Salted with Fire

Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (NRSV)

Salted with Fire

Sometimes it’s difficult to not get jealous. Jealousy hits us in all kinds of ways over all kinds of things. As a writer—and an avid reader—I used to get jealous when I would read a book that was poorly written or had weird mistakes in it. I read a book last month—a popular Young Adult dystopian fantasy—that included this conversation in the story: “How many dead?” “Ten so far…Three in the shooting, eight in the explosion.” Now, you know from some of my previous sermons that I don’t claim to be great at math, but I’m fairly certain that you can’t get TEN from THREE plus EIGHT. But somehow, they did.

If you’ve ever seen my writing blog, you know I’m the kind of person who nitpicks over details like this. Part of me thought, how in the world did this person get published when all I seem to get are rejection letters? I think I’m a pretty good writer, maybe better than some of these Young Adult fantasy writers who’ve been published. Jealously can sneak in so easily. It can hit us when we think something isn’t fair. It can hit us when we see someone succeeding where we’ve failed. Sometimes it’s so subtle that we don’t even realize we’re jealous until we do or say something that reveals our jealousy.

The disciples are having one of those days. They found some person casting out demons in Jesus’ name, so they told him to quit. The person wasn’t one of their own. They weren’t following Jesus like the Twelve were. This person was an outsider. What did this random person think they were doing, casting out demons in the name of Jesus as if they were part of their crew?

The disciples knew copyright infringement when they saw it. That was their thing. They owned Jesus. They were the ones who were allowed to use Jesus’ name to do deeds of power, not this other person; not some upstart who didn’t belong, who hadn’t been properly called by Jesus as one of the inner-circle!

Of course John and the other disciples put a stop to it! The arrogance of that usurper! How dare they elbow in on their territory!

I think the disciples were jealous. Do you know why I think they were jealous? Listen to what happened just a few verses earlier in the same chapter.

Jesus asked them, ‘What are you arguing about?’ Someone from the crowd responded, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, since he has a spirit that doesn’t allow him to speak. Whenever it overpowers him, it throws him into a fit. He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and stiffens up. So I spoke to your disciples to see if they could throw it out, but they couldn’t.” (Mk. 9:16-18, CEB).

The disciples of Jesus tried to cast out a demon, but they couldn’t do it. They failed. They had to listen to Jesus scold them by saying, “You faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” (c.f. Mk. 9:19, CEB). The disciples probably felt two inches tall. Then, they come across some random person—an outsider, of all things—succeeding where they had failed. You bet your lifesavers they were jealous!

When they put a stop to the person who was casting out demons, I imagine they were rather forceful. The disciples probably chewed them out with the berating of a lifetime. Sometimes we forget that the disciples were people a lot like us. We get angry when we’re jealous, and so did they. The disciples probably stopped the person casting out demons by cutting them down to the two inches they were feeling.

Now that they were feeling satisfied—and probably quite justified—they went back to Jesus and casually reported what they had done. They had preserved their community. They had kept the power of this Jesus thing where it rightfully belongs: with them.

It reminds me of a certain denomination of the Christian Faith which reprimanded one of its pastors for participating in an interfaith prayer vigil after the Sandy Hook school shooting. The same denomination suspended one of its pastors for participating in the interfaith prayer vigil at Yankee Stadium after 9/11. The reason is because they don’t think the rest of us are quite legitimate. They can’t allow their pastors to be seen with other pastors because it might look like such joint-participation is giving legitimacy to the rest of us.

They’re right. We’re wrong. They’re the insiders, we’re the outsiders. They, like the disciples, would call it righteousness. Somehow, I think Jesus would call it something else.

The response of Jesus surely surprised the disciples. Don’t stop him! Can’t you see we’re on the same team? He was casting out demons in MY name! Didn’t that make you recognize him as one of mine? Whoever isn’t against us is for us!

If the disciples had Twitter back then, #facepalm would have been trending high.

