Tag: Proverbs

Holy Wisdom – A lectionary reflection for Trinity Sunday (Proverbs 8)

Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

8 Does not wisdom call,
    and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 “To you, O people, I call,
    and my cry is to all that live.
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30     then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race.
                Pentecost Sunday, which celebrates the sending of the Spirit, is followed by Trinity Sunday. Now that we have the Spirit on board, we can attend to the question of the Trinity as a whole. That is, how do we fit all the pieces together as one God in three persons, blessed Trinity? As a Trinitarian, who understands the challenges presented by the doctrine, I’ve wrestled with the question. I even have a book due out any minute that explores the idea in conversation with my own denominational tradition that is by intention non-creedal. That fact—being non-creedal—always makes for an interesting Trinity Sunday.
The lectionary invites preachers to consider a variety of biblical texts for any given Sunday, including readings from the Hebrew Bible. The question for us this week is whether we can find allusions to the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. We must do this while recognizing that Judaism, like Islam, is a strictly monotheistic tradition. The ancient church, using such devices as the allegorical method, found those allusions, but I’m not sure a Jewish reader would always agree. Nevertheless, Proverbs 8, which celebrates Holy Wisdom, is the chosen first reading for Trinity Sunday in year C. So, what should we make of this witness? What direction might we go with the passage on Trinity Sunday?
                As we consider the question, I confess to being a Trinitarian who believes that a faithful reading of Scripture reveals a Trinitarian vision of God’s nature. Nevertheless, we must be careful with how we handle texts like this. While Proverbs 8 speaks of Wisdom in elevated terms, using female descriptors, which lends itself to broadening our conception of God’s nature (moving beyond the traditional masculine vision), this particular text poses a distinct challenge. That is because, while it speaks of Wisdom calling us to pay attention to its witness, it also speaks of Wisdom as the first act of God’s creation not as being divine in any recognizable way (vs. 22). The doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, insists that the three persons of the Godhead (three hypostases in one substance) are eternal and uncreated. That goes for the Logos as well as Wisdom (Sophia), but the witness here is that Wisdom is the first act of creation. So, we should be wary about using this passage to inform our Trinitarian visions, even if this passage does lend itself to considering the female dimension within God’s nature. Indeed, as Liza Anderson notes, Arius used Proverbs 8:22 in reference to the Logos to affirm his premise that Christ is a created being.  She writes: 

Given that subsequent ecumenical councils commit us to a belief that the Spirit is likewise uncreated, a simple identification of the biblical figure of Wisdom with any of the three Trinitarian Persons seems impossible to sustain. There are still all kinds of interesting things to do with that feminine personification of Wisdom; the Russian tradition of sophiology as expressed by Bulgakov and others offers examples. But there is no easy way to conflate it with the Holy Spirit that doesn’t simply result in subordinating the Spirit to the Father and the Son.  [Liza Anderson, “Translating the Trinity,” Covenant (March 28, 2019).]

While the passage is suggestive, and the idea of the divine nature of Wisdom is present at points in canonical Scripture and in non-canonical texts, with this warning from a historian of the early church, it might be best if we don’t delve too deeply into conversations that take more space than I have in this essay. So, perhaps we should consider other ways of reading this passage that might prove spiritually beneficial.
The reading begins with a depiction of Woman Wisdom as a street preacher, calling out to all who will listen, to follow her lead. This picture of Wisdom standing at the gates calling out to any who will listen comes after the author of this part of the book of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) describes both the allure and the dangers offered by the strange or loose woman (Proverbs 7). This opening section of Proverbs (chapters 1-9) depicts a father sharing wisdom with his son (a perfect Father’s Day allusion?). The key to this bit of wisdom is the contrast between the loose woman who represents folly and the righteous creation of God who offers the boy Wisdom.   
With the reading prefaced by the picture of Woman Wisdom standing at the gates of the city beckoning all who will hear to follow her, we come to verse 22. We might start by affirming the premise of verse 22, that Wisdom is the first act of God’s creation.  The writer of this poem lifts up Wisdom’s role in the creative process. She was there from the beginning, before anything took form, from the sea to the sky to the land. But what was the role she played?
Cameron Howard suggests that “Wisdom was God’s joyful companion,” a vision revealed in the fine two verses of the passage we have before us. Joy is the operative word here regarding Wisdom, so we might consider that, as Howard suggests, “to walk in the straight and righteous paths of Wisdom, then, is to connect with this same primal joy” [Connections, pg. 3-4]. This idea that Wisdom is God’s companion as God engages in the work of creation emerges from an alternative reading of verse 30. The NRSV speaks of Wisdom being the “master worker.” However, it is also possible to read this as “child.” If we read it as “master worker” or architect, then how should we understand the reference to God taking daily delight in Wisdom? Is it in terms of the work being done or something else? If we go with “child,” then Wisdom is that companion with whom God shares the joy of creation? Whatever the case, God takes delight in what is created, as does Wisdom. Indeed, Wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world and in the human race itself. All of this goes back to the pronouncement in Genesis 1 that the creation is good.
                So the message of the day is really one of joy. Let’s rejoice in the beauty of creation, including human life. It is good and blessed. Such joy should lead us to a commitment to care for creation. As Leanne Van Dyke suggests, “A Christian vision that looks out onto our world with the eyes of Wisdom constantly sees opportunities for participating in God’s own intentions and plans. God is not a Creator gone missing. God is intimately related to each and every creature” [Connections, p 5]. Such a vision, one that motivates us to social engagement, brings with it a sense of joy. Again, Van Dyke writes: The church certainly better fulfill its mission to communicate the gospel to a jaded world with winsome cheer and joyful delight rather than judgment and blame” [Connections, p. 6]. It is true that prophets are known to talk turkey about things in the world, and that is sometimes needed, but a constant harangue doesn’t get us far. Joy, on the other hand, it has more to offer.
                Trinity Sunday highlights God in God’s fullness, however we have come to understand that fullness. In celebrating God’s fullness, we acknowledge God’s role as Creator. Knowing that God takes delight in the creation, of which Holy Wisdom is both the first act and the partner, we can sing boldly: “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing; Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Image attributionMaster of the Cité des Dames, active 1400-1415. Wisdom, Prudence, and Knowledge, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56953 [retrieved June 10, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Othea%27s_Epistle_(Queen%27s_Manuscript)_02.jpg.


