The Table of Wisdom – Lectionary 08/15/2021

Proverbs 9: 1-6

          Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Sermon Text

Wisdom as a concept is different depending on who you ask about it. Different countries, cultures, and traditions across the world and across time have defined the concept in similar, but profoundly different terms. For some, wisdom is the realization of how life truly is. Others see wisdom as something which transcends the physical plane and takes on some spiritual existence. Regardless of the particulars which wisdom traditions hold onto, wisdom is always something which interfaces with our mind and allows us to interact with the world in a different way than we would on our own.

Wisdom in the Biblical tradition is discussed mostly in the Old Testament. While the New Testament speaks of wisdom a few times, it is usually in the context of philosophical discussions of what it means to be wise as defined by Greek culture. While I am personally a fan of Aristotle, it does not make sense for us to begin to understand Hebrew wisdom by going to Greece, at least not as our first destination. To understand our scripture calling us to come and eat at the table of חָכְמָה, (Chokmah) Hebrew wisdom, we cannot lose ourselves in Σοφια, Greek wisdom.

But, enough being abstract, what does it mean to be wise? There is a near universal understanding that wisdom is distinct from knowledge. A person can be wise without collecting expertise or miscellanea and while I am a big proponent for learning, and so I will never downplay the importance of always seeking more knowledge and more skills, but I would be lying to say that simply knowing or developing practical skills is the height of human achievement. We have to develop a more holistic approach to how we grow as people and part of that holistic growth is the pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom, across all traditions, is the art of seeing truth in a way most do not.

Specifically, within the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, wisdom can be described as the practical knowledge by which a person can learn to live a good life. This can be literal skills, how to properly steward money or respond to trouble. It can also be more general maxims about life, the lessons we learn and the virtues we develop. There are several books of the Bible that are traditionally considered to be “Wisdom,” writing. The books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, chunks of the Psalms, and even sometimes the Song of Songs are listed as Wisdom writings. These books focus in on the benefits of wisdom, and likewise, the dangers of foolishness.

It is important to note that this is a scholastic association of these books. Nothing in the texts themselves indicate they must be read together outside of their shared themes. However, we must take a moment and acknowledge that the Tanakh, the Jewish composition of what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scripture, includes all these books in one place, alongside Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Lamentations, and Chronicles. These are collectively called, “Ketuvim,” or “Writings,” because they are neither prophetic or a part of the Torah. In other words, though it is modern scholarship that took these books and called them “Wisdom Writings,” their association with one another has been known since the creation of the Tanakh.

So, now that we know where to find Wisdom in the Bible, that is the Wisdom tradition, and why we read them as a structural unit, we can begin to seek after what is behind all this talk of “wisdom,” and “foolishness.” Afterall, to live a good life is one of our chief goals. We in the Church hold, as all people who cleave to scripture do, that in our quest to know God, to see God face to face, we necessarily transform to become better people, wiser people one could say. To become wise though, we must first meet Wisdom personally.

Wisdom, is usually personified as a woman in scripture. This is in part because that name which Hebrew gives Wisdom, Chokmah, is a feminine noun. However, that does not determine gender of an object in the ancient world anymore than it does in modern gendered languages. No, Wisdom is personified as a woman because she is the administrator of the household of God’s people. Though it is difficult to explain fully in anything other than several books, it is fairly accurate to say that a woman of some means in the ancient world ran the day-to-day life of the house she was a member of. Poorer people were more roughly egalitarian, but among the nobility, women held power over the house and men held power over… most everything else.

This means that, in trying to imagine the world as a household, the writers of scripture saw the need to place God as the chief of that house and Wisdom as God’s partner in caring for that house. Wisdom is sometimes described as part of God, an aspect or emanation that we know God through. Other times, especially in Proverbs, Wisdom is named as a creation of God, through whom God created the world. If that sounds familiar, that is because John adapted the language of Proverbs 3:19-20, to describe Jesus (though specifically stating Jesus was not created, like Wisdom was,) as the architect of Creation. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens,” reads Proverbs, and John 1:3 tells us, “All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being…”

We should not take Wisdom and her personification too literally otherwise we have some complicated conversation to start about Jesus that will not fit into a Sunday morning. Wisdom is not a being, not a second God beside God, Wisdom is a concept, and idea, a gift, that we are able to interact with and benefit from. God has created the world for a purpose, and God made the world sensibly, so that we can live a life that is not just empty. God gave to the earth some sense of rationality, not that the dirt may become sentient, but that life may be conducted orderly.

