begin at the beginning:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it too. (Gen 3.6)

Considering what comes next (shame, banishment, general badness) we can say that gaining wisdom in this case was decidedly mixed. Next up is Solomon, and the author of 1 Kings 4 is definitely a fan:

29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.

And, of course, after the famous episode with the baby and cutlery (ask me later), his most familiar work is found in Proverbs:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
For through wisdom[b] your days will be many,
and years will be added to your life.
If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you;
if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer. (Proverbs 9.10-12)

No one likes a mocker. They mock, and it’s not right. But it’s that first line (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”) that we also heard in our Psalm, and is attributed to Solomon’s son David. Even though few scholars believe David had a hand in many of the 150 Psalms, it’s nice to think that this one was inspired by his father, maybe something he heard around the palace.

Curiously, there is a well-known section in the Dead Sea Scrolls that echoes these sentiments, described by some as the “the beatitudes of the DSS,” and known more technically as 4Q525.

(Oddly, the DSS is not as readily searchable as the Bible online, so when I searched for 4Q525, the first suggestion was a morning flight from Kabul to Kandahar.)

Blessed is the one who has attained Wisdom,
and walks in the Law of the most High.
He directs his heart towards her ways,
and restrains himself by her corrections,
and always takes delight in her chastisements.
He does not forsake her when he sees distress,
nor abandon her in time of strain.
He will not forget her [on the day of] fear.

The common thread between Solomon, Psalms and the DSS fragment is wisdom through a healthy fear of God, or faithfulness to God’s ways in the midst of fear. In some ways it’s the usual reminder that God is God and we are not (Is 55.8) and being mindful of God’s commands (translated as fear) is both faithful and practical.

Leaping over Jesus for a moment, we get to St. Paul, and the seeming complexity of his relationship with the idea of wisdom. So at first it seems rather straightforward, with Paul commending the very thing we have looked at so far:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts (Colossians 3.16).

In other words, if we internalize the words of Christ, and back up those words with psalms and hymns of the faith, we cannot help but impart wisdom to others. Paul’s advice makes Jesus the bridge between ancient wisdom and the work of believers. So far so good. Then this:

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. (1 Corinthians 1)

Here, wisdom is sharply divided between ‘worldly wisdom’ and the ‘wisdom of God,’ a distinction that would be particularly apt for someone like Paul who travelled through Athens and came to know some of the worldly wise. For the wise ones of Athens and elsewhere, speaking of the wisdom of God or the ‘wisdom of the gods’ would have elicited nods of recognition and agreement, but speaking of Christ crucified, and the power of God through weakness (and even death) would bring shock and derision.

And this seems to be the overall theme of our reading. He recounts his ministry and that of John the Baptist (“We played the pipe for you/we sang a dirge”) using the image of children on the playground. He observes (or complains) that there is no pleasing some people, and that the wise ones of the world will tune their ear to neither the playful Jesus or the mournful John. Neither message sticks, not the ethical program demonstrated in friendship nor the command to repent shouted in the desert.

So what works? What can reach the so-called wise ones of the world, or at the least the rest of us who try our best? The answer—to follow Jesus’ own logic—is watch the children. Or perhaps more accurately, let the children watch. What does this mean?

Small children, the pre-school crowd, are profoundly visual. They are watching the world around them for clues, for ways of understanding, and for anything unusual they can attach their expanding brain power to. So, if you want to distract a toddler, do something unexpected, something visual, something that will cause them to stop and think. Jesus says the very same thing:

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

The ‘hidden things’ are revealed in the seeming end of Jesus’ story, weeping in the garden, forgiving us while he dies on the cross, being raised on the third day, These are the visual elements of a story revealed and fully understood by spiritual children. It’s more than an ethical program or a call to repent (as important as these things are). It’s a visual reminder of the wisdom of God—that the weak shall be strong and the crucified will open a path to life.

And here, basking in the summer warmth, we tend to overlook the four most important months of our life together. From December to April we watch the story unfold, from incarnation to resurrection, and we see the unexpected thing God does to draw our attention. Like little children pondering something new (each year) we see God in our midst, and watch God (in Jesus) submit to the inevitable and finally we lean in and see that the tomb is empty. It’s this visual journey that gives us wisdom, and allows us to see the wisdom of God. It’s a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others, but for us, it’s the very heart of who we are.

May God continue to grant us wisdom—to allow us to see, and be transformed. Amen.


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