Tag Archives: wisdom

Matthew 25: 1-13: Wise and Foolish Virgins

By Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (1838-1842) – Flickr, Photographer: oar square from Frankfurt/M., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5296396

Matthew 25: 1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaidstook their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaidsgot up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaidscame also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew concludes his final teaching discourse with three parables found only in Matthew about how a wise disciple responds to the unknown day and hour of the coming of the Son of Man in glory. Those who are wise will be able to enter into the joy of their master and celebrate the long-awaited banquet, and those who are foolish may find themselves on the outside desiring to be a part of the celebration of the wise with the bridegroom. There are a number of connections throughout these parables with the Sermon on the Mount in particular and Jesus’ teaching and parables in general, and Matthew as a skillful editor has structurally used these parables of faithful preparation and stewardship to highlight the need for a community of wise disciples who can live faithfully in uncertain times when their master seems delayed or distant.

There will be wise and foolish in any community, but Matthew in this initial parable brings together a group of wise and a group of foolish virgins[1] who are awaiting the wedding feast and the bridegroom who the wedding feast celebrates. Throughout Matthew, we have seen Jesus use the wise/foolish pattern that is frequently used throughout the scriptures, particularly in wisdom literature, to help individuals and the community discern what wisdom looks like in practice. Here as Jesus begins his final trio of parables, wisdom is reflected in being prepared for the delayed coming of the bridegroom. As M. Eugene Boring can state:

Readiness in Matthew is, of course, living the life of the kingdom, living the quality of life described in the Sermon on the Mount. Many can do this for a short while; but when the kingdom is delayed, the problems arise. Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when hostility breaks out again and again, and the bridegroom is delayed. Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant; being merciful for a lifetime, when the groom is delayed, requires preparedness. (NIB VIII: p. 451)

I find the grouping of five wise virgins helpful in this first parable because it is a group of the invited ones who have acted in a way that the parable views as wise and responsible, while the foolish are like those sown on the rocky soil without roots who are unprepared when the life of discipleship becomes challenging (13:5, 20). The community will endure suffering for their testimony and faith, and the metaphor of the wise virgins who come prepared for the delay reflects the course on both wise individuals and wise communities whose practices form faithful disciples that live each day in perseverance, preparation and hope. Sometimes preachers and readers have become focused on the foolish virgins, but scripture never calls on the reader to focus on the foolish, but instead to focus on the wise. The consequences of foolishness in the parable may be an encouragement to take the path of the wise, but preachers and readers should never become focused on the foolish to the point of ignoring the positive portrayal of these wise virgins who do participate in the long-awaited wedding banquet. Women throughout Matthew’s gospel have both been exemplars of faith [see for example the highlighting of women in the genealogy (1:1-17), the Canaanite woman (15:21-28), and the unnamed woman at Bethany (26:6-13)] and have been used in parables as illustrations of the kingdom of heaven (13:33) and although less frequently noted than men, their references have generally been positive.

With the next parable dealing with an economic illustration, it may be worth looking at wisdom as an economic concept. In the words of E. F. Schumacher: 

From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence…Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. (Schumacher 1989, 33-34)

In her discussion of wisdom and sloth, Ellen Davis highlights the ‘valorous woman’[2] which Proverb 31: 10-31 praises.

She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness (sloth). Proverbs 31:26-27

This final character of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is a woman who can speak wisdom and in Ellen Davis’ words:

This woman who “does not eat the bread of sloth” (v.27), is a consummate practitioner of the economics of permanence as Israel understood it, maintaining the integrity of her household. (Davis 2009, 154)

These wise virgins, which become a metaphor for the faithful community, bring permanence to the practices of the Sermon on the Mount in this time of delay, but those who cry out to the closed gates “Lord, Lord’ find they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (7:21-23) and they are like foolish builders who built their house on sand. (7:24-27)

The identity of the bridegroom traditionally in scripture for Israel has been God. The image of God becoming Israel’s husbands (or Israel’s infidelity to that relationship) are a frequent theme in the prophets.[3] But in Matthew, Jesus has already referred to himself as the bridegroom (9:15) and has used the image of a wedding banquet for the son of the king in a previous parable. (22:1-14) In Matthew, Jesus continues to weave images and roles that have been traditionally used to talk about the God of Israel in evocative ways which point to the identity of Jesus. Those wise women and men whose continue to persevere in faithful lives in their time of awaiting the advent of the kingdom of heaven continue to illuminate the way that in Jesus they have met their bridegroom and even in the bridegrooms delay they remain ready to light their lamps and enter the banquet in joy.

There are many times in history where large groups of people choose paths that are foolish, that choose short term gain over permanence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflecting on the foolishness or stupidity of people in his own time (Germany at the end of 1942) could state:

It would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. (DBWE 8:43)

Bonhoeffer knew people who could remain “remarkable agile intellectually yet stupid” because they were captured by the societal pressures, rhetoric, and they become a “mindless tool…capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil” (DBWE 8:44) In Bonhoeffer’s time the Third Reich and its power to shape a stupid or foolish society were to be resisted in a church where the community was formed for faithfulness of wisdom. Even when the church and society both failed to resist the sociological problem of the stupidity of the people under the sway of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer still, even in prison, attempts to reimagine a church that can faithfully bear light to Christ in the darkness of a ‘world come of age.” In the United States many faithful have been concerned about the foolishness of the church and people who have made easy alliances between political and religious groups for the sake of gaining political power and influence. The temptation to abandon the practices of the Christian community for the sake of power, wealth, and influence have always been a powerful alternative for those initially drawn to Christ. The wise are called to form communities that can still maintain wisdom’s light in the midst of the sometimes overwhelming darkness of foolishness in the world.


[1] The Greek parthenos is a term for virgin in general. Although virgins may serve as bridesmaids, the bride is never mentioned in the parable. Most translations by translating the virgins as ‘bridesmaids’ assigns greater specificity than the parable requires. This is also the same term used in 1:23 (quoting Isaiah 7:14) in reference to Mary as a virgin. Foolish throughout this parable is the Greek moros where we get the English ’moron’ from.

[2] Even though English translations often render this ‘a capable wife’ the woman in the poem is viewed in her relationship to her work, and even though the woman in the poem is married the focus is on her and not her husband or their relationship.