The Warrior-Like Woman of Wisdom – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18B (Proverbs 31)

The Warrior-Like Woman of Wisdom – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18B (Proverbs 31)

Proverbs 31:10-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
10 A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.
            As a preacher in the twenty-first century, I might choose to pass by this passage that closes out the Book of Proverbs. Here is a woman who works from sun up to sun down so her husband can sit at the city gates and talk politics with the other men in town. A wife like the one described here is truly worth far more than precious jewels. She is indispensable. She gets up early, does all the work of the family, is a business woman, and a purveyor of wisdom. As she engages in all this work, her husband enjoys a life of leisure. I know that the passage has been used as the basis of many a Mother’s Day sermon. The preacher probably thinks he (it will be a he) is honoring the mothers in the room for their hard work. All I can say is that if you use this on Mother’s Day, be careful, because the message conveyed might be that to be a good wife and mother, one must be Superwoman. As a man, I’d rather not have that message returned to me—that is, I hope I don’t have to be a superhero to be a good husband and father.
                The NRSV opens with the words “a capable wife who can find?” The message here might be one of usefulness. When we read through the passage, it’s clear that it emphasizes the capable wife’s industriousness and her leadership abilities. This allows her husband to put his trust in her. That is all well and good, and yet it may hold up an impossible ideal, especially if in a patriarchal context a wife/woman is expected to be someone no man would be expected to be. I can imagine many a woman looking at this list, perhaps feeling inspired (at first) but then overwhelmed by the expectations.
                So, maybe there is a different message inherent in this passage. Maybe the utilitarianism of the NRSV translation leads us astray. Kathleen O’Connor suggests that the NRSV translation isn’t strong enough. Better is the translation a “strong woman;” or even better is “warriorlike woman.” Now we are moving in a new direction. This warrior-like woman could be, and I think is, Lady Wisdom (Gk. Sophia). O’Connor writes that “she is a mysterious figure who greatly rewards anyone who settles down to live in her household” [Feasting on the Word, p. 75]. Since this is the closing chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which personifies Wisdom as a woman, it makes sense that this passage would have wisdom in mind. Thus, O’Connor writes that “her behavior summarizes the virtues of wise living promulgated by the book and enjoyed by anyone who follows her call” [p. 75]. In other words, this “capable wife” is a model not just for mothers and wives, but for all of us. This is the ideal of wisdom personified.
                If we adopt the translation here “warrior-like woman,” then perhaps we can discern the power of Wisdom to form our lives as we live in the world. The path of Wisdom does good, not harm. It is industrious. It is productive. It is discerning. As we have seen before, for the writer of Proverbs, Wisdom is concerned about those who are poor and living on the margins. It is not self-serving.
                Yes, the “ode” is written in a patriarchal culture and expresses patriarchal elements, but the point here is not whether marriage is egalitarian or inegalitarian, concepts likely unknown to the culture that produced this word. While this is true, I do think we can take something important from the passage regarding the role of women in society. At the very least the writer of this song recognizes and acknowledges that women can be wise, industrious, and capable. In other words, it counters the lie that has been told, often in Christian circles that women are inferior to men, can’t engage in business, or serve as leaders. That the author could conceive of women operating in these roles should be the final nail in the coffin that limits women’s place in church and society. We need not expect any woman or any person to embody all these traits. We simply need to affirm the possibility that women are as capable as men to live a life of wisdom.
                If we can affirm the place of women in society, and acknowledge that women can be powerful persons, that is “warrior-like” then we can better envision Wisdom as our path of life. As Kenneth Carter puts it:

Wisdom maybe defined as a life well lived, a life that matters. Wisdom in the Bible is not enlightenment. Rather, wisdom is a lifetime of obedience to God, discipline honed in daily decisions. . .. In scripture wisdom is a way of life that includes justice, righteousness, humility, compassion and fairness” [Feasting on the Word, p. 76].

