notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Proverbs 9 - Wisdom's house
Good Shepherd Holy Communion 20/8/2006
Proverbs 9.1-6, John 6.51-58
A bishop of the Church of South India described how a Hindu friend came frequently to his church. On one occasion he came forward at the Eucharist. The bishop, somewhat startled, gave him the elements and later sought him out to explain what communion meant. A few weeks later, the man came back and again presented himself at the altar. With rather more misgivings, the bishop again gave him bread and wine, but afterwards said, with some indignation, 'Did you not understand what I said? To share this meal you have to make a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a Hindu. You have not made that commitment.' To which the Hindu replied, 'When I read your scriptures, I find that the Jews did not have to stop being Jews to love and follow Jesus. Why do I have to stop being a Hindu?' The force of the question was, for the bishop, revelatory. 
What that question revealed was a deep wisdom which had been hidden from the bishop up till that point.
"WISDOM has built her house," the proverb says. We really should drop in on her more often. It is much to our loss that we have ignored her.
Our biblical religion is expressed in three ways: the way of the priest, the way of the prophet, and the way of the wise.
Priestly religion is about worship, the glorious things and the trivial things. It aims to be sublime, but does not always rise above the ritual. Priestly religion is about services in sacred places. It happens in sanctuaries and at altars. Priestly people know about purificators and patens, cassocks and hassocks, the reserved sacrament. Priestly literature tells you how to do things properly.
The priestly rules of the Old Testament told the people what to do in the tabernacle; the new priestly codes - Common Worship, for example - regulate what we should do in church.
Prophetic religion challenges priestly religion. "I hate, I despise your feasts," says God in Amos 5.21. Prophetic religion stands on platforms in public places. It "speaks out" about what God has done, what he is doing and - even more scarily - what he will do. Prophets speak in the voice of thunder. The words they most often use, their catch-phrase, is: "Thus says the Lord."
Wisdom religion, by contrast, is not interested in services, nor does it dwell on the acts of God in history. Wisdom religion is about misbehaving children and mischievous gossip. It's about chronic illness and how to cope with it. It's about keeping your temper and keeping to time. It's about the perils of making money and the joys of making love.
Wisdom religion is about everyday life. It is about how to keep going. Wisdom religion is more obviously and immediately relevant to the concerns of ordinary people than priestly religion or prophetic religion. Yet it is almost left out of the life of the Church.
Church life concentrates on the practice of priestly religion and prophetic religion. Its main business is worship and proclaiming the acts of God to save and judge. This is important business, of course, the business of eternal life, but it does seem to be very short on advice about how to cope with the kids.
The great books of the Wisdom tradition are Proverbs, Job, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. This week's Old Testament reading is from Proverbs. It's there because the clever compilers of our lectionary spotted a connection with the Gospel reading.
"Eat my bread! Drink my wine!" says Wisdom. Which backs up Jesus's invitation in the Gospel, with its hints of the eucharist: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." There is a connection, of course, but we must take these words about wisdom on their own terms rather than just using them to back up Christian claims.
There are four good reasons for spending time with the Bible's books of wisdom and the religion they promote.
First, wisdom religion connects our everyday duties with the life of faith. Living faithfully is as much about not festering in bed all day as about being saved.
Secondly, wisdom religion focuses on human relationships - on getting on with other people - as much as on getting right with God, though that is important, too.
Thirdly, wisdom religion draws on our experience rather than something 'out there' which is revealed to us. It appeals to what we share as human beings, not to the confessions that divide us.
People of all faiths want to know how look after their children and how to live with their neighbours. Our reading urges us "to walk in the way of understanding". That is something we can do together, whatever our belief-systems. That's what the bishop and his Hindu friend were discovering.
Fourthly - and here's a very relevant reason - wisdom religion questions the way we educate ourselves and our children. Today's schools teach children how to pass exams. They do not teach them how to be wise.
The importance of the Bible's wisdom tradition is that it takes the demands of daily life as seriously as the great matters of worship and salvation. Not that we have to go agree with everything the wisdom writers say. Proverbs 22.15 ("Iniquity is bound up in the heart of the child, but the cane will thrash it out of him") is a little harsh, perhaps.
But if our sharing of the bread and wine of Jesus teaches us of the love God has for us, then our sharing in the bread and wine of wisdom will teach us how to live in the light of that love in our everyday lives.
Spend time with the Bible's books of wisdom:
'Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed. [says Wisdom]
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.'
 from Elizabeth Templeton, quoted in Growing Hope: Daily readings.
 The rest of this sermon is based largely on John Pridmore's commentary on the readings in this week's Church Times.