Friday, January 12, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 4: Loving God's Lady, Loving God's World (Prov 8:22-36)

Address 4: Loving God’s Lady, Loving God’s World (Proverbs 8:22-36)

My first two addresses were male-oriented: “In the School of Solomon,” and “In the Father’s House.” Even last week, when I spoke of Sister or Sex Worker, it sounded like a contest between the good Father and the wicked woman. (Here let me add that the person addressing “my son” in chapter 7 might be a mother rather than a father.) In any case, today we the central figure is a wonderful Woman, Lady Wisdom. An aside here: I notice Ugandans still use the word “Lady” as a positive term. Feminists in the West have seen this term as sexist, but I think just he opposite is true. It honours and elevates the role of women in society. So don’t give it up!

In the Bible God is neither male or female in the sense of a sexual partner, and male and female deities are absolutely rejected by biblical religion. God is nevertheless “He,” the “He” above all he’s or she’s. So St. Paul refers to Him as the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth is named (Ephesians 3:15). African religions, I think, have a similar notion of a Father God (Katonda) who has no female consort.

It is perhaps because the exclusive Fatherhood of God is assumed that Solomon feels free to speak of God’s Wisdom as a woman. He sees no danger of idolatry in this portrait. At the same time, by portraying God’s own wisdom as a persona, Solomon pushes the biblical understanding of monotheism beyond what some have called the “tyranny of the Number One” (this is a tyranny which is particularly striking in Islam). Christians have often seen the passage before us about Wisdom as a prophecy of the Person of Christ, who is the power and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). St. John, in his Gospel, picks up this theme when he speaks of the Word, the Logos, through whom the world was made.

We ended last week with a contest for the affections of a “simple” youth, a contest between the human father (or mother) and a “loose woman” or Sex Worker. Sadly, the contest was won by the Sex Worker, who led the young man into her den of death and destruction. In chapter 8, Solomon sketches a different ending for the contest. By way of contrast with the woman of the night, he portrays Wisdom as an elegant headmistress, recruiting students to her college:

Does not Wisdom call, does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, in the paths she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud: “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the sons of men. O simple ones, learn prudence; O foolish men, pay attention. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to him who understands and right to those who find knowledge.” (Prov 8:1-9).

Whereas the Wicked Woman was described in terms of her sensual dress and her slippery speech, Lady Wisdom is described by her clear voice and her straight talk. She wishes to persuade students to join her school, not to seduce lovers in her lair.

Interestingly, this Headmistress charges no tuition and fees. Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her (verses 11-12). More accurately, she is asking students to forego immediate gain for the sake of wisdom as a long-term investment. Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity. My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver (verses 18-19).

I think most of you can understand the logic of her appeal. You might be making a living right now working in a banana plantation or selling watches along the streets of Kampala. Instead you have spent more money for a degree, with no sure job at the end of the course. There is an element of faith in “things not seen” for those who would study wisdom. But there is also a compelling economic logic to pursuing things that are above. The Lord Jesus employs a similar logic when he says: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul” (Mark 8:36). However successful we are in acquiring the stuff of this world, one thing is certain, we cannot take it with us. But wisdom, righteousness, and salvation, we can take for all eternity. Not a bad deal really.

This is not to say that wisdom is unworldly. It is sometimes said of Christians that they are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use. There is, to be sure, an ascetical strain in Christianity. St. John says: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). In a favorite chorus, we sing: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” These texts warn us against the seductive character of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” But the Bible has another important message, highlighted in Proverbs: God so loved the world, that he made it by His Wisdom.

The section which begins at verse 22 is often described as a creation hymn. The LORD formed me at the beginning of his way, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was knit together, at the first, before the beginning of the earth (verses 22-23). It reminds us of the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning, when God made the heavens and earth… then God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Genesis 1:1-3). Some readers have wondered, What was God doing before he made the heaven and earth? The answer given here is that God’s creative activity presupposes some prior reality – described here as the birth of wisdom.

There is a profound truth behind this observation. Scientists today speak of the universe beginning with a Big Bang, which they say happened some 20 billion years ago. But even if the world did begin with a Big Bang, it could not go Bang without the Law of Bangs, the first principles of physics and mathematics that now allow scientists to trace the origins of the universe. Science cannot go back behind the veil of physical reality to witness the inner birth of the cosmos. Proverbs does. Wisdom was born before the earliest event ever recorded. Similarly, in the Nicene Creed, we say that the Son of God was “begotten of the Father before all ages.”

