1 Corinthians 1:17-25; Matthew 25:1-13
Before Scripture is read in the context of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, the deacon comes forward and announces loudly to the assembly, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” It is as if he is saying, “If your attention has wandered off, now is the time to bring it back. Get ready!” Though I’d be hard-pressed to define wisdom in the abstract, it has a refreshingly straightforward, tangible quality when I witness it in the life of an individual person. I hear an inner voice cry, “Wisdom, let us attend!” Wise people tend to be real people, people with “street cred.” There is a quiet authority that has no need to announce itself but is obvious to anyone whose wisdom-o-meter is in good order. A truly wise woman or man possesses presence like shade on a hot day. Their whole affect communicates a life lived well, deliberately, mindfully, wholeheartedly. On my first encounters with people like this – who are, truth be told, rare – my first impulse is to grow quiet, to listen more intently, to ask questions that are simple, questions that do not waste time demonstrating how much I think I know. I become aware that time is too precious for such drivel. I become aware that I am in need of oil. This person cannot give me that oil directly (if only it were that simple!) but can show me how to find some for myself.
Everything we know about Jesus from the gospels suggests a similar portrait. Jesus: the prototype of all wise ones. Jesus, Wisdom embodied in the midst of an often foolish world. Jesus, the Light of every lamp; Jesus, the preparedness of those who begin an endeavor and the satisfaction of those who complete one.
I love that these two scripture passages appear in the lectionary today, in conversation with one another. We see wisdom in these texts depicted from two very different vantage points – and in fact using two different words.
In Matthew’s parable of the kingdom we get two sets of bridesmaids or virgins: young wedding attendants. We learn that “five were foolish and five were wise”; right away we’re primed to understand their behavior through that lens. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we get a remarkable meditation on the wisdom – and the so-called foolishness – of God, and how these differ from the so-called wisdom – and foolishness – of the world.
Now, the word for foolish or stupid is the same word in both texts. It can also mean “flat” or “dull,” like an instrument without a properly sharpened edge. But the words for wisdom are different. The wisdom of the so-called “wise virgins” is salty, practical, everyday wisdom: they are shrewd, discerning, and – to dust off a slightly Victorian word, “prudent.” It’s the same word used to describe the man who builds his house on rock instead of sand in Matthew 7 and the same word used in Chapter 10, when Jesus says, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be as discerning as serpents and as harmless as doves.” It’s the wisdom that thinks ahead and carries an umbrella on a cloudy day – but also knows precisely which situations in life call for which responses as followers of Jesus on a moment-by-moment basis.
The word used by Paul is sophia.This is the deep wisdom of the created universe; ultimate, primary wisdom. It is loftier and, well, more sophisticated in its connotations. This is the wisdom of the philosophers, the lovers of sophia, whose craft at its best was to distill fundamental truths about reality and to engage their students in a process of meaning-making in order to live well. A philosopher in this ancient Greek tradition needed eloquent and persuasive rhetoric to deliver a compelling message. But this tradition also had its shadow side, which the Corinthians seem to have been seduced by. Love of powerful and beautiful phrases could itself become an idol. At its worst, it could degenerate into sophistry – the art of using language to deceive or manipulate an audience, or at the very least to distract them from the truth. Paul uses the pointed and disillusioning antidote of the cross – the saving foolishness of God.
We are well-acquainted with this anti-wisdom in the contemporary American cultural landscape. We need the discerning shrewdness of Matthew’s wise bridesmaids, now more than ever, to see our way forward in the darkness, to actively filter out lies, and to determine how best to acquire the oil we need to keep our lamps burning in the long night. But we also need to become “fools for God,” in the manner of St. Paul – to recognize that the world’s standards of what is wise are usually at odds with the wisdom that will align us most squarely with the kingdom of heaven. Intent upon the long, slow work of cultivating hearts prepared to receive God’s wisdom, we attend to what Christ asks of us in this moment.
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