The disciples seem to have asked the question, ‘Who do you think you are?’ when they told the person casting out demons in Jesus name to stop. But Jesus essentially asks the disciples the same question because they told the person to stop. ‘Who do you think you are to put this kind of stumbling block in front of a person doing deeds of power in my name?’ The Jesus who doesn’t let the smallest deed done in his name go unrewarded, even something as insignificant as offering someone a cup of water to drink, would never demand that someone to stop if they were doing more amazing things.

His words, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea,” don’t make a lot of sense until we realize Jesus is scolding the disciples on behalf of the one who was casting out demons. The disciples, because they acted out of jealousy, might have done real damage to that person’s faith.

What if that person were driven away from faith in Jesus? What if they threw up their hands and said, ‘Well, if that’s how this Jesus thing is, you can forget it!’ Followers of Jesus aren’t supposed to act that way. But sometimes we do. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that our jealous hearts can judge each other with a level of talent equal to the rest of the world.

Instead of building up and adding to our community, our instinct can be to circle the wagons and keep others out. We’re just as good at protecting our turf as anyone else.

Then, Jesus dives into what I consider my proof-text for those who claim they only interpret the Bible literally. If any of your body parts cause you to sin, chop ‘em off. Admittedly, I haven’t seen many self-proclaimed Biblical literalists walking around with self-inflicted amputations.

Now, there’s a lot of speculation about what Jesus means in this part of the text. It’s hyperbole, for sure, but what’s his point? Part of me thinks Jesus is telling the disciples, judge yourselves, first. He’s saying, ‘If you’re going to hurt someone or damage their faith for something as stupid at jealousy, first punish yourself for your jealousy. And while you’re at it, punish yourself for every other sin you’ve ever committed. Then we’ll see how you feel about putting that stumbling block in front of others. So go ahead! If you think the kingdom of God comes through behavior like this, if you think the Good News of God’s salvation is about judgment, then chop off your hands, your feet, and cut out your eyes.’

The thing is, this whole Jesus thing—the Christian Faith, God’s redemption and offer of salvation—it’s never been about judgment. It’s never been about fencing others out. It’s never been about protecting our turf, or guarding our comfort zones. It’s not even about comparing ourselves to what others are doing, or measuring their successes and failings against our successes and failings.

And I can tell you that as a pastor, it’s so easy to fall into this trap. It’s so easy to see the size of another church’s membership roll or worship attendance and feel jealous. Maybe you feel some of that, too, as parishioners.

Like the disciples, it isn’t easy to fail at something only to watch someone else succeed in the exact same endeavor.

As a writer, it’s easy to watch other writers get published and feel jealous because my books aren’t.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned about writers. We are a community. No matter what we write or how we write, no matter which of us are published or not, we are a community. And the majority of us are pretty awesome. We root for each other and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, because we share common goals and common struggles. We all know that getting published is huge. It’s difficult, it’s stressful, and it’s nerve-wracking.

Every time I send a query letter, I’m a ball of anxiety. I check my inbox every five minutes hoping someone has responded.

That book I mentioned, the one with the math mistake? I didn’t really care about the mistake. I really liked the book. In fact, I can’t wait for this author to publish her sequel. I liked Book One so much that I’ve already ordered Book Two even though it won’t be out for six months. I’m elated for her because I know her story is similar to mine. She was nobody special, who wrote a book, worked hard, and got published. Instead of being jealous, it gives me hope for my books.

We Christians are a community, too. We ought to be rooting for each other no matter who we are or from where we come. Instead of getting jealous, we should be celebrating. Instead of laying stumbling blocks, we should be encouraging. Instead of judging, we should love.

We’re already going to be judged. Jesus says we’re all going to be salted with fire. Fire is a symbol of judgment, and salt was used as currency in the Roman world. (That phrase that someone isn’t worth their salt suggests they aren’t worth what they’re being paid. In fact, the word salary comes from the Latin word for salt).

What I think Jesus is saying is our worth is going to be judged, in fact—to a degree—our worth already has been judged. God found us worthy enough of God’s love to send his Son to redeem us from sin. But if we engage in petty jealousies and lay stumbling blocks in front of others, like the disciples were doing, what good are we for the kingdom of God? It’s like salt that loses its saltiness. God has judged us to be worthy, but what good are we if we throw away our God-given value?

