Wednesday morning my wife Meg’s car wouldn’t start. I won’t go through all the details, but on Wednesday night, after a full day of bicycling to work and shuffling our other car on trips to and from school and to the store and to a soccer game, after three visits from Triple A that left us with no solution, only a statement that the battery they sold us last year was not the problem and a “drain was detected,” and we shouldn’t call them anymore, I finished washing the dishes and went to find Meg. She was folding laundry. We commiserated with each other about how stressful car problems can be. Neither of us is particularly mechanical, so when something more serious than a flat tire goes wrong with the car, we are both kind of powerless. Meg said, “I realized I was feeling helpless, so I thought it might make me feel better to take on a task I could handle. I decided I could do something about that pile of clean laundry.”
That struck me as a wise thing to have done. It’s something that the ideal wife depicted in today’s lesson from the Book of Proverbs might have said. The theme of Proverbs is wisdom, and the wisdom that it offers begins with the acknowledgement of God, and so we might imagine it is something mystical or esoteric. But it’s not. It’s practical. It is wisdom that applies to daily life and worldly affairs. It is related to the idea of creation, for it is through Wisdom that God did his work in fashioning the world. The ordered structure of the universe, and its natural and moral laws, are the domain of wisdom. The one who learns wisdom carries on God’s work of establishing a good world, a world of beauty and justice, prosperity and culture. And the one who fears God knows that the commandments of wisdom are the cornerstone of the good life. It is wisdom that gives the necessary temperament to seek such a life, and wisdom who directs the effort, and who blesses the results. One who lives such a life becomes a blessing for others.
There is a lot to admire in this picture. But we also have to acknowledge that this kind of wisdom is pretty conventional. And conventional wisdom hasn’t really changed a whole lot in 2,500 years. If you were to ask a random sample of Americans today “what are the personal qualities that lead to a good life,” they probably would come up with a list of characteristics not too different from we see in this ideal wife in Proverbs--industriousness, self-reliance, an entrepreneurial spirit; strength, generosity, piety and kindness; selflessly providing for the needs of her family and promoting its social prominence; earning the esteem of her children and her neighbors.
And it is just because conventional wisdom is so consistent across cultures and through time that the wisdom of the New Testament is so strange. When the Letter of James talks about wisdom it is not so interested in how obedience to God’s laws leads worldly happiness. Rather it sees wisdom as what enables a person to resist the seductions of evil that corrupt even our most honorable motivations. There is awareness here that the pursuit of happiness as the world counts happiness can easily become a trap. Self-discipline and self-reliance can lead to self-aggrandizement. The pursuit of virtue can lead to hypocrisy, the desire for excellence to rivalry and envy. Success in one’s life and fortunes can lead to disdain for those who are less able or less fortunate. The idea that God’s wisdom is the foundation of the good life can lead those whose lives are manifestly good to believe that they are specially blessed by God, and that those whose lives appear less so are God-forsaken. True wisdom, according to the book of James, is that close acquaintance with God that keeps us humble and gentle in heart, and rejects any desire for worldly goods that would lead us to fight with each other to get them.
So what lies behind this critical difference, this exception to the conventional wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, the conventional wisdom that still prevails in the world we live in today? If we were scholars of the history of religion we could trace some complex process of development. But I think that there is one simple explanation that is sufficient. There is one event that had the power to shake the conventional wisdom of ancient times to its foundations, and it has not lost that power even today. I am speaking, of course, of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It has been frequently taught in Christian tradition that “the Jews” were responsible for the murder of Jesus, but this is of course a libel and a falsehood. It was not “the Jews” but some Jews, who were instigators and accessories to a crime committed by some Romans. And the point I’m making is that the particular Jews that rejected Jesus, who accused him of blasphemy and insurrection and handed him over to be killed, were the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. They were the urbane and cultivated people, the socially-prominent people, the well-educated and pious people, the people who, by the conventional wisdom of theirs and every age, are best-qualified to determine what is lawful, what is wise, what is politically feasible, and in the national interest, and what is not. It was these people, people who could have read the description in Chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs and thought proudly of their own wives and their own families, who rejected and killed the Messiah of God.
But it was not some particular defect of their religion, or their class, or even their character that led them to do it. They were only defending the prerogatives of wisdom as they knew it. Jesus foresaw the conflict, knew it was inevitable, because he understood the power of conventional wisdom that made it impossible for them to change course, or to see him for what he was. He saw that power at work among his own disciples, as they argued with each other on the road about which one of them was greater. And he countered with a teaching that redefines worldly achievement as unconditional, selfless service. It’s a teaching that still makes us squirm when we hear it today: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
And then he gave them a different way to think about how the wisdom of God shows up in the world. In place of the all-powerful Creator, the master-builder of the universe who with wisdom established the foundations of the earth, spread out the dome of the heavens, and gave to us his people a perfect and eternal law, Jesus shows his disciples a child. “Welcome a child,” he says, “and you welcome me, and not only me, but the one who sent me.” A child. The most vulnerable and least powerful of persons. A being who depends entirely on the love and protection of others. One who knows nothing of social status or the distinctions of greater and lesser honor. One whose needs are simple –love, food, warmth, companionship, play. One whose gifts are simple—openness, affection, spontaneity, hope, and joy. Welcome such a one, and you make room in the world for God.
This wisdom of Jesus is still an available alternative to the usual way of trying to be happy. A different way of seeking the good life is still waiting to be tried, kind of like that pile of laundry in the other room, waiting to be folded, as we fuss and fret and worry about fixing the car. It’s true that that this way leaves you open to getting hurt, or being taken advantage of by all the serious people going about their serious business of getting ahead in the world. But there are worse things than getting hurt. And there are better things than being one of the few who gets the things everyone else thinks that they want. Or so says Jesus, but what did he know?