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Proverbs 25:6-7

I believe it was in my second youth ministry assignment that I encountered Zoie (I suppose the name is generic enough to protect the innocent). We were on one of many youth trips during that tenure and Zoie was embodying every bit of the awkward eighth grader that came to define our time there. As we stood in line at some nameless fast food restaurant, she realized she had left her money on the bus and I went back with her to get it. As we got back in line, she was now bummed because we were the last two in line. So, I said to her, “The last will be first and the first will be last”. “Whoa Pastor Andrew, that’s really deep. Did you just come up with that?” “No”, I replied, “I’m pretty sure some other wise person said it first.” “Really, who?” “Jesus.” And the realization of that being the case and the look on her face still makes me smile today.

Wisdom, at least biblical wisdom, has that unique quality about it. Wisdom provides the lenses through which life is redefined and understood in a new light. The word for wisdom, in Hebrew, is Chokmah and it is more completely understood as skill with which to navigate life. It was so important to the ancient mind that it became its own literary form and is most often seen as the accumulated insight of God’s people through the generations. Chokmah has at its core an assumption of the natural order; the way things should work. To the ancient Hebrews there was even a hierarchy to the understanding of the levels of scripture. The law is the initial entry into Hebrew Scripture, The Prophets challenge our interpretation of the law and the Wisdom literature challenges our view of life itself. Of the Wisdom literature that we have recorded (primarily Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job), Proverbs is the baseline for helping us to see the value wisdom has in guiding our actions.

The assigned text from the lectionary comes from a section entitled, “The proverbs of Solomon copied by the men of Hezekiah”. These were specific Proverbs intended for young men to understand how to operate within the king’s court. The text reads, “Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king, or stand in the place of important people, because it is better that he say to you, “Come up here,” than to be demoted before a ruler.”[1] – Proverbs 25:6-7 At face value one can read this as something relatively easy to enact. But, in a culture built around honor and shame, one was always looking to elevate their position; to sit in the places of power. And for the Proverb to admonish young men to take the lowly position assumes a lot of both one’s ability to lay aside the desire for advancement and it also assumes a lot of the place of the king. Chokmah in this text places emphasis that the king is able to look beyond those seeking advancement to those who are there in a position to serve and after rightly judging their actions is willing to advance them from that place.

The gospel lectionary text gives more embodiment for this saying from Proverbs. In the Lukan passage, Jesus observes guests at a dinner party occupying the places of honor first and so he tells a parable about being embarrassed after being asked to move for someone of greater honor. He taps into the zeitgeist of shame and honor to give an illustration of why it is important to not seek out the higher status places. Jesus then concludes with the emphasis behind the Proverb and the line that baffled my former student, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”[2] – Luke 14:11 But Jesus doesn’t stop there and instead admonishes the hearers to edit their guests lists for future parties to those who could never repay them. Jesus called his disciples and even us to share our possessions with those who have none. What Jesus listeners struggled with in this setting and what we have come to realize after the fact is that Jesus, as the logos, is living embodiment of chokmah. The way Jesus taught and the way Jesus lived is indeed the way in which wisdom is personified and made plain for those who wish to be considered wise. In one of the synoptic reflections of the gospel passage Jesus goes so far as to say what makes one actually great, “But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up.”[3] – Matthew 23:11-12 

So why would the men of Hezekiah seek to include this proverb for the young men of the court who are trying to rise to positions of power in ancient Israel? Perhaps they had come to the wise realization that to “rule” was to actually serve and in order to properly do so there must be some realization of equity and service for the sake of raising others up. After all, chokmah best understood involves the skill and wisdom to not only navigate human relationships well, but to actually seek the betterment of your fellow men for the sake of all society and creation. So those who are wise raise up the lowly, do not chase after places of honor and realizing that by serving, true greatness will be bestowed upon them. This is why the logos set forth this example, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.”[4] – Philippians 2:5-7 Those who are wise realize that reputation did not trouble Jesus and therefore it does not trouble them.  [1] Common English Bible (CEB) Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible [2] 2011, CEB [3] 2011, CEB [4] Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. (The NKJV seemed appropriate here for the sake of the wording regarding reputation)