[3] For example: Isaiah 54:5, Jeremiah 31:32 and Hosea 2:16, although for both Jeremiah and Hosea this is a recurring theme condemning the people for their unfaithfulness to this marriage.

The Wisdom of Myth

Adrift by Locopelli at deviantart.com

In our modern arrogance we wanted to demythologize the world
Science and rationality became our new gods, but now they served us
Creation became merely resources for consumption turned to capital
Capitalism became the religion of the new age, money became meaning
Wisdom was abandoned for data and people became means to profit

Yet, I continue to seek the wisdom of myth, the reason of religion
Returning to the songs passed through the ages that taught us to sing
The yearning of our ancestors for a story that tells where we came from
That gives us a frame to understand who we are in relation to the world
Common stories that give meaning, that bear some ancient knowledge

Were the myths misused in the past to divide and to destroy, yes
Just as science, rationality and capitalism have all been used to enslave
And there is no going back to some imagined past before our postmodern age
Perhaps in listening again not only to these stories and the world they imagine
But also, to the society they tried to form and the wonder the inspired

How creatures of creation came to understand their place in a world of magic
A porous world where the divine and the demonic were not far from the surface
A world saturated by meaning through the stories that shaped the people
Perhaps they were merely the ruminations of old men or the tales of women
The ravings of a misunderstood prophet or the songs of kings and queens

And though it is the path overgrown with weeds, I still try to traverse
This quest for wisdom in the myths of our ancestors, the sense in the stories
Which might help me to use the data and science of our time in ways humane
To see the creation beyond the consumption, the people behind the profit
To seek a society where my children can know both knowledge and wisdom
Myth and math, story and science, money and meaning, and so I seek

Matthew 11: 16-30 The Wisdom of Christ in a Foolish Generation

Farewell Melody by Ravil Akmaev Shared under the Creative Commons 3.0

Matthew 11: 16-30

Parallel Luke 7: 31-35; 10: 12-15, 21-22

Highlighted words will have comments on translation

16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

20 Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Throughout this reading of Matthew’s gospel, I’ve pointed to the similarity in the simple wise/foolish dichotomy of wisdom literature in many of the teachings of Jesus. The prophets also use this type of language to demonstrate the wise path of following God’s call to repent and the consequences of remaining among the foolish. As Jesus addresses the lack of repentance among those who have heard the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven, those who have not heard the wisdom the God has offered them. He points both the judgment for those who have chosen the foolish road and promise for those who have wisely taken his yoke upon them instead of remaining in servitude to other masters. The way Jesus responds to the unwillingness of many who would consider themselves wise and intelligent again helps us consider the identity of the one who speaks to this generation who seems not to have ears to hear.

We transition quickly from the identification of John the Baptist with Elijah and Jesus’ link by allusion with the LORD to the generation that accepts neither John the Baptist nor Jesus. Those who consider themselves wise now act like children who don’t want to dance when the song is played or beat their breast when it is time to mourn. Those who think they are wise are out of step with the times, like a child who throws a tantrum in the middle of someone else’s party. John the Baptist is too cold, Jesus is to hot and they are looking for someone who is just the right temperature for their group. John drinks to little, Jesus drinks to much and with the wrong people. John (and Jesus) will be accused of having or being in alliance with demons. Jesus doesn’t demonstrate a piety that would please some others judging from what constitutes a wise path from their perspective. But the works of Christ should, in Jesus’ view, point the wise towards a realization of who this proclaimer of the kingdom of heaven is and what righteousness rather than piety looks like.

Jesus’ words of woe towards the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and even the place that starts as his home in Capernaum are meant to bring about repentance but may also express frustration to the resistance Jesus experiences among the people in those places. These may be places where disciples or Jesus had to shake the dust of their sandals and move on to the following town. They are places that without repentance will be like the traditionally wicked cities of Sodom, Tyre and Sidon who come under God’s judgment. The response to the message that Jesus carries matters because to fail to acknowledge Jesus is to fail to acknowledge the one who sent him and to remain aligned against the approach of the kingdom of heaven.

For Matthew’s gospel there is a time of judgment, and the presence of John and Jesus indicate that the time is at hand. The coming of the kingdom of heaven is good news for those who wisely receive it, but it is condemnation for those who oppose it. I know that some of my own discomfort with Jesus’ condemnation of the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum reflect my location within an American version of Christianity which in H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous words involves, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.” The reality that the God portrayed in the bible judges is necessary in a world where men and women do sin and treat their neighbor in unrighteous ways and empires and kings abuse those without power.

One of the reasons many may have rejected to take the offer of Jesus’ yoke may be the ways they have already accommodated the yoke of Rome and those who ruled on her behalf. People must understand what time the stand in to inform the choices they make and to most rational people of Jesus’ time this was the time of the empire of Rome rather than the kingdom of heaven. As Warren Carter can point out, more than half of the times the work yoke (Greek zugos) is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and Apocrypha) it refers to “political control, particularly the imposition of harsh imperial power.” (Carter, 2001, p. 122) I do think it is important to acknowledge that Jesus in his proclamation of the kingdom of heaven is proposing an alternative to the way things are conducted under the reign of Rome. Like the prophets who made audacious claims about God’s actions in the presence of attractive alternative ways of viewing the world, those who hear the words of Jesus should wonder what authority he possesses to make such broad claims.

Paradoxically, much like in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the wise of this world have rejected the wisdom of God and those who are not wise in the world’s eyes can see God’s wisdom. As we’ve seen in Matthew, it is often those who have no reason to demonstrate faith who demonstrate great faith in Jesus’ authority while those who have the witness of the scriptures remain deaf to the message and identity of Jesus. In the words of John’s gospel:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. John 1: 10-11

My use of John and allusion to Paul here are intentional because the language in this section resembles the language that in different ways Paul and John use to refer to Jesus. Verse 27 where Jesus talking about all authority being handed to him by the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son, and no one knows the Son except the Father would feel at home in the gospel of John. It bears the same type of pattern as John 14

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me you will know my Father also. From now on you him and have seen him. John 14: 6-7

Both John and Paul identity Jesus with being the ‘wisdom of God’ (John uses the masculine word (Greek logos) instead of the feminine wisdom (Greek Sophia)). We’ve had wisdom themes throughout the gospel but here Jesus in an offhand way alludes to the character of wisdom by stating, “wisdom is vindicated (literally justified or made righteous) by her deeds. Is Matthew pointing towards a wisdom Christology where Christ is identified with the Divine Wisdom?

