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Proper 15B 1st Reading

Proverbs 9:1-6

The first reading for this week, Proverbs 9:1-6, comes from a book “for unexceptional people trying to live wisely and faithfully in the generally undramatic circumstances of daily life, on the days when water does not pour forth out of the rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”[1] For the everyday, unexceptional folks who lend an ear, this passage extends a cosmic-scale invitation to a feast prepared by Wisdom for wisdom; it’s an invitation for those “interested in the art of living well”[2] to come dine in wisdom’s house, ingesting the way of insight and learning to faithfully inhabit her beautiful world. Within that invitation several theological points of reflection emerge: wisdom’s presence in creation, the invitation’s insidious parody, and mother God’s firstborn’s subversion of patriarchal power.

Wisdom’s Presence in Creation

The opening lines of the passage draw our attention to wisdom’s role in the initial and ongoing work of God’s creation: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars” (9:1).[3] The “seven pillars” are a reference to the completeness, fulfillment, and perfecting of the pillars of the earth. The six verses of our passage also include an obvious six-plus-one pattern (six past tense verbs plus a present tense call) which seem to allude to the six-plus-one pattern of the creation narrative.[4] In Proverbs 8:22-31, wisdom is described as being created at the beginning of God’s work, the “first of [God’s] acts of long ago,” having been “set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (8:22-23). Wisdom in Proverbs is depicted as not only that which has been woven into the very fabric of creation, but personified as a co-creator, participating and delighting in God’s originating work of creation. Wisdom continues to be that which helps bring the created order to its fullest, form; it is that which prepares the house and the feast in which God’s creations find wholeness.

This, it seems, offers us a freedom to pause and listen whenever we hear others explain the diverse ways and places they experience God and feel most fully alive. It also is an invitation to practice attention and awareness to our surroundings, to the undramatic events of our daily lives and the unexceptional people and places we’ve learned to overlook or ignore. Perhaps wisdom is whispering there, inviting us into an unseen fullness of life right before our eyes.

The Invitation’s Insidious Parody

Having built her house and prepared the feast, Wisdom calls out from the highest places: “You that are simple, turn in here!” (9:4) Wisdom does not bid one to embark on an arduous journey that culminates in acquisition, “success,” or a heroic conquering; there are no degrees received or titles for prefixing. She extends an invitation to come receive, delight, inhabit, and to give one’s self to a way of living, to learn how to “walk in the way of insight.” “Turn in here,” she simply calls to the simple.

But our passage cut out for today’s lectionary readings was not meant to be read in isolation from its parallel, it’s insidious parody: a description of folly’s eerily similar sounding call. Proverbs 9:13-18 personifies folly as “the foolish woman,” who similarly extends an invitation into her house for a feast. From the high places she calls to “those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’” (9:16) But unlike Wisdom’s invitation to come eat her bread and drink the wine she has mixed, Folly attempts to convince the passerby that “stolen water is sweet” and “bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” It’s clear that this is a way not leading to life, like Wisdom’s invitation, but that Folly’s guests are “in the depths of Sheol.” The right reception of Wisdom’s invitation requires the gift of discerning between her life-giving feast and the passing sweetness of Folly’s snack. Our passage, therefore, is not only an invitation to a feast but a call to discern between that which leads to life and that which leads to death. On the surface, the invitations may sound the same, but folly’s call is a death-dealing, insidious parody of wisdom’s summoning song.

Our world is changing at an unfettered pace; when it comes to technological advancements we seem to “know” more than ever. Yet it seems that our ability to love, our eagerness to pursue justice and righteousness, our patience to discern between the way of life and the way of death is in rapid decline. Our “knowledge” has led to a kind of unknowing. Now more than ever, we need to hear and heed wisdom’s call and give up the sweet waters and secret bread of folly.[5] Listen closely: “You that are simple, turn in here!” Who are we hearing? Who are we heeding?

Mother God’s Firstborn’s Subversion of Patriarchal Power

Like much of scripture, Proverbs fits into the dominating norms of its patriarchal setting. It’s a book of “instructions” directed to a “son,” and many of the instructions bear the signs of a man-centric culture. The “sons” to which “instructions” like these were directed undoubtedly had sisters who at best got to eavesdrop on the wisdom entailed, having their own expected places to fill (being the “Proverbs 31 woman” worthy of a man’s desire?). And like much of scripture, we do well to filter through the patriarchal language—the male-centric impulse—and reclaim them as instructions for our daughters also, always in an attempt to live more and more faithfully into the equality of God’s kingdom inaugurated in Jesus, one in which there is no male and female but all are one.

One way of making this kind of reclamation is to draw explicit attention to the places in scripture in which the personification of what is good and to be followed is depicted in female imagery, as Wisdom is in our passage. Wisdom is depicted as a female and is not something the “son” is instructed to possess, acquire, rule, achieve; it’s something to which he submits himself, from which he receives life, and leads him in the ways of God. Further, Terrence Fretheim suggests that Proverbs 8 casts God in the image of a mother who “begets” wisdom (qanani being the same word used for Eve giving birth to Cain) and they, then, stand side by side delighting in the goodness of creation.[6] Wisdom is depicted as her Mother’s firstborn, who was not only present before everything came into being and not only helped co-create this beautiful world but now prepares the feast whose delicacies symbolize the way to life and fullness of being. Albeit a subtle whisper, perhaps, in the thunderous clamor of male-centricity, our passage today offers up one way of inching forward, undoing and subverting patriarchal power: She is wisdom and we should follow her in the way.

This has implications for the way we live our life together as communities of faith. One such implication is the role of women in ministry and leadership positions in our churches. Many of our traditions pride themselves on their history of ordaining women to ministerial roles. This is something that should be embraced and celebrated regularly. Nonetheless, we must continue to examine that history and to make sure it is not another token that enables us to excuse our continual patterns of male-centricity. We must ask: what is the percentage of lead pastor/priest roles that are being given to women? Is the presence of women equal to the presence of men on our committees, boards, church initiatives, etc.? And, rather than merely being men who “support” women in ministry, some of our male leaders need to not take that leadership position, or that committee position, and simply say “I think a woman should lead this.” That’s what it’s going to take to help us stretch ourselves and grow into God’s way.

[1] Davis, Ellen F., Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2001), 92.

[2] Ibid.

[3] All biblical quotations are taken from the NRSV.

[4] Van Leeuwen, Raymond C., “The Book of Proverbs,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, v. 5. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 102.

[5] In Getting Involved with God, Ellen Davis explains the ecological implications of our preference for “knowledge” over “wisdom.” She states, “Rather, the wise enter into contemplative relationship with the world: they watch before they act upon the world. Often they watch for a long time. They are looking to see what God has done. Because they take the time to grow in love and respect—the qualities of healthy relationships—their actions are less likely to be harmful. In recent generations we humans have greatly increased our technical ability, but our wisdom has not grown in like measure…survival—for our species and for others—may well depend on homo sapiens forswearing the promiscuous use of our minds in the undisciplined search for knowledge.” (98)

[6] Fretheim, Terence E., God and World in the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 211.

About the Contributor

Kevin Todd

Gleaning Coordinator