Does not Wisdom call? That sounds like a question, and it is. But it’s a rhetorical question. It’s a statement in the form of a question. Obviously, we are meant to understand that wisdom is indeed calling. Putting it in the form of a question is a literary device. It just emphasizes that fact that wisdom is indeed calling. Understanding raises her voice; on the heights, at the crossroads, beside the gates, all over town, all over Jerusalem, “she” is raising her voice. “She” is trying to get everybody’s attention, all of us. “To you I call, O people. My cry is to all who live.” Isn’t that an interesting image? Wisdom, given a body, given a voice, given a name: Sophia. It’s a bit of poetic license on the part of whoever wrote it. But sometimes, poetry can capture the truth of things in ways that blunt force reality can’t.
I remember reading a book, a long time ago, called The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,by Robert Heinlein. I read a lot of science fiction when I was a kid. I used to tell people that I got most of my early training in theology from science fiction, which is actually not far from the truth. There’s a lot more wisdom in fantasy writing than some people realize. In this particular book, Heinlein writes about a fairly substantial community has been established on the moon. Their survival depends on a computer that is so sophicated, so massive and complicated that it eventually crosses a threshold and gains consciousness.
That’s a common theme in science fiction, but it’s actually not a lot different than what our author from Proverbs has done with wisdom. Wisdom starts out being simple instructions for how to get by in life: wash your hands before meals, don’t eat too much junk food, make sure you get enough sleep and exercise, stop pulling your sister’s hair, don’t talk back to your parents. Our early training in wisdom is mostly about do’s and don’ts. But then it expands out into our relationships with other people. Wisdom is being kind, helpful and generous. And it continues to grow and expand through all the knowledge we gain about how the world and the universe work. Eventually, our eyes are opened wide enough to see that wisdom is pervasive throughout the whole of our lives, and that’s when it, sort of, crosses a threshold, reaches critical mass and takes on a life of its own.
Wisdom gains consciousness. “She,” in certain passages of the Bible, becomes Sophia; co-creator with God, there from the beginning of time. God’s first work of art. God’s living and breathing Spirit alive in the world, alive in all that is wise. We wouldn’t want to take this too literally, I don’t believe. It is a beautiful, metaphorical vision. Some people like to identify Sophia as the third “person” of the trinity; the Holy Spirit, which is kind of nice since it brings a feminine side to our understanding of God. But mainly, the message is, if we want to lead the best lives we possibly can, we do well to live as close to wisdom as we’re able. We do best when we make Sophia our constant companion.
How do we do that? How do we make wisdom our companion? What does that even mean? Well, it’s interesting, I think, to look at how we usually think about wisdom. I ran across a sermon on the subject one time. I’ve lost track of who wrote it, but it started out like this:
Wisdom is like grits. Yes, grits. A Pennsylvania fellow was traveling in the south one time. On a morning, he stopped by a mom & pop diner for breakfast. He ordered eggs, bacon and toast. But when his food came, he was surprised by an amorphous white mass of stuff on his plate.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Grits,” replied the waitress.
“I didn’t order grits,” said the traveler.
“No matter,” said the waitress, “they just come.”
The preacher went on to make the point that wisdom is like grits because “it just comes.” We live our lives and learn as we go along. Eventually, most of us manage to pile up a fair amount. It just comes.
There’s some truth in that, if what we’re talking about is conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is the kind that we gain as we go along. We don’t have it to begin with. That’s why we sometimes talk about rookies, freshmen and plebes with distain. They’re not wise, at least not yet. They haven’t been around long enough to “know the ropes.” They’re “wet behind the ears.” But if they hang in there long enough, if they go the distance, if they put in their time and keep their noses clean, they might just eventually arrive at being a respected veteran in some field or other. That’s true whether we’re talking about auto mechanics, acting, police work, preaching … you name it. The idea here is that wisdom is mostly a function of time and experience. We gradually learn what works and what doesn’t, often the hard way, and eventually we become an old hand.
Conventional wisdom works this way throughout our lives. H. Jackson Brown, maybe you remember, was the author of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” which was popular a few years back. He also wrote a book filled with wit and wisdom from kids. It’s called, “When You Lick a Slug, Your Tongue Goes Numb.” It’s got some wonderful bits of “Kid wisdom.” For instance,
When your mother is mad and asks, “Do I look stupid?” it’s better not to answer.
You should never laugh at your dad if he’s mad or screaming at you.
You should never pick on your sister when she has a baseball bat in her hands.
It’s no fun to stay up all night if your parents don’t care.
Never be the first one to fall asleep at a slumber party.
You can’t hide mashed potatoes in your hat.
(and my personal favorite…)
No matter how hard you try, you cannot baptize cats.
There’s a lot to be said for conventional wisdom. It is the foundation upon which healthy relationships and a healthy society are built. It helps us understand that we are better off working together, caring for one another, and sometimes compromising for the good of the whole than we are constantly focusing our own personal self-interest. Conventional wisdom tells us that, though we don’t always live up to our values, we need our values in order to know what the best lives we can live look like, and we need people who embody those values to show us that it’s possible; to inspire us to be as honorable and courageous as we can.
Conventional wisdom is foundational. But here in the church, we have always understood it as the foundation of something a deeper, something wider, more all-encompassing, more spiritual. Spiritual wisdom is about more than just how we can live good lives and all get along. Spiritual wisdom is about living life deeply and fully. It is about coming to know our true identity. It is about learning that God loves even those people we can’t bring ourselves to love. Even some of those that conventional wisdom would have us turn our backs on. Spiritual wisdom is about knowing that we are in God and that we can never not be in God. And because that’s true, we can live our lives joyfully and generously, free from fear and anxiety, no matter what happens. That’s spiritual wisdom. It doesn’t just come. We have to go find it. We have to practice it. We have to entertain the possibility that it might actually overturn some of the cherished notions that have come to us through conventional means.
That’s part of the reason the people around Jesus found his parables so challenging. We still find them challenging today. Pay all the laborers the same no matter how hard they have worked? What sense does that make? Samaritans can be good? Who knew? A woman who contributes a penny is offering more than someone who simply scribbles out a big check? How does that work? When we try to interpret these parables in conventional ways they don’t make much sense. And that’s because they rise from a deeper wisdom than we conventionally understand. Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, forgive seventy times seven times, your faith will make you well. This is not conventional wisdom. It is un-conventional wisdom.
The author of Proverbs took this idea of unconventional wisdom and, poetically, wrapped around it the form of a beautiful woman, Sophia. A woman who calls to us, who raises her voice. A woman/spirit that is meant to be our constant companion, our guide, our comforter, our advocate, even the living/breathing spirit of our Christ. “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”Jesus can be seen and understood in a lot of different ways. But one of the best ways, is to understand him as a teacher of this deep spiritual wisdom. It doesn’t just come. But it can be found by anyone who is willing to look. As Jesus himself said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8, NRSV)
I’d like to close with a piece from Earth and Altarby Eugene H. Peterson.
The opposite of foolishin Scripture is wise. Wiserefers to skill in living. It does not mean, primarily, the person who knows the right answers to things, but one who has developed the right responses (relationships) to persons, to God. The wise understand how the world works; know about patience and love, listening and grace, adoration and beauty; know that other people are awesome creatures to be respected and befriended, especially the ones that [we] cannot get anything out of; know that the earth is a marvelously intricate gift to be cared for and enjoyed; know that God is an ever present center, a never-diminishing reality, an all-encompassing love; and know that there is no living being that does not reach out gladly and responsively to [God] and the nation/kingdom/community in which [God] has placed us.
The wise know that there is only one cure for the fool. Prayer that is as passionate for the salvation of others as it is for [ourselves] … Prayer that is convinced that there is no wellness until everyone is restored to a place of blessing … And prayer that sees the community as a place not of acquisition, but of celebration.
Does not wisdom call?