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Bible Study: Proper 19 (B) – 2012

September 16, 2012

Proverbs 1:20-33

In this poem, wisdom is personified as a female prophet preaching in the streets. Her message is not delivered behind closed doors or reserved for a king or other privileged person, but is offered publicly to all. Her message is thus portrayed as common sense, not special knowledge revealed only to a few. In fact, the voice of wisdom is so loud and so plain that whoever rejects her must do so consciously.

Sophia (wisdom personified) is more than a poetic device for instruction. She appears in Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the gospels. Her resilience across time testifies to a following. In some traditions she was associated with the Holy Spirit. Some scholars claim Q 7:31-35 (reflected in Matthew 11:16-19 and Luke 7:31-35) presents Jesus and John the Baptizer as prophets of Sophia. By the second century, gnostic Christians considered Sophia part of the godhead.

The poem depicts wisdom laughing at those who fail to listen to instruction. The image of the panic-stricken person crying out in vain is powerful, perhaps reminding us of our own sense of frustration with friends who come crying for comfort and counsel after failing to heed sound advice. The mockery of the fallen is so harsh; it may be one reason we prefer to reduce Sophia to a metaphor rather than understanding her as God.

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1

This passage is part of a larger protreptic discourse (a Greek form of didactic exhortation that promotes a certain philosophy or lifestyle) extoling the virtues of Sophia, God’s divine wisdom. The longer poem describes her as the breath of divine power that penetrates and pervades the entire world. The use of words like “emanation” in verse 25 sounds gnostic, but the influence may run the other direction. The Wisdom of Solomon was likely written before the end of the first century; the rise of Gnosticism (or its divergence with what we now call orthodox Christianity) is generally dated to the early second century.

Today’s lectionary selection is a little easier for Trinitarians to accept than the full poem, since this piece describes wisdom as a reflection of God’s goodness, entering “all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle” to make them prophets and friends of God. In this passage, wisdom can be understood as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, entering humans to make them holy.

James 3:1-12

In an era of sound bites, YouTube, and gaffes gone viral, James’ admonition to guard the tongue is more relevant than ever. A word spoken can never be retrieved. Careers have been ruined, political elections have been lost, and churches have been divided over poorly chosen words. Someone has said that in politics “I misspoke” is really a euphemism for “Oops, I said something people actually understood.” But often religious and secular leaders alike regret words that could have been more carefully chosen, or that take on new meaning when removed from their context.

Note that James draws a direct contradiction between blessing God and cursing those made in God’s image. Anyone can speak pious words to and about God; our true nature is revealed not in how we talk about God but in how we treat our neighbors.

While James urges perfection, he acknowledges that everyone does make mistakes, especially when choosing words. Words have great power, for good as well as for ill. He suggests that taming one’s tongue is an avenue to discipline in other areas of life.

  • In a society that looks to pills and products for quick fixes, what disciplines do we still engage? How might one practice taming the tongue?

Mark 8:27-38

I have always loved this passage, because it reveals the spectrum of humanity and divinity in Jesus. His first concern sounds so human, but quickly progress to the divine and the eschatological. “What do people think about me?” he wants to know. “What are they saying?” Most of us want to know, or perhaps are afraid to know, what people think of us. Those who proclaim they do not care what others think betray their past hurt, revealing just how much they do care. Although Jesus uses the question as a jumping off point for a discussion, one can almost hear a very human note of insecurity.

When his disciples answer in positive terms – that people think he is Elijah or John the Baptist or a prophet – Jesus moves in closer with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” This is the crux of the passage; not merely Peter’s confession that Jesus is the messiah, but the immediate description of what it means to be the messiah, coupled with the startling rebuke demonstrating how important this understanding is. Jesus will be the messiah that suffers; Jesus has come as a martyr, not as a victor. The verses that follow prepare the disciples for the reality that they, too, must be willing to suffer and die. The stark reversals that follow (die to live, lose to gain) would serve to galvanize the young church as it faced persecution.

  • These passages were written down by believers for whom the call to “take up their cross” was literal. Following Christ was a sure way to be ostracized socially, at the least, and might very well lead to actual martyrdom. Consider what it meant, in that culture, to be unashamed of Christ. Consider also how the phrase is used in popular culture today, in a land where Christianity is the dominant religion. How has the connotation changed over time? For example, how might a first-century Christian react to a chain-post on Facebook admonishing users to re-post a photo of Christ with a declaration of being unashamed of Jesus?

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Christopher Sikkema


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