Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58
“Be careful how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise…” This advice comes to us from the letter to the Ephesians, and it seems pretty contemporary. Especially with social media and the smartness of our communication gadgets. Because, people are watching, don’t you know?
Wisdom is an old companion of humankind. It is a product of reflection, and a feature of every culture that has ever existed. Whenever humans have the time, the space, and the peace necessary for deep thought, wisdom is the result.
Roman and Greek cultures spoke of wisdom as the highest human attainment. Wisdom was personified as the goddess Sophia, giving rise to the term philosophia, or philosophy, which means love of wisdom. From the sixth century BC onward numerous schools of philosophy were established across the Mediterranean landscape.
In Hebrew culture also, Wisdom is feminine; a spiritual emanation from God named Chokhma.
The book of Proverbs is dedicated to teachings on Wisdom. It was collected from multiple sources. These Wisdom sayings come from early oral and later written traditions that may span as far as the tenth to the fourth century BC.
Wisdom’s house is built on seven pillars suggesting that it is reliable – sturdy, and spiritually perfect, as the number seven usually represents in Hebrew teaching. Chokhma is a woman of gracious, complete, and unlimited hospitality. Her table provides nourishment for the body, gained through the life of slaughtered animals, and nourishment for the spirit, received from wine mixed with healing spices and herbs.
Proverbs begins with instructions to the young on virtuous moral and ethical habits. Starting with the importance of obedience to parents and elders. Later chapters, such as these six verses from chapter nine that we read today, attend to broader themes and a more diverse audience.
Wisdom’s servant-girls are sent “…from the highest places in town…” to spread the news about the feast at Wisdom’s house. Simple, immature, and unreflective people might be from any part of society, were not just the young and unschooled.
Lady Wisdom was, according to the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, a desirable possession. But to very different ends. Greco-Roman culture viewed Wisdom essentially passively - a deep reservoir of knowledge attained by the intellectual elite. Whereas the Hebrew culture understood Chokhma to be a beautiful spiritual gift from God to the world, accessible to anyone, for the purpose of enhancing everyday life and blessing the world. Wisdom is as much something you do, as something you have according to the Hebrew tradition.
This commentary on Wisdom may help us understand the distinctively active form of Wisdom in Hebrew thought that lies behind the writings of the bible. Proverbs commends to us the ways of maturity and insightful walking. These are a source of blessing to us and beyond.
Thinking of activity, Ephesians speaks of living carefully. This has nothing to do with living with caution. It’s not about mindfulness either, though that is a good practice of being thoughtfully aware of yourself internally and externally.
Ephesians is talking about being connected to the same divine life that filled Jesus and made him so utterly loving and compassionate. Care-full living is having God’s Spirit so powerfully within you, that caring becomes the natural form of your outward life, blessing the world.
Foolishness, according to Ephesians, is being so disconnected from God’s divine life that one cannot reflect on, or respond to God’s Spirit. That’s very different from the idea of foolishness as clownishness or lacking education. There is a matter of human freedom operating here too. Filling yourself with wine may make you feel very smart, at least for a while. But it’s a far cry from the thirst Wisdom quenches in anyone who chooses her wine, and where she will take you when you choose her as your companion.
Having said all these things about the nourishment of Wisdom, and the perils of foolishness, we stand before the gospel of John. Only Wisdom can make sense of the words of Jesus today about his flesh and blood. Many Christians prefer the more digestible language of the Last Supper as told by Matthew, Mark and Luke over the difficult and frankly cannibalistic language of John. Christianity has even divided along lines of either regularly, or rarely, celebrating communion.
We who put the Lord’s Supper at the center of our worship, forget how challenging Holy Communion is, really. We’re so used to the words of institution about eating Christ’s body and drinking Christ’s blood that we cannot imagine the horror that it instills in anyone who has not been raised in faith, or chosen this belief for themselves. So let’s say it right out loud. It puts many people off, and deserves our full attention, so that we understand what Jesus was saying.
Jesus said what Proverbs also said. Life is God’s gift. We justify taking the life from another creature in order to live only when we respect and fully utilize it. The life that is in us…that came from the life of another animal…comes from the life-giving Spirit of God.
Jesus wanted people to understand the preciousness of his sacrificial life. John alone among the gospels felt the urgent need for the people of his day, some eighty years after the time of Christ, to understand that. John was making Jesus real for them in a way they could not otherwise know.
Jesus didn’t merely invite people to eat his body. He challenged them literally to chew or gnaw, which was changed in translation to eat. So we’ve lost the sense of his challenge to really ruminate on the substance of his life and death. God gives sturdy bread from heaven to nourish us. To build up within us Wisdom’s presence and gifts. This is what Jesus embodied as living bread. Do we really get that?
Wisdom as mere knowledge will live only as long as people remember it. It is not necessarily accessible to all or shared in ways that help all. Wisdom as the Spirit’s gift helps us connect more intimately with God. Nourished at Wisdom’s table, we realize the immeasurable value of life, to the blessing of this world. And in this larger meaning of life, we see how we are truly joined to God’s endless life. Something Jesus taught in his life and in his death. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.