Sunday, August 16, 2009
Holy Wisdom: A Sermon on Proverbs 9:1-6
For years I have had a kind of fantasy of the perfect party, somewhat inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I’ve envisioned a nighttime summer gathering of friends, complete with twinkling fairy lights and a perfect light summer feast… something grilled, with wonderful fruits and vegetables in season, and light, crisp wine. The conversation would be as earnest as the clothing was diaphanous, and the evening would end with a drive into the hills and away from the city lights, to view a well-timed meteor shower.
What is it about parties? What is it about gatherings around the table? The lectionary just can’t let go of this theme this summer. For our gospel readings, we are in our fifth straight week on the feeding of the multitudes and the meaning of that feast, and today we add a feast from Proverbs to drive home the point. Actually, the lectionary offers us two options from the Hebrew Scriptures today. We could have read a passage from 1 Kings, recounting the transition of power from King David to his son Solomon. Or, as an alternative, we have this brief gem from Proverbs, one of three books in the bible traditionally ascribed to the hand of Solomon. So, we could look at it this way: rather than reading about a man who sought wisdom, and prayed for it, and was known for it, we have an opportunity to go right to the source, to Wisdom itself, or herself. In this morning’s passage a woman called Wisdom is involved in all sorts of tasks, some expected, some surprising, all of which lead us to wonder: What is wisdom? Or, perhaps, Who is wisdom?
Wisdom, whoever or whatever she is, is one busy lady. She is getting ready for a party. Plans for my “someday” summer feast pale in comparison to her industry. The opening verses about her work clue us into the fact that she is no ordinary woman: Wisdom builds her house, she hews her seven pillars, and she slaughters animals. Wisdom is engaging in activities that are rarely, anywhere in scripture, performed by a woman. In the ancient Near East, there are firm divisions of labor into things women do and things men do. Women do not build houses or hew pillars, because those are things men do. Women, who are associated with birth and life, are not supposed to end life, even by slaughtering animals for food. Which leads us to believe, perhaps, we are dealing with something altogether different, a different kind of building, a different kind of woman. Chapter 8 tells us a little more about Wisdom, giving us the context we need. There, Wisdom says,
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago…
…when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker… ~Proverbs 8:22, 29b-30
Wisdom is not your average ancient Near Eastern householder. We can stop thinking about her in categories that include human men and human women. They do not apply to her. She is, instead, something or someone eternal. She was present with God at the beginning of creation. And here, she is building her house, with its seven pillars.
Those seven pillars have been nagging at scripture scholars for a long time. They all wonder, what are they? What do they signify? Seven is a number that recurs throughout scripture, and always, there is one underlying meaning to it, whether we are talking about the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit [Isaiah 11:2-3] or the seven churches named in the book of Revelation. Seven is a number of wholeness, completion, perfection, and it always hearkens back to the first biblical occurrence of seven, the seven days of creation. If Wisdom is building a house with seven pillars, we can assume it is no ordinary house, but perhaps, a kind of stand-in for all of creation itself: whole, complete, and perfect.
Wisdom sets her table with bread and wine, and she issues an invitation, both by messenger and in person. She calls, from the towers, or the crests of the hills—from the highest places in town, so that absolutely everyone can hear her, she calls—
You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.” ~ Proverbs 9:4-6
This sumptuous banquet is open to anyone and everyone, with a special emphasis on the “anyone.” Wisdom is not looking for sparkling conversation… she doesn’t require that her guests be as she is, at least, not at the outset. Instead, she offers her table to those who are simple, who are unlearned, who are immature. Come in, she says, and live.
Wisdom—eternal, whole, complete—is inviting us to a feast. Wisdom is having a dinner party, and we are invited.
And the question remains: who or what is Wisdom?
As for the what, it may be easier to say what Wisdom is not. Wisdom is not book-learning, or basic intelligence. That is practically a proverb in itself. Everyone can name intelligent, educated people who don’t seem to have any sense. And, if we are lucky, most of us can also name relatively uneducated or poorly educated people whose wisdom runs deep, who take our breath away with their insight. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, we may not be able to define wisdom, but we know it when we see it. Here’s my best attempt: I think Wisdom is less concerned with what we know, and more concerned with what we do with that knowledge. That is why the simple and immature are welcome at Wisdom’s table. Wisdom can, in fact, be acquired. Wisdom has to do with how we live.
There was a great and wise rabbi who died, and a traveler asked a question of one of his disciples. “Your rabbi was renowned for his wisdom. What did he give greatest attention to in life?”
The disciple thought a minute and said: “To whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.”
Wisdom isn’t about thinking great thoughts or even doing great deeds. If wisdom is about doing anything, it may be that it is about doing it—whatever “it” may be—carefully and thoughtfully and lovingly. I saw a greeting card recently. It shows a woman clad in a lovely housedress and pearls, very much the image we all carry of Donna Reed, and she is holding a heaping platter of prime rib about to be served. The card says, “The secret ingredient is resentment.” The film “Like Water for Chocolate” makes the same point: in it, the main character’s emotions become a part of the food she prepares. The “what” of Wisdom seems to be concerned with how we do things: with attentiveness, what Eastern philosophers have called “mindfulness.” Our parents were right: it it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well—not “well” as in “excellence,” but “well” as in “carefully, thoughtfully, with love.” Wisdom is about doing things with the right intention, and that points us back to the dinner parties thrown by Jesus, in which he offers himself to be feasted upon. These passages are not about cannibalism. They are about intention, the intention with which Jesus feeds us. His intention is to give us himself, completely and totally. His intention can be summed up in the word “love.”
Who or what is Wisdom? The gospel of John begins with a long hymn about the creation of the universe, and the presence of the eternal Word with God in the creation.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people. ~ John 1:1-4
Wisdom was present with God at Creation, as a master-worker; Wisdom is eternal, with God from the beginning of time. It has long been a tradition of Orthodox Christianity to hold that Wisdom is that divine Word, which became incarnate as Jesus Christ. Paul calls Christ “the power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). Constantine is said to have built a church to it, Hagia Sophia: the Holy Wisdom of God.
Wisdom is throwing a feast, and we are all invited. What is it about parties? What is it about gatherings around the table? It may be that it is only gathered around a table—each with our own little piece of God’s wisdom—that true Wisdom is able to emerge. It may be that all the disparate pieces of the body of Christ need to come together—that’s you and me—for the Wisdom of God in Christ to be fully known. It may be that there is no better place than the table—the sharing of the basic stuff of life, whether that is our bread or ourselves—for us to hear the voice of God as it calls us to live. It may be that the seven pillars of Wisdom’s house are as simple and ordinary as the seven days of our week, the days of work and the days of rest, which we are called to participate in mindfully, carefully, one thing at a time.
A disciple asked his teacher, “Holy One, what is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?” And the Holy One answered: “When you have knowledge, you use a torch to show the way. When you are wise, you become the torch.” It may be that in gathering around the table of the Light of the World we have an opportunity to, ourselves, become a part of that light. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Wisdom Stories from Joan Chittister, “Wisdom: A Gift or a Task?” Sermon on Proverbs 9:1-6, Chicago Sunday Evening Club, 1996.
The icon of Christ was written by William Hart McNichols, based on an eighteenth-century Russian icon of Hagia Sophia.