Choosing Wisdom

Proverbs 9:1-6 | Ephesians 5:15-20

Jeremy Richards

One subject that I’ve always wanted to study, but have never had the opportunity to do so officially, is philosophy. So, while on parental leave, I decided to try my best to learn something about philosophy. I read these little Oxford Very Short Introductions on a number of philosophical topics. I tried to read one a week (and almost succeeded). One of the short introductions I read was on existentialism. Now, based on reading a very short introduction on existentialism, I’m going to act like I’m some kind of expert on the topic.

Existentialism became prominent in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was a great deal of variety within existentialist thought, so it can, at times, be hard to nail down exactly what existentialism is. But, despite their many differences, there were a number of common themes that tied existentialist thought together. One of these was the idea of personal freedom. They rejected the idea that fate or some other power dictated who we are and who we would become. While Freud said we are controlled by subconscious urges and Marx said we are controlled by economic factors, the existentialists said we are free.

This may sound pretty good to us. After all, we like to stress that we’re a church that emphasis freedom. “For us, being Baptist is all about the freedom that comes through Christ - freedom to engage with God in a variety of ways, freedom to inquire, freedom to learn, freedom to wrestle with difficult questions, and freedom to hold diverse opinions while uniting for the common good,” our website says. But freedom is a double-edged sword. Because with freedom comes responsibility.

If we are not free, then we can’t be held responsible for our choices, but if we are free, then we are responsible for who we are. There are no external factors to blame for any of our short comings if we’re truly free. “That’s just the way I am,” is not an adequate excuse for an existentialist. You are free to be different if you so choose. There’s nothing forcing you to be the way you are.

Because we are free, the existentialist says, we are constantly confronted with choices. Choice, in a sense, becomes the defining characteristic of our lives. Even the decision not to make a choice is a choice. Soren Kierkegaard, arguably the father of existentialism, uses the example of the captain of a ship who needs to turn the ship. If he never decides to turn the ship, the ship will keep moving forward. By not choosing to turn the ship, he has chosen to let the ship continue on its way.

A more modern example would be one that I experience regularly, and I’m sure you have as well. I get in my car, and type in my destination in my GPS. It pops up on my screen and I follow the little blue line as it leads me. But often, the blue line turns yellow or red because of traffic. I start thinking about other ways to get to my destination. The GPS might tell me to go straight, where the red line waits like a monster, ready to swallow me and my vehicle into the purgatory that is Portland traffic, but I know that there’s another way to get to my destination, if I turn right in a couple of blocks.

As I approach the turn for the alternate route, I battle with myself. Do I know better than the GPS? Why hasn’t the GPS suggested this as an alternate route? Is there traffic that way as well? Maybe, even worse, the road is closed, and I’ll have to backtrack, only to end up back on the original route the GPS mapped out for me.

Either because I decide to trust the GPS, or because my indecision keeps me from taking that right turn, I end up continuing along the route the GPS has prescribed. Despite the fact that I’m simply going the way I was before, I have made a choice. I’ve chosen to carry on with my original path. I’ve chosen not to turn right.

Those who choose not to choose, in other words, those who choose the path of least resistance, who go with the flow, the existentialists would say, are living an “inauthentic life.” This echoes Socrates’ famous saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The authentic life, on the other hand, is that life that is examined. It’s a life that recognizes that every day, every minute, every second, we are making choices. The authentic life is one that first learns to see the choices that confront us (which is not always an easy task), and second chooses to break from the status quo, from the path of complacency. In other words, to turn the ship, to take a right instead of following that blue line on the GPS.

The writers of Proverbs and Ephesians (presumably King Solomon and the apostle Paul) certainly weren’t existentialists, but like the existentialists, these writers believe we are confronted daily with a choice, and that choice is whether or not we will live wisely. To these authors, wisdom isn’t about knowledge, but a way of life. And like the existentialists, they would say that this choice requires that we pay attention, that we not become complacent. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise,” Paul says in Ephesians.

Building off of last week’s sermon, wisdom is a life that willingly participates in the life of God, in the work God is doing here and now. While it isn’t apparent from our readings today, if we look at the context that surrounds them, we’ll see that our passages from both Proverbs and Ephesians argue that the life of wisdom is a life rooted in the life of God.

In Proverbs, Wisdom is personified. Scholars often refer to this character as “Woman Wisdom” or “Sophia,” from the Greek word for wisdom. Woman Wisdom has built her house, cooked a feast, and invites all who pass by to enter her home and eat her bread and drink her wine.

But where is God in all this? Woman Wisdom says nothing of God…in our reading from today. But if we go back one chapter, we’ll see that Woman Wisdom is God’s first creation and that she even took part in creation. Turn with me to Proverbs 8:22-36.

Woman Wisdom, it turns out, is a pretty big deal. In fact, many of the New Testament writers imply that Jesus is the epitome of Woman Wisdom. Just as Woman Wisdom took part in creation – “I was beside [God] like a master worker,” she says – so John 1 says that Jesus was “in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

Wisdom says she was created before anything else, which is a little tricky because we believe Jesus is God, not that he was created by God, so there isn’t an exact correlation between Wisdom and Jesus. But, in Colossians Paul does refer to Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (1:15), surely making a connection to Woman Wisdom.

Even Jesus connects himself with Woman Wisdom. In Matthew 11:18-19, Jesus has been accused of eating and drinking too much and he responds, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinner!” and then Jesus says, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Jesus is, of course, saying that he will be vindicated by his deeds, but he doesn’t speak in the first person. Instead he harkens back to Woman Wisdom from Proverbs, implying that he is the personification of Woman Wisdom.