The discussion is made richer by hearing two other ancient sources. Richard B. Hays and others have pointed to the similarity with the end of the Apocryphal book the Wisdom of Sirach (also called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus)

23 Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction. 24 Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why do you endure such great thirst? 25 I opened my mouth and said, Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. 26 Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. 27 See with your own eyes that I have labored but little and found for myself much serenity. 28 Hear but a little of my instruction, and through me you will acquire silver and gold. 29 May your soul rejoice in God’s mercy, and may you never be ashamed to praise him. 30 Do your work in good time, and in his own time God will give you your reward. Sirach 51: 23-30

While the prayer that ends the book of Sirach is not attributed to the divine wisdom of God, it does appeal to the hearer to place oneself under her yoke. Here Jesus now takes upon the characteristic of wisdom offering her yoke to those who need rest for their souls. By choosing the wise path, the path of Christ one will find rest for one’s souls. A second text possibly alluded to here is Jeremiah 6. Again, Jeremiah is appealing to the people of Judah to turn from their foolish ways to embrace the good ways of God.  

16 Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.” 17 Also I raised up sentinels for you: “Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!” But they said, “We will not give heed.” 18 Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. 19 Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have rejected it. 20 Of what use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me. 21 Therefore thus says the LORD: See, I am laying before this people stumbling blocks against which they shall stumble; parents and children together, neighbor and friend shall perish. Jeremiah 6: 16-21

While the tone of Jeremiah 6 has similarities to the judgment on the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum it also begs the people to turn and find rest for their souls. It also resonates with the earlier statement about not taking offense (Greek skandalizo which the verbal form of the word translated stumbling block in Paul’s letters) when God has placed a stumbling block before the people. People become unable to receive God’s path. While Jeremiah doesn’t point to the character of divine Wisdom, he does point to the LORD the God of Israel being the speaker.

It is easy to want to assign to the gospel a fully developed understanding of all the ways that the later church and even other books in the New Testament will talk about Jesus, but even though they share common language, they also speak from different perspectives and answer different questions about Jesus’ identity. Yet, the language here points to something that Matthew wants to communicate about the identity of Jesus. Richard B. Hays is worth quoting at length here:

To paraphrase the point in characteristically Matthean fashion, something greater than Wisdom is here. Jesus who is “gentle and lowly in heart,” transforms and redefines what is meant by “wisdom” by virtue of the specifically narrated character of his teachings, his life, and his death and resurrection.

At the same time, however the metaphorical linkage with Sirach 51 does suggest a cosmic, divine aspect to Jesus’ teaching. He is more than a sage, more than a prophet: he can speak authoritatively of “my yoke” as none of Israel’s sages could ever do. He does not merely point the way to wisdom as a source of rest; rather, he is the one who can promise actually to give rest to all who come to him. (Hays, 2016, p. 158)

There is something more than just a sage here, some greater understanding of what the Son of Man or Messiah mean. There is some cosmic aspect that the words of Jesus’ point to here where only the Son knows the Father and wisdom is justified by her works. Jesus will embody what the gentleness (Greek praus, translated meek in Matthew 5:5) and humility (Greek tapeinos, literally lowly or subservient) would be part of the merciful righteousness that Jesus demonstrated and proclaimed. Jesus’ merciful righteousness will stand in contrast to the pietas (or piety) practiced by Caesar.

On the other hand, there is something compelling about the wise/foolish nature of wisdom literature being spoken from one who is linked to wisdom and the way the wise of the world reject the wisdom of God. As Hays can say again, referencing Jeremiah:

Many of Jesus’ hearers, especially the wise and the learned, say in effect, “We will not walk in it.” Therefore, the promise of “rest for your souls” remains open to those who hear and obey Jesus, but those who refuse the summons come under dire judgment. (Ibid, p. 159)

Perhaps the commonality of those who were called as emissaries of the gospel of Jesus being rejected would inform much of the language of the New Testament that would become the later wisdom/Logos/cosmic Christology of many early church theologians. Jesus is greater than the wisdom of Solomon or the proclamation of Jonah (Matthew 12: 41-42) and Matthew and others continue to deploy a wide range of titles, scripture quotations and allusions, as well as hearing about the acts of power that should have caused Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum to turn towards the one who knows the Father and reveals him. Many will reject the message of Jesus as foolishness, but in the words of Paul:

but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1: 24

Matthew 7: 13-29 Choosing the Way of Christ

Fra Angelico, Fresco in the Cloister of Mark in Florenz (1437-1445)

Matthew 7:13-29

Parallel Luke 13: 23-24, Luke 6: 43-46, 13: 25-27, Luke 6: 47-49, Mark 1: 21-22

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell — and great was its fall!”

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount brings together several contrasting choices between wise and foolish choices, encouraging the hearer to follow the right way, recognize true prophets, and to enact right actions. This would be familiar to hearers familiar with the pattern of wise and foolish choices that Proverbs, Psalms, and the prophets often use as a rhetorical framework to encourage a wise course of action. These short but vivid images attempt to capture the weight of the decision to live out these words that Jesus articulates. The road to obedience may be challenging, there may be others who proclaim an easier less costly way but what Jesus has been presenting is a way that leads towards life and away from destruction. The Jesus we meet in Matthew’s gospel is merciful and yet does expect his followers to be obedient. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is inviting his followers to be a part of a community that embodies these teachings. The people of Israel were called into a life of obedience to the Law and there were blessings if they remained obedient and consequences for being unfaithful. Jesus reinterprets the Law to this new community and this is the way of living in the covenant of the kingdom of heaven. The path does involve wisdom, holding mercy and obedience together, discerning between Jesus’ authority and those of other teachers, and the commitment to hearing these words and acting on them.

