Wisdom From On High

We would be very foolish indeed to ignore such an invitation, to turn aside from such a host, to abstain from such a feast...

Trinity C 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, and our first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, presents us with an opportunity to think about one particular aspect of the nature of God, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This portion of Proverbs begins with what is sometimes referred to as “The Song of Wisdom” — and it forms an important part in a whole complex of “Wisdom Literature” — a collection biblical and inter-testamental texts, the latter so called because they come between the Old and the New Testaments.

In the Wisdom Literature, Wisdom is not only praised as an abstract virtue or concept, but is personified, often, as in the text today, portrayed as a regal woman. Wisdom is portrayed as a woman in part because both the Hebrew and the Greek words for wisdom, ḥokmah and sophia, are feminine in gender, and the latter obviously even came to be a common woman’s name. So Wisdom is seen as a woman... but, I’m sorry, my friends; to the women here today I have to alert you not to take too much pride in this relationship with Wisdom, because the Book of Proverbs also personifies Folly as a woman! From a biblical standpoint, it seems women just can’t win, at least not all the time. Thank goodness some things change!

And one of the things that changed over time, particularly in the Christian era, was how Wisdom came to be seen, and about whom the texts were said to speak. And that is Jesus!

Now, you might well wonder how this movement from an abstract idea of wisdom as a virtue, to wisdom personified as a regal woman, a princess or queen, to wisdom incarnate as the Son of God, Jesus, took place. And so I’d like to explore that process with you a bit today, on this Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the Christian year when theology steps to the forefront.

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First of all, we know that the Jewish people had long valued wisdom as a virtue. Wisdom for them included knowledge, and people who knew a lot of things would be accounted wise. Solomon, for example, is held up as the supreme example of wisdom, as it is written of him in the First Book of Kings:

God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt... He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.

I’m not all that sure that Solomon would have been a great guest at a dinner party; but in addition to this kind of “know-it-all” wisdom, there was also high admiration for what we would call common sense, or even crafty shrewdness, or even cunning. There is no doubt that given the scrapes into which the patriarchs got themselves, the ability to be clever, shrewd, or even crafty, came to be admired. Being able to get out of a difficult situation, even if by the skin of your teeth, is an admirable quality. You will no doubt remember that parable Jesus told about the business manager who is about to be fired and who comes up with a scheme to win friends for himself by marking down their debts to his master — and then the master turns around and praises him for his shrewdness. So being a smooth operator was admirable, in a down-to-earth way.

And so it is that both book-smarts and street-smarts both come under the heading of Wisdom in this first understanding of the word. But as the poets and wise men, such as Solomon himself, began to extol the virtues of wisdom more and more, they began to take poetic license by personifying wisdom as that regal woman, Sophia. As I noted before, this plays both ways, as the writers of the Wisdom literature believed that there were few things more valuable than a wise woman, and few things worse than a foolish one, and they would play these images against each other by comparing and contrasting a wise wife with a foolish harlot. The Wisdom writers also wrote of how a man could be blessed by a wise wife but destroyed by a foolish harlot, and he would be a fool indeed after her tempting ways.

But wisdom itself they saw as the pinnacle of goodly virtue: a woman more precious than jewels or gold. The passage we heard today from Proverbs is typical: she is described as being with God from the beginnings of creation, working with God, like a master-worker cooperating with God in creation itself.

The author of the intertestamental Book of Ecclesiasticus, Joshua ben Sira, took the analogy even further, picking up where Proverbs leaves off and extolling Wisdom even more; he writes:

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people... “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High... I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway... Before the ages, in the beginning, God created me, and for all ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion... in the beloved city he gave me a resting place... Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits.... Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.”

I think it is easy to see how the early Christians, hearing these texts, even though they are describing Wisdom personified, and though even here less as a woman than as a kind of emanation coming from God himself, could come to see that these texts are referring to Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. But there is one more reason even more telling, because the passage I just cited ends by saying, “All this” — that is, all that has preceded, the whole description of Wisdom — “all this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us...” In short, Wisdom is identified as the Word of God, coming forth from the mouth of God and recorded in the Holy Scripture, most especially the Torah.

As you know, Jesus came to be understood to be the living and incarnate Word of God. This was due largely to the Gospel according to Saint John, and from there it was an easy step to go back to the Wisdom literature and see Jesus foretold in those texts. And so Jesus came to be understood by the early church as the “Wisdom from on high” dwelling with his people, inspiring them, as the Word of God incarnate, fulfilling both the law and the prophets.

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It is written in Proverbs, in the chapter after the one from which we heard the reading this morning, chapter 9:

Wisdom has built her house..., she has mixed her wine, she has set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town..., “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”

What the wise men wrote of, what the prophets foretold, we have come to realize at last. Jesus, the Wisdom from on high, calls us to this house, calls us to his table, and gives himself to us his faithful believers much as Wisdom gave herself to those she summoned — and he gives himself to us in that bread and in that wine. Jesus our Lord and Savior, and also the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, calls us to Take and eat, to take and drink — more than bread, more than wine, but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We would be very foolish indeed to ignore such an invitation, to turn aside from such a host, to abstain from such a feast. May we always gladly eat and drink at the table of the Wisdom from on high, in the Eucharistic feast committed to our hands by the Word of God himself, even Jesus Christ our Lord.