YEAR B: PENTECOST
(Sunday between September 11 and September 17)
This week’s passage from Proverbs strikes a note that is in keeping with the mainstream of wisdom tradition, which held that following wisdom would lead to a full and happy life. Here, wisdom (in Greek, sophia) is personified as a female prophet, calling people to heed wisdom, warning them of the calamity that befalls those who ignore the ways of the wise. She presents a black and white view of the world without nuance, where religion is a protection from calamity. Later in the book of Proverbs, Sophia wisdom is contrasted with the loose woman (spoken of in Proverbs 5) who waits to ensnare unwary wanderers from wisdom’s path.
At a time in their lives when young men (who may have been the audience of the wisdom tradition) would have been looking to find a wife, to embody wisdom as the woman for whom they should seek has certain poignancy. It is also a touch ironic that this desirable quality, wisdom, would be epitomised by the image of woman – this in a culture where women were not themselves allowed to learn.
In Prov 1:20, the figure of wisdom (sometimes called ‘Dame Wisdom’ in the older commentaries, or ‘Woman Wisdom’ in newer feminist scholarship) cries out in the city streets like a market vendor selling wares. Woman wisdom here beckons, in a positive reversal of the seductive invitation of the strange woman in Proverbs 5.
She begins with a confronting question, asking ‘how long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ From the start, she makes an inherent comparison between the ways of the wise and the ways of the simple or foolish. The second half of v. 22 parallels the first, expanding the image of the simple to include scoffers and fools.
Wisdom calls to those who will listen to her and respond to her reproof, threatening calamity for those who have ignored her teaching. As in the passage from last week’s reading, distress and anguish are seen as the unremitting consequences of choosing a foolish path. The figure of wisdom also links calamity to failing to fear the Lord, the central tenet of mainstream wisdom. She threatens to mock those who have ignored her counsel in the day when trouble catches up with them. She uses the images of storm, and then more strongly of whirlwind, to embody what their fate will be. In v. 31 she links their choices with the inevitable outcome that they will ‘eat the fruit of their way.’ Again, the image implies the choices they have made are like seeds that grow inexorably into their fruits; they will reap what they have sown.
In the final two verses of the reading, Wisdom underscores the differences between the foolish and the wise who listen to her teaching. Death and destruction befall the wayward and complacent, while life without fear awaits those who heed her call. This is the twofold path of wisdom and folly taken to the end of the road, death for the foolish, and life for the wise.
There is a strong didactic note in all of this passage and much of the book of Proverbs. This has led some commentators to propose that Proverbs would have been a primer of sorts for the wisdom schools in which young men of the court were educated. While we do not have evidence of these schools as such, the didactic tone of Proverbs does lend itself to envisioning a mentor/pupil relationship, with the sayings as the collected wisdom for guiding the young.
In preaching on this passage and others from Proverbs, one might raise issues of the place of teaching ethics and values in schools in our time. The preacher might also reflect on how what might seem like ‘secular education’ in modern parlance, is in fact related to the ‘fear of the Lord’, the beginning of wisdom according to Prov 1:7. Another theme that deserves attention is the somewhat problematic premise that people can avoid bad events by following God’s ways. This was a question that exercised the mind of some other biblical writers, see Psalm 73 for example. In that psalm the question of what really is good and bad is explored.
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