The translation of the Greek hodos as road, while proper obscures that throughout most of the New Testament this word is translated as way. A frequent theme of Mark’s gospel of Jesus being ‘on the way’ and in Acts we learn that Jesus’ earliest followers were referred to as belonging to ‘the Way.’ (Acts 9: 2) Just as critical for Matthew would be the numerous linkages with how ‘the way’ is used to call the  people of God to be attentive to God’s way in the law, wisdom literature and the prophets. In Deuteronomy, for example, we see the basic pattern of blessing for obedience to the commandments and curses for turning from the way commanded:

the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today;  and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known. Deuteronomy 11: 27-28 (see also Deuteronomy 9: 12, 16)

For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, turning aside from the way that I have commanded you. In time to come trouble will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” Deuteronomy 31:29

The linking of obedience to the metaphor of a way or a road occurs in several places in Psalms and Proverbs and throughout the prophets, a couple of examples include

for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. Psalm 1:6

Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Isaiah 59: 7-8

And to this people you shall say: Thus says the LORD: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of deathJeremiah 21: 8 

False prophets are a concern throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and within the early church as well. Again, this echoes Deuteronomy with how to determine if a prophet is an authentic process.

If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it. Deuteronomy 18: 22

Like the community of Israel after Moses, Matthew’s community is having to learn how to live without the immediate presence of Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus now is setting up the community to continue once he is no longer present to speak with them. Just as the disciples have been called to a whole or complete life, so those who speak on behalf of Jesus or God will have good fruits that reflect that life.

Mere confession of Jesus as Lord is insufficient for Matthew, this confession must be linked with obedience to the law as Christ articulates it and the practices of righteousness and mercy. Hearing and even speaking words ultimately do not prove an adequate foundation for the life and community Jesus wants to build. The words which are heard must ultimately be acted upon for a life that will resist the storms that come. The Sermon on the Mount is designed to create a community which is modeled by Christ and faithful to the vision of the kingdom of heaven. It is a community that is visible by its distinct practices of mercy, reconciliation, and righteousness and it exists for the sake of the world.

Jesus takes up the mantle of Moses, and unlike the scribes whose authority is derivative and who cannot go beyond what was given to Moses, Jesus will take what was said in the law and with his own authority reframe, extend and reshape what the law states. Jesus speaks in the language of the law, and yet one greater than Moses is here speaking to the crowds. Jesus speaks in the language of wisdom, and yet one greater than Solomon is sharing the wisdom of the kingdom of heaven. The crowds are astounded because either Jesus has transgressed the boundaries of what is accepted by the interpreters of the law or he has the authority to speak a new way of relating to God and the community into being. Jesus has invited the hearers of his words to become doers who wisely choose that way of life instead of the way of destruction. Even though I’ve moved away from framing this in terms of moralistic perfection, obedience is still a part of the complete life that the disciples are called into as a part of the community. Matthew’s gospel is concerned about establishing a community where the disciples can live this life of peace and reconciliation, of righteousness and mercy, of obedience and trust and any interpretation of Matthew should be judged by its fruits: by how it helps communities of disciples build their lives by acting on these words of Jesus.

Matthew 7: 1-6 Nonjudgmental Righteousness

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877)

Matthew 7: 1-6

Parallels Mark 4: 24-25; Luke 6: 37-42

1 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

6 “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

There is a rhythm that underlies the Sermon on the Mount where the individual pieces, which are so often broken apart, attempt to flow together to form a linguistic and thematic resonance. There is a necessity to the practice of addressing things in smaller pieces but I do think it is important to hear the resonance of “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” with “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” or the imperatives of reconciliation and peacemaking outlined in the interpretation of the commandments and the imperative in the Lord’s Prayer to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” and its restatement on forgiving trespasses and finally doing to others as you would have them do to you. This has the rhythm of wisdom literature which tells us to make the wise, or perhaps the whole/complete/authentic choice, in contrast to the hypocritical/inauthentic/self-righteous or pious choice. The Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew’s Gospel in general, is a tightly composed unit that needs to be heard and practiced together.

Matthew uses the terms hypocrite, hypocrites and hypocrisy more than the rest of the Bible combined, we saw it used three times in chapter six and again here. This is an important term for Matthew since it differentiates the practice Jesus is calling his disciples to in contrast with the practices of other groups. In the Sermon on the Mount the focus is on righteousness as it is practiced in the community, but within the individualistic way of hearing scripture most modern people use it is easy to transform communal practices of righteousness into individual acts of piety and instead of being those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who will be filled (see Matthew 5: 6) we attempt to become those whose practices of piety fill ourselves with our own self-righteousness. When righteousness is reduced to piety we find ourselves among those who Jesus has previously called hypocrites (see chapter 6) and here when we judge others by the standards we set we may be unaware (willfully or unwilfully) of out own failure to seek justice and righteousness.

When we talk about not judging so that we are not judged, we are not negating everything that has been discussed previously. We know that unreconciled anger, uncontrolled sexuality, broken relationships, untrue speech, violence and love for a limited group of people and excludes enemies are contrary to the kingdom of heaven. Exchanging piety for righteousness or attempting to secure our own future instead of trusting in God’s providence are contrary to the wisdom which is offered in these words. On the one hand there is truth to scholars who make this passage about not placing ourselves in the place of God and condemning a person or group as outside of the kingdom of heaven, but my worry about this type of interpretation is that it limits the way refraining from judging is not only about salvation/damnation matters. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is about imagining a community where relations are key to righteousness.

The parable of the person with a log in their eye also points to the reality that we often judge others most harshly in the areas we are least secure. Judgment is often a tool people use to compare themselves to another and to prop us their own insecurity as the critique another. Like Luke’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector where the Pharisee compares himself to the other by saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18: 11)which is lifted up as an example of how the disciples are not to trust in their own practices, this humorous visual of a person with a log in their eye is used to highlight the lack of self-awareness of the situation of the judging one.  Instead of comparison we are invited throughout the Sermon on the Mount to practice forgiveness and reconciliation, to value even those who we may have called enemies previously, and to learn to value the other person as a worthy part of the community.

Yet, a certain type of judgment, or perhaps better discernment, is necessary in our relations with others. The kingdom of heaven that the Sermon on the Mount proclaims encounters the kingdom of the world, not completely eliminating it. The individuals in the community may have those who label them as enemies or dangers. The community may love, pray and forgive others but it also doesn’t place the holy and precious among those who will reject or destroy it. The righteousness the community is to practice is not only practiced in a perfect world free from those who practice different values. How to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world in among others who may not value that role calls for wisdom among the people of God.