Many women have struggled with Jesus’ maleness, wondering how they can really relate to a Savior whose gender is different than their own. I hope those of you who may feel put off by Jesus’ gender will find comfort in this early, feminine expression of the divine Logos, the divine Word, through which God created the world.    

So we see that the wisdom of Woman Wisdom is inseparable from the life of God. She is born out of God’s creative excitement, and as God creates she dances and rejoices alongside God. Isn’t that a wonderful picture: her rejoicing as God creates the wonders of the world?! Let’s be sure and note that the life of Wisdom is not a life of boredom. It’s not a life in which we deny ourselves the joys and celebrations of life. Wisdom is one who rejoices, and she invites us to a banquet. “She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table” (v. 5 says there’s bread for the vegetarians among us). She goes on to say, “Lay aside immaturity, and live.” Live!

But, as the existentialists would tell us, there is a choice to be made. The party at Woman Wisdom’s is not the only one in town. Look down at 9:13, where we find Woman Wisdom’s nemesis: Woman Folly. Read 9:13-18.

Both women call out to those who pass by, specifically the simple. Both offer food, though Wisdom has prepared her own, while Folly has stolen hers. But, while Wisdom’s house is full of life – the abundant life, to use Jesus’ words – Folly’s home, despite the enticing façade, is full of death.       

Perhaps Paul has this very passage in mind when he exhorts the Ephesians, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Paul, like the writer of Proverbs before him, and like the existentialists after him, tells the Ephesians they have a choice. Notice that he says the days are evil. Presumably, to continue on with the way of the world, to go with the flow, to live an “inauthentic” life, in the words of the existentialists, or the “unexamined” life, in the words of Socrates, is to go along with evil. Paul, Woman Wisdom, the existentialists, they tell us that wisdom is something that must be chosen. We must choose to turn and enter the house of Wisdom. Like Kierkegaard’s captain, we must turn the ship around. We must break from the blue line on our GPS.

Paul, like Woman Wisdom, doesn’t believe this life of wisdom to be one of boredom, legalism, or depravation. Instead it is marked by gratitude, by community, and by song. It’s a life filled by the life of God – filled with the Spirit of God. “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now, I’m guess some of us are a little hung up on the whole “Do not get drunk on wine,” part, and despite all the references to singing, to community, and to gratitude, this text still seems “negative” so some of us. It seems like the rules we talked about last week.

It’s important then to note that Paul is talking about a way of life. Paul wants our day-to-day life to be filled with the Spirit of God! To be filled with wisdom and joy and gratitude! Not to be filled with drunkenness.

It’s true, once a month we meet at a bar together, resulting in one negative Facebook review and an email accusing us – or maybe just me – of apostasy, both of which came from people who’ve never been to our church…but I digress. I know that many of us like beer…and wine…and whiskey…and other forms of liquor. But I think we can all, also, think of people we know who’ve given these things too much power in their lives. We can all think of friends, family, and loved ones who have become victims of alcoholism and addiction. Perhaps some of us have personally struggled with these things, or are stuggling with these things. And I think we can all agree with Paul that God doesn’t want us to be enslaved by drunkenness, but wants to free us from it.

So, I don’t think we should shake our heads at Paul. I don’t think we should write him off as some kind of uptight goody-goody, some kind of buzzkill. His word to us is a word of…wisdom. Within a passage that is primarily about the fullness of life in Christ, he warns us of a very real danger that could sideline our journey with God and one another. Like Woman Folly, alcohol can call us away from our path, trap us, and enslave us.

Our readings today remind us that every day we are confronted with a multitude of choices, and that the easy way is probably not the good way. We might remember Jesus’ words, “the gate is wide and road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it…the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). To discern the will of the Lord, to choose the path of wisdom, takes effort. Every day we choose a multitude of paths. Sometimes we miss opportunities, and we float along the wide stream of complacency. Other times we hear the voice of Wisdom calling, and we follow her.

In our personal lives and in our social lives these choices confront us, bombard us, relentlessly. We are confronted with the choice to read our Bibles, to pray, to meditate, or to turn on the TV or look at our phones. We are confronted with the choice to greet every person in our workplace with a “hello” and a smile, or to keep our head down and get to our desk. We are confronted with the choice to treat everyone we meet throughout the day with dignity, or to turn our noses up at those we think are undeserving.

On a social level, many of us feel the weight of Paul’s words: “The days are evil.” We live in a moment in time where fleeing violence in your home country can make you a prisoner in the United States, like the men being held in Sheridan right now. We live in a time when children are separated from parents and held in cells. We live in a time when transgender students are threatened with violence by the parents of their classmates,[i] something that happened in Oklahoma this week.

During this time we must remember that to not choose is to choose. As the saying goes, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil…Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act” (often attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but not actually from him).

The good news, is that we do not walk the path of life alone. We are given the Spirit of God who fills us and guides us. And, of course, we have each other. Remember that Ephesians is all about unity in Christ. It’s about how a group of people from all different backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life come to be “members of one another.” We journey down the road together, singing songs, rejoicing in God’s creation, being filled with gratitude.

And if I miss the turn, if I fail to choose, if I carry on down the road of complacency, I ask that you place your arm around my shoulder and gently lead me home to the house that wisdom has built for us, and the banquet that awaits us all.