For those who want a change from the Gospel
Second Sunday before Lent – Proverbs 8:1, 22-31
Proverbs is not the easiest book to read, nor to preach from. It can feel a bit like reading the Highway Code or something. It might be designed to keep us and others safe, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great work of literature. Chapter 8 is a hymn to Wisdom, personified as a wise woman, but we can understand it better if we take the time to read chapter 7 first, where Foolishness or Stupidity is also personified, but as an adulterous women or prostitute. A bit of a slag, all in all, we might say. So we are invited to compare and contrast.
It’s worth making the point that Wisdom in the OT is not intelligence. It’s less to do with having ‘PhD’ after your name than it is about knowing how to live well. The English word ‘streetwise’ or the French savoire faire capture the meaning better: it’s about the ability to know instinctively what’s the right thing to do in any situation. Folly, therefore, is its direct opposite.
These two ladies do, at first sight, have things in common. They both call out, trying to win our attention, and trying to get us interested in their wares. They are both, in their different ways, appealing. Folly is portrayed as a prostitute out to seduce senseless young men, who are drawn in by her wiles, but whose destiny therefore is death. By contrast Wisdom, also tries to get people’s attention that they might come to her, not for cheap thrills but for lasting treasure which leads to life. Wisdom is worth more than monetary riches, and will lead people to an inheritance far richer than the merely financial.
But the bulk of our selection today is about the origin of Wisdom. Indeed, she was around before creation began, before oceans or mountains, at God’s side while he brought the earth into being, and constantly praising him for it as each new day brought new things which God declared ‘good’. In fact the passage is one of unending praise. Wisdom does not moan, as other bits of the OT do, about the state of the world these days, about how broken everything is, about how the innocent can suffer and the rich prosper. She is one of those frankly annoying people who are unable to see anyone or anything other than in a positive light, whose lips are constantly full of God’s praises, and who can see his good hand in whatever it is that happens. So is this an invitation to that kind of superspiritual naiveté? Certainly Miss Wisdom has little in common with the prophetic tradition, whose role seems to be mostly about pointing out problems and trying to get people upset enough about them to try to change. In Wisdom’s world everything in the garden is rosy.
I wonder whether these two contrasting chapters are not about the ability to see evil or not, but rather about the standpoint from which we see it. In Miss Folly’s world things certainly are broken, so what the hell? Let’s go to bed. Let’s find what comfort we can for a while. Let’s grab some pleasure while we may, and ignore what’s right or wrong. But Wisdom’s approach is very different. Let’s just do the right thing. Let’s live well, and that will both celebrate and enhance the created goodness of our world. Let’s fear God, because that will make the world a better place. This chapter of the Bible may ignore the harsh realities of life on Earth, but the rest certainly doesn’t, and nor does the rest of Proverbs or other Wisdom literature such as Job and Ecclesiastes, and many of the Psalms. But maybe the best way to approach those problems is from the starting point of an awesome God who created a beautiful universe. To focus for just one chapter on the beauty of it all isn’t a naïve refusal to accept reality: it’s a refreshing and heart-healing reminder of the ultimate truth about who God is and what his world is coming to. As we feel more and more the stress of lockdown, the Mindfulness gurus have all sorts of advice about how we might be renewed and refreshed. Maybe a meditation on the pure unadulterated goodness of God might prove to be a real tonic.