The woman portrayed here embodies these traits, and we are encouraged to follow in her footsteps. It may be more aspirational than descriptive, but it is a goal toward which we might move.
10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.


The Wisdom of Justice – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16B (Proverbs 22)

The Wisdom of Justice – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16B (Proverbs 22)

South American Potluck – Emily Schaefer
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
22 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
2 The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all. 

8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
9 Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor. 

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.
                It is said that you can prove just about anything from Scripture. There is some truth to this, as people have been from time immemorial scouring scripture for proof-texts to support all manner of positions, from the support of slavery to the suppression of women. When it comes to the Book of Proverbs, there are texts that seem to support the premise that wealth is a sign of divine blessing, and that poverty is a sign of divine judgment. Consider a word like this: “I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries” (Prov. 8:20-21). Such a vision can lead to what is known as the “retribution dogma.” It is a dogma that has ancient roots and continues to be popular. It is used to support the idea of a prosperity doctrine, but it is also used as support for the idea that the poor are to blame for their poverty. While it is true that in some cases poverty is the result of bad choices, this is not always true. It might not be true in most cases. But you have heard it said, perhaps even from the pulpit, that if you are poor, it must be because you are lazy or spend your money on things you shouldn’t. The corresponding message is that if you really wanted to rise out of poverty, you would take the necessary steps to get yourself out of your poverty. After all, doesn’t scripture say that “God helps those who help themselves?” Just a reminder—there is no such biblical passage.
                The reading from Proverbs 22 offers a counter proposal, suggesting that whether we are rich or poor, we are all created by God. Whatever the reason for one’s poverty or wealth, we are all created by God, and therefore bear God’s image. This means as those created by God (and as Genesis 1 reminds us, we’re created in the image of God), are equal in the sight of God. As for riches, well a good name is better!
                You might say that these passages are an expression of the social gospel, suggesting that justice for the poor is a mark of wisdom. Consider for a moment the message of verse 8: “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.” Now there is a word of judgment here, but it is directed at those who engage in injustice. They will suffer the judgment of God.  If those who are unjust will experience judgment, in verse 9 we read that “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” Some might read this to suggest that all that is needed is charity. Bread is enough. There is no need for the church to get involved in advocating for policies on the part of the government that would alleviate poverty. I do not believe that this is the case. This is the baseline. We should care for those in need, but that doesn’t mean we leave the conditions that lead to poverty untouched. That would, in my mind, involve sowing injustice.
                The third set of verses (22-23), makes this much clearer. First, we hear the word: “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate.” Here, I’m reminded of the parable that Nathan told David, after David took Bathsheba, sexually assaulted her, and then had her husband killed—something about a lamb (2 Sam. 12:1-14). The poor are often poor because they are defenseless. They are easily exploited. As it is said, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Some might bring in the principles of “social Darwinism” (not to be confused with biological evolution, which this idea seeks to emulate socially)—those who are the fittest will survive and be successful.
                The word that follows speaks of God’s role in all of this. In verse 23 we hear the that “the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” Could this be a foundational text for the principle of God’s “preferential option for the poor”? In a passage from the New Testament, the Letter of James warns against showing partiality to the rich over the poor. Indeed, James writes to the people of God: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5B). In fact, James suggests that his readers might want to remember that it is the rich not the poor who oppress them. The lectionary invites us to consider the words of James and the writer of Proverbs, recognizing that if there is a place for favoritism, it is on behalf of the poor.
                As we consider the message of these verses from Proverbs 22, we should take into consideration the overall ambivalence present in Proverbs concerning wealth and poverty. We should not forget that here, in chapter 22, we have a word that declares that “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (vs. 4). When we read a word like this, it is natural for us to take the next step and assume that poverty is the mark of arrogance and rejection of God’s authority. Thus, as Julia O’Brien suggests:

The wise interpreter, then, will find a way to honor this ambiguity as well as to honor the insistence of Proverbs on integrity, wisdom, and justice. One way to do so is to recognize how a given claim to truth resonates differently in different life contexts; another is to listen to the life stories and life truths of others. [Feasting on the Word, p. 31].

This is a wise word to us. Let us listen to the stories of others before making rash judgments. There are wealthy people who are righteous, and wealthy people who are unjust. The same can be said for those on the other end of the spectrum. For this week, however, let us hear the word of wisdom that God is truly concerned about the lives of those who are poor, and as the people of God, we should share that concern.

Picture Attribution: Emily Schaffer. South American Potluck, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54157 [retrieved September 3, 2018]. Original source: Emily Schaffer.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.