The Irony of Wisdom from Solomon

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 7, 2012

Proverbs 1:1-7
Solomon

1  The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: 

2  For learning about wisdom and instruction,for understanding words of insight, 

3  for gaining instruction in wise dealing,righteousness, justice, and equity; 

4  to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young— 

5  Let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, 

6  to understand a proverb and a figure,the words of the wise and their riddles.

7  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

James 3:13-18

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.  15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

What makes life meaningful?  How do I know if I have lived a meaningful life or an empty, one?  How do I know that I didn’t wast my life?  What constitutes true happiness?

Experimental Philosophy: the 2 Maria’s

I want to share a fascinating account about how people assess meaning.  There is a budding new field of research called Experimental Philosophy.  One of the founders of this movement is Joshua Knobe who is a faculty member in Yale University’s Program in Cognitive Science.  He set up an experiment in which he gave participants one of two scenarios to evaluate.  The first group heard this:

“Maria is the mother of three children who all really love her. In fact, they couldn’t imagine having a better

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mom. Maria usually stays pretty busy taking care of her children. She often finds herself rushing from one birthday party to the next. And is always going to pick up some groceries or buy school supplies.

“While Maria has been preoccupied with her children, she does get to see her old friends occasionally. Almost every night she ends up working on some projects for the next day, or planning something for her children’s future.

“Day to day, Maria usually feels excited and really enjoys whatever she’s doing. When she reflects on her life, she also feels great. She can’t think of anything else in the world that she would spend her time doing and feels like the success she’s had is definitely worth whatever sacrifices she’s made.

And these participants were just asked a simple question: Is Maria happy?

Scenario 2

The second group of participants get this scenario:

“Maria wants to live the life of a celebrity in L.A. In fact, she’s even started trying to date a few famous people. Maria usually stays pretty busy in trying to become popular. She often finds herself rushing from one party to the next and is always going to pick up some alcohol or a dress. Maria is so preoccupied with becoming popular that she’s no longer concerned with being honest to her old friends unless they know someone famous. Almost every night she ends up either drunk or doing some kind of drug, just like the famous people she wants to be like.

“Maria usually feels excited and really enjoys whatever she’s doing. When she reflects on her life, she also feels great. She just can’t think of anything else in the world that she would spend her time doing and feels like the success she’s had is definitely worth whatever sacrifices she had made.

“And these participants were then given the same question. Is Maria happy?”

It turns out consistently that people agree that Maria, the mother in the first story, is truly happy, just as she describes herself as feeling.   But people are unwilling to say that the Maria in the second story is truly happy, despite the fact that she claims to be, using identical words.

Most people seem to be aware that a truly happy life can only be the consequence of a life lived meaningfully.

Wisdom Literature on the Good Life

This is exactly the kind of reflection about life we find in literature that spans many centuries from a variety of different cultures.  It shows up in our bibles in the works of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  Wisdom literature is the name given to texts  that contains these kinds of reflections.

Many of us have been involved in the project of Reading the Bible in 90 Days.  We have already read the books that give the story of king Solomon, and just this past week we have read the wisdom books credited to him: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

The story about Solomon in the book of Kings tells us that he was very wise – even that he had a world-wide reputation for wisdom.

32 He [Solomon] composed three thousand proverbs…. 34 People came from all the nations to hear the

Solomon’s wisdom: “split the baby”

wisdom of Solomon….”  (1 Kings 4)

When we read the book of Proverbs which Solomon is given credit for writing and compiling, we read many common-sense observations about everyday life; it’s full of “folk-wisdom.”

“Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but one who rejects a rebuke goes astray (10:17)

“Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense. (11:22)

“The lazy person does not plow in season; harvest comes, and there is nothing to be found.”  (20:4)

Oddly, (given the enormous size of Solomon’s harem) there are many proverbs that warn against infidelity:

“Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?” (5:20)

We also read reflections of a broader, more philosophical nature:

“By justice a king gives stability to the land, but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it.” (29:4)

Who wrote that?

This is bitterly ironic.  The book of Kings tells us that Solomon organized (or rather re-organized or dis-organized) the tribal territories of Israel into districts for the sake of heavy “exactions” – which means taxes – in order to support numerous  building projects and to finance all the people at his court on a lavish level:

“Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal,  23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl.” (1 Kings 4:22)

It turns out that Solomon’s building projects included providing shrines for the gods of all of his 700 foreign wives, whom he eventually joined in their pagan worship (1 Kings 11)

As for his supposed knowledge of justice, we read:

“King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.”  (1 Kings 5:13)

In the end, it is only possible to read the description of Solomon’s “wisdom” as completely ironic. He ends up looking like an Egyptian Pharaoh.  He compromised every core value that Moses voiced.  Every reason for leading the people out of slavery in Egypt was scuttled by what he foolishly, selfishly did.

The direct result was that the moment Solomon died, the ten Northern tribes split away.  He left his kingdom in the hands of a son no wiser than himself, and began a downward spiral that destroyed everything he had built.

Solomon’s self-conclusion

In the book of Ecclesiastes, also credited to Solomon, he reflects on his whole life’s work and concludes,

“18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19 —and who knows whether they will be wise or  foolish? …This also is vanity.  20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun,  21 …This also is vanity and a great evil.”  (Eccl. 2)

Solomon concluded that he wasted his life.  Like the Paris Hilton-type Maria in the second story, no one would call him truly happy.   What good were all the wisdom-sayings he collected and wrote?  He did not live a wise life.

The Good Life as per James

This brings us to the New Testament reading from the book of James, which shares many features in common with the

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Wisdom literature tradition.  The “good life” is not about acquisitions and achievements, it is about living a life that is good.

13 “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” (James 3)

James describes the wise life further:

17 “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Life for Others

All of the qualities of a wise life are directed towards others.  None of these is self-oriented.  Wisdom means that you know that the purpose we are on this earth is not   for ourselves, it is for others.

And let us notice that being here for others means others who are similar to us and others who are not like us; wisdom is behaving “without a trace of partiality” James tell us.

On this world communion Sunday, we recognize that there is no basis for partiality before the God who made every person of every race, every tribe, and every language in his image, and whose son, Jesus, gave himself for the entire world.

Maria in story number two lived completely for herself.  Her life was vapid; empty.  We all know that one day she will wake up and discover that for herself, though much damage will have been done, and perhaps it will be too late.  By the time Solomon made that discovery, it was much too late.

The call to us

It is not to late for us.  If reading the bible has any effect on us at all, let it be that it calls us to live as God created us to live: not for ourselves, but with and for each other.  Let us learn, albeit ironically, from Solomon, even from his mistakes and his final despair about the nature of a life of “vanity”, to live, instead, a life of meaning; a life of wisdom.

This is not just about being a bleeding-hearted do-gooder.  This is about “getting it” at a wise, deep level, that the essence of life cannot be that I got through it with minimal pain, many pleasures, and lots of nice things.  What is the point of that?

No, rather the life we are called to live is a life that shares the values and dreams of our Creator, who made each of us in his image, and takes it personally when we give ourselves for others.  As James has said,

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:26)

This is the Jesus-shaped life, for as the gospels tell us,

“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

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