I bet when they were old women, they wore purple: Sophia

Proverbs 8

So we’re at the end of eight weeks
of considering women of Scripture in worship:
Hagar and Miriam, the five daughters of Zelophehad,
Deborah and Yael, Vashti and Esther,
the unnamed woman anointing Jesus,
Tabitha, Priscilla and Phoebe.
and on Wednesday nights, we’ve considered Tamar,
Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, Abigail and Rizpah, and Ruth and Naomi.
And because we’ve considered them well,
we’ve celebrated them—marveling at their Scripture depicted,
God-given initiative, creativity, sass, courage, gumption.
their leadership—in matters of justice and matters of God.
Marveling at just how much they have to teach us all—
men included—
any men willing to listen.

So maybe it feels somewhat strange to wrap up this series
with an abstraction—with wisdom—an anthropomorphism
(woman wisdom, she’s a feminine noun in Hebrew—
Sophia in Greek)
after all those wonderful characters—
all those wonderful stories.
But for some reason that’s the way I designed this.

In biblical studies, wisdom
designates a particular kind of literature
including Job and Proverbs—
and several others in the apocryphal writings.
It’s also though, and more importantly for us today,
a conceptual identification.
So not just specific language and literary structure—
a way of writing,
but also a specific idea—a particular way of thinking
that involves the consequences of a fundamental choice
between two options.

So we can consider Psalm 1
with its depiction of the righteous
who are like trees planted by streams of water
or the wicked like wind blown chaff (Psalm 1).
Or we can consider Joshua’s words:
“Set before you this day, life and death …
choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
Or Jesus’ teaching about being good soil
and bearing much fruit … or not (Mark 4:8; Matthew 13:23; Luke 8:8).
Set before you, two options.
Choose wisely.

This morning we hear wisdom personified calling out.
now, let’s think about that for a moment—
wisdom personified.
Drawing on imagery from throughout Proverbs
(Proverbs 1:20-33; 3:13-20; 8:1-36; 9:1-18),
wisdom is pictured as “the instrument by which God created the earth,
the daughter in whom [God] takes delight,
the queen of heaven who elects kings and dispenses wealth and success …,
the goddess who inaugurates her school of instruction,
and the sage whose teaching brings life ….”
(Leo G. Perdue, Proverbs in Interpretation:
A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
[Louisville: John Knox, 2000] 50)

So we get a lot of the imagery that we, as Christians,
will come to identify with Jesus.
That would also become, in Judaism,
identified with the Torah.
With the transcendent made imminent—
grace and truth among us.

And wisdom, she takes initiative throughout the city—
on the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads,
beside the gates, at the entrance—
all over.
Wherever we turn, in all our coming and going,
wisdom confronts us.
She walks with us and talks with us, as it were.
“To you I cry—to all that live.”
She makes a universal appeal.
“Learn from me.
Y’all hear this now.”

And there seems to be a special invitation
to those who most need her instruction.
This is not an appeal for those who qualify
(or think they do) for a G.T. track in wisdom,
but for remedial wisdom.
And we’d best not think that’s not what we need!
(That’s a double negative. Did you catch it?
Two “nots.” I love those,
but I always have to stop to figure them out.
You know what you do in such a case?
You get rid of both of them—both negatives.
They cancel each other out.
So why on earth complicate what I’m saying?
Because it’s more subtle saying,
“We’d best not think that’s not what we need,”
than to flat out say, “We all need remedial wisdom.”
But you have to know what you need,
in order to get what you need.
Right? Right.)

For as wisdom’s initiative extends an offer,
it’s not necessarily accepted.
She doesn’t impose herself on anyone, you see.
and she’s often ignored—
ignored by those who won’t acknowledge they need her,
ignored by those who don’t think she has anything to teach them,
ignored by those who won’t accept her authority.

Think about that.
Wisdom ignored is folly.
And if we don’t respond to wisdom’s initiative,
there are consequences.
That’s wisdom—Sophia. Psalm 1. Joshua. Jesus.

Think a little more about that.
Because there’s a subtle implication
that folly is the default.
We have to choose wisdom—listen to her—
seek her out.
We have to meet her initiative with our own,
or we won’t be wise.
And we’ll live with the consequences of foolishness.