Wisdom runs the world. Or at least, Wisdom should. The Wisdom literature, even in its most critical iteration in the form of Ecclesiastes, wishes to see a world that benefits those who do good. Those who are kind, those who are thrifty, those who seek the good of others, and worship God faithfully ought to do well. That is the dream of Wisdom. Yet, we know the world is crooked. Many times, those who succeed, succeed precisely because they are cruel, or reckless, they seek to hurt others, and they do not care what God says except when convenient. The dream of Wisdom is that we all might become wise, and through becoming wise, we all might live life a little better than we had before.

The call of Wisdom, throughout scripture, and especially in today’s reading, is to come and be made wise. We talked about how Wisdom is distinct from knowledge, yet we must in some way learn how to become it. The word that Wisdom uses in describing those who are invited to the feast are those who already know what to do, and those who, as the NRSV renders it, “are simple.” I don’t like that translation, nor do I like others that render it “naïve,” mostly because I hate when people call me naïve. Naïve suggests an unwillingness to accept what is true, or else an innocence to the point incompetence. No, I prefer to translate this verse more simply. “Come to me, those who do not know, and those who do know, and eat my bread and drink my wine.”

God sets several tables for us in life. The daily bread that sustains us, even in our darkest days. The Eucharistic table which spiritually enlivens us, and reminds us of Christ’s work on the Cross on our behalf. Here, yet another table is shown to us, this one of Wisdom. Again, the food is bread and wine, the two staples of Israelite produce. Yet, where one meal gives strength, and another grace, this meal gives us understanding about the world and how it is to be.

In my digging around to write this sermon, I found a quote that was thrown around pretty loosely defining a Hebraic stance on Wisdom. A footnote led me to look in the Talmud, a massive compendium of Jewish commentary and commentary upon that commentary, written by Jewish sages across time. I often find that, for the Old Testament, you need the Talmud or the Mishnah to understand the interpretation of the text throughout history. Two key passages defined Wisdom, or the person who is wise with two key phrases. A wise person is, “The one who can see the consequences of their actions.” [1]And a wise person is the one who, “learns from everyone.”[2]

As a starting point for us this week, I encourage us to take those two maxims and apply them to ourselves. We should think about what we do, not just one or two steps after we do it, but as many as possible. We have to be willing to anticipate and accept the consequences of our actions, no matter what they are. Likewise, we must learn from anyone we can. This does not mean we esteem all opinions and perspectives as equal – some people lie or seek to harm, and there is no reason to see those who act in bad faith as contributing to a conversation. No, instead we must be willing to listen to those different than us and those with whom we disagree as eagerly as we do those we agree with and are like.

The table which Wisdom has set, is open to all, and around tables conversation must be had. I do not like the common phrase we throw around these days that, “No one knows how to have a conversation anymore,” because I do not think it is usually said with any actual desire to have civil discussion, only to excuse our ideas as normative and anyone else’s as unreasonable. Yet, there is a truth to it. As we have become more divided and striated as a society, we do naturally stop talking and learning from one another. We are backed into a corner we have made and point fingers at other people as though they pushed us there. That cannot be how we go forward, it is certainly no way to learn.

To live a Wise life, is to learn. Not just raw information, but practical aspects of what it means to do good. I know I should feed the hungry, but unless I sit and talk to them, and to those who are serving them, how will I ever know what that looks like. I know I should be better with my money, but unless I give money away and save rather than spend what is leftover, how can I ever develop any sense about what money is meant to be used for? How can I house the homeless, if I’m only ever worried about what they do to property values and liability coverage? How can I love someone, I never talk to, and that I have written off as beyond conversational participation with? To be wise, we must listen to all who are willing to sit with us, we must look to what our actions do to others, and we must trust God’s gift that has brought all things to be.

So come, all that hunger to be good. The table is set, by God and by Lady Wisdom. A table spread with all fare you could ever imagine, at which all sages from all of time have eaten. It is not a table set only for men or women, it is not limited by sex or gender. It is not a table set only for the rich but open especially to the poor. A good life is available to us all if we listen and if we think. The dream of Wisdom is a better world for us now, and for our children, and their children’s children. So let us live into that dream, let us put away all foolishness, and let us glory in God’s gift of Wisdom to all who seek it on this earth. – Amen.

[1] William Davidson. “Tamid 32a” in The William Davidson Talmud.

[2] Pirkei Avot. 4:1.

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