Sermon: Forgotten Wisdom?

9 November 2014 – Dr. Irene Lawrence: Our first reading today, and our psalm substitute, were both taken from a book of the Bible called The Wisdom of Solomon. It wouldn’t be surprising if you have never heard of that particular book; it is one of the “stepchildren” books of the Bible that are neither fish nor fowl, neither Old Testament nor New Testament. How did this happen? There is a collection of rather late writings—say, from the last century or two before Christ—that were written in Greek, rather than Hebrew, or at least they only survived in Greek. They circulated among Greek-speaking Jews, the occasional interested pagan, and, eventually, Greek-speaking Christians. All this was before anybody official had decreed what was Scripture and what wasn’t, so there was still a lot of wiggle room here.

You probably know that a couple of generations after Christ, Judea rebelled against Roman rule and was utterly wiped out; the temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed, and Jerusalem became a Roman city, off-limits to Jews. In order to survive, Jews regrouped as a religion instead of a nation, and adopted some strict but effective survival measures, including the centering of their identity around the Hebrew language and the Hebrew Scriptures. This meant, among other things, making a definitive list of what was Scripture and what wasn’t, and one deciding factor was language—if it wasn’t extant in Hebrew, it was not included. So what we now call the Hebrew Scriptures or the Tanakh was at that time finally defined for Jews.

In the meantime, Christians went merrily on using the Greek books they were accustomed to. For Christians, what was called the Old Testament—including some of the Greek books—was more or less fixed in the fourth century, but there were and remain a couple of differences between East and West. Tracing just our Western church heritage, the Latin translations kept most of the traditional Greek books. That changed at the Reformation; most reformers conformed their Old Testaments to the Jewish Hebrew Scriptures and dropped the extra books. Roman Catholics, of course, made no changes. And Anglicans—that’s us—and some Lutherans kept the disputed books but compromised by moving them out of the Old Testament and into a third section of the Bible called the “Apocrypha.” And we “middle of the roaders” actually read selections from these apocryphal books from time to time in our lectionary—as today.

The Jewish concept of Holy Wisdom—hockmah in Hebrew and sophia in Greek—appears in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Apocrypha. It shows up especially in the book of Proverbs, but it is perhaps most developed in a couple of the books of the Apocrypha, particularly in the Wisdom of Solomon that we read from today. Solomon as author, of course, is a literary convention, which has been recognized since ancient times—as the king who asked God for wisdom, Solomon is a good representative for the anonymous author’s position that Wisdom is essentially God-like.

This Wisdom tradition frequently personifies Wisdom and speaks of her in feminine language. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s because the writers were proto-feminists. Hellenistic Greek had a grammatical gender system, and abstract nouns tended to be assigned to the feminine gender. Thus if Greek speakers wanted to personify aggression, or belligerence, or wrath—all feminine nouns in Greek—they would tend to picture them as female—for example, Eris, the goddess of strife or discord. This imagery did not seem to trickle down into what were seen as culturally desirable feminine qualities, and it had nothing to do with the status of woman in the society. Calling Wisdom “she” would not have fazed the most misogynist of hearers. We, on the other hand, could be enriched by the feminine imagery of Wisdom.

For whatever reason, the Wisdom tradition has been rather quiet in our Western Christian theological history, although never entirely lost. We do have the Advent “Great O’s”—“O Come, thou Wisdom from on High.” And the choir is about to sing an anthem by the medieval nun Hildegard of Bingham, “O Strength of Wisdom,” describing Wisdom in Trinitarian terms. But Wisdom is probably not the first metaphor that comes to our minds when we think of God or God’s activity in the world.

So what is this Wisdom? Let’s clear away a couple of possible contemporary misunderstandings. It’s not knowing a lot of facts. Jeopardy! superchampions Ken Jennings’s or Roger Craig’s performances on Jeopardy! are irrelevant to any wisdom they might have. And being highly educated is not the same as having wisdom. I was going to come up with an example, but I realized that all of us here know enough people with Ph.D.s—we may even have one ourselves—that examples are completely unnecessary. And it doesn’t involve being always “right”—in today’s Epistle, Paul is completely mistaken about the timing of the Coming of the Lord.

Since the Jewish and Christian Wisdom tradition is so buried for most of us, I want to spend a little time exploring it. This is just a taste; there are some really beautiful passages that we don’t have time for today, but I encourage you to dig into on your own.

One of Wisdom’s first appearances in Scripture is at the beginning of the Book of Proverbs, where she shows up shouting prophetically in a most unfeminine way in the most public areas of the city:

“Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corners she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” (Pv 1:20-22)

And later—still in Proverbs—Wisdom speaks for herself:

The Lord created me as the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first,
before the beginning of the earth….
When he established the heavens, I was there,…
when he made firm the skies above,…
when he assigned the sea its limit…
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,”—

[In other words, throughout God’s entire acts of creation—]

“then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.” (Pv 8:22-31)

In the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is even more intimate with God. She is described as a spirit that is, in just one verse,

“intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits.” (Wis 8:22)

She is “a breath (spirit?) of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty.” (Wis 8:25)

She is “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wis 8:26)

She “can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things.” (Wis 8:27)

She “reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.” (Wis 8:1)

Human beings were “saved by Wisdom” (Wis 9:18), and, most remarkably, the author explicitly retells Israel’s salvation history, from Adam & Eve to the Exodus, in terms of Wisdom’s saving power. (Wis 10ff)

Really heavy stuff. And yet, our readings today emphasize how accessible Wisdom is; how easily found she is, and how proactive she is:

“She is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her,”
“she will be found sitting at the gate,”
“she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought,”
“she hastens to make herself known to those who desire her”

—and those who desire her are brought “near to God” and “to a kingdom”—God’s kingdom, we are to understand. Wisdom is not self-effacing; she can be brash and in your face. Really, she is hard to ignore. It’s possible to avoid her, but you really have to work at it.

We Christians talk a lot about God, in church and sometimes outside church, and we often talk ourselves into actually believing what we’re saying. Aren’t we supposed to? Well, yes—as long as we remember that all of our talk about God is metaphor. Even the wordiest Christians (we call them theologians—or sometimes preachers) acknowledge that while they try to get at what God is like by using words—father, son, shepherd, king, mother, judge, even the word “word” itself—they have to remember that God is at the same time not like father, son, shepherd, king, mother, judge, or word. I am suggesting that we add “Wisdom” a little more often to our set of metaphors for God.

There are several reasons why I think it is a useful metaphor; I will mention only two. First, sometimes our faith is described as if ignorance is a virtue, or as if there is a dichotomy between faith and knowledge. The media picks up on this, often presenting Christianity as anti-intellectual. But Wisdom is the “master worker” of creation, in whom God “delights.” It follows, then, that God delights in us when we find delight in the workings of God’s creation; the Wisdom of science is a genuine manifestation of Wisdom the Creator. In intellectual inquiry, we can see the face of God.

That brings me to my second point. The Wisdom of science and the intellect, though authentic Wisdom, is not the only way Wisdom is described; she also has a wide practical, active, streak. Sometimes Christian faith is described as a sort of blind passive trust, as if perfect faith meant that we humans should just sit back and let God do everything. Faith as trust, yes; trust that the groom is coming, yes. But the wise bridesmaids weren’t just waiting passively; they had thought about it and done their best to plan for reality. And they were the ones commended, the ones who were in time for the banquet.

The bottom line: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength—and with all your mind. Amen.

Proper 27A: Wisdom 6:12-16; Wisdom 6:17-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

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