Sermon: August 19, 2018 – Proverbs 8
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev. Greg Wooley
To my mind, one of the greatest compliments that someone can give, is to refer to someone as wise, for the gift of wisdom has its own unique aura. When receiving sage advice from someone, we speak of being “in the presence of wisdom” as though it is an entity unto itself: not just a quality that the wise person demonstrates, but something so powerful that it’s like having an additional person in the room.
This personified nature of Wisdom was heard in this morning’s scripture reading. In the first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a Wise Woman who brings a God’s-eye view into the public arena. These words, in the first chapter of Proverbs, set the tone: “Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice. Above the noisy crowd, she calls out. At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say: ‘How long will you clueless people love your naïveté, mockers hold their mocking dear, and fools hate knowledge?… I invited you, but you rejected me; I stretched out my hand to you, but you paid no attention.’” (Proverbs 1: 20-24, CEB) In today’s reading from the 8th chapter of Proverbs, the Wise Woman is back at the city gates once more, saying: “Take my instruction rather than silver, knowledge rather than choice gold. Wisdom is better than pearls; nothing is more delightful than she. I, Wisdom, dwell with prudence; I have found knowledge and discretion….I hate pride and arrogance, the path of evil and corrupt speech. I have advice and ability, as well as understanding and strength”. (Proverbs 8: 10-14, CEB)
What an intriguing, contemporary-sounding way for Divine wisdom to be portrayed: as a woman who will not be silenced, standing amidst the hubbub, insisting that she be heard, frustrated by those who pretend they don’t know any better. I don’t think I need to connect the dots for us to see some modern-day applications for her words. The Wise Woman still stands in the public square, the board room, the house of governance, the press conference, pointing an angry finger at those who choose ignorance over wisdom.
This persona of the Wise Woman in the book of Proverbs is complex and intriguing, and raises so many questions. The first question that comes to mind is about Wisdom itself. What separates wisdom from knowledge, or are they the same thing?
19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, using the masculine language of his day, wrote this on the topic of wisdom: “Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.”
Indeed, there is a difference between knowing a bunch of stuff, and having the wisdom to make that information benefit a greater common good. While knowledge may be more empirical, wisdom implies an ethical or even spiritual dimension. I don’t want to downplay the importance of knowledge – knowing how electricity works and what the current building codes demand are good things to know when you’re wiring a house, knowing how numbers work is a good thing to know when writing computer code to protect our data from hackers, knowing how many home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career (714) is a good thing to know… well, maybe when playing Trivial Pursuit. But wisdom, in the Biblical sense, isn’t just a ramped-up version of knowledge; it is applying knowledge in ways that lift up God’s concern for the marginalized and disenfranchised. When we take what we know, and apply it in helpful ways, knowledge and wisdom work in concert, and the benefit is great. Holding on to a false naivete in which we pretend not to know the consequences of our actions, is denounced by the Wise Woman, in the strongest possible terms. Wisdom, then, applies knowledge in ways that express God’s just and loving intention.
The second question that comes to mind is, who is this Wise Woman in the book of Proverbs?
For years, I have equated the Wise Woman with the Holy Spirit. Wisdom is listed by the apostle Paul as one of the gifts of the Spirit, and from the days of the prophet Isaiah right through to the development of the modern Roman Catholic Catechism, Wisdom has been given a special place of honour among these gifts And, as we hear in hymns like “She Flies On” – which we will be singing this morning – an identification between this female nature of God, and the Spirit which bestows God’s loving grace on us, is an easy connection to make.
However, this week as I was digging a bit deeper, I was surprised to read feminist Christian scholars making other connections. Harvard Professor Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (p.266), for example, connects this personified, justice-seeking wisdom – known as Sophia in the Greek world – with the person and ministry of Jesus Christ: “the Palestinian Jesus movement” she writes, “understands the ministry and mission of Jesus as that of the [prophet of] Sophia, sent to announce that God is the God of the poor and heavy laden, of the outcasts and those who suffer injustice…. He stands in a long line of prophets sent to gather the children of Israel to their gracious Sophia-God.” Jesus, then, embodies God’s Wisdom imperative, bringing that gift and demand to people’s lives.
Historian Lilian Calles Barger, meanwhile, writes (p.36) ”In the biblical Proverbs, Woman Wisdom is identified with God, present at Creation and infusing all. She seeks close engagement with the world and delights to be with humanity. Contrary to gender-stereotyped images of women, she is in no way passive but is portrayed as a liberator and establisher of justice, a lover in pursuit of humanity who, in return, responds to those who love her.”
What I have gleaned from all this, is that Wisdom, personified in Proverbs as the Wise Woman, connects us to the fullness of God’s being. When we speak wisdom or heed its demand that all people be treated fairly, we are embracing and expressing the Divine. Which part of the Trinity Wisdom is connected to, is of less interest to me than the depth, and breadth, and immanence of the connection, so close that you could call wisdom a “character trait” of the triune God. This, to me, explains why wisdom is so different from other human traits, why wisdom seems to have a life of its own beyond the person who exhibits it: when we are in the presence of wisdom, we are in one of those “thin places” where the gap between human and divine is tiny.