Into this somewhat abstract framework, Lady Wisdom injects words of intense personal intimacy: I was knit together…, I was sired…, I was brought forth… I was there in the beginning, she says. God is seen as Master Weaver, a Father, a Mother in these verses. Wisdom is woven into the fabric of creation; Wisdom is God’s love-child, borne of His profligacy; Wisdom is a labour of His love. Finally, Wisdom is God’s abiding Presence in His creation. All these radical images are possible because we know from revelation that the world is not God; it is not some piece of His body, or some emanation of His soul. Nevertheless it is His world in a unique and endearing way.

Not only does Wisdom portray her birth but also her childhood, learning daily in her Father’s house: I was beside him, growing to maturity; and I was daily his delight, playing before him, always playing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men (verse 30-31). Many translations of this verse say that wisdom was a workman or craftsman, helping God with his work. But several recent studies of the key word here conveys an opposite sense of play rather than work. Not that there is much difference, because play is the child’s work.

The world, according to this passage, is the Lord’s play yard. Students of wisdom are like children let out to play at recess. The philosopher Plato suggested that the most important courses to be taught in school were music and gymnastics. The young child exercises an essential part of the soul when he plays. It is this playful element that will give him an inquiring mind in the future. Wisdom, at the early stages of education, is the training of the desires.

Too often Christians have treated education in a very unplayful way. They have made their courses merely an exercise in rigid repetition. Frequently the teacher himself may have been the victim of the same kind of education he is now passing on to the child. Often my students, when they study the Bible, say: “Why do we have to do all this reading of different commentaries? Why don’t you just tell us the right answers?” Good reading, good exegesis of any text, especially the Bible, requires a flexible mind, a mind that is willing to relate apparently unrelated things one to another.

The same open-minded attitude toward study can be said of other areas of study. The very term liberal arts conveys the sense of freedom and artistry. I enjoy going to art galleries and listening to classical music even though I never studied these as specialties. The greatest artists know how to speak to the common person as well as the expert. I even like reading thinkers whose views are contradictory to my own. I find it useful to “step into their shoes” and ask how why they come to their conclusions. Not only does this openness help me to recognize them as fellow human beings, but it also teaches me how to learn from adversity. If we can learn lessons from sickness and suffering, why not from people who oppose us. This kind of learning is called dialectic, learning through dialogue and disagreement.

So wisdom is a playful spirit. But – and this is a crucial “But” – Wisdom plays in a yard, a confined space. Wisdom’s play yard has fences, and the fences are the commandments and the principles which God has built into creation. Above all, Wisdom, if you remember, begins with the fear of the Lord. Playful piety might be one way to describe the attitude Wisdom is commending here in Proverbs 8. It is because we trust God as the Maker of everything that we can learn with an open mind. There may be times we say, “I just don’t understand,” or “That is a mystery.” We can say this because we trust that God knows the way the reason things are the way they are.

Finally, Wisdom promises happiness to those who follow her: happy are those who keep my ways; and Happy is the man who listens to me (verses 32 and 34). Who does not wish to be happy? The really hard question is, what brings lasting happiness? Worldly wisdom counsels immediate satisfaction, or carpe diem – “seize the moment.” But true wisdom teaches otherwise. A happy mind not only appreciates the present, but it can imagine the future. Through imagination and faith, it can enter into the world of the Bible and can “remember” the Lord’s death in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Another fruit of playful piety is lively joy. For he who find me finds life and obtains favour from the LORD (verse 35). I have been something of an athlete all my life. Some years ago I played football – yes your Ugandan type – every week. I remember the feeling of pure pleasure in running out in the grass up and down the field. I’m a bit too old now for that kind of running, but I do delight in walking up the hill here in Mukono and looking out over the green valleys in all directions. But it is good even when you grow old to maintain a child-like openness to God’s works in nature. In the Episcopal Prayer Book, we pray for the newly baptised: “Give him an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” This sums up wisdom’s benefits pretty well.

In Proverbs chapter 8, Lady Wisdom makes a bold counter-offer to the Sex Worker of chapter 7. Wisdom may not win the sensuality contest, but she has powerful attractions. Among those are honest speech, righteous character, a playful mind, and a joyful appreciation of life. Lady Wisdom teaches us that to love God’s world, we must love God first above all, but that to love God, we must also love His world and all the creatures He has made.

Proverbs 8
22 The LORD formed me at the beginning of his way,
the first of his acts of old.
23 Ages ago I was knit together,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

24 When there were no depths
I was sired,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills,
I was brought forth;
26 before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
27 When he established the heavens,
I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, growing to maturity;
and I was daily his delight, playing before him always,
31 playing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the sons of men.

32 And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.
33 Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.
34 Happy is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
35 For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD;
36 but he who misses me injures himself;
all who hate me love death."

Rev. 10 October 2006

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