(This sermon was delivered on 9/16/2012 at Wallace United Methodist Church.)
Common English Bible (CEB)
20 Wisdom shouts in the street;
in the public square she raises her voice.
21 Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.
At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say:
22 “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté,
mockers hold their mocking dear,
and fools hate knowledge?
23 You should respond when I correct you.
Look, I’ll pour out my spirit on you.
I’ll reveal my words to you.
24 I invited you, but you rejected me;
I stretched out my hand to you,
but you paid no attention.
25 You ignored all my advice,
and you didn’t want me to correct you.
26 So I’ll laugh at your disaster;
I’ll make fun of you when dread comes over you,
27 when terror hits you like a hurricane,
and your disaster comes in like a tornado,
when distress and oppression overcome you.
28 Then they will call me, but I won’t answer;
they will seek me, but won’t find me
29 because they hated knowledge
and didn’t choose the fear of the Lord.
30 They didn’t want my advice;
they rejected all my corrections.
31 They will eat from the fruit of their way,
and they’ll be full of their own schemes.
32 The immature will die because they turn away;
smugness will destroy fools.
33 Those who obey me will dwell securely,
untroubled by the dread of harm.”
I think a lot of our problems today, we can blame on Frankenstein.
Yes, Frankenstein. Not the famous patchwork monster, cobbled together and given life by the forces of nature, but the actual Doctor Frankenstein, and the lesson we seemed to have learned from him. But let me explain first.
I think everyone is familiar with the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but not everyone has read it. We know the premise, that of “mad scientist creates monster made out of dead people, brings it to life, and the monster wreaks in trying to deal with humanity.” That’s very much the Hollywood interpretation of the story, and like most things Hollywood does, it COMPLETELY MISSES THE POINT, because the novel it is based on is very different. The novel’s basis is not so much about the creation that makes chaos in the world as a mindless monster, but the idea that in a man’s pursuit of a good thing like intelligence, the only reward is misery. You see, the good Dr. Frankenstein simply wanted to push the boundaries of science so as to see what intelligence and progress could do in the world, and he succeeds; but it all backfires. His reach exceeded his grasp. The creation in the book is actually profoundly intelligent as well—and taught himself to speak very eloquently (not just “grr, argh”). However, because of his grotesque appearance, he is shunned and hated by the world. In realizing that he is hated, he takes out his fury and rage on his creator, Dr. Frankenstein, attempting to make the Dr.’s life as tortured as his own. The moral of the novel though, is that humanity’s reach exceeds its grasp, and when we fail to realize how little control we actually have, things end badly. Intelligence without the wisdom to use it causes more problems in the end—without wisdom, all that results is misery and death.
It’s a good lesson, I think. But like I said, more people know the movie and not the book itself. Because of that, the moral is somewhat simplified. The takeaway for most people in stories with mad scientists is not “intelligence is only good when it is accompanied by the wisdom to use it” to simply “SMART PEOPLE BAD.” Thus, we are left with not an appreciation of wisdom, but a mistrust of all intelligence and wisdom. It confuses the two very distinct things, and this, my brothers and sisters, is bad news for everyone, because it creates a culture of mistrust.
For a country who supposedly places a high value on education, we sure don’t put a lot of trust in highly educated people—but really, this should not surprise us. We are, after all, founded as a democratic country, an experiment in equality. As the years have gone by, that equality has been given more freely to others. It started out as a right only given to white male landowners, and then to all men, and finally to women. Keep that in mind; the last ones to be made equal in this country are women. However, in priding ourselves on our equality, we have somehow done something to our collective opinion, which is a double edged sword in and of itself.
There was once a time in this country when professional opinion mattered. Take doctors, for example. Once upon a time, people went to the doctor, and the doctor was trusted to be a source of solid medical intelligence and wisdom. Now, I realize that this isn’t always a good thing, because there probably were just as many quack doctors back then as there were good ones, but that’s beside the point; the point is, the default position was trusting in the doctor. Now, pretty much the opposite is true, and the default position for people seeing medical professionals is distrust—to the point that the number one cost these days in the medical industry is the amount of money spent on malpractice lawsuits. Mistrust has replaced trust. We think we know better than the person we have gone to for medical help, a person who has gone through years and years of training and education to treat the body. But it’s that level of education that somehow scares us, because it puts us in a position of reliance on others. We think we know better than some egghead know-it-all doctor, when the truth is, doctors are not only trained in all the things medical science is able to do, but also when to do use the tools they have been given. For the most part, medical training is not just about the tools, but how to use them, and that, my brothers and sisters, is wisdom: knowing not just how to do stuff, but how and when to do the right thing. Nevertheless, we still think we know better though.
And right here is the problem. In our collective minds, all doctors, and really, all people of high intelligence have become movie Dr. Frankenstein, and our reaction to movie Dr. Frankenstein is the movie moral: SMART PEOPLE BAD.
And this leads to all kinds of weirdness in our culture. For one, we idolize youth in our country, and have forsaken our elders. Age is no longer a valued thing, and so has the wisdom of older people, and this is regrettable. Second, it becomes a liability in our leadership. The funniest thing to me is that there is a question that has become more and more important in choosing our leaders is “Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” Not, which candidate is smarter, which one is the most prepared for the office; no, it’s which one would you rather just hang out with!? We should want our leaders to have intelligence and wisdom, not who seems the coolest. That says a lot about our country, honestly because it makes it out reflects the idea that to be proud of ignorance is valued. That, quite frankly, is kind of messed up, especially when taken in context with what the Bible says about wisdom.