Psalm 37 A Song of a Wise Life

An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah by Rembrandt (1631)

Psalm 37

<Of David.>
1 א  Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
 2 for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
 3 ב Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
 4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
 5 ג Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.
 6 He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
 7 ד Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
 8 ה Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret — it leads only to evil.
 9 For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
 10 ו Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
 11 But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
 12 ז The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them;
 13 but the LORD laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.
 14 ח The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly;
 15 their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.
 16 ט Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.
 17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.
 18 י The LORD knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide forever;
 19 they are not put to shame in evil times, in the days of famine they have abundance.
 20 כ But the wicked perish, and the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish — like smoke they vanish away.
 21 ל The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving;
 22 for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off.
 23 מ Our steps are made firm by the LORD, when he delights in our way;
 24 though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the LORD holds us by the hand.
 25 נ I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.
 26 They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing.
 27 ס Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever.
 28 For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.
    ע The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
 29 The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.
 30 פ The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak justice.
 31 The law of their God is in their hearts; their steps do not slip.
 32 צ The wicked watch for the righteous, and seek to kill them.
 33 The LORD will not abandon them to their power, or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.
 34 ק Wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked.
 35 ר I have seen the wicked oppressing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.
 36 Again I passed by, and they were no more; though I sought them, they could not be found.
 37  ש Mark the blameless, and behold the upright, for there is posterity for the peaceable.
 38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.
 39  ת The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble.
 40 The LORD helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them, because they take refuge in him.

I have introduced the Hebrew letters at the beginning of each acrostic line to show the structure of this poem. The psalms frequently use acrostic poetry as a form which tends to denote a completion of thought from Aleph to Tav (or in our alphabet the equivalent would be from A to Z). Psalm 37 uses this form to express the contrast between the life of the wicked and the life of the righteous. The psalm was works in a similar way to the book of Proverbs where the words are a tool for passing on a manner of life that values the correct things. It encourages the hearer to take the long view of life as it compares the momentary success of the wicked and the way of the righteous.

Psalm 37, like much wisdom literature, wrestles with the common question of every age: Why do those who seem to be wicked often prosper and those who are faithful struggle? Or in simpler terms: Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people? No psalm, poetry, proverbs or philosophy can adequately address every aspect of this fundamental question, but the poets, wise ones and prophets of the bible do attempt to give their provisional answers to these questions because they are important to how they understand what a good life looks life. In the psalms God is fundamentally trustworthy and, even when situations seem to testify otherwise, the authors trust that God’s will and God’s way will prevail. Psalm 37 attempts to make a case for faithfulness in the seeming prosperity of the faithless and for the long view of life in contrast to the ways of the wicked which focus on the immediate reward of their actions.

The psalm invites us into a life that is not dominated by worrying about how other’s actions are rewarded but rather to trust in the LORD amid the positives and negatives of life. It encourages the hearer to expand the horizon of their consideration beyond the transitory present. Throughout the psalms the LORD is trustworthy, sees the struggles of the righteous and does, in God’s time, act. The longstanding faithfulness of God is contrasted with the transitory prosperity of those who act unethically or who live wicked lives that are centered on their own interests. Vengeance and justice rest in God’s hands and it is ultimately God who will cut off the wicked, who will bring their plots and their power to an end. Their own actions will become their undoing and in time they will fade away while the righteous endure. For now, they may be imposing, like the cedars of Lebanon, but the day will come when the LORD’s ax will cut them down at the roots.

This psalm echoes in the sermon on the mount, where Jesus can state, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) In contrast to a worldview where one should seize all that one can this psalm offers a view of the world that outlasts those who grasp for land, wealth and power. This bit of wisdom points to a life of generosity and trust. One can lend and give generously because the righteous one can trust that the LORD will provide for their needs. They in their lives of generosity, the lives they model and hand on to their children, become a blessing to the world around them. They seek the good of the community and justice trusting that their God is a God of goodness and justice.

Psalm 37 in particular and wisdom literature in general attempts to pass on a way of life and cultivate practices that lead towards a whole life. I believe we ask this question too infrequently in our time. The question of the practices and values of a good life are questions that need to be asked as they are handed on from generation to generation. Part of the answer comes from the experiences of life. Like the psalmist we may be able to reflect upon times where someone’s power and prosperity that were accumulated in an unjust manner proved temporary. Like the psalmist we may reflect upon the way that God’s prosperity has provided for us in our own life. Reflections like this one do not deny the challenge of those who prosper while doing evil or who struggle while trying to live a righteous life. But they wrestle with these questions from the position of trust. The psalmist and those who echo this psalm believe that God is ultimately trustworthy. They believe, even when confronted by those who see prosperity in a life that goes against their values, that a life lived in the practices of wisdom and righteousness are worth living. They view life in a longer horizon than the profits of the moment or the experience of the day. Without discounting their present experience, they can set aside their anger, envy and strife because they trust that the LORD who has created the day will provide for them today and tomorrow. They sing a song of gratitude and trust and that song shapes the values and practices of the life they live.

Ecclesiastes 12-The End of Wisdom

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Harmen Steenwijck, Vanitas (1640)

Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8: The End of Things

1 Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3 in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

So now we come to the end of things and at the end of things is growing old and death. The final eight verses either talk metaphorically about the aging of the individual or directly about the collapse of a city or town. I read this metaphorically and at the end of all things is the gradual process of letting go that comes with old age, diminished health and eventually mortality. One of my nonagenarians from a previous congregation who had a spry sense of humor even in the midst of her failing vision and health would remind me when I would visit her that, “Old age isn’t for sissies” and that “they can call these the golden years but it must be fool’s gold.” Ecclesiastes has no place for a sentimentalism about how things will be better in some great by and by in the afterlife, it only has place for that which it can see. Perhaps there is an uneasiness with the somewhat agnostic perspective that Ecclesiastes seems to portray at certain points, its willingness to question what many people would rather overlook. Yet, looking at the world through the lens of a person who is willing to call much of what they see ‘vanity’ doesn’t lead the Teacher to desperation but instead a greater sense of peace in the moment. It allows them to counsel their pupils to embrace their youth, to remember the creator of this time and not to rush forward into the responsibility and diminishment of old age. In a culture where old age was valued and youth was not Ecclesiastes was an unusual voice. In our culture where youth is valued and old age is considered a burden and death is to be avoided at all cost perhaps the honesty of Ecclesiastes might help us with our own vain struggles against our mortality.

