[The following sermon was given on Sunday, September 30, 2018 at Saint Paul’s Church – Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can listen to the audio of this sermon by checking out this Episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast].

The Bible is complicated. It just is.

It has stories of heroic kings and queens, murderous tyrants, feuding siblings, talking donkeys, and gigantic sea monsters that God made “for the sport of it.”[1]

I grew up in a Reformed/quasi-Evangelical tradition that treated the Bible as an instruction manual. The acronym for the Bible common in our youth group circle was B-I-B-L-E, Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth. If it was in it, we were supposed to do it.This is great when it comes to feeding the poor or treating our neighbor with kindness. But, what about when it comes to forcing people to leave their land, like in the Book of Joshua, or abuses of power, like King David in the Book of I Samuel?

If we treat the whole Bible like an IKEA bookshelf instruction manual we reduce what is an incredibly deep well of life, a banquet, to something bland and unnourishing. Maybe that’s why very few people read the Bible regularly, even those who claim a strong faith in God. It’s been presented as this unintelligible legal brief, an onerous compilation of instructions, a collection of arcane and inane knowledge.

Rachel Held Evans writes this, “When God gave us the Bible, God did not give us an internally consistent book of answers. God gave us an inspired library of diverse writings, rooted in a variety of contexts, that have stood the test of time, precisely because, together they avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. It’s almost as though God trusts us to approach them with wisdom, to use discernment as we read and interpret, and to remain open to other points of view.”[2]

Today’s sermon is about this, about how in letting the Bible be complicated, and wrinkled, and mysterious, and fascinating we can learn how to read it in life-giving ways.

We can’t read the Gospels the same way we read the Epistles, or the instructions in Torah the same way we read the Psalms. Each part of scripture must be allowed to shine in its own fullness if the full witness of scripture is to provide a “lamp unto our feet and a light unto our pathways.”

The same is true for the Book of Proverbs and, especially today, the way we read what is commonly referred to as the “Proverbs 31 Woman.”

The first time I ever heard someone preach this passage, I was a child in a Baptist church. The senior minister was using it to talk about the kinds of wives women should be.

I don’t profess to be a child of advanced knowledge, but even at an early age I knew this was wrong. Maybe it is because the two most prominent adults in my life at that time were my mother and grandmother, but I knew that men lecturing – or mansplaining to – women on how to be “good” wives was just wrong.

But, just for a moment, suspend what you have come to know about this passage and let’s read it in the context of the entire book of Proverbs.

The whole point of Proverbs is convey wisdom so that we, those who hear the proverbs, can establish justice and equity in our personal relationships and at the level of community politics.

In the first chapter of Proverbs we are told, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.”[3] From the very beginning of the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is portrayed as feminine, she is a prophet, and she ain’t playing no games.

“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”[4]

I don’t know about you, but I hear a whole lot of my own mother in this, something like“a hard head makes a soft behind.” Wisdom is a teacher, she is instructing us on how to live and be in this world that God has created. If we listen and follow, we reap the fruits of wisdom. But, if we ignore, there are negative consequences for our choices.

This refrain of Woman Wisdom is repeated throughout the Book of Proverbs, a book whose sole purpose is to teach us how to live and establish justice and equity in the world. But for whatever reason, when we get to the end of the book and hear of the “Proverbs 31 Woman” we hear it as literal, and even our literal hearing hears it wrongly.

The poem we heard from Proverbs functions at two different levels. First, for our Jewish neighbors, this scripture is a celebration of virtuous women – eshet chayil. The adjective we see translated here as “capable” is translated in the book of Ruth as “worthy” or “virtuous.” Ruth is described as “virtuous” not because she was a mother or a wife, but because she was strong and decisive. The poem in Proverbs 31 is not an ode to domesticity. It is not saying all women should be homemakers. It is a song of strong, empowered women whether they are married or not, mothers or not. If you don’t believe it, look at what it actually says. She buys and sells property, engaging in commerce, owns a business, and gives generously to the poor. This is a strong statement in 2018, imagine it in its original context, a thousand years before the birth of Christ!

But this reading is also more than a celebration of valorous women, it’s an example of wisdom in practice. Wisdom is precious and indeed hard to find. Wisdom lives in close relationship with others. Wisdom gathers and sustains communities. Wisdom is worthy of celebration. Wisdom is not afraid when hard times come because wisdom has prepared for it. Wisdom provides for the who are vulnerable and on the margins.

This is a song of wisdom, an anthem to the tangible ways that pursuing wisdom benefits our lives and the lives of all those around us.

Beneath the different genres of scripture, there seems to be this common refrain – get wisdom. Learn how to be in the world. When God gives the people instruction in the form of Torah, God is inviting the people into a life of finding wisdom. “Oh, how I love your law!”writes the Psalmist,“all the day long it is in my mind.”[5]Jesus, the very Word and Wisdom of God teaches us in parables and stories and invites us to a life of learning wisdom. “Where can we go,” says Peter, “you have the words of eternal life!”[6]

When it comes to the hard questions in life: what happens when we die? How should we treat our enemies? How do we live during corruption and oppression? Where did we come from? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are we here? Jesus doesn’t give us clear and easy answers. He gives us stories. He gives us parables. He gives us poems. Jesus invites us to wrestle with these hard questions with spacious and generous words, helping us to pursue wisdom.

Simple answers to complex questions is appealing, particularly in a very complicated world. We want things to make complete sense to us right now. But to follow Christ is to commit to a life of asking, seeking, and knocking. It is to go deeper and deeper into the mystery of God, maybe finding answers, probably finding more questions.

Because let’s face it, in a world where innocent children starve in wars fought be super powers, where hatred and division seem to be inevitable realities of the human experiences, where natural disasters upend the lives of good and bad people alike, where we daily face a series of complicated questions, simplistic answers just won’t cut it.

But poems, parables, and proverbs just might.

[1] Psalm 104:21

[2] Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Learning to Love the Bible Again, 104.

[3] Proverbs 1:20-21 (NRSV)

[4] Proverbs 1:22 (NRSV)

[5] Psalm 199:97 (BCP)

[6] John 6:68