Every now and again it is good to remind ourselves that the people who first tried to assemble the first writings that eventually became our Bible started with a view of the world that is not our view. Historians now suggest the terrors of nature of which I guess included earthquakes, flood, disease, storms and drought would have been dimly understood to be punishment from God or gods and were assumed to be the fault of those who offended the mysterious power about them.
We should not be judgemental about ignorance of the ancients because without the discoveries of a more modern science how else could these phenomena be understood? I guess some of the rather strange Bible instructions about dress, about haircutting, and about worship are better described in terms of priestly behaviours and rituals which in a way date back to these times. Perhaps too this is why many of the 613 commandments of the earlier parts of the Bible are about suggested practices to please God. Strangely enough only a few of the commandments are practical advice about getting on with one another.
In today’s reading from Wisdom literature in the Book of Proverbs we find one of the parts of the Bible which gives more attention to practical people-centred advice. This is surprisingly neglected in many Churches. 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 rather 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 only come to the occasional church weddings, funerals and baptisms.
For some more regular attendees of highly traditional churches, there is familiarity with special robes, sacred music, candles, and in high Church settings 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 is experienced 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 become a collection of mere archaic rituals and trappings, disembodied from modern reality and everyday life. In the popular mind, at least if city Church attendance is anything to go by, if worship is 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 largely irrelevant to the day to day problems, joys and sorrows of life.
One Christian writer I enjoy reading because he makes me think is Marcus Borg. In his book called “Speaking Christian” he talks about shifting to a College where the majority of students were not Church goers. He asked these Oregon students what they thought when they thought of the word “Christian” and found that more than half of his students described Christians as literalistic, anti-intellectual, judgmental, self righteous and bigoted.
This should give us pause for thought because surrounded by familiar friends and using accustomed phrases in worship we might assume that outsiders are aware of our prayers for the hungry, prayers for those in the grip of war or despair and our prayers for peace and think that knowing we pray such prayers might translate into others seeing us as kind, open minded and peace makers. But the majority of those in our community are not present to hear those prayers. There is also the uncomfortable thought that those outside our country might prefer to notice that we keep our borders largely closed to the poor, that we are one of the few developed nations that was reluctant to sign the Treaty for international rights for indigenous people and a nation which can’t bring itself to sign the treaties calling for Nuclear disarmament or bans on weapons of mass destruction.
Our self image is not a guarantee of how others see us. Perhaps this is why we should guard against our Churches putting too much emphasis on the parts of our faith that don’t have much to do with the everyday.
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 listen to 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!”
Out of this long introduction let’s return to 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 claimed authorship 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 David’s 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. Solomon apparently liked 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. If we look closer we find a self serving and ambitious man who 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. Nor did having so many wives and mistresses demonstrate temperate judgement. It is true that his magnificent buildings including his palace and temple 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 felt secure 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.
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 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. In any case 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. Anyway 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.
Remember Solomon’s world was very different from that of Paul and even further from our world. 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 like is says in the book of 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.