The First Sunday After Epiphany
Proverbs 8:22-35, Psalm 72, Romans 12:1-5, St. Luke 2:41-52
I went to the doc and asked for a humility shot. He said he was out. “How about an honor shot?” says I. No joy. Courage? Hope? Holiness? No, no and no.
I asked for a shot of tequila – hold the lime – but he just scowled.
“Well, then,” says I, “could you scare up a shot of wisdom for me?”
“Ah, that’s different,” says the doc. “I don’t have a shot for it but I can tell you where to come by it. Go to Proverbs: “’The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the LORD’ (9:10).”
And I’m doggoned if he wasn’t right. Wisdom, it turns out, is much easier to obtain than those other lofty attributes . . . for those attuned to the word of the Lord.
Beloved, we have gathered on the First Sunday After the Epiphany, our Lord’s appearing to the gentiles. He has set foot in His creation, here to change the course of history and redeem the world from sin and death. And the whole world at that, Jew and gentile alike.
Where do Dr. Cranmer and his lectionary elves take us but to the topic of wisdom, beginning with our Lord’s wisdom. In the gospel lesson, we find Him as a boy, lingering in Jerusalem after His parents have headed home and astounding Israel’s teachers with His understanding of the Scriptures.
From that point forward, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
As ever, He is our model. The epistle lesson has shown us what the wisdom of man should look like, directing us, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 2:2)
The collect wraps things up with a plea for God’s people to “both perceive and know what things they ought to do . . .”
But when the subject is human wisdom and where to find it, as the doc knew, we can turn to no better source than Proverbs, the book of wisdom. And a fascinating and controversial passage we have come upon in chapter 8.
Discourses on wisdom dominate the first nine chapters of Proverbs, beginning at the outset: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7)
In three of these chapters – 1, 8 and 9 – we find wisdom personified. She speaks. And wisdom is always a woman, perhaps because the Hebrew word – hokma – is a feminine noun. But . . . not necessarily; our ladies may take a different view.
Come to think of it, as I look back on my life . . . but that’s a story for another day.
She speaks in these three chapters, but here in 8 we encounter her longest speech. Somebody called it “the autobiography of wisdom.” Other ancient cultures had wisdom writings as well, of course, but the Hebrew Scriptures give us a special perspective on the subject.
Yahweh has dispensed wisdom on Israel that she might represent Him to the nations, as is her brief. She received it, too, as we see pre-eminently in the early reign of King Solomon and in the words he set down in the book of Proverbs.
In the final analysis, Israel’s great shortcoming was not in wisdom; it was a deficit in holiness. She knew better, but she sinned anyway. Come to think of it, as I look back on my life . . .
Our lection picked up in the middle of the chapter. Let’s hear a few lines from the first part: "To you, O men, I call, and my voice is to the sons of men. O you simple ones, understand prudence, and you fools, be of an understanding heart. Listen, for I will speak of excellent things, and from the opening of my lips will come right things; for my mouth will speak truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips” (vv. 4-7).
And: “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate. Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom; I am understanding, I have strength. By me kings reign, and rulers decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, all the judges of the earth. I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently will find me” (vv. 13-17).
Most of our passage deals with Wisdom’s pre-existence. She dwelt with God before He made the world:
"The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth” (vv. 22-23).
Her presence with God in the beginning tells us that Yahweh bathed His creation in His Wisdom; it functions according to divine principles. So doing, He tied her to His faithfulness, righteousness and judgment.
So here is the Lady Wisdom all of us must meet: committed to the Creator, virtuous, truthful, an implacable foe of evil, powerful, loving, eternal. If you feel like hugging her, you’re getting the message. In these first chapters, over and again we hear a father addressing his son on the way of righteousness.
And Wisdom appears in female form, showing the son whom he should adore, the one with whom he must seek an intimate relationship.
Young men must learn the world and how it works. Lady Wisdom would be their teacher. One who was there with Yahweh when He made the world can counsel them in its ways.
If they would seek her out, where should they look for her? We peek ahead to chapter 9, where she resumes her speech: “She cries out from the highest places of the city” (v. 3). In the cities of the ancient Near East, the temple rested on the highest point, as was befitting the presence of the deity on earth. Lady Wisdom here sits upon the pinnacle as the wisdom of God personified.
The author has already placed her on the high places along the path, at the crossroads, at the city gate. She does not mute her appeal; she trumpets it in public places, where the young men walk. Come, one and all, and learn from me the fear of the Lord!
She is the message of the book distilled into human form. She is no disembodied, disinterested idea floating free in the universe, as the Greeks might have us know her, but a woman who knows and can be known, who loves and desires passionately that the young men would come to her and know her and love her.
She beckons from her high place: "’Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ As for him who lacks understanding, she says to him, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Forsake foolishness and live, and go in the way of understanding’” (vv. 4-7).
