In our reading from Proverbs today we encounter a character named Wisdom. We might think of the book of Proverbs as simply a collection of wise sayings, but Proverbs shares wisdom with us in story form. In Proverbs there are actually two figures are making a play for human souls – think of the old image of a good angel on your right shoulder, and a bad devil on your left, both whispering in your ears. But here in Proverbs, they are personified as female! Sadly, that’s rare in our tradition. Meet Lady Wisdom and Mistress Folly.
In Proverbs, we hear them battling for the attention of, and the souls of, young men. They each have a chance to sing their song, and then the young man has to decide. It doesn’t take long to figure out who exactly the writer of Proverbs thinks the young man should choose. Lady Wisdom is, as a good wife might be portrayed, as the one any decent and sane young man should cling to. She is faithful and trustworthy. Following her leads to God.
Mistress Folly, on the other hand, is a temptress. She is not trustworthy, but wicked. She tempts young men away from being faithful, from following God’s way. The warnings we heard in our reading this morning make it all too clear. If you turn away from wisdom, you will die.
The writer of Proverbs is not alone in this comparison. Ancient literature is filled with similar stories. Wisdom is a concept that all cultures and religions share. Wisdom is one place where all world religions intersect. What culture doesn’t seek wisdom? What religion doesn’t have wisdom as its ultimate goal? In most cultures isn’t wisdom the consolation prize for getting older? Wisdom is not a thing to be hoarded but shared. What good is personal self-enlightenment if you don’t use it to help others?
The love of wisdom binds us together as the human race. I think our love of and our pursuit of wisdom gives us common ground on which we can build a peaceful future. Violence only brings more violence. Instead, what if we began to dialog about peace? Come, let us reason together.
In the end, true wisdom leads us always back to God.
James warns us in his epistle that teachers bear a great responsibility. We look to our teachers, from Sunday School teachers to college professors, as sources of wisdom. Only a fool doesn’t learn from his or her mistakes. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that doesn’t mean just your 8 am history class. People repeat those classes all the time and still never seem to learn.
The tongue is a fire, James warns us. Every animal on the earth has been tamed by humans, but we can’t seem to tame our own tongues. When was the last time you wish you could take your words back? When was the last time you hurt someone with a casual remark? Maybe you didn’t intend to hurt the other person’s feelings, but it happened anyway. Have you ever scolded your child a little too harshly, and immediately wished you hadn’t? Many of us can still recall hurtful things our parents said to us, even after years of therapy.
The tongue is a fire. It can be deadly. But it can also bring life. Beware, my friends, James is reminding us. Your tongue is capable of very good things and very bad things, a bit like that devil and that angel, and a bit like Lady Wisdom and Mistress Folly. It is a sign of real maturity when we learn to hold our tongue. That self-control begins in our hearts and our minds.
James also compares our tongues to the rudder of a mighty ship. A little thing like the tongue can make such a huge difference in our lives and in the lives of others, especially those we love.
There’s an old proverb I try to keep in front of me, “Before you speak, ask yourself, ‘Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? And (I love this part) will it improve on the silence?”
Those are wise words, indeed. But can we truly learn them? With practice we can. With forgiveness, we can start again, and hopefully help heal some of those wounds.
Peter often speaks before really thinking. Remember at the Transfiguration, the gospel writer says at one point, “Peter said this because he didn’t know what to say.” And here in today’s Gospel, Peter must think he’s being helpful when he tells Jesus that’s he’s wrong. The gospel even says he rebukes Jesus! He tells Jesus off! You can hear the gasp from the crowd. This is not going to end well.
Jesus doesn’t just get into a shouting match with Peter. Jesus’ rebuke is very pointed. Jesus identifies where Peter’s words are coming from – from Satan, from Mistress Folly, from that little devil. “Come on, Jesus, you can do things the easy way. You don’t have to do everything God says.” Jesus shuts him down. “You’ve got your mind in the wrong place, Peter!” And Peter doesn’t know enough, yet, to keep his mouth shut. His words stung Jesus, but Jesus points him back to God.
In every generation
Wisdom enlightens holy souls
Making them friends of God.
Making them prophets.
For God loves nothing so much
As the person who lives with Wisdom.
My friends we have a choice every minute of our lives. Will we do the next right thing? Will we choose the better way, God’s way, and not just the easy way? The choice is before us: wisdom or foolishness, righteousness or sin, life or death. God gives us the power to choose. Wisdom teaches us to make the right choice.
Pray for me and the decisions I make as I learn day by day how to best lead this parish, spiritually. Pray for our vestry and staff, as they too make leadership decisions and take on responsibilities for the parish family. We all make bad choices from time to time. May God’s grace and God’s mercy teach us to be forgiving, to mend fences, and to begin again as together we pursue not our way but God’s wisdom. Amen.