Posts Tagged 'wisdom'

For July 27, 2014: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12

The Reading            1 Kings 3:5-12

Solomon was not King David’s oldest son, but his mother Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan prevailed on David to name Solomon his successor. The dream at Gibeon, one of the two most holy places before the Temple was built, confirms the correctness of the choice, as does Solomon’s request for wisdom with which to govern.

The Response            Psalm 119:129-136

Solomon responded to God’s invitation to asking for wisdom. Psalm 119:129-136 celebrates God’s decrees, word, commandments, and law and the understanding that they give.

The Epistle            Romans 8:26-39

Solomon, in asking for wisdom, compared himself to an ignorant child before God. The letter to the Romans begins by assuring us of the Spirit’s aid in our weakness before supplying a magnificent catalogue of perils and powers that God simply will not permit to come between us and God’s love.

The Gospel            Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Chapter 13 of the gospel of Matthew continues with a series of short parables that compare the kingdom of heaven to a large weed from a small seed, yeast, hidden treasure, and a net full of fish, followed by a parable of knowing the value of both new and old.

 

Further thoughts

The religions originating in the strife-ravaged Middle East, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, agree in revering Solomon son of David: he was very wise, wise enough to choose wisdom as his coronation gift from God rather than more ostentatious trappings of kingship. Psalm 119 praises God’s Word as a way to avoid iniquity—but the Bible tells us that even Solomon, for all his wisdom, made choices that led him into sin, and both his descendants and his realm paid the price.

On the one hand, this is sobering. If even Solomon’s storied insight could not keep him pure, what hope is there for me? On the other hand, Solomon never stopped being a favorite with God, and the epistle presses home the point that, Jesus having borne the price for me on purpose to make me right with God, what hope isn’t there for me? Not even my own choices can make God stop loving me. How astonishing!

That the kingdom of God is a dizzying array of astonishments is underscored by Jesus’ parables. He likens the kingdom to a tiny seed that grows into a bushy mustard plant—that his hearers, like my neighbors in Southern California, would have judged an invasive weed. He likens the kingdom to yeast in flour; the word that our translation renders as “mixed in with” is Greek ἐνέκρυψεν, which is more like ‘hid in’—but the yeast of everyday bread spoils the unleavened bread of Passover. He likens the kingdom to treasure and a fine haul of fish, unsurprisingly—but surely treasure found and rehidden in a field rightly belongs to the original owner, and the merchant who hangs on to The Best Pearl Of All is out of business, and Jesus flat out tells us that the job of sorting good from bad—do we covet issuing such judgments?—is for God’s angels at the end of the age.

Parables, clearly, have their limits. But what if the point of these parables is that, in more ways than we can count, the kingdom of God is much more willing to tolerate messiness and divergence, surprises, and saints that look like sinners, than we ourselves are?

For May 26, 2013: Trinity Sunday, Year C

The Reading            Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

The book of Proverbs is part of what Biblical scholars refer to as “wisdom literature”; it dispenses sound advice for Old Testament living. Today’s reading, however, is about Wisdom, personified here as God’s partner in creation. We of the New Testament know Wisdom as the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity.

The Response            Psalm 8

“O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!”

The Epistle            Romans 5:1-5

Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has sometimes been called his most important theological work. Today’s short but rich reading may well be the core of it: we have peace with God and ourselves not through our own efforts but because the incredible love of God gives us hope.

The Gospel            John 16:12-15

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

 

Further thoughts

First, a disclaimer: for a theological explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, please consult a theologian. What I can offer here is my grammatical workaround of using plural pronouns and agreement forms for singular God, as in “God are Love, and where true love is, / God Themselves are there.”

I was inspired to this in youth by T.H. White’s witty and heartrending book The Once and Future King. Toward the end of the first part, just before the Sword in the Stone reveals young Wart as King Arthur, Merlyn the magician sends him out for his last lesson among the animals. A badger tells him a story of Creation in which all the animals looked exactly like embryos until God allowed them to choose adaptations such as claws or teeth or thick hides or wings. All made their choices—except for Man, last of all, whose response begins, “Please God, I think that you have made me in the shape I now have for reasons best known to Yourselves, and it would be rude to change…” This turns out to have been precisely the right answer. God replied,

“As for you, Man, you will be a naked tool all your life, though a user of tools. You will look like an embryo till they bury you, but all the others will be embryos before your might. Eternally undeveloped, you will always remain potential in Our image, able to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys. We are partly sorry for you, Man, but partly hopeful.”