The young men must gain understanding. But Lady Wisdom has a rival. As we proceed, we meet Lady Folly:
“A foolish woman is clamorous; she is simple, and knows nothing. For she sits at the door of her house, on a seat by the highest places of the city, to call to those who pass by, who go straight on their way:
"’Whoever is simple, let him turn in here’; and as for him who lacks understanding, she says to him, ‘Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of hell” (vv.13-18).
We cannot separate the two, for our understanding of the remainder of the book is bound up with them. But we find the house of Lady Folly in the same neighborhood as that of Lady Wisdom, at the highest places of the city. Can Lady Folly represent deity? Indeed she can.
She is Baal and Asherah and Ishtar and Marduke and Anat, all the foreign gods who tempt the Israelites to worship them. She would lure the young men away from the wisdom of Yahweh and entangle them in the worship of false gods.
And so, young men, consider your choice. As you do, turn over in your minds the stark language in which it is presented. Lady Wisdom says, “Forsake foolishness and live . . .” (9:6). Of Lady Folly we are told, “her guests are in the depths of hell” (v. 18). Life . . . or death?
It is not saying too much, for on the one hand is the wisdom of the one true God and on the other the folly of idols. You will worship the one whose brand you choose. Now . . . choose.
The life each one lives will reveal his choice and so our grasp of the rest of the book is grounded in this decision so boldly stated at the conclusion of its first part. For example, chapter 10 begins: “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother” (v. 1).
The wise son is he who worships Yahweh and lives; the foolish son is he who bows down to idols and tumbles into hell.
Women play an important part in the book and the human ones reflect the traits of one or the other of the two we have met: “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones” (12:4). “The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish pulls it down with her hands” (14:1). “The mouth of an immoral woman is a deep pit; he who is abhorred by the LORD will fall there” (22:14).
As for the virtuous wife of chapter 31, “her worth is far above rubies” (v. 10); “she opens her mouth with wisdom” (v. 26).
But the story of Lady Wisdom does not end in Proverbs. She caused a scandal in the early church. New Testament writers made it their business to portray Jesus Christ as God’s wisdom enfleshed in the world.
Luke wrote, "The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here” (11:31).
John looked back to the creation theme and portrayed Christ, like Lady Wisdom, as present with God in the beginning. As Logos – or Word – He spoke the world into existence.
And as Lady Wisdom “pitched her tent” among the Israelites at God’s command in books that appeared between the testaments, Christ “pitched his tent” among His creatures in a literal translation of John 1:14.
In Paul we read, “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God -- and righteousness and sanctification and redemption . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
And this from Colossians: in Christ “are hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Also in Colossians, Paul dwells on the pre-existence of Christ in the way Proverbs 8 shows us Lady Wisdom. The net effect was to present Christ as the embodiment of wisdom in the New Testament as Lady Wisdom had been in the Old.
The fourth –century heretic Arius latched onto this correlation and used Proverbs 8 as a proof text for his construct which made the Son a created being subordinate to the Father. How could he manage that?
The Greek text of v. 22 can be and has been rendered, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old” (RSV). Most of our English translations try to steer us around this reef. These translate:
“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old.”
Athanasius led the opposition to Arius and prevailed at the Council of Nicaea to save the day for orthodoxy . . . but the day never stays saved. In our time, latter-day Arians such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses reach back to the same interpretation to argue that Jesus Christ is not fully God.
Still more recently has come about the modern feminist interpretation, which seizes on the word for “wisdom” in the Greek text of Proverbs 8, sophia, and makes of Lady Wisdom a female deity worthy of worship in place of the old, oppressive, unrelentingly male God – in all three Persons.
So strong is the link between Lady Wisdom in our lesson for today and the wisdom personified in Christ in the New Testament, and especially in the passages that speak of pre-existence, that some orthodox traditions assign Proverbs 25 as the Old Testament lection for Trinity Sunday.
They see in it a powerful, if indirect, statement for the deity of Jesus Christ, and they are not wrong to do so . . . even if they risk having to contend with the Arian interpretation and dispel it. I’ll let them contend with that. They’ve got their problems and I’ve got mine.
Having reminded you that true wisdom, the saving kind, comes from the Lord and Him only, let me close by warning against too narrow a definition of the wisdom of human ingenuity. In 1870, the Methodists of Indiana met for their annual conference.
The president of the college where they met was optimistic. “I think we live in a very exciting age,” he said.
The presiding bishop wasn’t so sure. “What do you see?” he asked.
“I believe,” said the college president, “that we’re coming into a time of great inventions. I believe, for example, that men will fly through the air like birds.”
“That is heresy,” the bishop harrumphed. “The Bible says flight is reserved for angels. We will have no such talk here.”
When the conference ended, the bishop, whose name was Wright, went home to his two small sons, Wilbur and Orville. And no doubt explained Lady Wisdom to them. Amen.