Today with our reading from what is categorised as Wisdom literature in the Book of Proverbs we get to remind ourselves of the part of the Bible which focuses on practical advice. The Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and in the New Testament a good part of the teachings of Jesus, Paul and James might also be characterised as wisdom. Strangely enough, as a proportion of the whole, practical advice is somewhat neglected in the Bible so when Jesus and Paul or James as well as the various writers of the wisdom literature books of Old Testament do show that religion should have something to do with everyday non Church situations, it can catch us almost unawares.
But before we look at the section from Proverbs today, let’s just remind ourselves why the Wisdom literature is needed.
Religion serves a variety of purposes and it is likely that many only get to meet religion in terms of its public face which is typically anything but associated with everyday life and seems largely to do with what is loosely termed Priestly worship. What members of the public encounter when they “meet Church” in all probability will include a good dose of so called priestly activity particularly if they come to the occasional church weddings, funerals and baptisms. For some more regular attendees of traditional churches, they would be quite likely to experience features such as the observance of communion or the mass, special robes, sacred music, candles, incense along with sonorous chanting, carved lecterns, pulpits and altars all of which help which set the mood and fill the senses. The Pentecostals often achieve many of the same ends with a very different approach whereby equally impressive worship which is very much more preacher-focussed, often using contemporary technology for the effects. At its best the priestly tradition encourages us to experience the feeling of mystery and a sense of the divine. The priestly elements are those which give that sense of belonging to the regular worshippers. Certainly the priestly dimension is where we might expect to reacquaint ourselves with religious tradition and various church customs, some of which stretch back to the distant past.
Unfortunately at its worst the priestly tradition can also become a collection of mere archaic rituals and trappings, disembodied from modern reality and everyday life. In the popular mind, well….. at least if city Church attendance is anything to go by, if not actually avoided altogether, the priestly tradition can become something to be reluctantly endured and certainly for a large proportion of the population and particularly those not active church members, seen as clearly irrelevant to the day to day problems, joys and sorrows of life. I was asked the other day for a new Church notice-board slogan. Knowing how irrelevant many found the Church to be, perhaps it was the Devil that made me suggest using a slogan I had once seen: “Trouble sleeping? Come in for a sermon.”
If we are to take Jesus at face value it is probably fair to say that he had little time for the priestly emphasis. At least according to the gospel record Jesus was rarely teaching in the synagogues and when he did so it seemed to lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. At times he specifically drew attention to the gap between the priestly religious observances and the central ethical ideas of the Jewish faith. Those who made a public show of the faith without honouring the spirit of the God of love – and those who used the Church for personal gain drew his particular condemnation. This in no way means that we should ignore the value of the priestly function, but at the very least Jesus’ reaction points to the dangers of adopting positions of power and prestige or going through the motions of worship without a serious and heartfelt commitment to finding ways to live the faith in our relationships.
Apart from priestly observance, another main dimension of religion is to find those who will be the conscience of the priestly tradition, namely the prophets. When Jesus was making public accusations about the religious leaders’ hypocrisy he too was taking on the role of what the Jews understood a prophet to be. Certainly less common than those who are part of the priestly portrayal of religion, there is a long tradition whereby when authorities are failing, certain prophets have been known to step forward to challenge the status quo. When for example the priestly dimension gets too far out of step with obvious needs of the people, and particularly when injustice is being ignored by Church leadership, it is then the prophets become most strident. An outraged Luther nailing his protests about Church greed and hypocrisy to the cathedral door was a kindred spirit to Amos who many years earlier who claimed to have heard God’s voice thundering “I hate, I despise your feasts!”
Into this strange mix of the priestly convention and the indignant forays of some of the more colourful leaders and prophets, we now encounter the call to wisdom.
Wisdom as portrayed by the early Old Testament religious leaders is uneven at best and at times we would be excused for thinking their human failings often totally outweighed any signs of awakening moral consistency. For those of us aware of our own inconsistencies and moral weaknesses this lack of complete wisdom should be something of a comfort. Some of the wisdom is transitory and culturally embedded. Instructions about what to eat, how women should behave, how justice should be administered and how to treat slaves were probably very helpful to the Jewish society in a different age but we would be foolish indeed to think all such instructions would be appropriate for us today. Nor should we be blind to the failings of those who had responsibility for being the authors of this wisdom.
