Saturday, August 19, 2006

Pentecost 11 (Prov 9.1-6)

Many, many years ago there was an emperor whose personal vanity was matched only by his gullibility.  You know the one I’m talking about?  An emperor who cared so much about appearances that he couldn’t resist the offer of a fabric so special that it would enable him to distinguish who in his kingdom was wise, and who was foolish.  An emperor who found himself walking down the street with no clothes on, because he couldn’t bring himself to admit that he was foolish enough not to be able to see this very special fabric.

And neither could anybody else.  So it was left to a small child to point out the blindingly obvious.

We make some poor decisions when our vanity gets in the way of clear thinking.  In fact the irony is that when we’re preoccupied with our image is right when we can come off looking the most foolish.

This morning we read from the Book of Proverbs about Wisdom, in fact a kind of personified image of Lady Wisdom who keeps popping up throughout Proverbs and in the book known as the Wisdom of Solomon.  Wisdom, we’re told, is God’s right hand woman, present at the moment of creation like a sort of muse, the underlying sparkle that gives creation its logic and structure, the key to understanding scripture and the whole point of human life according to books like Ecclesiastes.  Wisdom, if you like, is a sort of connecting tissue between the divine life of God and the human reality of trying to work it all out, trying to live our lives with integrity and direction.  The human quest for wisdom is seen as the desire to live with integrity, the human effort to live in a way that connects with the divine purposes.  It’s symbolic talk, not theology but Biblical metaphor that’s meant to sum up something of the challenge of human life.  You can squint a bit and try to draw a parallel between Lady Wisdom and the Holy Spirit – but it doesn’t quite work.

I think, also, we’re not supposed to get too worked up over the fact that Wisdom is portrayed as female, any more than the fact that God generally gets portrayed in the Bible as male.  But here’s the fascinating thing – the passage that Margaret read for us this morning about Lady Wisdom setting up her shop and trying to tempt us all inside is followed a few verses later by an almost identical description of the even stranger figure commentators call the Strange Woman, or Lady Folly:

The foolish woman is loud; she is ignorant and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, "You who are simple, turn in here!" And to those without sense she says, "Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant."

(Pro 9:13-17)

We can either turn aside from our everyday concerns to pursue wisdom, or we can turn aside to pursue folly, and both of these ladies have deceptively similar chat-up lines.  As the Emperor found.  So, what’s the point?

According to the Talmud, that ancient collection of Jewish writings, there’s a sort of code here – the house that Wisdom builds is meant to represent God’s creation of the universe – they came up with all sorts of suggestions about the seven pillars, for example that the represent the six days of creation and the seventh day or rest – so the seven pillars represent the stability and perfection of God’s creation.  The main idea though is that God is basically inviting us to a house-warming party for creation, a massive feast – and the things that we’re invited to feast on are all the life-giving gifts of God’s creation – the idea seems to be that we’re meant to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation but understand what our proper part in it is, what our proper relationship is to everything else.  I think this sort of image is really important to counteract the sort of wowser image of religion.  You know, the sort of idea that God wants us all to get around with long faces and steer well clear of anything that might involve having a good time.  This idea of feasting, the idea of a banquet that Jesus picks up on and weaves into his stories as well as his practice of hospitality – it’s quite the opposite, isn’t it? – giving us a very different idea of God as the one who wants to fill us with goodness, with laughter and who lays down all sorts of surprises for us in the way Creation is put together.  The God who sets up shop and then calls us in for a good time.  The image is one of hospitality, of generosity and even extravagance.  That Creation is just a whole whiz-bang light show with special effects, sights and sounds and tastes just for our benefit.

You know, last week in our Gospel reading, Jesus was talking about bread.  I am the bread of life.  This week, he’s talking about bread.  Next week, guess what he’s going to be talking about?  That’s John’s Gospel for you.  You get the point, don’t you, the connection with the Eucharist.  Maybe the problem is we get the point too well, that as Christians we’re sort of pre-programmed to see all this sort of imagery through a Eucharistic lens.  Jesus body broken for us, our participation in Jesus’ death which paradoxically brings life.  And it’s not too hard for us to start drawing the connections between the bread and body broken and the suffering of innocents in the world we live in, the broken body of a child in the aftermath of a rocket attack in northern Israel, an air raid in Beirut.

But when we look at the same image through the window of Lady Wisdom’s house it looks just a bit different.  It’s just about sheer, exuberant hospitality and welcome.  We saw, last week, a group of courageous Christian politicians daring to cross the floor in Parliament to vote against their own party’s legislation that would put asylum seekers back behind razor wire in Nauru and on Christmas Island.  It’s really very simple.  It’s just about God’s welcome of us, God’s hospitality which we need to extend to those around us.

But here’s the thing, when you enter Lady Wisdom’s house of earthly delights you need to bring your discernment with you.  The image here isn’t one of coming in and closing the door and everything is going to be hunky-dory ever after.  The image, instead, is one of a gradual growth in understanding and insight – wisdom, in other words.  Wisdom isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.

Here’s the other thing.  The gifts of God’s creation give life in the house of Lady Wisdom, but lead to death in the house of Lady Folly.  It’s a paradox – wisdom and folly inhabit the same territory in human life, and choosing between them is as tricky as it is important.  Wisdom and foolishness have got almost the same sales pitch but when you get inside, then wisdom’s house represents order and structure – the boundaries and limitations that make life possible – but when you venture into Lady Folly’s house you get too much of a good thing.  Pasta is very good for me but if I eat as much as I feel like it’s not so good.

It’s a point that St Bonaventure picks up.  Evil, he thinks, doesn’t have any sort of independent existence of its own, in fact evil is like a shadow side of the good.  What’s bad for us is a sort of warped version of what’s good for us, and when human beings are seduced by selfishness and greed, it’s for things that God intends us to have, just not to be controlled by.  In the end, Lady Folly hasn’t built her own house, she’s taken up occupation in the house that Lady Wisdom built.  The difference, I think, lies in what our main preoccupation is.  If, like the Emperor, we’re basically controlled by preoccupation with our own selves, then watch out.  If what we love is out of whack, then the reality we inhabit is going to be out of whack too.

St Paul, as he so often does, hits the nail on the head, working out the relationship between wisdom and foolishness.  You’ve probably got there ahead of me?  ‘God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength’ [1] St Paul is here drawing on the rich Jewish wisdom tradition and telling us that the Wisdom of God is Christ crucified and risen.  But the wisdom of God, Paul tells us, is foolishness, and the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.  It’s paradox territory, an Alice in Wonderland sort of logic that sometimes, because its so familiar to us, we fail to even notice.

‘Put on these clothes, and you will be wise’

‘Eat my flesh and drink my blood, and live for ever!’

Wisdom or foolishness?  Depends on what your deepest desire is.  But you’re invited in.


[1] 1 Cor 1.25