The Beginning of Wisdom
June 01, 2003
Two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, "Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house--only the two of us were in the house. Then this woman's son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne."
But the other woman said, "No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours."
The first said, "No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine." So they argued before the king.
Then the king said, "The one says, 'This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead'; while the other says, 'Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.'" So the king said, "Bring me a sword." And they brought a sword before the king. The king said, "Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other."
But the woman whose son was alive said to the king--because compassion for her son burned within her--"Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!"
The other said, "It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it."
Then the king responded: "Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother." All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.
(1 Kings 3:16-28)
Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her maids, and she calls from the highest point of the city. She says to those who lack judgment, "Let all who are simple come in here! Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding." . . . The woman Folly is loud; she is undisciplined and without knowledge. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, calling to those who pass by, who go straight on their way. She says to those who lack judgment, "Let all who are simple come in here! Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!" But they do not know that the dead are there, and that her guests are in the depths of the grave.
(Proverbs 9:1-6, 13-18)
Our verses from Proverbs offer only the briefest glimpse of Lady Wisdom, showing her as building a house and preparing a grand feast; contrasting it with Lady Folly, who also has built a house, and calls as well to all those who pass by on the streets of life. Ominously, we read: "But they do not know that the dead are there, and that her guests are in the depths of the grave."
As I meditated upon this passage, I began hearing the great Eagles hit song, "Hotel California," whose haunting lyrics describe the enticing dangers of folly, as the music simultaneously does a seductive number on one's emotions. "Hotel California" is about how difficult it can be sometimes to discern what is folly and what is wisdom. Many have heard the lyrics countless times:
There she stood in the doorway, I heard the mission bell, and I was thinking to myself, "This could be Heaven or this could be Hell." Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way. There were voices down the corridor; I thought I heard them say:
"Welcome to the Hotel California; such a lovely place (such a lovely face). Plenty of room at the Hotel California. Any time of year, you can find it here."
Chillingly, even as the protagonist decides to leave, he has trouble doing so:
Last thing I remember, I was running for the door. I had to find the passage back to the place I was before. "Relax," said the night man, "We are programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."
In truth, redemption is a little easier to come by than that, and the beginning of wisdom can take place at any time. But it is much better that it begins sooner rather than later. "All that glitters is not gold," I think is the underlying reality to our challenge as young human beings. Many of the things that glitter are fool's gold. And some things that don't glitter much at first glance are the genuine thing. To return to the metaphor of Proverbs 9 and of the Holy Supper, Lady Wisdom's menu of meat, bread, and wine may not seem very enticing or exciting, but those who eat at her table find that they are stronger and more alive.
In our house we are dealing with middle school and high school close-up. I frequently find myself remembering those years of challenge, and reflecting on how choices that even youngsters make sometimes have long-range consequences--a fact about making choices that many adults never seem to quite understand. Indeed, all that glitters is surely not gold. One lady is offering a meal of mental exertion: studying language arts, math, science, music, history. To many a youngster, it looks like an unexciting diet; but most of us learn that it is actually a high protein, high nutrition diet that can lead to empowered living. Yet there are some pretty sexy alternatives that look much more appealing for feasting. The drama begins quite young, and we might well wonder why we can't all have the wisdom of Solomon much younger.
It is, in fact, the scholarly consensus that except for the last two chapters, Solomon is the author or collector of Proverbs, and that what we have today in the book of Proverbs is probably no more than one-third of what originally existed in this work of his middle years. The saying "the wisdom of Solomon" comes from his reputation as a philosopher of the Hebrew wisdom tradition. But many people tend to connect the saying with the most famous example of his wisdom--the story we heard in our reading from 1 Kings. It might surprise you to know that the case of the two mothers occurred in the very beginning of his reign, when he was still very young--probably no more than twenty-two. When the dramatic case became noised abroad, it aroused great admiration for the young ruler's astuteness. The public stood in awe of the youthful king.