Jesus tells us to have salt in ourselves, but how do we do that? I think the clue is in the final six words of verse 50: “be at peace with one another.” We have salt in ourselves when we don’t engage in the kind of jealousy the disciples engaged in by stopping someone from working in the name of Jesus. I think we have salt in ourselves when we live at peace with one another.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotation marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version. Scripture quotation marked CEB are from the Common English Bible).

A Capable Wife

Proverbs 31:10-31

10 A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. 12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. 14 She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. 15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. 17 She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. 18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. 19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. 20 She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. 22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. 25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. 26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: 29 “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” 30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates. (NRSV)

A Capable Wife

Maritally speaking, I thought the safest way to approach this sermon would be to read the text, “A capable wife, who can find?” raise my hand to say, “I did!” and sit down as fast as I could. But, that wouldn’t make for much of a sermon, so here goes.

You know those commercials that feature a mom with a house full of kids, and the house looks immaculate? I mean, the house is perfect. It’s clean. There’s no clutter. No toys spread all over the floor. No plates scattered all over the counter. It’s unbelievable.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a commercial for a cleaning product or a snack food, do you know why most moms hate those commercials with a deep-seated passion? Because no house with children in it looks like that. Commercials like that, with kids running around a perfectly clean house, are meant to make people (mostly moms) feel inadequate. They tug at insecurities. The commercials help sell the product by telling us, if you had this easy snack food for your kids, you’d have more time to clean so your house could look like this. They have commercials like that because they mess with people’s confidence.

And let’s be honest. One of the ways this text has been read in the past—by women and men—is to set up an impossible ideal for what women ought to be doing. If you’ve ever heard this text read before, it was probably at one of three occasions: Mother’s Day, a wedding, or a funeral.

You don’t have to raise your hands, but I’m be curious to know how many women heard me read this text and thought, “Oh, great! Martha Steward couldn’t pull all that off. How am I supposed to? Thanks, Pastor, for shoving my failure to live up to the definition of a Biblical woman in my face!

I mean, look at what this says: Seek out some raw materials so you can make stuff; wake up before dawn and get to work; get breakfast going for the family; get your servant girls to work (because we all have servant girls, right? One of our parsonages had a small staircase in the back that led from the kitchen to the master bedroom. It was called a servant staircase, and we were like, “Does the parsonage come with servants for the servant staircase? It seems like a waste of a staircase if it doesn’t.”); buy a field and plant a vineyard (so if you don’t have a green thumb you’re in serious trouble); look at yourself in a mirror and be impressed as you flex your muscles; go to the gym and exercise; work until late at night (because children aren’t exhausting enough); make your own gorgeous clothing (I mean, Scarlet turned curtains into a dress in Gone With the Wind, so this ought to be totally doable); feed and care for the needy; design, make, and sell your own fashion line (think curtains, again); laugh it all off as if none of this stuff gets to you; speak with wisdom and kindness even when you feel like swearing a blue streak; take care of your entire household and make sure they all have something to do (because it’s your job to see that everyone else is constantly occupied); and for heaven’s sake, when that’s all done, don’t be idle. Go do something! Oh, and make sure you revere God in everything you do.”

As if there isn’t enough pressure in every culture for women to over-function! Women are expected to do everything and do it perfectly. I wonder how many women read this poem and think, That’s not me. I can’t do these things. Then, when you throw the patriarchal stuff on top of it, which makes it sound like these are men’s—even God’s—expectations of women, it only adds additional pressures that women don’t want and would never agree to if they had the choice.

That’s one, very frightening, way of reading this text. But I’d like to offer another way.

The poem describes a marriage. But, we should take note that it doesn’t describe a marriage that is shown to be either equal or unequal in terms of the relationship between the wife and the husband. It doesn’t even go there. That’s because the poem isn’t interested in making comparisons between wives and husbands, or the power dynamics that might be at play. Comparisons imply opposition, but this isn’t about opposition. This is a relationship that’s portrayed as mutually supportive. Each spouse benefits from the hard work and reputation of the other.