This is, please note, one God, yet plural. It is possible that White intended a sort of “royal We”, but it resonates with me differently. Though I still quite naturally try to reduce God to human scale, the slight strangeness of “God are…” in my mouth keeps me mindful of God as human and more than human, and the plural verbs and pronouns avoid assigning God exclusive maleness, instead encompassing maleness and femaleness (and probably much more in addition). God as singular plural also reminds me of the eternal fellowship enjoyed by God, as suggested by the Old Testament reading, a depth of mutual knowing and being known whose fullness is quite beyond the grasp of humankind here and now; it is the fellowship for which, through Christ, the apostle Paul says we have such hope; and just as surely the fellowship for whose stunning loss on earth Jesus in today’s gospel was gently but relentlessly preparing his disciples and friends to grieve.

For Sept. 23, 2012: Proper 20, Year B

The Reading            Proverbs 31:10-31

“The Song of the Virtuous Woman” is the name for today’s passage from the book of Proverbs. In form it is an acrostic poem—that is, its lines in Hebrew begin with successive letters of the alphabet as a memory device (and this may help explain why it is so detailed). Interestingly, the Hebrew words present this woman not merely as capable and busy but as valiant, like a warrior.

The Response            Psalm 1

The Epistle            James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

The virtuous woman of Proverbs deals generously with the poor and speaks with wisdom and kindness. The letter from James, which is addressed to communities whose Christian unity is fraying, picks up on these themes, showing the fruit both of their presence and of their absence in our lives.

The Gospel            Mark 9:30-37

 

Further thoughts

In some respects, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s is anticipated in the account of the virtuous woman of Proverbs. She spins fiber, weaves cloth, and makes garments, she does the shopping and manages the household, she’s strong, she buys real estate and plants a vineyard on it, she raises the children, she looks after the poor, she runs a business and markets her wares, and she’s kind and wise. In short, she does it all, apparently, with the possible exception of obsessing about her looks: it is because of all that she does that her husband is proud, her children call her happy, and we deem her virtuous.

What a winner—and what an exhausting example to try to live up to!  But the epistle and the gospel present a different perspective.

The epistle reminds us that the source of virtue—of living the truly good life—is not all the good works that we do: in fact, the good works are the fruit of submission to God, just as the wisdom is the gift of God. No gift of God is to be won through ambition or greed, for these lead only to exactly the kinds of conflicts and disputes that the epistle condemns. As the epistle points out, we don’t receive the good things God means for us if we don’t ask. The act of asking underscores that it’s not our right to demand these goodies or that privilege for being a child of God. Fortunately, it’s also not our burden to be in charge of more than God has given us.

Jesus makes a related point in the gospel. Those who need to be important work to prove their importance by the goodies with which they surround themselves and the accolades they garner. The truly great one in God’s Kingdom, however, is the one who upholds and protects the importance of others—the one who can look at little people and see them first as people. Such a person also practices gratitude and in so doing teaches it.

Which brings us back to the virtuous woman. Her children will bless her name not because she’s made them aware how much she does for them, but because her generosity and grace have taught them how to ask and how to receive—from her, from each other, and from the God from whom all blessings flow.

For Sept. 16, 2012: Proper 19, Year B

The Reading                                             Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1

The book of the Wisdom of Solomon was not written by Solomon: it was written for Greek-speaking Jews between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. It is part of the Septuagint—the version of the Bible in use by Jews in Alexandria, Egypt—though we now take it as one of the apocryphal books. Today’s reading personifies wisdom as an agent of God, in terms that are echoed by the description of Christ in the letter to the Hebrews.

The Response                                             Psalm 19

The Epistle                                                  James 3:1-12

Psalm 19, carrying on the theme of wisdom, ends with a plea to God to keep us from presumptuous sins and to keep our words and thoughts acceptable to God. The extent to which it is imperative that we Christians watch our language—and to which we need God’s help to do so—is underlined, in this increasingly contentious election season, by the vivid metaphors in today’s reading from the letter of James.