The book of Proverbs is a fascinating text in and of itself, and one worth reading. However, you don’t see too many sermons on Proverbs, and I think this is to our detriment as preachers. The wisdom literature has much to teach us, not just about ourselves, but in the way that God operates. One thing to keep in mind about proverbs though is that it is written very differently from the prophetic literature of Isaiah or Jeremiah, nor is it like the historical literature like Exodus, Samuel and Kings. Those tend to revolve around the theme of the natural order being upset, for justice and for evil being undone. It assumes that everything is terrible, and people need to repent from their evil ways. This book is about general teaching, but some of the teaching is very prophetic nonetheless. Different approach, but just as informative.
Now then, in the passage that I read you, there’s something fascinating going on. The passage centers on the personification of Wisdom shouting into the streets and rebuking the ignorance of the people. But what is significant about Wisdom? Did you catch it? Let me read the passage again: “Wisdom shouts in the street, in the public square SHE raises HER voice.” Wisdom is a woman!
Wisdom is female! What a fascinating concept! Of course, it’s not at all surprising to the ladies in the congregation, is it? Of course wisdom is a woman! It only makes sense for that to be the case. And just in case you think this is some kind of translation error—Nope! The word for wisdom in Hebrew is “חכמה” (chochma), and Hebrew is what is known as a “gendered” language, where all the nouns in the language have either a masculine or a feminine designation. The designation for “chochma” is feminine—therefore? Woman Wisdom. Huzzah!
So we have this image of a Lady Wisdom shouting in the streets. Why? Well honestly, why wouldn’t she? She’s been ignored! Quite blatantly ignored, actually. Her complaint is that nobody is using their God-given wisdom to make the right decisions. “How long will you clueless people love your naiveté, mockers hold their mocking dear, and fools hate knowledge?” Harsh words. I know I said earlier that this literature has a different kind of flavor and intention than the prophetic literature, but this definitely has a prophetic kind of taste to it, doesn’t it? Especially when it spells out doom for the people who abandoned wisdom, who ignored her voice. Wisdom will then not have any mercy or sympathy for the people who abandoned knowledge, who forsake wisdom, who love their ignorance, who don’t want advice, who reject all corrections, who remain immature, and who take refuge in smugness. She has nothing but rebuke for the people who can’t handle the facts and choose to remain with what feels right in their own minds.
And what does Lady Wisdom say is the root of all ignorance? What is the cause of their smugness? None other than this: These people didn’t choose to fear the Lord, to respect and honor God as God is worthy to be honored and respected. Wisdom comes out of respect for the infinite, the ultimate. Really, what I see here is nothing new, nothing completely revolutionary in the grand scope of the biblical story, but even then it can be revolutionary for our lives. Honor God. Respect God. When we do that, we realize we are not the center of our own moral universe—God is! The problem Lady Wisdom is calling out is that ignorance is just another result of self-centeredness, of pride. The answer is reliance upon God, as well as respect of God.
Selfishness is no virtue. I don’t care what you hear, or think, or read, selfishness is no virtue. Selfishness leads to the false worship, of any variety of things. Selfishness can also lead to another problem, which is self-righteousness, when we believe that we are such good persons, there is no possibility that we could ever be wrong. I’m right, we think, no matter what anyone says. I don’t care about your experience, I don’t care about your education, I don’t care for the fact that maybe you’ve lived through it and that you might have some wisdom that will help me out, I don’t care because I’m right.
No! That kind of selfishness is the quick path to ignorance, and ignorance is the path to destruction. So we turn again to the image of Wisdom calling out into the streets, listen to me! Listen to me!
And because wisdom is a woman, we need to take a step back. As I mentioned before, women have only recently in history been given any kind of voice in the public dialogue. I am personally thankful for this, because we need to listen to the voice of the unheard. It’s also a reason I’m thankful that I’m a part of the United Methodist Church, as a church that ordains women as pastors. We need to make this a common practice, especially when we make decisions about how the common life is lived. Bringing different voices to the discussion better brings out the vision of the new life we have in Christ—because in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave. Wisdom is heard when all voices are present, and this does not stop at women. So if the first lesson we learn from Lady Wisdom is to stop being self centered, the next one we need to learn is to LISTEN. Be open to new ideas. Hold fast to God, but don’t be afraid of new ideas, because you never know where or in who God will show up next.
Finally, think critically. Don’t hate knowledge, but don’t make knowledge your God either. This is where we look back at old Dr. Frankenstein from the book, not the movie. Learn all you can; learning and being open to knowledge can bring you closer to God! But at the same time, do everything in moderation. Don’t get carried away, and let knowledge become your God—Let God be your knowledge. Knowledge is best when tempered by wisdom, and wisdom is defined by a healthy respect for God. Humility in all things is the key.
If you take anything away from this, let it be this: don’t be afraid to learn, and don’t be afraid to be challenged by new ideas. It’s arrogant to believe that you’ve learned all you ever need to know. Each day is an opportunity to learn more, and in learning more, you learn more about God! Every time we think we’ve figured it all out, Wisdom has this habit of showing us something new, doesn’t she? Don’t let fear control you—let respect of God and respect for others guide you.
Dr. Frankenstein’s reach may have exceeded his grasp, but we get to learn his lesson, the real lesson. In all we do, we need to listen to wisdom, the wisdom that says to respect and listen. In essence, we need to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Let’s listen to wisdom, and let us trust in God.