The woman does all of these things, not because there’s some patriarchal jerk making her do it, but because of her own initiative. It’s her determination, her self-actualization, her self-discipline, her kindness, her choice, that motivates her to work and accomplish these things. She is not a subordinate. Rather, she’s a partner in the truest sense of the word. The virtues she displays move beyond the confines of social structures, whether they’re patriarchal or matriarchal.

But here’s the kicker, and probably the one thing that can ease our minds. The text isn’t describing any real woman at all. It’s a poem, so it’s speaking poetically. It’s actually an acrostic poem, where the first letter of each line follows the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In one sense, the structure of the poem as an acrostic can suggest a full life, or the fullness of what wisdom has to offer from A to Z. Or, in Hebrew, Aleph to Tav.

Describing wisdom as a spouse is meant to suggest it’s like someone who’s with you all the time, someone who works alongside you, walks alongside you, who takes care of you, who makes you a better person than you would be without them, whose mere presence makes you feel fulfilled. You can see why wisdom is presented as a spouse. It’s what my wife does for me. It’s what I hope I do for her. That’s what wisdom is: a faithful and tireless companion.

For some of us, wisdom is like a capable wife. For others among us, wisdom is like a capable husband. But more than merely capable, the Hebrew word actually implies a much stronger meaning. One scholar suggested the translation, “warrior-like woman” (K.M. O’Connor). Personally, I love that idea. Especially since my wife was a practitioner of Tae Kwon Do. And, many of the characters in my novels are warrior women who do a lot of amazing martial arts stuff. “A warrior-like wife, who can find?” See, that just sounds awesome!

A warrior-like wife, who can find?” In one sense, when we read that question alongside the things the woman does, we realize that no person like this can been found on earth. Even if we were to suggest the capable wife is symbolic of the church—the Bride of Christ, it doesn’t take much to realize the church is flawed. We’re a messed up bunch.

Do you know how many churches have been torn apart by little, insignificant things like deciding what color the carpet should be, or which side of the sanctuary the piano should go on? The church isn’t perfect, but we’ve never claimed to be. We are not righteous of our own accord, nor would we claim to be. We are made righteous by the wisdom of God, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us in a way that is all-encompassing, full, and complete. Jesus Christ fought for us, and won the war. We’re just waiting for the victory dance.

In another sense, that question, “A warrior-like wife, who can find?” suggests that life with wisdom as our companion begins with a search. If it’s something we have to search for, then we probably need to know what wisdom is. First and foremost, let’s look at what wisdom is not. Wisdom is not a scraggly-looking sage sitting in a cleft at the top of a mountain who speaks in riddles and veiled language. Wisdom is not enlightenment or knowledge-in-general. Wisdom isn’t something you know. The difference between wisdom and folly is in the choices we make. Wisdom is how we live.

As I said last week, wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. In essence, wisdom is a life lived in faithful obedience to God. It’s living out our Christian faith and our spiritual disciplines so the decisions we make each and every day are in line with God’s great hope for each of us: that we will live with love as our guide in all things. It’s the hope of God that we will do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Everyone is invited to seek wisdom. Everyone is invited to come alongside Lady Wisdom and live with her as a daily companion. Anyone can be made wise. And the thing is, we often don’t have to search very far to find it. It’s not like wisdom is hiding from us. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.” (Prov. 1:20-21, NRSV).

We can see wisdom in other people. We can see people living out their faith in ways that make us say, “Wow! I wish I could be like that.” Sometimes it’s an older family member. Paul wrote in Second Timothy, “I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure this faith is also inside you.” (2Tim. 1:5, CEB). This implies that wisdom—defined as faithfulness—is something that is learned and passed down. When we see people living with humility, compassion, justice, mercy, fairness, generosity, and hope, and we choose to emulate them, we’re in the process of learning to be wise.