In presenting us with this personified, female Wisdom, Proverbs reminds us that God is not some isolated, unconcerned, male deity up in the sky. Wisdom – present in the process of creation, calling out as a Wise Woman confronting the powers that be, articulated in the words and actions of Jesus – is a tangible, transformative quality of the living God.
And the third question that comes to mind is, how does one go about acquiring Wisdom? As something that sounds pretty specialized and esoteric, how would I intentionally sidle up beside Wisdom and invite her into my life?
One good place to start, is to cultivate personal habits and spiritual practices that invite God’s wisdom into your day. Periods of contemplation, prayer or journaling can let wisdom in. So can yoga, visualization, meditation, and breathing-prayers. And while this is going to sound terribly old-fashioned, I would also encourage you to slow down your information intake. If you have gotten into the habit of relying on high-speed, minimal-depth information sources, please enhance that with other sources that take you deeper. Books, newspapers, documentaries, thoughtful magazine articles and podcasts can all help us to say “no” to the state of constant alarm that gets created by news outlets that are more concerned with getting the story fast, than getting the story right. Taking a deep breath and inviting a deep thought provides favourable conditions for the growth of wisdom.
We have a lot to learn in the area of seeking and inviting wisdom, from the traditional practices of our Indigenous sisters and brothers. In the words of Bob Joseph, a consultant in the area of Indigenous relations and a member of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, “the [indigenous] tradition of consensus style decision making… requires the leader (as mediator) to guide community members to cooperatively make decisions in the best interests of the community, to synthesize the wisdom of the community as a whole. Issues are raised, discussed, and resolved as the community moves towards a consensus. It is a non-confrontational, gradual process that usually took time.” Mr. Joseph makes clear that all it is the responsibility of the leader to ensure that all voices, including those of children, are heard. In addition to this, northern researcher Joanne Barnaby states “Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic depend on their knowledge from the past to make meaningful decisions in the present….Indigenous leaders are expected to know the past and understand the relevance of the past to current circumstances.” Although I like it when decisions can be made efficiently and promptly, there is much in this slower, emerging-consensus model that would bring us closer to the Divine gift of wisdom. Giving everyone a voice, hearing from every age group, pondering how the past can inform the present and future, and explicitly inviting wisdom to be part of a decision-making process, does not happen quickly – but it has such great health and, well, wisdom to it.
And one more great source for us to see what Wisdom looks like in practice, is from this book right here (Bible). When we hear Jesus say something very that sounds mystical or paradoxical or even contradictory, when we encounter his parables and sayings, we are in the presence of the ancient tradition of Wisdom. So if you’d like to get more experience with this Wisdom tradition, read the parables or Proverbs prayerfully, ideally with others, let their experiences and insights and knowledge intermingle with yours, and watch wisdom slowly emerge. Or examine the things you are already doing in your life that have been inspired by the wisdom of Christ, and give thanks for them. Returning once more to the words of Lilian Calles Barger (p.39), “Like the ancient sages, Jesus made an otherwise inaccessible God available to the ordinary person [and] the everyday practices in one’s life, such as actively loving one’s neighbour, were how a true relationship with God would be measured. The followers of Jesus, shaped by the Jewish sage tradition, recognized the wisdom nature of his teaching.”
There is no single, simple way of getting wisdom, or becoming wise. But there are ways to set our intention toward wisdom, which include slowing down, praying and contemplating, seeking consensus, and spending time in the wise, searching the presence of Jesus.
Wisdom is amazing, and confusing, and, judging from the daily headlines, in terribly short supply. So if there is one thing that I hope we will take away this morning, it is this: the confidence that there is room for God’s Holy Wisdom in your life, in the life of our community, and maybe even in the lives of world leaders. Believe that God intends for you to live a considered life, respectful of self, neighbour and creation. Ponder the words of the Wise Woman and the parables of Jesus, and integrate healthy, thoughtful practices in your routines. And be grateful for those times in life, and those companions on your journey, who help you slow down, and go deep, and welcome wisdom to your days. In the name of Wisdom and all she brings, Amen.
References cited or consulted:
Barger, Lilian Calles. Chasing Sophia: Reclaiming the lost wisdom of Jesus. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.
Barnaby, Joanne (2009 report) http://www.arcticgovernance.org/getfile.php/1092626.1529.cdwcvetybd/Indigenous_governance-JB-final.pdf
Brussat, Frederic and Mary Anne. http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/features/view/22918/wisdom-to-go
Joseph, Bob (CEO of ICT-inc). https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/what-does-traditional-consensus-decision-making-mean
Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. “The Sophia-God of Jesus and the Discipleship of Women”. Pp. 261-273 in Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development, Joann Wolski Conn (editor). NYC: Paulist Press,1986.
Spurgeon, Charles, quoted in Hugh Welchel, https://tifwe.org/you-dont-know-what-you-dont-know-knowledge-understanding-and-wisdom/
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.