Is there anyone here this morning who does not want to be wise?
It seems a silly question; who wouldn’t want to be wise? And yet, the picture we have before us from the book of Proverbs suggests there are those who spurn wisdom and stubbornly choose to remain in their foolishness.
The opening chapter of Proverbs imagines Wisdom as a woman calling out in public places – in the streets, on busy corners, at the entrance to the city (v.20,21) – making herself accessible to all. She longs to be listened to, to be heeded, but her counsel is ignored. She calls to the “simple” who don’t know any better, to the “scoffers” who delight in cynicism, and to the “fools” who despise knowledge; but they do not listen (v.22). If only they would change their ways, she would make God’s ways known to them (v.23). But they are unwilling to heed her rebukes or accept her counsel (v.24,25). Instead, they laugh at her.
But she will have the last laugh (v.26), the author insists. Their downfall will be as sudden and unpredictable as a whirlwind in the Judean desert (v.27). Their call for help will come too late (v.28). Because they “hated knowledge” and did not hold God in awe, because they would not accept Wisdom’s advice and “despised” her criticism of their ways (v.29), they will eventually reap what they have sown. They will “eat the fruit of their way” (v.31) and be punished by the evil deeds they themselves have committed. In contrast, those who heed Wisdom’s call will live in peace and in comfort, “without dread of disaster” (v.33).
There is an underlying worldview that informs this picture. In it, the world is an ordered place, and Wisdom is the glue that holds everything together, the foundation of all that is. God has so ordained it, and those who refuse to reverence God and who defy God’s ways will suffer the natural consequences of their foolishness. It is not so much that God will punish them; rather, that they will simply reap what they have sown. Wisdom, the author contends, begins with the “fear of the Lord.” It begins with the premise that there can be no genuine understanding apart from God. Although it recognizes that it is possible to “despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov.1:7), it assures us that those who do so will suffer the consequences of their foolishness.
We may not be quite as convinced of the accuracy of this worldview as the author of Proverbs. We may suspect that the world is not quite as orderly as he supposes, and we may have doubts about his assumption that God has imbedded a system of retributive justice in the creation, because we see that wise and worthy people sometimes suffer, while people who are self-centered and yes, fools, enjoy long and luxurious days without any apparent retribution. It may not seem as clear-cut to us as he makes it sound.
Still we would have to agree, wouldn’t we, that even if wisdom does not pay off the dividends promised – namely, that those who heed her will live in peace and comfort and without dread of disaster – it is its own reward, and that it is simply better and more satisfying to live wisely in awe of the Lord that to live in self-centered ways that serve only our own interests. We may not be able to convince cynics of this, but many of us know this to be true. Our experience bears it out.
Furthermore, we believe in and long for the day when God’s reign will come on earth as it already is in heaven. Even though we may not always enjoy the security the author of Proverbs promises, or always “live at ease, without dread of disaster” (v.33), we know that even in adversity “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us,” as St Paul put it (Romans 8:37). We are people who hold to the promise of Resurrection, and this hope enables us to suffer trouble with peace in our hearts.
If we agree, then, that it makes sense to heed the call of Wisdom and to accept her counsel, what advice might we find hidden in today’s lessons? What might Wisdom have to say to us today?
Fundamental to the teaching of Proverbs is the conviction it expresses that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:7). The word translated here as “fear” may also be translated “awe,” or even on occasion, “worship.” The poet expresses the conviction that all knowledge, all searches for understanding and for right thinking, must begin with the proper relationship to God, a relationship that places God above all things, and ourselves in a lower position, adoring and worshipping the God who transcends all. Only from this place of humility can we begin to understand.
All knowledge and wisdom belong to God. When we seek knowledge apart from God, we run the risk of seeking it only for our own benefit and we are tempted to forget God’s demands for justice for all. When we acknowledge that all knowledge belongs to God and is given to us by God, we are more likely to employ that knowledge in the service of God and of others. True wisdom begins and flourishes in right relationship to God.
Second, Proverbs teaches us that a main artery through which wisdom comes to us is receiving instruction from older and wiser people. Much of Proverbs is written as advice given by a parent to a child. Over and over again, the child is admonished to heed the parent’s advice. Those who are wise are open to receiving such counsel. They heed the warnings and admonitions of those who have more experience than they do. They accept their rebukes, and express gratitude for their help. What wisdom has to say to us may not always be pleasant, but we do well to heed her advice. To become wise, we must learn to listen – first to God, and then to wise and good teachers. To become wise we must become students and observers of life, recognizing ways of living that lead to wholeness, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Experienced guides can help us along the way.
Closely related is the wise counsel to “be quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). The letter of James underscores this bit of wisdom with its warning about the power of the tongue. James employs a number of images to impress upon us the importance of his message. He pictures a powerful horse being controlled by a bit and bridle, a great sailing ship driven by strong winds but being steered by a small rudder, and a terrifying forest fire that begins with a tiny spark. Like the bit and the rudder and the tiny spark, the tongue is a small thing. But it can do great things, both for good and for ill. So, insists James, you must learn to control it!
James does not suggest that controlling the tongue is an easy matter. He recognizes our tendency towards inconsistency. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing,” says James (3:10). “With (our tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (3:9). Again he resorts to metaphors: fresh and salt water, fig trees and olives, grapevines and figs. It is against the laws of nature for grapevines to produce figs, he argues; in the same way, it ought to be impossible for a person to use the tongue both to bless and to curse. It violates the laws of grace.
In order to be wise, we must learn to control what we say.
Finally, today’s lessons help us to appreciate that God’s ways are not our ways. The wise person knows this, and recognizes that sometimes we are called to go against our own intuitions when following Christ. Peter learned this when he was rebuked by Jesus for insisting on his own vision of who the Messiah would be and how he would act in the world. God’s ways are not always our ways:
We say, “Look out for Number One!” The gospel says, “Take care of others first, even if it means losing yourself.” We say, “You only go around once – grab for the gusto in life!” The gospel says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow the Crucified One.” We say, “Feather your own nest!” The gospel says, “If you gain the whole world but lose your soul, what profit is there in that?”
God’s ways are not always our ways. Where God reigns, the first are last and the last are first. Where God reigns, rulers don’t lord it over their subjects, they serve them. Where God reigns, the greatest are those who make themselves servants of all. If we are wise, we will pay attention, and heed the ways of God.
The path to wisdom is marked by countless choices. We must choose when to listen and when to speak. We must choose between good and evil, between right and wrong. We must choose which way best reflects the yearnings of God for us, which way leads to wholeness of life. We must choose when and with whom to cooperate, and when and whom to resist. Fortunately, Wisdom comes out to meet us. She makes herself available to us, speaking openly and plainly, calling us to heed her advice. She echoes for us the words of God to the ancient Hebrews, spoken through Moses, God’s servant: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life!” (Deut 30:19)
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