The Gospel                                                  Mark 8:27-38

 

Further thoughts

A mantra of the tumultuous 1960s was “Tell it like it is.” The message was that someone under thirty had an obligation to convey the unvarnished truth to those who were too unhip, too co-opted by The Man, too bugged, too hung up, too not-with-it, or simply too over-thirty to be reckoned able to grasp it on their own—with or without the short squat four-letter words with which one might daringly unvarnish it.

Aside from the four-letter words, some of which still do retain power to shock, it all sounds a bit quaint now, and in the phrasing of Psalm 19 more than slightly presumptuous. That the end of Psalm 19 and the letter to James counsel us to watch our language is quite fitting. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer” is not so far from “O Lord, make my words tender and juicy today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”

Nevertheless, telling it like it is has much to recommend it. First, sometimes I don’t know what I know until I give it voice. Peter, being Peter, might not have fully have recognized Jesus as the Messiah until the words came out of his mouth. Second, I won’t find out what I don’t know until I get it out there for corroboration or correction. Peter needed to learn that he was right that Jesus is the Messiah but wrong about just what that means.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the “it” of “tell it like it is” properly embraces not just the bad news but the good news. Wisdom is the mirror of God and she does order all things well. The heavens do declare the glory of God, and it is marvelous. Jesus is the Messiah, sent because, in God’s terms, each of God’s children is so worth saving. The more we speak blessing to each other and the world, the more we speak God’s love into each other and the world—and the better we hear God’s love as well.

For August 19, 2012: Proper 15, Year B

The Reading            1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Today’s reading begins with the accession of Solomon to the throne of King David. Solomon’s dream can be taken as political packaging—of course the anointed king should have a confirmatory dream from God—but Solomon’s request for wisdom with which to govern is one that we can hope all leaders in all places will emulate.

 

The Response            Psalm 111

 

The Epistle            Ephesians 5:15-20

The good advice for the people of Ephesus continues to be good advice for us: at all times and in everything, give thanks to God.

 

The Gospel            John 6:51-58

 

Further thoughts

What a set of contrasts in today’s reading! Wisdom is opposed to… cannibalism?

On the one hand, there’s the dream in which, to launch Solomon’s reign, God offers a divine blank check and Solomon surprises not only the chronicler but us in bypassing power, honor, and long life in favor of wisdom. There’s the psalm’s commendation of the glory of God and of the wisdom of holding God in awe. There’s the advice in the book of Ephesians to life wisely in this world while giving thanks for everything.

On the other hand, there’s “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). This verse is difficult for those of us in the 21st century with a taste for a nice rare steak. A first-century Jewish audience would have found it downright indigestible. The word in the Greek for “flesh” is σαρχ sarx (as in sarcophagus ‘flesh-eater’), so it is either ‘raw meat’ or ‘dead meat’; the Law expressly forbade Jews to consume raw meat and blood and to touch dead bodies, so Jesus has given orders to perform acts of eating and drinking that are about as ritually impure as it is possible to be. Jesus uses two verbs for ‘eat’ in this passage; one of them just means ‘eat’, but the one in John 6:53, τρώγω trogo, has been glossed as ‘chew’ or ‘gnaw’ (Davis) or ‘chomp’ (Ewart): vivid words for messy eating, and therefore claimed to be very literal.

It is important not to make the Good News less shocking than it really is. The fact is, however, that, in most languages, words for eating are commonly used metaphorically as words for learning and thinking: to ruminate, from Latin rumen ‘cow’s stomach’ is literally ‘to chew one’s cud’. A slightly different reading of trogo may be justified, along the lines of ‘chew really thoroughly, so as not to lose a single bit of the goodness’.

Think about a really enjoyable meal with some delightful surprises for the mouth, in the best of company, and with time and space to savor them and to be refreshed by each other’s time and attention. It is simple wisdom to eat, drink, and commune mindfully, noticing what one is taking in. In such a meal, everything comes together to satisfy needs of body and of spirit, needs one may not even have known that one had, and in it we catch the slight but unmistakable whiff—a foretaste, if you will—of how Jesus feeds us.

And what if—minus the matter of salvation, of course—we are similarly called to do what we can to feed each other?

 

D. Mark Davis, “From ‘Bread of Heaven’ to ‘Gnawing on Flesh’”, Left Behind and Loving it, http://www.leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/08/from-bread-of-heaven-to-gnawing-on-flesh_14.html.

David Ewart, http://www.holytextures.com/2009/07/john-6-51-58-year-b-pentecost-august-14-august-20-sermon.html.


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