The Voice of Wisdom

September 16, 2018               Proper 24

Proverbs 1:20-33  Wisdom 7:26-8:1

Our Old Testament readings today take us to a corner of the Biblical tradition we don’t often go.

We have that wonderful passage from the apocryphal book of Wisdom, which we said in place of a psalm. It speaks of Wisdom as proceeding from God’s own being and infusing all of Creation, language we also use to talk about the Holy Spirit.

In the first reading we meet the figure of Lady Wisdom, God’s wisdom personified as a woman, a sage, teacher, and prophet, crying out her warning in the streets, and ignored by so many going about their foolish business.

It’s a vivid image. Can you picture her, crying out in the streets – heading down the main street of Kingston or Middleton, calling out on Bay Street and Wall Street, accosting passers-by in Trafalgar Square or along the Champs-Elysees, everywhere desperately looking for someone who will listen to her:

‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
How long indeed? – it’s a very good, timely question

There was a time, I will confess it, when I found the wisdom tradition in Scripture somewhat . . . less interesting. Oh, there are some wonderful passages in Job and all. But so much of the wisdom literature seemed so obvious, somehow: kindly but stern admonitions to young men to be honest and upright, to avoid the company of fools and beware of painted ladies. It’s hard to quarrel with any of it, but it always seemed a bit banal.

But you know, the older the world gets, the more the voice of Lady Wisdom speaks to me. So much of what once seemed obvious to me (well, and still does) is less than obvious apparently in the world in general. Standards of truth-telling, civility, personal integrity, and commitment to the public good. Let’s not pretend they were ever upheld by our public figures, but at least there used to be lip service paid. Whereas nowadays (and I’m not picking on any one particular figure, there are many of them, in many places around the world), these standards of civility are ignored, violated, and openly mocked. We have entered, it seems, the age of fools, where those who turn their backs on what has counted as wisdom through the ages are applauded and rewarded with power and influence.

If these are the public figures we keep raising up, it is because, I fear, they represent what we have become as a people. Perhaps the internet is to blame, because one finds them everywhere in the comments section. Whether on the right or the left, they are everywhere: people who are perpetually aggrieved, perpetually angry; people who are always sounding off, never listening; who are always running down and demonizing those who think differently; who have made their own opinions their god, and may the facts be damned.

As we begin to read the Wisdom literature – and I don’t know how many of you took up Lynn’s challenge of a few weeks back, to read through the book of Proverbs – we begin to recognize that Wisdom has a particular personality and profile. She is not just calling us to be wise – how intimidating is that, who would dare claim to be wise? – but she is teaching us, in great detail, what wisdom can look like.

And conversely, when she derides the fools, she is not just using a handy but empty insult: she is calling out a particular pattern of behaviour, a destructive way of being in the world which we recognize so clearly more than 2000 years later. She is calling out:
– the arrogant, who lord it over the unfortunate;
– the violent, who indulge their own anger and sense of outrage, and stoke it up in others
– the mendacious, who will say whatever comes into their head, and have no notion of the holy, careful discipline of attending to the truth
– the selfish, who know only their own interests, who cannot see others as worthy of care or concern
. . . in a word – well, the foolish, those who set at naught the voice of wisdom, the voice that calls us to a life of humility and generosity, peace and care and truthfulness, civility and integrity – the voice that calls us to a full, rich, adult human life.

We had perhaps thought we had left Lady Wisdom and her lessons back in kindergarten. But now it seems that those who did not learn her lessons then are taking over, their voices have become so clamorous. And suddenly her teaching, which once seemed self-evident and maybe a bit banal, now seems so crucially important for our world.

I love the strength of Lady Wisdom’s voice here: its clarity and anger and scorn, the cold contempt that she heaps on the fools. There is no equivocating here, no making excuses, no false sympathy, no cowardly attempt to rationalize evil with misplaced tolerance; simply scorn for those who have wilfully abandoned the path of wisdom, and the clear-sighted insight that their behaviour leads to death.

We need to hear this, as harsh and unpleasant as it may seem, because the fools are not just other people out there and far away. They are our own worst tendencies. When we let ourselves go, when we allow our own sense of grievance to take over, and stop listening carefully with a patient caring heart to others.

Now here’s the good news for us: the rise of contempt and incivility and boastfulness in our public life makes the gospel that has been entrusted to us more relevant than ever. With the voices of anger and intolerance and arrogance and untruthfulness becoming so dominant, suddenly the figure of our Lord appears more than ever the antidote to our social and political and economic death spiral.

I would suggest that at the roots of Jesus’s teaching lies the voice of wisdom. The life of wisdom, a life rooted in humility, truthfulness, integrity, and generosity of spirit, forms the foundation on which Jesus and the church built. It is a foundation we have never left behind. In St. Paul we read of the fruits of the Spirit of Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are clearly, every one of them, Wisdom values.

So I would suggest that our call as Christians today (as in every age) is to try to live out these wisdom values. Let us proclaim by word and example that a healthy, full, communal human life is to be found in the discipline of submitting ourselves to wisdom.

A couple of weeks back I heard a young aboriginal activist being interviewed on CBC. When asked what his aspirations were, he answered: “I think more and more about what kind of elder I want to be”. I found this an astonishing and moving answer: how many 30-year-olds do you know in our dominant culture would give this answer? He is thinking already about how in several decades he will be a leader and role model for younger people, someone who will be called to reflect the seven grandfather teachings: wisdom, love, respect, courage, honesty, humility, and truth. The voice of wisdom again, speaking through many cultures.

Would this not be a wonderful goal for a Christian life: to strive to become the kind of elder who reflects wisdom values. Many of you are already there, have become people who inspire and encourage others to try to be their own best selves. But one is never completely done with the work of wisdom, is one? Each day the choices must be made anew: to let go of anger, to find peace in one’s heart, to listen patiently to others, to be schooled by truth. Every day we strive to embody the fruits of the spirit, the care and respect for others, for creation, for truth, for the living God, so that we might form and inspire others in these virtues. Let us seek out the voice of wisdom, speaking in our texts and in our communities; let us listen long and hard and slowly let her re-form our hearts; and then let us lend our voices to hers, to join in ever more strongly and confidently to declare what we are called to be.