Wisdom has built her house,
She has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals,
She has mixed her wine,
She has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls,
She calls from the highest places in the town,
‘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.’
Today’s suggested reading from the Book of Proverbs focuses our attention on the activities of a personification of Wisdom, a character known as “Lady Wisdom”. Having built her house of seven pillars – which is likely meant to signify order, completeness and stability – and prepared a banquet for those who will heed her call, Wisdom invites those who hear her voice to come to her, and to find life.
The passage is drawn from one of the biblical books that are generally referred to as “wisdom literature”. The biblical wisdom literature is not usually concerned with clear moral instruction or with guidance about some dimension of spiritual salvation. Rather, most of the wisdom literature is just about life – how to live a good life, how to conduct ourselves in interpersonal relationships, in business, in community, even in times of conflict.
Wisdom literature was not unique to the ancient Hebrew people. Rather, in many ancient cultures, scribes and writers compiled the accumulated insights and wisdom of their civilizations and cultures, first in oral and verbal form, and eventually in written texts, so that the wisdom of the past could be transmitted to future generations.
We have, in our own culture, continuing parallels to, and variations on the subject matter and interests of the ancient wisdom literature. Every time that we click on a link to some website that promises to give us the top ten ways to reduce stress, or every time that we stand in a grocery store checkout line and see magazine covers offering us advice on how to be more healthy, how to make financial plans for the future, how to use our time more efficiently, how to deal with people who are being difficult – in other words, how to understand and live well — we are reminded that the subject matter of the ancient wisdom traditions continues to be sought out.
It’s all about understanding life and how to live it well.
The Book of Proverbs, from which we read today, is probably the best known example of the Bible’s wisdom literature. And it is typically the “starting point” for an exploration of the Bible’s wisdom literature, since it tends towards a more simplistic, often cause-and-effect understanding of the nature of life. Act in this way, and these shall be the results. Do good, work hard, avoid foolishness, trust in God – and things will go well. And there is a lot of wisdom to be found in the Book of Proverbs.
But, as we all know, life can be complicated and complex.
And the biblical wisdom literature knows this as well. Other texts and other books deal with the more complicated and complex nature of life, sometimes inviting us to explore different perspectives on life, and even to ponder life’s most difficult questions.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, for example, which is another one of the books of wisdom, does not seem to entirely share the Book of Proverbs’ generally positive outlook on the well-lived life. Instead, Ecclesiastes presents a somewhat bleaker picture of life – that ultimately, all that we do, all that we care about, all that we spend our lives pursuing is vanity and a chasing after the wind, since both the good and bad, the strong and the weak, the virtuous and the evil will come to the same fate. We probably have all heard the famous passage from Ecclesiastes that reminds us that into every human life there are a host of different experiences – a time to be born, a time to die, a time to laugh, a time to mourn. Although that passage offers such a broad and wonderful reflection on the entire tapestry of life, it is set in a book that reminds that the reader that all of the varied experiences of our lives are, in a way, ultimately quite meaningless. The best we can do is fear God; stop striving for all of these vain pursuits; and eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Ecclesiastes is not, of course, a summary of the biblical perspective on life – but it is important for us to realize that the biblical writers incorporated this perspective into the canon of Scripture. Keeping a realistic and balanced perspective on life is one of the many gifts that wisdom offers.
But the wisdom literature also invites us to delve into some of the most difficult questions of human existence, not least of which is the mystery of the suffering of the innocent. Most importantly, the Book of Job seeks to deal with questions about how we are to understand the meaning of suffering, how are we supposed to act in the presence of suffering, and how we are to understand the presence of such difficulties in the lives of individuals – like the character Job – who have done nothing to deserve their difficult experiences.
Once we realize the breadth of concerns that are the focus of the wisdom literature – things like the meaning of life, the reasons for good and bad times, the question of balance and perspective, the way to comprehend suffering – all of which must be wrestled with in every generation and, in fact, in every one of our lives, we begin to realize the importance of the invitation that we find in today’s passage from Proverbs 6.
“You that are simple, turn in here!” we read, “…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.”
It is an invitation that is extended to each one of us; to seek wisdom, to lay aside immaturity, to live and walk in the way of insight.
And it is an invitation that is worthy of our reflections, especially since many other parts of the wisdom literature present us with the alternate to wisdom, which is foolishness – and which is destructive. Like Lady Wisdom, folly, or foolishness, is also personified, and frequently depicted as a seductress, sometimes as a prostitute who also calls out to those who pass by. But the consequence of embracing foolishness is not maturity, and insight and life – but rather chaos and disorder and destruction. To live wisely is the way to life; to live foolishly is the way to destruction and chaos.
And we need wisdom today. We need wisdom to deal with the great questions that confront us – how to live faithful, holy, just and compassionate lives in a world beset by doubt, despair, hunger, environmental degradation, poverty and violence; how to practice ethical and insightful discernment in a time in which we are inundated, on a daily basis, with different visions of what it means to live well; how to keep perspective in a world where faith, hope and love are sometimes mocked rather than honoured; how to honestly and sensitively wrestle with questions of suffering, of divisive religious visions, and of profound interpersonal differences; how to understand human existence itself. Now, as much as ever, we need wisdom.
And, as a people of faith, who carry with us the sacred writings of those who have gone before us, we need to be a people who are not afraid to deal with the great questions of meaning; people who are not afraid to wrestle with the great challenge to maintain balance, integrity and perspective, even in difficult times; people who are not afraid to ponder the great mystery of the presence of suffering in this world – and who find wise ways to address those challenges.
We need to be a people who respond to the invitation that Lady Wisdom offers to us – to lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.
But even as we do so, we must also realize that wisdom is not sufficient to itself. Wisdom can grant us many things, but it cannot – ultimately — save us. Even though wisdom can, in fact, help us with living life well, it cannot fully reveal all of the mysteries of God. We need something more than mere wisdom.
Paul addressed this in his letter to the members of the church in Corinth, who would have been well aware of the wisdom of the Greek philosophical schools, and to whom he wrote, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
In other words, we are called to heed the invitation of Lady Wisdom, but not to place our ultimate trust in our own collected insight and wisdom to save us. Rather, we are called to pursue wisdom, ever and always aware that we need the One who has shown us that the insights of Lady Wisdom must be coupled with faithful, obedient trust in the One whose triumph over our last and greatest foe – that being death itself – looked pretty foolish in the eyes of the world.
So your Saviour is hanging on a cross, is He?
Seems rather foolish now, doesn’t He?
If wisdom is about helping us to live well, the cross is a pretty foolish sign. In fact, by any possible standard, whatsoever, choosing to follow, and trust, in someone who found himself beaten, humiliated, stripped naked, and painfully nailed to a cross is not a good example of what it means to live wisely and well.
But once we realize that the cross of Jesus Christ – though foolish in the eyes of the world, is actually the mystery and power of God at work among us – once we realize that Jesus did that so that we would not have to, once we realize that He accomplished for us what no amount of human knowledge or wisdom could ever accomplish, then and only then are we ready to truly live.
Then and only then can we embark upon the journey, through wisdom, to a life well lived. Then and only then will we be ready to ponder the mystery of suffering.
For then, and only then, we shall hear the call of Lady Wisdom while standing in the shadow of a cross that renders all of the knowledge, all of the power, all of the wisdom of this world subservient to the knowledge, the power and the wisdom of God.
But not only shall such the call of wisdom come to us in the shadow of a Cross – it will also lead us into the glorious light of an Empty Tomb.
Thanks be to God.