Thursday, August 26, 2021

September 12, 2021 - 16th Sunday after Pentecost

                                               Biblical Words                                         [733]

Proverbs 1:20-33Psalm 19;  James 3:1-12Mark 8:27-38

Wisdom is in the streets, and along a road toward Jerusalem. 

Proverbs 1:20-33.  

The reading from the Proverbs of Solomon presents a dramatic piece of street preaching – prophetic preaching.  We hear a narrator tell how Wisdom cries in the street, and then we hear her words in the rest of the passage. 

This figure is Woman Wisdom.  She appears in several passages through Proverbs 1-9, perhaps most dramatically, apart from the present passage, in 8:22-36.  She also has an opposite number in these chapters, the Woman Folly (9:13), also called the “loose woman,” an adulteress seducing naïve and foolish young men who ignore Wisdom (2:16, and see the full passages 7:1-27 and 9:13-18).  These personifications are dramatic, sometimes erotic, and may reflect deeper currents of religion and culture than simply literary devices.  

But in our passage we hear the I-told-you-so sermon of Woman Wisdom. 

To repeat, Woman Wisdom does street preaching.  She is heard in the street, in the squares, at the busiest corner, and at the entrance to the city gates – which were indeed the busiest corners in any ancient walled city.  What she offers concerns the real world, the world of traffic, trouble, and turmoil.  This is not ivory tower wisdom, not school-marm learning. 

The key question is, Is it too late?  

Woman Wisdom seems to summon the simple, the scoffers, and the fools to learn from her, but goes on to say that they have already rejected her and her ways, and now disaster – panic and calamity – impend over them.  Therefore she laughs at them because of their foolishness.  

Looking at disastrous lives around her, she says, “I told you so!”  When it is too late, “then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; …”  Because they hated knowledge and despised Wisdom’s “reproof” (disciplining), they must suffer the consequences of their perversity (verses 29-31).  “For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them.” 

Is it too late?  Apparently there are still some who could listen and learn:  “[T]hose who listen to me will be secure and will live … without dread of disaster” (verse 33). 

It may still be possible to learn from the mistakes of others! 

Psalm 19. 

The Psalm for this Sunday is a familiar one.  It appears twice in the Lectionary in Year B, here and on the Third Sunday in Lent (along with the Ten Commandments).  It also appears once late in Year A (along with the Ten Commandments) and once in Year C, the 3rd Sunday in Epiphany.  This psalm is often associated with the Torah, and it is on its way to equating God’s law with God’s wisdom. 

The psalm opens as a hymn, exulting in God’s glory in the heavens, especially the march of the sun that rules over the daylight world (verses 1-6).  It ends by meditating on the mystery and threat of errors and faults over which humans have no control, errors that may lurk in the vicissitudes of life, even for the righteous (verses 12-14). 

It is the middle section that relates this psalm to Wisdom.  

This part is a hymn in praise of God’s “law” / “decrees” / “precepts,” etc.  Six synonyms are used for the guidance God has given, and six benefits from that guidance are cited. 

The law of the Lord … revives the soul;

The decrees of the Lord … make wise the simple
      (the same "simple" as in Woman Wisdom's preaching);
The precepts of the Lord … rejoice the heart;
The commandments of the Lord … enlighten the eyes;
The fear of the Lord … endures forever;
The ordinances of the Lord … are righteous altogether. 

This psalm is clear that God’s torah, God’s guidance given in historical times and available in specific forms, is the source of the wisdom needed by those who would follow God’s way and benefit from its blessings.  That Torah is the only trustworthy guide through the secret errors and hidden faults that could so easily destroy the simple and uninstructed. 

James 3:1-12. 

Since much of Wisdom is about speech – language and words – it is very fitting that the Epistle reading should give us a diatribe on the organ of speech:  the Taming of the Tongue.  (Title courtesy of the HarperCollins Study Bible.)  The wit, wisdom, and sarcasm of this passage is delightful.  It doesn’t need commenting upon as much as it needs re-reading. 

Still, a few high points to enjoy.  

The speaker admits to being a “teacher” (all of whom tend to talk too much), but – horrors – he also admits that teachers make mistakes!  He says “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle” (verse 2, NRSV).  We know where the tongue is during that statement:  firmly in the cheek!!  

And of these forest fires that the tongue can set (verses 5b-6) – when he has warmed to this subject he insists that only hell can extinguish the evils sparked by the tongue! 

This reading from James links well with the Gospel reading of two Sundays ago when Mark has Jesus speak of the things that defile people.  It is the things that come OUT of people that defile, and that means things that come out of the mouth by means of the tongue:  “… wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:22-23). 

Mark 8:27-38. 

At first sight the Gospel reading is not about wisdom, at least not about the kind of wisdom that produces success in the world. 

This passage is the Great Turning Point in the Gospel According to Mark. 

Here it is finally openly declared by the disciples – with Peter as their spokesman – who Jesus really is:  the Anointed One (Messiah).  We can probably understand that by this title Peter meant a powerful leader who would rule in power to restore Israel’s glorious past.  The hearer of the Gospel, however, knows that this Anointed One brings the paradoxical wisdom needed by the foolish, the meek, and the needy. 

And in the same moment of this triumphant declaration, Jesus states clearly that he “must” go up to Jerusalem and get himself killed, in order to rise again. 

To the Peter who has just hit a high point of declaring Jesus’ identity, this is not acceptable, and the two have a tiff.  Jesus, in Mark's presentation, seems concerned to demonstrate to the other disciples that he is firmly rebuking Peter:  “Go to hell, Peter,” is more or less what he says (verse 33).  

And the very next section of teaching – not just to the disciples but to all the crowds who come around him – is that world-turned-upside-down aspect of the gospel.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (verse 35). 

And as if speaking to the many generations of wisdom teachers, as well as aspiring wisdom pupils of the present, he says, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” 

Wisdom seeks what is truly profitable -- profitable to humans as the value and goal of their lives.  And when the gospel of Jesus is placed in that curriculum, values tend to get overturned.  Final blessedness lies in trudging to Jerusalem and testifying to God’s work in Jesus, with the full likelihood of dying as a result. 

The Wisdom presented in the gospel could not be better said than by Paul’s words. 

For Judeans demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Judeans and foolishness to the Nations, but to those who are the called, both Judeans and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:22-25, NRSV modified). 

The wisdom of the gospel is to remake the world in the image of God’s love through Jesus the Anointed One. 


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