Wisdom Calls - A Sermon for Trinity Sunday (Proverbs 8)
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy joined his father, Henry Jones, Sr., on a quest to find the Holy Grail. Just like with Raiders of the Lost Ark, they’re in a race against forces aligned with Adolph Hitler. If you know the Indiana Jones movie series, you know it’s filled with many twists and turns, pitting good against evil, and of course, lots of booby traps to be avoided. According to the movie, legend had it that an ancient order of knights protected the cup, which was hidden in a cave. Henry Jones, Sr., had made the Grail his lifelong quest and had a notebook filled with research that would help lead them to the Grail. At one point or another, both sides get possession of the notebook, and in the end, those on both sides who survived the booby traps ended up in the room where the cup of Christ was hidden. This chamber was filled with many cups and chalices. Most of the cups were exquisite in their beauty and value. So, which of these cups was the cup Christ used at the Last Supper?
Indy’s evil competitor chose to go first. After all, he had the gun. He chooses one of the most ornate chalices, believing that this cup was fit for a king and worthy of a quest. The bad guy dips the cup in a font at the center of the chamber, and he takes a drink, believing the cup will endow the water with properties offering eternal life. As you might expect, this doesn’t end well. The bad guy ends up as dust in the wind, and the knight says of him: “He chose poorly.”
If you’ve seen the film, you know that the bad guy shot Henry Jones, Sr. before he took the drink from the wrong cup. Although his father was dying, Indy concluded that a drink from the cup of Christ would heal his father. But which one of these many cups is the cup of Christ? Remembering Jesus’ origin as a carpenter, he picks up a rather plain, wooden cup. There’s nothing inherently valuable about it, but it’s the kind of cup a carpenter would use. The knight says to Indiana: “You choose wisely.”
Choosing wisely is a central theme of the book of Proverbs. Choices are posed, along with the consequences. It sometimes feels like you’re reading a book telling you to “eat this, not that.” Faced with choices in life will you choose wisely?
The first nine chapters of Proverbs picture a father giving instructions to his sons so they can choose wisely as they navigate the world around them. Some choices will seem enticing, but they can lead to disaster. Remember that in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the wise choice was the humble cup of wood and not the ornate chalice. These are the words spoken by a father to sons at the beginning of the book of Proverbs: “My son, heed the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother; for they are a graceful wreath upon your head, a necklace about your throat” (Prov. 1:8-9). So, if you listen to your parents you will choose wisely. That would seem to be a good message for Father’s Day!
The reading from Proverbs 8 invites us to heed the words of Woman Wisdom, who stands at the gates of the city, calling out to the people, inviting them to choose wisely. In verse 7, she declares: “My mouth utters truth; Wickedness is abhorrent to my lips” (Prov. 8:7). You might remember Pontius Pilate asking Jesus: “What is truth?” We’re still asking that question. It’s an especially pertinent question in an age when no one is sure what is truth and what is an illusion. The message here, however, is that Wisdom utters only truth. So listen carefully.
The invitation of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is contrasted with that of the strange or loose woman of chapter 7, who represents “Folly.” She also stands at the corner, calling out to the young men who pass by. She speaks to them with smooth and seductive words. It might not surprise you to learn that this strange woman is a prostitute, who offers herself to the young men. Her offer is enticing and the undiscerning person will thoughtlessly follow her, “like an ox going to the slaughter” (Prov. 7:22 Tanakh). We have all heard the adage that if it sounds too good to be true, then it’s probably not true. When you get that email promising you a large amount of money from a Nigerian prince, you might want to ignore it, along with the email from a friend asking for help as they travel in a faraway land. The house of the strange woman “is a highway to Sheol, leading down to Death’s inner chambers” (Prov. 7:27 Tanakh).
Woman Wisdom also offers passers-by a compelling message, but if you follow her lead you will experience life rather than death. Her word of wisdom is this: “O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.” (Prov. 8:5). Wisdom’s words are righteous. They’re more valuable than silver or gold and they lead to life. The choice is ours. Who will we follow?
We’ll have to forgive the author who wrote these poems for his patriarchal vision. The contrasting picture of choosing between two women is problematic, but in the context of its time, it makes sense.
We hear this voice of Woman Wisdom calling out to us in the context of Trinity Sunday. I realize that we Disciples struggle with the doctrine of the Trinity, which is why I’ve written a little book that just came out, in which I lay out some reasons why Disciples might embrace the Trinity. But that’s for a different time than this. We read it today because Wisdom is personified as a woman, and it seems as if Wisdom or Sophia has the potential to broaden our conversation about the nature of God. The problem with using Proverbs 8 for this purpose, is that it speaks of Woman Wisdom as the first act of God’s creation. In fact, the arch-heretic Arius pointed to this very passage as evidence that Jesus was only a created being and not divine. Nevertheless, it has proven intriguing to theologians reflecting on the Trinity.
So, while this passage might be problematic when it comes to the Trinity, it does say something valuable about the role Wisdom plays in the creation of all things. We’re told she was created before anything else existed to be God’s companion. She was “beside him as a master worker” (vs. 30 NRSV). Or as the Tanakh, a Jewish translation, puts it: Wisdom “was with Him as a confidant, A source of delight every day . . .” (Prov. 8:22-23, 30 Tanakh). The Hebrew here can be translated in a variety of ways from “master-worker” to “child.” Whatever translation we choose, the message here is that God takes delight in Wisdom. But, not only is Wisdom a source of delight for God, but Wisdom rejoices before God every day, “rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.”
The Common English Bible takes this a step further. Borrowing from an old Cyndi Lauper tune, we learn that Woman Wisdom “just wanna have fun!” So we hear the words of verses 30 and 31, as it reads in the Common English Bible:
I was having fun, smiling before him all the time,
frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race. (Prov. 8:30-31 CEB).
Yes, Wisdom likes to have fun. Wisdom smiles before God and frolics with God’s inhabited world, taking delight in the human race. This word of wisdom is an important one. It reminds us that there is goodness in the created order and in the human race. That’s why it’s important to take care of God’s creation. It’s why the climate change discussion is so important. That’s because God, together with Wisdom, rejoices and takes delight in all that is created.
There are differing voices calling out to us. They’re seductive and enticing. They promise blessings. They often promise us glory and even a lot of fun, but the benefits are often short term and in the end, lead to destruction. The path of Wisdom is often portrayed as a sober and even joyless journey. But, according to Proverbs 8, this path leads to joy and God’s delight. So which path will you choose? The one that has short-term benefits but long-term destruction or the path that sometimes is a bit difficult at first but in the end leads to long term benefits? Wisdom stands before us and asks: will you choose wisely?
In the verses that follow our reading for today, we hear the father say to his sons:
Happy are those who keep to my ways!
Listen to instruction, and be wise; don’t avoid it. (Vs. 32-33)
This would appear to be good news! May we choose wisely.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
CentralWoodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 16, 2019