Wisdom is faithfulness. Wisdom is living life with humility, wonder, awe, and gratitude for God and for God’s creation. Wisdom is loving God and loving our neighbor. When we can do these things, we’ll know wisdom when we see her.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

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(Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard version are marked NRSV. Quotations from the Common English Bible are marked CEB).

By the way, Joy and I started dating 20 September 2000. Today marks our 15th anniversary as a couple, though our friendship goes back to the Fall of 1997 when she showed up as a freshman at The University of Findlay. I couldn’t ask for a better best friend or a more capable companion.

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. Chris&Joy1

The Call of Wisdom

Proverbs 1:20-33

20 Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. 21 At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? 23 Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. 24 Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, 25 and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, 26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, 27 when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. 28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. 29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, 30 would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, 31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. 32 For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; 33 but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.” (NRSV)

The Call of Wisdom

I’ve never excelled at math. In fact, it was probably my weakest subject in school. I did okay with the basic stuff, but when it came to algebra, I simply didn’t understand it. People would tell me, “Algebra’s easy. Whatever you do to one side of the equation, you do to the other side, and you’re good.” But all I could do is raise my hands in exasperation and say, “I have no idea what that means!” I really, truly, did not understand.

If only my algebra teachers had presented algebra the way Proverbs presents wisdom: as a beautiful yet elusive woman. If only they had said, “Seek after Lady Algebra. She is beautiful and desirable, yet elusive. Those who find her will be happy, for they will never fail to understand “x.” Those who make algebra their own will always comprehend “y.” But I could never figure out x or y, and I always heard Lady Algebra mocking my folly, laughing at my choice to ignore her existence. And that’s essentially what I had chosen to do.

Joy, on the other hand, is a math wiz. She’s brilliant at it. She was a math tutor in college. When I designed and built a fort and swing set for our kids, Joy did the trigonometry to calculate how long the slide needed to be so the angle of descent met safety standards. And to make sure we didn’t launch our children into the corn field behind our house.

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She always said she could teach me algebra. I only needed someone to explain it in a way I could understand. For over thirteen years, I scoffed at the idea.

Then, when Joy and I were driving from Fort Wayne to Mount Vernon for our move here, we were both tired from days of packing and little sleep. I needed to stay awake, so I asked her to teach me algebra. I figured the higher brain functions required to do math would keep me from nodding off. So she did. She explained it in a way I could understand. Once I learned, I was spouting the solutions to every equation she gave me, doing the math in my head. Who knew algebra was that easy?

In Old Testament thought, Wisdom can be a technical skill, experience. shrewdness, the worldly wisdom of other peoples (such as the Egyptians, Greeks, & Babylonians), the pious wisdom of Israel, God’s wisdom, or wisdom personified as a woman. There are several texts in the Old Testament that describe Wisdom in personal feminine language as though she is a living, breathing, beautiful woman. In Proverbs 1, Lady Wisdom makes a personal appearance.

The presentation of Wisdom as a woman stems, in part, from the fact that the Hebrew word itself (חָכְמָה) is feminine. The Greek word has even become a woman’s name in languages across Western culture, σοφία (Sophia). It probably would’ve appealed to an audience of young men learning from their teachers. If the teachers described Wisdom as desirable yet elusive, the allusions to a beautiful woman would have been a shrewd—wise—way of getting the young men interested. The listeners are urged to seek Wisdom, to find her and make her their own as if she were a potential wife who already loves them and wants them to take notice of her. In fact, the references to the desirable woman and ideal wife in Proverbs are, in many ways, symbolic of the desirability of Lady Wisdom herself.

In Proverbs 1, the first of Lady Wisdom’s three personal appearances in the book, she is depicted as an angry prophetess. It makes me wonder if this text was a source for William Congreve’s famous line, “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” It’s the origin of that old line, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and it comes from his play The Mourning Bride. One interesting thing about this depiction is that Wisdom speaks on her own authority. She doesn’t begin her prophetic utterance with the typical prophetic words, “Thus says the Lord.” Instead, Lady Wisdom proclaims her own power. She can reveal herself to those who seek her, or hide from those who seek her too late.

