Wis. 1:16-2:1; 2:12-22. Mark 9:30-37 (Proper 20B2)
Welcome again, this morning, first Sunday of the fall, and grace and peace.
My grandmother used to say of some of the managers she used to work for when she was in administrative work at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica back in the 1950’s, “how can someone who is so smart be so dumb?” And even when we were kids we knew exactly what she meant. There is a certain kind of knowledge that appears to be quite impressive. Perhaps reflected in advanced degrees or high professional status, the ability to use a certain kind of technical vocabulary, a sense of social understanding, sometimes what we would call “worldliness.” Sophisticated. Well-read. Well-travelled. The corner office. Suit and tie. But for all that, there can be missing something essential.
For all the advanced degrees in the world, you can still be essentially clueless about what’s really important. She may have had only a two-year certificate from the State Normal School in Mayville, North Dakota, finishing that in 1918 or 1919 and then going on to teach in a rural one-room school until she had to resign when she married my grandfather a couple of years later. Nothing too impressive for the CPA’s and the MBA’s and the executives and engineers she worked for all those years at Douglas. But she knew “dumb” when she saw it. And she did see it.
Thought about her this week, as I read this wonderful passage from the Wisdom of Solomon, and then from Mark 9. (Which I believe I’ve told you before was the reading appointed for the first time I ever preached a Sunday morning sermon. The key line in that sermon, now 30-plus years ago, was, “It doesn’t say so in the text, but I have a feeling that that baby Jesus picks up and shows the disciples is a baby with a dirty diaper.”)
In any event, this book from the Apocrypha (which means it is from the part of the traditional Old Testament that is found in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible but not in the classic Hebrew texts) is a part of a significant thread in the tradition of the wider Old Testament that is called often “Wisdom Literature.” This book, the Wisdom of Solomon, has the word in its title, but we would also think about the Proverbs, some of the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, some parts of the some of the prophets. Other parts of the Old Testament speak in the form of historical narrative—the patriarchs, Moses, kings, and so on. Other parts are poetic. Others the Word of God spoken through the Prophets. But the Wisdom sections of the Old Testament speak in a somewhat different way about ethics, good behavior, how to live a good life, a holy life. How to be the kind of people, individuals, nations, that God created us and calls us to be. And very often, as here, the message is given in contrast—in terms of a negative. To show the difference between those who seem to be wise, and those who really are.
In a way, not that different from the point Jesus makes in this passage in Mark. Jesus and his disciples back home, after their long journey. Perhaps we use here not the word Wisdom, but something that is really pretty close in meaning. “Success.” What is true Wisdom? What is true Success? The ungodly in the Wisdom of Solomon think it’s all about seeing through the naïve and simplistic belief of the godly. The disciples in Mark seem to think it has something to do with status, being first, the head of the class, the top of the ladder, the king of the hill. But in the end the moral of the story is that true Wisdom, true Success, lies elsewhere.
In our Bible Study this past Wednesday Jenifer Johnson really highlighted for us the very last line of the reading from James. (Not a part of our 11 a.m. readings, but printed on page 2 of the leaflet for our 9 a.m. service.) “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” We talked about this as one of those lines that would make a good “memory verse,” something to repeat and meditate on and internalize.
Certainly we live in a world of credentials and degrees. Social status and often some deep element of our own self-esteem related to the rung we’ve managed to climb to on the ladder of life’s accomplishments. And yet there do come these moments for us, in the jumble of our lives, when we find ourselves staring at the face in the bathroom mirror and asking my grandmother’s question. “How can someone so smart be so dumb?” Knowledge, wisdom, success, achievement, status.
And then: Jesus picking up that child—dirty diaper and all—and setting him in our midst. Which certainly shakes things up. Gets our attention.
Have we taken that class yet? Earned that degree? The question these readings as us this morning. Questioning our assumptions about ourselves, about the world. About what’s important, what’s real, what’s true.
About being in relationship with Jesus. Which may not look all that smart from the world’s point of view. Which may not advance our social standing, our place in the pecking order. But which in the end is the one thing necessary. To know the one who is the Wisdom from on high, the Word of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.