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Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19:1-14, I Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

What is wisdom?  It may include knowledge but it is more than knowledge.  It is deep experience, at times almost intuition.  It is not just scientific; it is social/relational.  I’m not going to mine the rich meanings of wisdom throughout the Bible.  Let’s just look at a few of the things that are associated with wisdom in the dictionaries of our day.  They seem to combine experience, knowledge, and good judgment.  It is “the sum of learning through the ages.”  It is “the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting . . . common sense, good judgment.”  Words like “insight” and “understanding” and “meaning” are used.

One of this week’s lectionary readings clearly gets us into the definition of wisdom, but I believe they all present us with an opportunity to reflect on the sources and nature of wisdom as a basis for our lives. 

The reading from Exodus, chapter 20, presents us with the Ten Commandments, seen by many as the most profound distillation of wisdom available to us.  Even without the overlay of divine authority, these commandments seem to reflect guidelines for behavior human beings have found essential to our survival and well-being.  We could dwell on the traditional observation that the first four address our relationship with God and the rest speak to our relationships with one another.  For now, I just want to observe that they all are relational.  In my book, that makes them matters of wisdom.  They are not cold, objective descriptions of something out there—the stereotypical scientific undertaking.  They deal with being and identity, connections and relationships.  They are both product of and source of wisdom.  They are also, one might say, a look into the very heart and being of God.  They describe who God made us to be.

Many have tried to make them into hard, rigid, walls of imprisonment, but taking them apart letter by letter—making each letter a law unto itself, and forgetting the heart and relationship to which they point.  When that happens they cease to be wisdom.

The Psalm turns our attention to nature, which “day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.”  (Psalm 19:2)   Although the word “knowledge” is used here, later it talks about “the law of the Lord” which makes “wise the simple.”  (vs. 7)   Again, we are not talking about a scientific description of the stars and planets, or the mountains and valleys.  What we have, among other things, is a call to be inspired by nature.  God’s laws are embodied here as well as in the tablets from Sinai.  We are being called to see God at work in nature and to find our place in the scheme of things, to hear and be guided by the voice, the wisdom, of nature.

The “voice is not heard,” we are told in verse three.  Nature still cries out to be heard as we dump our garbage into the seas and spew our pollution into the skies.  Such acts are in no way wise.  We are ignoring the wisdom of nature, wisdom that shows the way to survival and well-being for humanity.

The two readings from the New Testament point us in what seems to be quite another direction for wisdom.  They bring us to a focus on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Finding meaning and hope for life in crucifixion is, Paul says, “Foolishness.”  (I Corinthians 1:18)  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise . . . Where is the one who is wise? . . . Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom . . .”  (vss. 19-20 & 25)  

Isn’t it the most foolish thing you’ve heard, from a human point of view, to put a cross on top of a building and make it the focal point of one’s faith?  Stripped of complex theological interpretations, what I see in Jesus on a cross is a sign that self-giving is what gives meaning to life.  It is wisdom personified.  The most important “law”, if we want our lives to have purpose and eternal significance, is to love so much that we’re willing to give our all for the betterment of the world and its people.

This epistle reading make a passing reference to “signs,” saying, in verse 22, the “Jews demand signs.”  Signs are somehow equated with the search for wisdom, because the “Greeks desire wisdom.”  The Gospel According to John moves to a specific request, “What sign can you show us . . .?”  (John 2:18)  Jesus talks about the destruction and rebuilding of the temple in a metaphor.  (vss. 19-20)   “ . . . he was,” it says, “speaking of the temple of his body.”  (vs.21)  What foolishness!

I want to go back, though, to the beginning of the scene.  Jesus enters the temple and finds money changers and sacrifice vendors crowded into the temple.  (vs. 14)   In a famous scene where Jesus seems to get violent, he makes a whip of cords and drives them out of the temple.  (vs. 15)   In Matthew and Mark he overturns their tables.  (Matthew 21:12 & Mark 11:15)

These were people who were making a profit from those coming to worship, first helping them get rid of their “unclean” Roman coinage, then selling them the animal sacrifices they needed to offer on the altar.  In and of itself, this might have been a necessary service, but one has the impression that worshipers were being preyed upon, overcharged.  I see here a contrast between two types of “wisdom,” the wisdom of commercial greed and the “wisdom” that has eternal significance, found in a resurrection which is the power of love and self-giving over death.  Or is it a contrast between a faith based upon animal sacrifice and one that is based upon and embodies the sacrificial love of Jesus?  Certainly this account of the encounter with the money changers seems to contain more frenzied commercialism than the ones in the other Gospels.  (The story is told, by the way, in all four of the Gospels.)  At the same time, this Gospel was written at a time when the wisdom of animal sacrifice was on its way out.

In either case, there is a subtle difference between the focus of the Gospel lesson and the epistle.  In the epistle, it is the crucifixion.  Here it is the resurrection.  John 2:22)  The cross is not even mentioned.  So, if there is any “foolishness” in this story, it is the foolishness of believing that resurrection can happen, that there is power to overcome the destructiveness of death.  It is almost as if hope itself is foolishness—and I suppose it is, of course.

Yet here, in the epistle and Gospel lessons, we have the wisdom that is the core of New Testament faith.  If we are to live according to “wisdom,” we will give of ourselves in love.  We will live in the knowledge that love has eternal significance, overcoming all things that would lead to death.  It is an outrageous claim!

Does this mean our faith is anti-science?  Of course not.  There are laws of social relationship, laws of nature, probably even laws of the soul.  Many of them are spelled out in the Bible.  Science seeks to describe many of those, so that we may know and work with and within them better.  But discerning the meaning is deeper.  Finding a purpose beneath all of them requires eyes that see and ears that hear and hearts that feel.  Only when that happens do we have wisdom.

Some would say that it is the work of the Holy Spirit.  These passages do not specifically mention the Holy Spirit, although some would say that to speak of the Resurrection and to speak of the Holy Spirit are but two ways to talk about the continuing living presence of Jesus’ Spirit, now and into eternity.  Others would say that the voice with which nature speaks is the voice of a whispering spirit emanating from God.  Wisdom is finely discerned when, after we have heeded all science has to offer us, we turn inward and discover the purpose and meaning that is in it all.  Perhaps that is what Proverbs 9:10 is trying to say: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”  (Notice the word “insight.”)   I like the way it comes out in the New Century Version of the Bible:  “Wisdom begins with respect for the Lord, and understanding begins with knowing the Holy One.”

Let’s go out there this week and be wise!


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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