To seek Wisdom is to seek God. Neglecting wisdom is neglecting God. Wisdom cries out in the street, raises her voice in the squares, and calls out from the busiest corner. But Wisdom only spends a few verses on those who listen to her. Most of her words are about her response to those who refuse to listen. And her words are disconcerting.

It sounds like the mockery of Lady Wisdom—which is also God’s mockery—is somehow out of place or ill-suited to a gracious God. Wisdom will laugh at calamity? Wisdom will mock when panic, distress, and anguish strike? It sounds cruel and insensitive. But it isn’t suggesting God has it out for us. It’s actually somewhat apocalyptic in nature, and by that I don’t mean frightening end-of-the-world stuff. Apocalyptic literature, like Revelation, actually underscores God’s love and immense patience with our human stupidity and our refusal to accept God’s rule and reign, but most importantly, our refusal to accept God’s healing grace and love.

One of the features of apocalyptic literature is the cycle of seven. In Revelation, you have seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders, and seven bowls. As people’s rebellion and disobedience continue, more and more calamity befalls them until it seems like God is ready to wipe the floor with them. But then, God holds back. God allows people more time to repent. But eventually, after time and time again, God’s patience runs out. Like any parent with a child who refuses to listen, when calamity comes the parent can do little more than throw up their arms and say, I told you this would happen! There’s nothing more I can do. You’re responsible for the consequences of your actions.

When people walk a path of foolishness, as it’s described in Proverbs, they’ll end up destroying themselves by reaping what they’ve sown, eating the fruit of their way, being sated with their own devices. The mockery is, in essence, God’s judgment. But here, it serves as a warning. The judgment hasn’t been made yet. There’s still time to repent. The callousness of wisdom is actually God’s love. Through wisdom, God is calling to us, God is begging us, God is screaming at us, to turn to God. But our hearts don’t always hear. In our arrogance, we can refuse.

The reality is, when people have no use for God during times of prosperity, we’ll have no idea how to turn to God in times of need. It sounds unsympathetic. But the thing is, fools don’t become wise through sympathy. It takes conversion. It takes new creation. It takes grace. Wisdom requires what only God can give—what God freely offers—yet we must receive the renewing grace God is trying to shove into our heart, mind, body, and soul.

How, then, do we make the right choice? How do we seek after and find Wisdom? There is a hint in verse 29. It says, “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord.” Listen to that again, “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord.”

There are seven places in the Old Testament which connect wisdom to “the fear of the Lord.” And fear in this sense doesn’t necessarily mean terror. Fear means giving God the reverence, honor, and the respect God deserves, in part, by listening to what God says and obeying. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Honoring God is the beginning of wisdom. Respecting God is the beginning of wisdom. Obeying God is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom comes from God. Wisdom is a gift that only God can give. We can’t have wisdom apart from God. Even the wisdom of Greece, Egypt, Babylon, and Persia came to those peoples as a gift from God, even if they didn’t recognize the giver.

Jesus Christ has been called The Wisdom of God. In the Gospel of John, the masculine Greek word λόγος, which means word or principle, was used instead of the feminine Greek word σοφία in order to describe Jesus Christ. But the feminine word didn’t stop Paul from calling Christ θεοῦ σοφίαν the wisdom of God (1Cor. 1:24). Christ is God’s wisdom.

It’s appropriate for us to read this text and hear it as a call to turn (or re-turn) to Christ as the wisdom of God. The Gospel text for this week is from Mark 8 where Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Being a Christian is no lackadaisical endeavor or half-hearted enterprise. It’s serious stuff. It requires us to consider the fact that what we want, what we’re comfortable with, are not always in line with what the gospel requires. What the gospel requires is wisdom.

There is a wise way to navigate this and every troubled time, and that is to honor God with our life. We can honor God with how we live. We can honor God in everything we do and say. We can live each moment as though God is walking alongside us, because you know what? God is. We can honor God in our choices. A choice that does not honor God is never the wise choice. We come to God by believing in and following Jesus Christ, the Word, Principle, and Wisdom of God. It’s through Jesus that we come to God and are saved.