One of the greatest gifts I think Ecclesiastes brings to things is the wisdom of appreciating the gifts of the day. We can struggle against our mortality and against our limits but they make the time we have precious. Health, wealth, relationships, fame and power may all be transitory but the gift comes in being able to find joy in one’s food and drink, relationships, toil and the work of one’s hands and mind. Vanity of vanities, all may be vanity but that doesn’t have to be a source of struggle. Instead we can be freed to enjoy the day that our creator has made and to indeed be glad in it.

Ecclesiastes 12: 9-14: Epilogue

 9 Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. 10 The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

 11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. 12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The voice shifts suddenly to one talking about the Teacher rather than one talking as the Teacher. This short book was one that barely made it into the canon of Scriptures because it is a very different voice. Here an appreciative epilogue is offered which closes Ecclesiastes as we have it. It evaluates what has come before as both plainly truthful but also pleasing in its composition. That perhaps is a challenge for anyone trying to speak or write in a way that can speak the truth to the best of their ability but also not in a callous or judgmental way. Ecclesiastes writes about some uncomfortable truths and as Ellen Davis can comment, “who in our culture has the moral authority and the imagination to make uncomfortable words heard in the public forum? Few teachers or clergy, even fewer politicians.” (Davis, 2000, p. 226) Yet truth, perhaps most of all the uncomfortable truth that is skipped over in the soundbites and marketing strategies, is needed for both the individual and the public’s life.

Perhaps it is great vanity writing about a book that can claim ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ But there has been enjoyment in the toil and a sense of satisfaction coming to the end of these reflections upon this irreverent little piece of the scriptures. Fearing God may be the beginning of wisdom as Proverbs 1:7 can state and here is one of the few times Ecclesiastes sings in harmony with its neighbor in the scriptures. Yet, perhaps it would be vanity to worry about how God will judge this deed in the end and so for me too this is the end of the matter. Vanity or wisdom or both it is done and I go to enjoy the rest of this day that God has provided.

Ecclesiastes 10: Wisdom, Life and the King

Paul Alexander Leroy, Haman and Mordecai (1884)

Paul Alexander Leroy, Haman and Mordecai (1884)

 Ecclesiastes 10

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a foul odor; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
 2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of a fool to the left.
 3 Even when fools walk on the road, they lack sense, and show to everyone that they are fools.
 4 If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your post, for calmness will undo great offenses.
 5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as great an error as if it proceeded from the ruler: 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves.
 8 Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; and whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a snake.
 9 Whoever quarries stones will be hurt by them; and whoever splits logs will be endangered by them.
 10 If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed.
 11 If the snake bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage in a charmer.
 12 Words spoken by the wise bring them favor, but the lips of fools consume them.
 13 The words of their mouths begin in foolishness, and their talk ends in wicked madness;
 14 yet fools talk on and on. No one knows what is to happen, and who can tell anyone what the future holds?
 15 The toil of fools wears them out, for they do not even know the way to town.
 16 Alas for you, O land, when your king is a servant, and your princes feast in the morning!
 17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is a nobleman, and your princes feast at the proper time– for strength, and not for drunkenness!
 18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.
 19 Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life, and money meets every need.
 20 Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

Wisdom is not the exclusive property of the wealthy or nobility as we heard at the end of the previous chapter when the author related the parable of the wise poor man who saved (or might have saved) a town. Yet, even knowing that those who rule are not necessarily wise or diligent, Ecclesiastes is deeply troubled by the thought of the ‘powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up’ as Mary can sing in Luke 1: 52. The teacher in Ecclesiastes still ultimately believes that ‘a king is for a plowed field’ (Ecclesiastes 5: 9) even with all the oppression that can happen under the sun. Ecclesiastes version of wisdom seeks an ordered world, not necessarily a fair one, but one in which the wise person can learn to live and can make peace with their position within that world. Many other voices in the scriptures will attempt to challenge those in power, particularly the prophets. Ecclesiastes attempts to find a place for wisdom in the midst of all the folly and absurdity that are a part of life.

One bad apple can spoil the batch and a little folly can undo years of working wisely. Wisdom seems to be for Ecclesiastes a way of walking and thinking and acting that are continually cultivated. There is a sharp delineation between the walk of a foolish person and the walk of the wise. Wisdom may be the road less taken and it is a road that requires accountability but eventually the toil of the foolish wears them out.

The proverb in verse four about calmness in the face of the anger of the ruler reminds me of a time when I was a young lieutenant in the army. My unit had been assigned funeral duty, in a time before the omnipresence of cell phones, and we had been on this duty for many weeks. I had sat at home many weekends while my girlfriend at the time was 200 miles away. We would wait for a call to come in to tell us if we had any funerals on Saturday or Sunday but we were expected to remain close to Ft. Polk where I was stationed. One weekend I waited until late Friday, but no call came so I drove to spend the remainder of the weekend with my girlfriend in Texas. Saturday morning a request for a funeral came in and I was not reachable. I returned on Sunday to a couple messages on my phone. As hard as it was I first called my commander, then everyone else involved and apologized and was willing to accept whatever punishment was to come. Later I learned that my willingness to call and be open and honest about my mistake and willingness to accept the consequences earned me a lot of respect in the unit, but that day I was only trying to do what was right after I had made a mistake.

Ecclesiastes has already shown that it is well aware of how nobility and position do not automatically ensure wisdom. Foolish rulers and crooked officials were a part of the experience of the people of Israel. Unlike some other cultures that enshrined their elite with almost godlike status the Hebrew Scriptures have a skeptical view of kings and their motives. Even Solomon who is lifted up for his wisdom often ruled in ways, especially later in his life, that the texts considered unwise and ultimately led to the fracturing of the Davidic kingdom and monarchy. Yet, Ecclesiastes still holds onto the belief that the nobility and the king are ultimately a positive thing and anything that upsets that order or the appearance of that order (like slaves on horseback while a prince walks) upsets the ordered world of the teacher in Ecclesiastes.

