Embracing Wisdom's Call -- A Lectionary Reflection
Embracing Wisdom’s Call
On occasion, people will give us advice or make suggestions, but we ignore them, because we think we know better. It’s possible that we do know better. Everyone seems to have a solution to other people’s problems, and sometimes they offer bad advice – so we must be discerning. But, there are times when we should listen – though again we must be discerning.
There are many forms of knowledge. Some knowledge comes with education and other forms with experience. When it comes to wisdom, there’s this idea of common sense, which is rooted in our experience and observation. But sometimes common sense needs modification – from education. We have this phrase – “old wives’ tales – that expresses this sensibility. These tales are beliefs passed on from one generation to the next that made sense of a by-gone world, but no longer make sense today. Still, we cling to them, because they sound right.
The word we hear in these lectionary texts concerns wisdom. What is it and why should we attend to it? We hear this word during a difficult season for our communities. We’re struggling with changing economic and social realities, and finding it difficult to move forward along the right path. What is the way of wisdom?
The word from Proverbs 1 announces Holy Wisdom’s call for our attention. She shouts into the public square, a place that is rife with rumors, anger, misunderstandings, bigotry, prejudice, self-centeredness. Holy Wisdom cries out to us: “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté, mockers hold your mocking dear and fools hate knowledge? (Prov. 1:22 CEB). We have this sense of innocence about us that often prevents us from recognizing our own inability to hear and respond to Wisdom’s call. I think this is especially true for people who, like me, live in nations like the United States. We have embraced this idea that we are, above all nations, innocent and righteous. Reinhold Niebuhr suggests this is the irony of American history. He writes:
We find it almost as difficult as the communists to believe that anyone could think ill of us, since we are as persuaded as they that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions. [Reinhold Niebuhr. The Irony of American History (pp. 24-25). University of Chicago Press - A. Kindle Edition.]
And so we go marching off to war, with the belief that God is on our side. How can God not be on our side? Or, we fail to understand how injustice can be present in the land? But, we will, as they say, “pay the piper.”
Our sense of false innocence will be revealed, and we will suffer the consequences of not listening to Wisdom’s voice. No better illustration is present in our history than the Civil War, which laid bare our pretensions to innocence. Or as the Proverb states: “The immature will die because they turn away; smugness will destroy fools” (Prov. 1:32 CEB). On the other hand, “those who obey me will dwell securely, untroubled by the dread of harm” (vs. 33). So, let us heed the call of Wisdom.
The letter of James has long been seen as an expression of the Wisdom tradition. Its focus is on practical living. Here in the third chapter of James, we encounter a word about the tongue and its power to destroy. The lectionary passage ends with verse 12, but if you continue on reading this chapter, as you turn to verse 13, we find a question: “Are any of you wise and understanding?” If you think you are then show this wisdom through your actions. In verse 17, heavenly wisdom is defined in terms of purity, peacefulness, gentleness, obedience, mercy, fairness, and genuineness. If these are present there is the hope of peace, which leads us back to the tongue.
James begins by addressing those who may desire to take up leadership roles. Know this – you will be judged more strictly. Yes, we make mistakes, but with maturity we should make fewer mistakes. Remember, James says, if you put a bridle on a horse, you put a bit on the horse’s mouth, and with that bit you can control the horse. The moral of story, if you control the tongue you have control of yourself. Watch, what you say! Indeed, it’s better to say nothing and seem wise, than to open your mouth and show yourself to be a fool (see Prov. 17:28).
James offers us several metaphors to bring this point home. There’s the metaphor of the bridle. There’s also the image of the rudder, with which the pilot guides the ship. It’s small, but it’s powerful. Then there’s the metaphor of flame. Having grown up on the West Coast, where forest and brush fires are both common and destructive, this metaphor hits home. All it takes is a cigarette butt, a smoldering campfire, or a spark from machinery to light a fire that -- when the conditions are right (dry and windy) -- can quickly grow exponentially and wreak havoc on large swaths of land. The tongue, James suggests, is lit by the flames of hell. Whatever our belief on this matter (Satan/hell) can we not agree that evil can spread quickly and the tongue can easily be implicated in this evil? Take, for instance, gossip, or, a YouTube video that casts a prophet in a bad light can trigger a deadly reaction, when the conditions are right. So be careful what you say.
James is a bit pessimistic about our ability to tame the tongue. You can domesticate all manner of animals, but the tongue – no one can tame. It’s “a restless evil, full of poison.” In our land we hail the freedom of speech, and that freedom is valuable, but oh the damage this freedom can inflict. It has its positive side – we can bless God with our tongue. But it also has a dark side as we can also curse human beings made in the likeness of God. But that’s not the way it should be. And so James takes us deeper, suggesting that what comes out of the mouth expresses what’s in the heart. Fig trees don’t produce olives, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a salt water spring. If the tongue is to be tamed, then surely the heart must be adjusted. Jesus made this clear in his conversations about that which is unclean originating from within the person.
As we come to the gospel reading from Mark 8, we find Jesus up in Caesarea Philippi – still in Gentile territory. He seems to have gone off by himself – except for the disciples. And he has a conversation, one that is more fully developed in Matthew 16. He wants to know what the people are saying about his identity, and the disciples offer their observations – John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the Prophets. In other words the people see him as a prophet. But then, Jesus asks them. You’ve been with me. You’ve heard me teach, you’ve seen my actions – both public and private – what say ye? Of course, Peter stands up and declares Jesus to be the Christ -- the messiah – the one who will bring into existence God’s kingdom. That’s who you are, except when Jesus tells him how this will occur. When Jesus speaks in terms of his impending death, Peter and his colleagues will have nothing to do with it. This makes no sense. There’s no wisdom in it. Peter is so offended by this idea that he scolds Jesus. Indeed, Mark says that Peter grabbed Jesus and forcefully told him off. But then God’s wisdom and common sense aren‘t always in sync; so Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, calling him Satan. This conversation takes us back to the Temptation scenes, where Satan seeks to dissuade Jesus from taking the course set before him, offering shortcuts, common sense solutions you could say. These are human thoughts, not divine ones. You can draw a crowd to church with by raffling off a new Ford Mustang, but is that a truly wise decision? Is it the way of the disciple?
And the question that follows has to do with discipleship. What does it involve? What is this wisdom we must embrace? Losing one’s self and taking up a cross? That doesn’t sound attractive? It’s not very seeker sensitive. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famous for his book Discipleship (Cost of Discipleship), which was published around 1936 in Germany. To be a disciple of Jesus in Nazi Germany, at a time when the false ideology of the German Christians was taking hold (or being forced on the nation), was to take up the cross and follow him. But to save one’s life is to lose it. What are you willing to die for? That’s the question of discipleship. Are you willing to walk with Jesus even though it may mean death? Or are you ashamed of him? These aren’t questions that make sense in human terms, but this is the wisdom of God for us. And this is the way of the disciple.
So are you, am I, ready to heed the voice of Wisdom?