But long before that, we can hear Wisdom’s call. We can hear the whispered echoes of God’s grace being offered to us in every moment of our lives.

Waywardness and complacency kill simpletons and fools whose hearts are too calloused to even comprehend God’s wisdom and truths. Those who are alert and seeking, and listening to the message of Lady Wisdom will be secure, live at ease, and won’t dread disaster.

As nice as that might sound, it doesn’t mean we’ll never face struggles. It doesn’t mean we’ll never experience difficult times. I’m a thirty-nine year old pastor, and I’ve faced plenty. My mother-in-law was just diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. It’s a difficult, heart-broken time for my family right now. And I fully expect to face plenty more difficulty in the future.

What this does mean is that, in the midst of those excruciating moments, in the middle of those dark times when we’re feeling pain and brokenness because of what life throws at us, we’ll be able to rely on God’s sustaining grace. God is with us. God loves us. And God’s grace fills us in ways we can scarcely imagine. When we seek the wisdom of God, we receive the gift of God’s grace.

We can choose wisdom or we can choose folly. I don’t know about you, but to me, it seems like Wisdom is the better way to go.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless noted as [CEB] for the Common English Bible).

A Good Name

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

1 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. 2 The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.

8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. 9 Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them. (NRSV)

A Good Name

Proverbs has never been one of my favorite books. Part of it might be because I’ve blown so many of the wise sayings in the book. More likely, it’s because the book isn’t exactly a gripping read. It’s more or less a collection of pithy aphorisms about life, and I’ve always been more of a fantasy guy. I need a book to have at least some kind of narrative framework. But Proverbs doesn’t have that. Proverbs is a treasure trove for the fan of the one-liner. Interpreters of the individual proverbs are often left to shove them into whatever life situation seems to fit best because we don’t have the context for understanding them as they were originally written.

Still, proverbs from this book have a way of connecting with us—even influencing us—in subtle ways. It’s hardly possible to escape the wisdom contained in the Book of Proverbs. The sayings manifest themselves in folk wisdom across the globe. There are parallels to the Hebrew proverbs in Greek literature and Egyptian Instruction works, such as the Instruction of Amenemope. Wisdom sayings from the Book of Proverbs are everywhere. And we remember them.

One of my favorites is, “Even a fool who does not speak is considered wise.” I was doing pretty well with that one until God called me to ministry. Now I have to talk in front of people all the time.

When I was a kid in third grade, I got my first copy of the Bible that wasn’t a heavily abridged children’s book. My Aunt Connie gave me a bookmark that I still have in the Bible. The bookmark says, “Chris. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” I’ve held on to that proverb since I was nine years old. I’ve had it memorized. And I don’t doubt it’s had an influence on my integrity and my attempt to live my life in such a way that I have a good reputation. It might not have worked, but I try.

Wisdom has been described as the first of God’s creations. Wisdom is often described in feminine terms, even being addressed as Lady Wisdom. That might explain the folk proverb that says, “The more a man knows about women, the more he knows he doesn’t know.” We men try to understand, but give us a break. You have two X chromosomes, we have an X and a Y. We only have like 69% of the chromosomal base pairs available to you. Thinking is hard.

The first proverb introduces the theme of wealth, which is strewn throughout chapter 22. In a culture where the dollar is almighty, this saying challenges our cultural assumption that riches are the be all and end all. It might not be for everyone, but this is how the majority of our culture functions. We make most of our decisions based on a monetary cost analysis. Even something as simple as lunch can easily become a financial decision. When lunchtime rolls around, I ask myself if I want to go spend $8 at Arby’s or go home and eat leftovers.

The proverb suggests money isn’t as important as integrity. A good name has to do with reputation. Favor is what other people think about you. What kind of person are you known to be. That’s more important than wealth. At the same time, it doesn’t say riches, silver, and gold are unimportant. It doesn’t necessarily devalue them, but it holds wealth up against a good name and a favorable reputation and finds the latter things to be more important.