That makes some sense of the initially apparent random fact
that I was struck by both positive and negative
connotations of words we get from the greek, “sophia.”
We get philosopher, that’s positive, but sophistry’s not, right?
A fancy argument that doesn’t hold water.
Sophomore, okay. Sophomoric, not.
And sophisticated can carry both positive or negative connotations.

So who is she, this woman wisdom—Sophia?
What does she personify? What does she teach?
What can we learn from her?
Reading through chapter 8,
here’s some of what I was struck by.
Just listen.

Learn prudence. Acquire intelligence.
I speak of noble things—of what is right.
Truth, righteousness, nothing twisted or crooked.
Understand my instruction. Take knowledge.
Embrace discretion.
Hate evil, wickedness, pride, arrogance, perverted speech.
Celebrate good advice, sound wisdom,
insight, strength, justice.
Accept instruction, be wise, do not neglect this.
Listen to me. Seek me diligently. Find me.
There you go.

Now, on the one hand, did you feel this?
It feels to me a little like the kind of rhetoric I associate with politics—
throwing out words associated with concepts that are precious:
words like “freedom” and phrases like “God bless the USA,”
but that are too often used like washing a clean pot for a photo op—
or reveling in a chorus of “yes, we can,” when no, we haven’t.
It sounds good—might look good,
but really doesn’t mean much of anything in particular at all.
Just so much pandering. Playing to the crowd.

I read a New York Times article this past week
that named something I have long felt.
Our politicians don’t actually address the challenges we face,
and we don’t want them to.
“In a country where citizens think of themselves
as practical problem-solvers and realists,” writes Scott Shane,
“this aversion to bad news is a surprising feature
of the democratic process.”
So how will we ever solve the immense challenges that face us
how will we ever address the huge problems that confront us
if we won’t even acknowledge they’re there?
That’s not wise.
And if we don’t meet wisdom’s initiative with our own,
we live folly.

Children represent 24 percent of our total population,
but 36 percent of our poor (http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/).
One in five children under the age of five in this great country
lives in poverty—
a shade over that, actually .21 percent.
Does that bear at all on the “greatness” of our country?
Out of thirty-five economically advanced countries,
we rank second in child poverty (behind Romania).
That’s not wise
and if we don’t meet wisdom’s initiative with our own,
we live folly.

Our defense budget exceeds that of China,
the next biggest military power, by nearly 6 to 1.
In fact, the nine countries rounding out the top 10
military powers only account for 2/3 of our military budget
That’s not wise.
And if we don’t meet wisdom’s initiative with our own,
we live folly.

We as a country represent 5% of the world’s population
and yet in recent years, those incarcerated in our country
represent one quarter of those incarcerated around the world
That’s not wise.
And if we don’t meet wisdom’s initiative with our own,
we live folly.

Our political leaders are not wise,
and we as a voting people have not been wise—
more interested in feeling good about ourselves and our prospects—
being told what we want to hear—
than in acknowledging the problems we have
and figuring out
that we might have to make some sacrifices now
for our children to have a future—
let alone a better future.

We need to be voting not just for people who see the same problems we do,
but for people who will also listen to each other—
who will hear the valid points made by others—
who will work together.
That would be wise.
Wisdom calls out.
But no one has to listen.

Wasn’t that fun?

But here’s my question.
Here’s what got me started on all that … fun.
How is wisdom here in Proverbs 8 any different than our politicians?
Long on fine sounding platitudes—
throwing out those fine sounding words
representing those high flying, so very important concepts
like justice and righteousness,
but falling so far short on any specifics.
That’s not wise … is it?

Indulge me here
as I consider some of what I think of as wisdom.

First off, wisdom is a perspective—
usually bigger than our own,
looking farther down the road,
assessing implications and consequences,
intended and unintended.
It’s not so much just about success
in one area,
but also about depth and truth,
and success across the board.
Wisdom’s a perspective traditionally associated with age
though you can certainly grow old and not wise!
In traditional societies, the respectful designation of the elders,
has never just been about age.
It’s about how the world is seen. It’s a perspective—
a way of seeing that may well bring wonder,
also a challenge, fear,
that when faced bring enlightenment.
And wisdom as a perspective is found in different cultures
and different religions.