Although for example the Bible includes the claim that Solomon was known for his wisdom, there is virtually nothing in the main events of his life that suggests he was living a wise life. When King David died the succession should have gone to his oldest son Adonijah. Unfortunately for Adonijah, some of David’s generals and advisors had an alternative thought – and decided instead now David was out of the way, one of the younger sons Solomon showed more promise. The prophet Nathan may well have started with a clear call to spiritual leadership, but he too turned out to be devious and ruthless as he took over the role of kingmaker. Clearly Solomon was also obsessed with the prospect of power and when Adonijah turned up to stake his claim, Solomon ordered his murder. Next he fired his father’s high priest, allowing him to live but sending him into exile.
Traditionally we talk of Solomon as being very wise and prospering because of his wisdom. It is probably more accurate to see him as a self serving and ambitious man who was quite capable of seeing his way through complex situations – but in many respects he was also unwise in that ultimately many of his decisions to increase his prestige turned out to be very bad for the long term future of his kingdom. His excesses with very many wives and mistresses may have underlined his power but hardly demonstrated temperate judgement. It is true that his magnificent buildings including his palace and temple showed the temporary strength of his kingdom and may well have awed his potential rivals, but his ruthless approach to crippling taxation appears to have been a main factor in the breakdown of his kingdom upon his death.
Certainly once Solomon had organised his position he was prepared to make the servant like public declaration expected of a truly great man. We read for example that the Lord offered him the opportunity of claiming whatever he wished as being the most important for his reign as king. That he only wished for wisdom would have seemed humble and admirable if we did not also have the record of what he chose to do in practice. That is not to say he did not make wise statements. No doubt many of the wise proverbs attributed to Solomon are good standard aphorisms and I believe we can still learn from them. The catch is that Solomon himself was living by a different set of standards and there is a sense in which hypocrisy is its own judgement, as it would be for each of us if we taught Christian principles and failed to demonstrate them in our own lives.
Regardless of the dubious character of some of the writers of wisdom there are nevertheless sublime and subtle insights as there are in today’s reading from Proverbs. There is one sense in which wisdom is hard to pin down because for most of us it represents gaining a healthy attitude to a stumbling journey rather than arriving at and defending a destination. Accordingly we benefit when wisdom is described in metaphor.
This metaphorical house of wisdom based on seven pillars sounds ambiguous but the clue to its understanding is in verse six. Laying aside immaturity and living in walking in the way of insight in no way suggests this house of wisdom is a fixed target or arrival point. In any case, some of the wisdom proffered in the Bible for specific situations doesn’t translate into different times and different cultures particularly well. Thrashing a child with a rod may well have been acceptable in Old Testament times but is likely to land you in court in many places in the Western world today. And even if you are a believer in corporal punishment you would be hard pressed in virtually any modern community to justify having a child stoned to death for swearing at a parent no matter what some ancient verse might say. Nor will the ancient verses tell you about the ethics of modern finance, global trading, stem cell research, water-boarding or intercontinental ballistic missiles.
If Solomon was indeed the author of this section of proverbs, Solomon’s world was very different from that of Paul and even further from our world so we should expect that Solomon and his fellow purveyors of wisdom in their specific advice on day to day issues will be less helpful than the parts of the advice that talk about ways in which we can grow in wisdom. Since the problems for Solomon’s people were very different to the problems facing the early converts to the Christian church, even in those Bible days the specifics are less important than the attitudes required. Paul was dealing with a constantly evolving situation and we find him talking about different situations, yet he too was able to see the characteristics of a journey. Paul too identified some of the same attitudes for the traveller: to lay aside childish things is very similar as Proverbs using the expression to lay aside immaturity. Furthermore, saying be careful then how you live as Paul is attributed as writing to the Ephesians has more than an echo of the author of Proverbs saying walking in the way of insight.
One last thing. Just as there are limitations in finding practical guidance for personal problems in priestly observance, or prophetic declaration, while the next steps of the journey may be contemplated in the priestly setting of Church, the real steps of the journey of insight are going to be taken in our day-to-day context of our personal world.
We may well gain thoughtful inspiration from principles laid down by Jesus, or Paul and even from that deeply flawed individual called Solomon, yet eventually we have to do our own growing in wisdom. May it be that we encourage one another in our respective journeys.