It begs the question, what are we working for in life? When we work, we earn a paycheck, and that’s pretty important. We need money in order to support our families. But there’s a balance between having a reputation as a hard worker and having a reputation as a neglector of the very family we’re trying to support.

I’ve struggled with this at various times. One church I served was so difficult that I put in 60-70 hour weeks just to try to make people happy. But when I did that, I neglected my family. At the end of each day, I was so tired that I had nothing to give to my wife and children. So I had to make adjustments. I’ve tried to form better habits. I’ve had to learn to say no to work sometimes. It might sound odd because the work I do is ministry. Occasionally, it’s worthwhile stuff. But I say no because I want to be a good father. More importantly, I want Kara, James, and Charlotte to know me as a good father. I say no sometimes because I want to be a good husband to my wife. But more importantly, I want Joy to know me as a good husband. No amount of money or riches is worth more than being seen as a good husband and father to my family. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.

The next proverb, in verse 2, reminds us that we’re all valuable to God. We tend to make distinctions between each other based on economics. It’s one of the things the Epistle of James addresses. He wrote:

My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? (2:1-4, CEB).

Later, James writes, “You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker.” (2:8-9, CEB). God is the maker of us all. All people are connected to one another regardless of anyone’s social or economic position. When we disregard or deride the poor—or anyone whom we consider an “other”—we’re insulting the God who created them.

There’s a family element here. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we’re from, what we have, or what we’ve done. We are community. The Lord is the maker of us all.

The proverb in verse 8 has a cause and effect theme. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity. It reminds us that there are consequences for our actions. As with a lot of the proverbs, this one seems to be geared toward those in positions of authority such as government and legal officials. However, it’s applicable to any kind of authority figure. The rod in question is the scepter. Those who use their position of authority to abuse or oppress others will face consequences. Whether those consequences are temporal or eternal, it doesn’t say. I think it’s probably both. Sin always has both temporal and eternal consequences. But, personally, I don’t want to find out for myself.

The proverb in verse 9 moves us along in the theme of rich and poor. The word used for poor can also mean weak or helpless. In this case, it suggests the poor who don’t have enough to eat. Generosity is a spiritual discipline. When we’re generous with what we have, we are blessed, not only because we’ve helped someone, but it goes back to that “good name” thing from verse 1. What are you known for? If you’re known as a generous person, that’s a blessing in and of itself. We’re called to be generous. It’s supposed to be part of who we are as Christians. God has given us everything we have. Do we give a tithe back to God, which is 10%, like God asks? Do we give of ourselves to those in need?

Together, verses 8 and 9 go along with the first two General Rules of Methodism: “Do no harm,” and “Do good.” Did you know these are the first two General Rules of our United Societies? There are only three of them. Do no harm. Do good. Attend to the means of grace. When we hold these two proverbs together, it seems the point is that we have choices we can make. We can choose a path that is wise or we can choose a path that is foolish; the path of blessing or of calamity. Instead of causing harm, we want to do no harm. Instead of doing no good, we want to do good.

The final proverb in verses 22 and 23 reminds me of my middle school gym teacher, Mr. LeDuc. If he ever caught someone picking on another kid, he would yell at the bully in the middle of the class and declare that he was on the side of the “little guy.” It was terrifying and hilarious at the same time.

No one should take advantage of the poor, the disadvantaged, the humble, the weak, or the helpless. It’s never okay to beat people down just because they’re already down. It’s not okay to throw justice out the window. “The Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” In other words, the Lord’s gonna come against the oppressors like Mr. LeDuc on a bully. It won’t be pretty. There won’t be much left of the oppressor’s good name when God executes that justice.

We can all choose our path. In almost any circumstance there’s a path of wisdom and a path of folly. God calls us, through wisdom, to act responsibly, to give generously, to live righteously, and to recognize the God-given beauty in each other. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and God is the maker of us all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted. CEB refers to the Common English Bible).