Now wisdom as just a perspective—okay.
That’s an interesting perspective—interesting way of seeing things.
It might actually paralyze you,
keep you from doing anything
because you see so many sides of it all—
merit on both sides of an argument (imagine that!).
But within a perspective, wisdom is also a priority.
Within what we see, it’s what we name important—

And here’s where it gets tricky.
Have to be careful.
Because different folks will argue for different priorities.
And sometime those priorities are in conflict.
And others will just name something a priority
and not do anything about it.
Rhetoric. Hot air. On the political stump. In the pulpit and the pew.

So within priorities,
wisdom is a commitment.
A perspective named priority made flesh.
Not only do I see this and name it important,
this is what I live into.
As commitment, wisdom’s a way of being,
and it’s God’s way of being.
So when different priorities are named,
commitment to them made,
that happens only in the honest, real conversation
of loving relationship,
not the rancor of divisiveness, dismissal and enmity—
that happens in the commitment to and expectation of transformation.

So wisdom’s a perspective, a priority, a commitment,
a way of being—so much less a matter of spirit (also a feminine noun)—
so much less a matter of spirit than a matter of incarnation—
God’s way of being assuming flesh.
Why feminine? Why woman wisdom? Sophia?
Obviously there are plenty of unwise women.

But (here it is) the potential of woman
to bear a child (whether she ever does or not),
and to carry a child with integrity (and with wisdom!)—
to know herself responsible for another life—
to know her decisions about her own lifestyle
have a profound affect on another’s,
and thus to change her lifestyle for the sake of another,
then to give birth to that child—
to go through the labor/the pain to create another life.
Well, see, that’s what it’s about.
So very incarnational. So very physical. So very real.

Not saying men don’t experience the same,
the lifestyle choices we all make
have implications for the lives of so many others,
but it’s not written into the male genetic, biological structure—
not on that same so basic, physical level.

And God appreciates—
takes great delight in
wisdom’s participation in creation
at the most physical of levels.

Any of that answer my question
about why wisdom’s anything more than hot air?
Well, yes it did, actually.
Lives lived in commitment to the priority of God,
that’s more than rhetoric.

But here’s the other important affirmation we need to make,
Sophia knows God is more than a set of prescriptive rules
and so she’s much more interested in you making a careful choice—
a choice with God in mind
(God’s perspective, God’s priorities, our commitment).
Sophia’s more interested in us making that careful choice
than determining what that choice should be.

Because she knows this baby born into this world
and that one born into that one
live different realities, face different options,
have and make different choices
within which, we believe, there is always the option that is wisdom.
It’s just that what’s wise here might not be there.
And to pray for anything is to pray for its opposite.

Which is the brilliance of baptist principles at their best:
recognizing not just the very different perspectives
of individuals and local churches, but the very different realities,
and the very different wise choices within those.

Exasperating on the one hand. Sure. Just tell us what to do.
So empowering on the other. Figure it out.
Know God, choose God, live God.
In your reality,
in your flesh,
know God, choose God, live God.

And “It is as if we need wisdom before wisdom makes sense to us”
(Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, The Book of Proverbs:
Introduction, Commentary and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s
Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume V
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1997] 91).
For it is the act of embracing good news,
that makes it so good.
It is in following Jesus, that his crazy path
begins to take shape as the most important possibility in the world.
It’s in embracing our own particulars
that we might find ourselves opened to someone else’s,
and consider changing the way we live
in order to transform our realities.

So while it might have seemed somewhat strange
to wrap up this series on women
with an abstraction—with wisdom—an anthropomorphism,
the abstraction is so very physical—incarnate in particulars.
That’s the truth of Hagar and Tamar, Shiphrah and Puah
and Rahab, Miriam and the five daughters of Zelophehad,
Deborah and Yael, Ruth and Naomi,
Vashti and Esther, Abigail and Rizpah,
the unnamed woman anointing Jesus,
Tabitha, Priscilla and Phoebe.
Different contexts. Different choices.
Wisdom and transformation birthed in and through them all.

And through us?


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