One’s wise actions may not prevent the chances of life from coming about, but they still may prevent self-injury. If one refrains from digging a pit one also refrains from falling into it for example. The wise are measured in their speech and know when to remain silent but the foolish in contrast talk on and on. Blessed in the one, in Ecclesiastes view, who lives with the gift of good government and wise rulers who work during the day and celebrate only once the work is done. Laziness in rule and in life can destroy much and a little folly can outweigh wisdom and honor in a person’s home and in a kingdom. Yet, wisdom is not an ascetic’s life. The wise person can enjoy feasts and wine and wealth.

Finally, the chapter closes with a proverb similar to our own times saying that, ‘the walls have ears.’ Cursing those in power over you or complaining about them can make it back to their ears. There will always be people who will use our words to their advantage. Perhaps this also can evoke stories like the story of Esther where Haman’s words and plots become unraveled because he unknowingly plotted against Esther and Mordecai who could in their own way appeal to the king.  Words matter to the wise, speech matters and actions matter. Many things are beyond the control of the wise person but one’s speech, calmness, walk and how one lives are within one’s control.

Ecclesiastes 8 Wisdom in an Unjust World

Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii around 70 CE

Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii around 70 CE

Ecclesiastes 8

1 Who is like the wise man? And who knows the interpretation of a thing?
Wisdom makes one’s face shine, and the hardness of one’s countenance is changed.
 2 Keep the king’s command because of your sacred oath. 3 Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever obeys a command will meet no harm, and the wise mind will know the time and way. 6 For every matter has its time and way, although the troubles of mortals lie heavy upon them. 7 Indeed, they do not know what is to be, for who can tell them how it will be? 8 No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle, nor does wickedness deliver those who practice it. 9 All this I observed, applying my mind to all that is done under the sun, while one person exercises authority over another to the other’s hurt.

 10 Then I saw the wicked buried; they used to go in and out of the holy place, and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil. 12 Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, 13 but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.

 14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

 16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

Life is not fair, justice is often skewed towards a privileged group or individual, and the wicked may prosper while the righteous suffer. Bad things do happen to good people and one would have to shut one’s eyes tight to the world around them not to perceive the unfairness of the world. No one, not even the greatest president, king or official will be able to by their own wisdom alleviate all the suffering and injustice of the world. Oppression does occur and sometimes is sometimes even praised. Wisdom has to figure out how to live in the world as it is and not in the world as one imagines it should be.

Wisdom making one’s face shine may be a reference to the starting place of all wisdom, to God’s own wisdom. As Ellen Davis can say, “A shining face is, then, a sign of God’s benevolent presence; it shows forth the light of the Holy Spirit.” (Davis, 2000, p. 206) The wisdom in the shining face that reflects God’s benevolent presence is also coming from a softened face. A part of this wisdom that fears God and can place one’s trust in God precisely in the midst of an unfair and unjust world is the ability to find joy and celebration even in the midst of the seasons of the world one cannot control. It is finding peace in the midst of the oppression, joy even in the midst of suffering, and enjoying the food and drink in the moments of prosperity and want for they all come (ultimately in Ecclesiastes view) from God. Wisdom seems to reflect the ability to trust God even when one cannot riddle out the interpretation of a thing. Wisdom is willing to let go of the quest for certainty and is willing to reside in the humility of one’s own knowledge and power. Wisdom fears God and knows that we are at every moment of our life caught up in the movement of things that we have no control over. We cannot control when the time of birth or death is or war or peace or even whom we receive love from and who we might receive hate from. No one, not even the wisest sage can understand all that is going on under the sun.

J.K. Rowling’s character Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series may be an interesting figure to contemplate as one explores Ecclesiastes description of a wise person. In the novels he is a complex character who often has to put people he cares about into situations that may bring about suffering for them or even death and yet he rarely in the novels displays a hard countenance. His face is often light, he seems to enjoy the moments of levity and celebration even when they are brief. He is unafraid to tell the difficult truth that other may want to obscure or hide and he refrains from the certainties that many of the other characters want to cling to. Even for all his wisdom and power there are many things he is unable to prevent and close friends he is unable to protect and yet in his life and death (in the story) he becomes a character who models what wisdom might look like in that fictional world with all its struggles.

As a person who served in the Army I understand the need to follow orders that may be unpopular and the times when unquestioned obedience was called for. In the royal court, in government and in society there are times where we simply have to follow the commands we are given. There are certainly times where one will have to resist and illegal or unjust command or attempt to work with the system (or sometimes oppose it) to work towards a more just system. Yet, most of our lives we live with rules, laws and boundaries that we have to work within.

As a preacher I attempt to invite my congregation into the struggle with the texts and to teach them to wonder what it may speak to them rather than confidently claiming to have all the answers. God’s mysterious ways often elude me and in Ecclesiastes the interpretation of the thing often eludes the author in all their wisdom. In the United States there are a number of preachers and traditions that seem unwilling to allow for this type of wisdom which can reside in the places of uncertainty and instead they fill in the gaps with their own interpretation of the mind of God. “The dangers of overly confident preaching are felt particularly in the homiletic temptation to discern God’s retributive justice in situations of human suffering. In this respect, some preachers seem to have the whole divine road map spread out in front of them and so are in a position to give the rest of us confident progress reports. Qohelet, by contrast, reminds us the wisdom about God’s mysterious ways in the world regularly elude us.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 185) Wisdom could lead us to a homiletical humility, a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge and to acknowledge the gaps rather than to explain them away. To help oneself and one’s community to learn the wisdom of finding joy precisely in the midst of an unjust world, and the wisdom of trusting God event when one cannot make sense of the senselessness of life. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 189)

Ecclesiastes 7-The Lonely Path of the Seeker

Isaak Asknaziy, Vanita vanitatum et omnia vanitas (19th Century)

Isaak Asknaziy, Vanita vanitatum et omnia vanitas (19th Century)

Ecclesiastes 7: 1-10 The Cost of Wisdom

1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death, than the day of birth.
 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of everyone, and the living will lay it to heart.
 3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
 4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
 5 It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.
 6 For like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools; this also is vanity.
 7 Surely oppression makes the wise foolish, and a bribe corrupts the heart.
 8 Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.
 9 Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.
 10 Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

There is a joy that is a gift of God but that joy will not be present in every season and often it is the times of grief where wisdom is refined and tested. Ecclesiastes has no place for the masks of happiness that people often feel constrained to wear. Wisdom, we find here, does not drive the teacher to a life of prosperity, rich relationships, easy decisions or universal popularity. It is the road that is less traveled and engages the moments of joy and sadness, pain and pleasure, life and death.

