It brings home very powerfully the whole idea of how we are shaped by the way we are raised and taught. It also asks the question, what kind of wisdom do we live by? What is its source and its authority? How do we judge if it is really wisdom or folly?
Today’s first reading is from one of the books of the Hebrew Bible that are known collectively as wisdom literature. The Book of Proverbs used to be favourite reading for both Jews and Christians. St Paul quoted from it. Medieval rabbis turned to it frequently. The 17th century English Puritans regarded it as a guidebook for living a righteous life. Children used to be strongly encouraged to memorize much of it.
A modern commentator, Ellen F. Davis, describes the proverbs as little poems, about the length of a haiku or a Zen koan. They are a collection of oral literature, and they are meant to be said out loud and mulled over, bit by bit, not read straight through like a story with a narrative drive. They are an introduction to the wisdom of a faith community. The proverbs are small nuggets for chewing slowly, suitable for children and new enquirers, but also providing material for mature believers to meditate on.
Teaching by poetry is a way of going straight to our heart rather than our head. Our heads are filled with knowledge, especially in the information-rich 21st century. We know that our technical expertise can have both excellent effects and devastating consequences for ourselves, our planet, and future generations. Knowing a lot of things isn’t enough. We also need the wisdom that enables us to judge the good from the bad. We need to be formed into habits of wise living. Without early discipline, we will naturally tend to folly, as human beings always have the tendency to do.
Early formation of our thinking and judging is the responsibility of our parents, and the Book of Proverbs makes that abundantly clear. Some parents shirk this task and their children flail around in later life without any structure or boundaries to guide them. Other parents take the task to heart but form their children’s minds and hearts in ways that are ultimately destructive – this is what is shown in Apostasy, and we can see this outcome in many sad human situations. Whether it is the effect of belonging to an unbalanced cult or the consequence of parental addictions or abusive behaviour, the children are harmed for life. They have not been given what they should have been given, something far more important than material goods or genetic advantages, and that is the habit of wisdom.
In this short reading from Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as the mistress of a house. It is a fine house, large enough to be able to accommodate many people, with seven pillars. Wisdom has prepared a banquet, and she sends out a general invitation to come and eat and drink and learn. Hospitality in the ancient world, and in many cultures today, is a serious work of virtue. It is not mere social etiquette. Refusing an invitation has bad consequences, as we know from Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. Those who made excuses and failed to turn up came to a bad end.
So we readers should be warned that disregarding this invitation from Lady Wisdom would be a major error. It’s a free and generous offer. And it’s an offer not just of nourishment but of life itself. Forsake the foolish, and live, she says. Come and learn.
So it’s no surprise that this reading is paired with today’s gospel. For the past few weeks we have been reading the words of Jesus in John’s gospel about the bread of life. Today we have a passage in which he uses some strong and surprising language about himself. Essentially he is making an offer to us, like Lady Wisdom, to come and be fed. His hospitality is not just to his house, but to his very self. We are to eat not just his bread but his body, to drink not just his wine but his blood. The outcome of doing so will be eternal life. Jesus will dwell in us and we will dwell in him.
At every Eucharist we accept this invitation. We receive the free gift that will form us, slowly, over a lifetime, into a person who is indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. It’s not an instant transformation. There may well have been a moment in our lives when “my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee”. But that was just the beginning. Like a child being carefully natured by a wise parent, we are fed and formed in the likeness of Christ over a lifetime’s pilgrimage.
Receiving Christ in the sacrament is not a routine matter. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we renew our relationship with God. We learn a little more of the wisdom we need. We are reminded that all is gift and that our lives should be shaped by thankfulness. In the readings from scripture, we are given morsels to chew on for the week ahead. Slowly, with two steps forward and one step back, in the way of all human beings, we are shaped into the person God created us to be.
We live in an age of instant access to almost everything we need or think we want. Having grown up in a time when you had to save up to buy something, and then go out and find it in a shop, I still reel at the ease with which a couple of thumb-strokes on my phone will bring me an Amazon delivery the very next day. I suppose in the future it will be the very next hour as a drone drops the package at my door!
We can answer any question by turning to the internet. No more of that enjoyable riffling through encyclopedias to find things out, with lots of random information turning up along the way.
Today’s world promises that we can learn a skill or a language or get fit or beautiful in almost no time at all by buying whatever product is being promoted. But wisdom doesn’t come this way. It’s not on sale by any huckster. It isn’t quick and expensive. It’s slow and free.
Wisdom, leading to true life and flourishing, is on offer to all. But it takes work. We have to dedicate ourselves to the discipline of learning it over our whole lifetime, and we have to take the time and trouble to induct our children into the habits of wisdom.
These habits include reading the Bible slowly and chewing over what we read, taking it into our heart as well as our head. They include constant remembrance of our state of dependence on God, so that we review our lives and give thanks for our blessings day by day. And they include coming to church to feed on the bread of life, week in, week out, so that we know our need of this food and miss it when we do not receive it.
The fruit of this long, slow, formation will be lives that other people look to for examples of wisdom. This is what God offers us, and what we in turn can help our children to grow into. If we don’t give this formation the time and attention it needs, we, or our children, will be easy prey for the merchants of folly, the cults, the addictions and the sins that look so alluring on the surface.
The collect today is one of my favourites, describing God as wont to give more than either we desire or deserve. It reminds us that our hunger isn’t strong enough! We don’t even know how to desire what God wants to give us. Blessed are those who feel hungry for the bread of life, and who hear the invitation to the house of seven pillars. If we accept the offer, we will live life in all its fullness, and dwell with God forever.