As great as the story is for its commentary on human nature, the Swedenborgian tradition nevertheless finds its deeper merit to be symbolic, or correspondential, if you will. On the literal level, we get a nice example of how a person displayed cunning insight; but on the correspondential level we learn a powerful truth about how wisdom evolves in a regenerating person.
A son always pictures a new insight or truth. The two women are different kinds of affection for truth--the one genuine and the other pretended. The true affection is willing to sacrifice for what is genuine. The counterfeit affection for truth is quick to accept distortions to advance its own position.
Our mind every day tries to make meaning out of our experiences; tries to interpret truth. We all see things with some clarity and some distortion. The particular mixture at any point doesn't matter. What matters is the direction of our living: whether we are growing in wisdom, insight, and maturity. Only as we live from altruistic love--love for God--can we discern truth more clearly. Love for God is the mother of truth, so to speak. It makes truth to be born into our understanding. Love for selfish, egoistic ends kills real truth; in our need to be seen in a good light, our ego tries to create a cover, like the pretender mother.
The fact is that we can become the smartest person in the world, but without love, we are nothing--and we are certainly not wise. This vital relationship between love and wisdom is well portrayed in one of the greatest films of all time: Isak's Dineson's wonderful novel adapted to the screen, Babette's Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987). Babette Hersant, the most famous chef in Paris, loses her entire family in a bloody uprising in Paris, and she is forced to flee the country. A friend offers Babette refuge. He arranges for her to fill the position of housekeeper and cook for two sisters in a remote fishing village along Denmark's northern coast. The sisters are daughters of a now deceased minister, and they lead lives of strict observance of prayer and asceticism.
For fourteen years, Babette prepares the plain, austere fare that the sisters believe is holy. But one day after winning a lottery and receiving ten thousand francs, an inspiration comes to her: she determines to prepare the most wonderful meal in her abilities for the sisters and the entire village as a congregational celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the minister's birth. The members of the congregation reluctantly agree to go along for Babette's sake--but with a commitment among themselves that they will not enjoy such pleasures of the flesh. Some of the most wonderful scenes are of Babette's great love and skill going into the preparation of the feast.
Indeed, as the banquet sequence shows by means of dialogue and close-ups of facial expressions, gradually the wonderful meal begins to release a spirit of graciousness among the members. They are suddenly resolving old arguments, and asking for and eagerly granting forgiveness for ancient hurts.
We might glean from this story an insight into how real love inspires a deeper growth into truth. If we want to become wise, we do not need to stay on top of every best-selling spiritual work in all the fall and spring releases. All we need to do is focus inwardly on where our best sense of love leads us--and by golly, it will lead to a feast with God and with all humanity.
So all that glitters is not gold, and following our love with integrity leads to the most exquisitely nourishing meal. It is worth remembering our "proverbial" reading this morning: that Wisdom's call goes out to those who acknowledge themselves simple, echoing Jesus' promise of blessing to those as innocent as babes; for humility is the inner spiritual environment that yields the clearest light and receives the purest love.
And what love is has a great deal to do with what wisdom is. We may learn many facts, loading our memory with gigabytes of knowledge so that we are able to face Regis and become a millionaire; but this is not wisdom. We may reason acutely and become dazzlingly intelligent, but this is not wisdom.
Wisdom is a simpler affair--that of perceiving heavenly truth given by God to an innocent and loving heart. Withheld from many a brilliant person, it is routinely revealed to babes. We might be startled to realize the connection with that other babe of a manger born, whose true parentage has been argued ever since--and then remember the babe of our reading from 1 Kings, and how Solomon determined its true mother, and so gave us the secret to the beginning of wisdom.
O God of Wisdom, who withhold your truth from those who are wise and prudent in their own eyes, but reveal it to babes, give us we pray, the innocence of children. Help us to see our own folly, so that we will be ready and willing to receive the wisdom that you offer us. Take away all our pride in our own knowledge, and replace it with a humble desire to hear your ancient words of wisdom, and to use them in serving our fellow human beings. Amen.
Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence