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Sermon on Proverbs 1:20-33
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
The Book of Proverbs almost didn’t make it into the Bible. When the council that decided which books would make up the canon of Scripture considered Proverbs, many of them thought it just didn’t fit in with the books of Moses and the prophets and the Gospels. In Proverbs there are no visions or divine voices in the night, no burning bushes or miracles of healing. For this reason, Proverbs seemed too down-to-earth to be in the Bible – after all, you could argue, it’s just “common sense,” more about reason than revelation.
But, as my seminary professor Ellen Davis pointed out, that’s exactly what makes it so appealing and valuable to us. “This is a book for unexceptional people trying to live wisely and faithfully in the…undramatic circumstances of daily life, on the days when water does not pour forth out of rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”[i]
In other words, Proverbs is a book we can all relate to. The biblical sages who put together this collection of proverbial wisdom were concerned with the ordinary matters most of us are concerned about:
how to manage your financial affairs and stay out of debt;
how to keep your children out of trouble;
how to find a good friend and be one, and also how to avoid making enemies;
how to maintain peace and harmony in your own home.
The wisdom Proverbs teaches is about learning to live well with yourself, with other people, and with God.
Quite a few years ago there was a bestseller called The Book of Virtues, by William Bennett. Bennett wrote this book for the benefit of what he saw as a crumbling society. Whether or not you agree with Bennett’s premise probably depends on where you are positioned in the so-called “culture wars,” but the point is that the desire to speak about character formation to a society that seems to have lost its moorings is by no means new. The book of Proverbs is also a “book of virtues,” and the ancient sages who crafted this catalog of moral instruction seem to have been consciously addressing a disordered society in danger of collapse. Although many of the wise sayings in the book may have come from the court of King Solomon, the book itself was probably not put together until after the Babylonian exile, when the people were back in the land of Israel. They were trying to reconstruct a society that had been blasted to its foundations by invasion and conquest. The prophets and historians writing about this period in Israel’s history spoke of hard economic times, drought and crop failure, income inequality, and confusion over changing social and religious norms and expectations. They were concerned about violent crime, rampant greed, and callousness to the needs of the poor. It should not be hard for us to imagine this world.
The book of Proverbs was written primarily for the young people of this time.[ii] Though Proverbs is not a story, you could say it has two main characters. One of them is unseen and silent: he is a son listening to the instruction of his father and, at some points, his mother. (She’s the one who warns him about the kind of women he needs to steer clear of.) The instructions offered by these ancient parents could easily be the warnings of an inner-city mother today, desperately trying to keep her children out of the clutches of the drug dealers, or of a suburban father trying to counteract the influence of his son’s dangerous new set of heavy-drinking friends. The advice still sounds appropriate for today.
The other main character, Lady Wisdom (or Woman Wisdom) personifies the instruction the book wants to impart. Elsewhere in the book we see her as God’s companion and co-worker at the creation, God’s “master builder,” so some scholars associate her with the Holy Spirit. Lady Wisdom is the opposite of the silent son enduring his parents’ lectures: She speaks quite clearly, at great length, and without ambiguity. Lady Wisdom goes out into the streets and lanes and gathering places of the city, the centers of commerce and politics, to seek recruits for her instruction. She has something precious to offer to the world, but unfortunately, few people are interested.
The message Lady Wisdom wants to get out is something everyone can learn, regardless of wealth or social class – but not everyone wants it. She talks about three categories of people who should be listening to her: the “simple,” the “scoffers,” and the “fools.” The “scoffers” are the ones can’t be taught anything because they are too arrogant and conceited to listen. In their own minds they already know more than everyone else anyway, so why should they listen to anyone’s instruction? The “fools” are not as arrogant as the scoffers, but they are too impulsive and self-absorbed to learn anything – they get carried away by their emotions and speak and act without thinking. Both the scoffers and the fools get into trouble because of their weak character. And the trouble they get into doesn’t just fall on their shoulders – they are threats to a well-ordered, peaceful society.
The “simple,” the third category Lady Wisdom addresses, do not have bad characters, nor are they stupid, as we might think – they are just naïve, clueless, therefore easily deceived or manipulated. One scholar says that the “simple” were probably intelligent young people from well-to-do families who could afford to send them away to be educated. If that is the case, this instruction would be the kind of advice you would give to a son or daughter going off to college or boarding school. It was advice given to young people who were going to have to make their own decisions, apart from their parents, for the first time. The stakes are very high for these young people -- if they are not taught now, they are destined to spend their lives being played by greedy, unscrupulous people. They’ll end up in bad marriages, in debt, in legal trouble, always struggling to undo the effects of their bad choices.
Maybe it was inaccurate for me to say that Proverbs is a book of virtues, plural, because wisdom itself is the virtue that comprehends all the virtues: honesty, loyalty, thrift, self-discipline, gentleness, compassion, humility, and reverence before God. Wisdom, as the biblical writers see it, is not the exclusive possession of the well-educated, the well-traveled, or the very old – it is something everyone can have.
“Wisdom” is not the same thing as knowledge or expertise. Our society trains us to pursue specialized knowledge, the kind of knowledge that will give us social and economic power. We encourage our young people to pick college majors that will make them competitive in the job market. This knowledge we pursue, though, is not the same thing as wisdom, which has to do with the art of living well with God and other people. It is interesting to note that ancient Israel devoted little attention to pursuits requiring specialized knowledge such as astronomy, architecture, engineering, even fine arts – they were way behind their neighbors Egypt and Mesopotamia in these areas.[iii] They were not anti-intellectual, as we might think – they put lots of emphasis on study and reading – but they seem to have been most interested in the kind of knowledge that helped them to build strong communities of well-adjusted people. That was the Israelite definition of success.
It is this deeper wisdom, the wisdom that has more to do with making a life than making a living, that Proverbs is concerned about. It seems to me that this kind of wisdom is something the church is uniquely qualified to offer to our young people. The young people in this congregation – and, I think, in most Presbyterian congregations – are smart and well-informed about their choices. They know where to seek out the specialized knowledge they will need to start careers later on. In the course of growing up and leaving home, they will naturally learn a lot about developing solid friendships, managing their money and negotiating the ordinary hassles of life. They will be able to look to their parents, teachers, counselors, and mentors as role models. But the wisdom the church offers is something unique. It’s not just about making the smart decision, it’s about making decisions that are guided by respect and reverence for other lives, and the ability to see the Christ in the other person. This wisdom is about sharing God’s concern for the most vulnerable members of society. It’s about
knowing yourself as a singular, irreplaceable person made in the image of God, a person whose life is precious and valued and important. And it’s about the knowledge and love of God, who has chosen to be in covenant relationship with us. That, of course, means that the decisions we make have significance beyond our own lives. Wisdom is not primarily about self-improvement, but about playing our part in a wider world.
Part of the mission of the church -- and the job the teachers and leaders we have commissioned today have taken on in a special way – is to teach, support, advise and pray for the young people of the church in their pursuit of the kind of wisdom that will ensure not just their survival in a competitive world but their flourishing as human beings.
Lady Wisdom continues her speech in Chapter Two, and I offer her words to all of you, children, youth and adults:
If you cry out for insight and raise your voice for understanding;
If you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures—
Then you will…find the knowledge of God…for the Lord gives wisdom.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path;
For wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.” (2:3-6, 9-10)
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 16, 2018
[i] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge & Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001), 92.
[ii] William P. Brown, citing R.N. Whybray, The Compositon of the Book of Proverbs in Character in Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 22.
[iii] Davis, 95-96.