There is a certain kind of wisdom that is only learned through the process of grief and loss and perhaps this is a part of what these proverbs that begin this section point to. Ecclesiastes’ search for wisdom is not a quest that only takes him to the places that are isolated from pain and suffering, instead wisdom often means wrestling with the more challenging parts of life and death. Even though the quest for a lasting legacy of name may be vanity they still seem better than the sweet smelling oils that spoil even more quickly. A person’s life can only begin to be measured at its completion for when the person is present we often take their contributions for granted and can easily focus upon their failures. There is also the hard wisdom of sitting Shiva with those who are mourning and the value that comes not from the cheap pithy sayings but in the long silence of presence. The wisdom that comes from inhabiting the house of mourning may not be a popular wisdom but it is wisdom nevertheless.

In our social media age where we can surround ourselves with an echo chamber of like-minded people we may find it almost impossible to hear the rebuke of the wise if they disagree with our opinions. Yet, that rebuke and cognitive dissonance is an essential part of wisdom. Wisdom and knowledge only grow when they are challenged and pulled. Too often we settle for the quick flash of the thorns which catch fire easily but produce little heat rather than the coals that actually can bring about warmth and can provide the heat needed for the essential task of transforming a dough into a cake or cooking the meat for a meal.

The gift (bribe), impatience, anger and nostalgia become the traps on the path of wisdom as well. Oppression was discussed in chapters four and five and it becomes one of the things that blocks our enjoyment of life and it can also be a roadblock to wisdom. There are certainly those who rise above what may seem impossible circumstances to phenomenal heights but most of those who are oppressed will remain trapped within that oppression. As Ellen Davis can state, “Evil must be remembered but never romanticized; every period of great oppression produces some heroism and much more madness among its victims.” (Davis, 2000, p. 201) The gift, or a bribe, which turns a person aside from the path of wisdom or justice is also a corruption of not only justice but the character of the person. When we change our actions for the sake of another person’s gift (and this may be something as simple as their approval) we have left the path of wisdom. The path of wisdom is not the quick or easy path, it is a path that needs patience. Anger may be an essential part of life and there is a time for righteous anger, but becoming quickly angered is the way of the foolish. Finally nostalgia tries to walk into the future looking backwards. There are gifts to be learned by the study of the past, but trying to recreate the past or romanticizing it often bankrupts both the present and the future. When our memories of the past become larger than our dreams for the future we become trapped in the pain of nostalgia rather than being open to the potential gift of today and tomorrow.

 

Ecclesiastes 7: 11-21 Wisdom and Ambiguity

 11 Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun.
 12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it.
 13 Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked?
 14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them.
 15 In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. 16 Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? 17 Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both.
 19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise more than ten rulers that are in a city.
 20 Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.
 21 Do not give heed to everything that people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you; 22 your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.
 
Wisdom is better than foolishness and it may even provide some protection and advantage but one person’s wisdom cannot make everything crooked in the world straight. This passage about not being too righteous or too wicked might seem a little Machiavellian but wisdom knows that the complex world rarely falls into absolutes. Life can bring about many border situations where the line between what is right and what is wrong becomes blurred by the ambiguity of the situation. One can apply wisdom and knowledge to the best of one’s ability, one can attempt to be righteous but ultimately in the life lived before God what wisdom we have is incomplete and short lived. There may indeed be times where for the sake of another we might incur guilt or violate what we once believed to be absolutes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, written in the time when Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, struggles with many of these border situation and how ethically the Christian was to respond. Eventually his struggle would lead him to take a role within the resistance plot to assassinate Hitler. Shortly before his imprisonment in Christmas of 1942 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating.” (Bethge, 2000, p. 797)

Whether we live life in the position of authority having to use our wisdom on behalf of a community or whether in our private lives attempting to use wisdom in our relationship we never eradicate the evil in ourselves or in society. We live in the paradox of the ending of the Lord’s prayer. In the prayer we pray for the forgiveness of our sins as well as the ability to forgive the sins of others, that we would not be lead into temptation and that we would be delivered from evil. Even our best actions often have unintended harmful consequences and sometimes out of great evil some good can emerge. We are never completely the saint or irreconcilably the sinner and we cannot rely upon our own righteousness nor should we want to immerse ourselves completely into wickedness. We live in times of prosperity and adversity and both come from the same God. 

Ecclesiastes 7: 23-29: The Loneliness of the Seeker

 23 All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? 25 I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things, and to know that wickedness is folly and that foolishness is madness. 26 I found more bitter than death the woman who is a trap, whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters; one who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 See, this is what I found, says the Teacher, adding one thing to another to find the sum, 28 which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.

In Ecclesiastes 4: 9-11 the Teacher reflected on the benefit of companionship but here, in what may be a personal reflection, he reflects upon the loneliness of the seeker. Whether he was unsuccessful in love and in developing friendships we will never know, but the nature of the quest that he has embarked on is not one that is likely to endear him with those content with a less questioning existence. Perhaps, like many who perhaps are more introverted and reflective, he simply never mastered (and perhaps never cared to master) the social niceties and small talk that seem to come so easily to others. Perhaps he never moved beyond his quest where women and men, slaves and concubines and singers became anything more than delights of the flesh. (Ecclesiastes 2: 8) There is a loneliness for a companion who is truly able to share in the seekers quest, to delight in the wisdom they can share together. Perhaps in his time, where women were not considered equal, he couldn’t see someone who could be his equal in conversation and reflection, yet even among men this is exceedingly rare. Humanity and the challenge of the human political game perhaps becomes the area where the seekers gifts in wisdom seemingly fail him and leave him unable to partake in the joy of true companionship.