Wisdom and the Word
Christmas 2: 3rd January, 2016
Richard Wilson, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Sirach 24:1-12, Ps 147:12-20, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18
- Wisdom praises herself,
- and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
- In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
- and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
- 'I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
- and covered the earth like a mist.'
We don't often get to hear from the Apocrypha in church, probably less so in our private reading — I am as much at fault here — so it is a treat to hear Sirach this morning. Known in full as the Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira, and also as Ecclesiasticus, it was written by Jesus ben Sira's son about 150 years before the other Jesus' birth.
It stands out to me in a number of ways. First, it is about knowledge that comes from outside this world, knowledge that is transcendental, that is divine. Yet it is spoken of as a person, a woman, indeed — 'in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory.' And She is timeless — 'Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me.' She is omnipresent — 'I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist.' She is all-powerful — 'Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway.' And, finally, She was sent —'He said, "make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance."'
My point in making this list of Wisdom's characteristics is to draw your attention to the reading from John, the prologue to his Gospel — no need to repeat it, we know it much better than Sirach. But John gives all these same attributes to the Word. Surely, then, they are one and the same in their real embodiment in Jesus Christ.
Being words, presumably they have some logic, and on the basis of their apostolic nature — they were sent — there is a task for this logic to perform.
This interest me because I presume an interest in public theology — how to bring the Gospel into the public square — out there among the people. For me, as you know, this means the business community.
But business, in my experience, is a bit resistant to this message, the Word, for several reasons. One, the message is not all that convenient, it tells business, like it tells all of us, to clean up our act. That doesn't go down well and actually I think we have to resist the temptation to beat business up with this message — or at least say something positive first.
Another thing business doesn't like — and they use it as a defence — its context is a semi-literate, agrarian community under Roman rule of the first century — it bears, busines says, no relationship to today. And last, the message is often delivered in language that is at best ecclesiastical, and at worst a rather uncertain, sugary call to niceness — whatever that is — or an unrefined, irrelevant fundamentalist diatribe.
But examination of both these texts suggests none of these forms of delivery are what the One who sent them intends. Neither Wisdom nor the Word tells us to use them to beat up our sisters and brothers in business for being bad people. On the contrary, they offer a message of the life-giving nature of God, and they don't authorise us to be ethics monitors. Our friends are, presumably, free to do what they want with this message. They may 'clean up their act', but from the plain reading of the words, that is not our affair.
Also, the Word is not something out of the first century, or any other time; it is before all time. The Son of Jesus ben Sirach and the writer of John both wrote in their context — what else could they do?
Our task is to hear this wisdom, this Word, and write it or tell it in our context. That is, it demands to be relevant. We have to interpret and make sense of it for today's world. If we do this well and faithfully, business will have no option but to accept it. The Word is, after all, all-powerful.
Lastly, while on the subject of rationality, it needs to be made rational as well as contextual. Not in the human rationality of commerce and economics, but in the divine rationality of the Gospel. Sure, it's irrational to some ears — but not ours. If we can do that, we remain relevant to the context, but we don't sell-out the Gospel for the sake of popularity.
Making this translation is no easy job, but it is one we must attempt — it is one we have been given. Taking this job on is our expected response to the sending of the Word. It is not easy because it is complex and difficult. It is also unwelcome out there. But responding to the arrival of the Word is our Christmas celebration and it is what today is about — our renewal as community, to become one in the Eucharist, in order to be for the many of our mission.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.