Choosing Wisdom

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Today we continue our exploration of the wisdom of King Solomon. He had many accomplishments – Solomon received the gift of wisdom from God, he built the first temple, and he made Israel rich and powerful. In time, the kingdom and the temple fell, but his most lasting accomplishment is still with us in the Bible – his collection of Proverbs. They are little nuggets of wisdom, the memes of their day. They are usually 2 lines long, sometimes longer. They contain advice on all aspects of life, from marriage to business, friends and how to deal with governments. Here are a few examples:     

“Some friends play at friendship,  but a true friend sticks closer than one's nearest kin.” (Proverbs 18:24)

“Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes,   so are the lazy to their employers. “ (Proverbs 10:26)  

“Pride goes before destruction,  and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)  

In chapter 9, which Gerry read today, Solomon presents a scene of two women, each with a house at the top of the city. Both of them invite passerby to come in for a meal.  Solomon calls one of them Wisdom, the other Folly. Which one should we choose? The figures are allegorical, two ways of life. Folly is seductive, like a prostitute at the door of a brothel. Wisdom is like an honest innkeeper. They beckon to men and women alike to join them in their feast. Where should we go?  

This choice may seem like a no-brainer – of course we are going to choose wisdom’s house. Who in their right mind would choose to be foolish? But in this allegory, Folly does not present herself as the path of misfortune and destruction. Instead, she seems just as attractive and legitimate as Wisdom. And that is how Folly attracts followers, by appearing to be identical to Wisdom. So, the real question is how do you know which is which?  

We have seen this in our own time. The Internet started out as a fairly harmless place where people shared funny cat videos, recipes, and hobbies. At first, it seemed like a free source of wisdom and information for everyone, the world’s biggest, living encyclopedia. Andy Warhol’s prediction was coming true – everyone could get their fifteen minutes of fame just by posting something interesting funny or useful. Fast forward to 2021, and thanks to social media, we can express and share every thought and feeling we have with the entire world, anytime we want. If you are on Facebook, you may have noticed that there is no thought too trivial to be posted. “I’m having tea.” “I think I will go for a walk today.”  Everything and anything is shared.  

If you look at the comments sections of online newspapers, it’s evident that the internet does not encourage self-filtering. People are free to express every sexist, racist, homophobic thought they may have, without fear of reprisal. The web has become a free for all of public expression of what used to be private thoughts. And in this, it appears not much has changed since the days when Solomon wrote his Proverbs:    

Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice.  Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult. (Proverbs 12:15-6)  

What started out as a new way for people to share hobbies and opinions has turned into an often-dangerous medium for the expression of negative thoughts and emotions. The algorithms which run social media platforms are constantly identifying the kinds of posts that get the strongest emotional reactions. Journalists researching conspiracy theory Facebook groups have found the rest of their feeds fill up with other conspiracy theories. The algorithms have concluded that if you like one kind of extreme falsehood, you will likely enjoy more of the same.  

The Internet has increasingly become like Folly’s house, who beckons people in promising a free meal, eaten in secret.  A key part of folly’s attraction is that it appeals to the ego. Folly flatters. Folly, the proverbs tell us, appeals to our egos, the part of us that feels special when people notice us. There’s nothing wrong with posting something others find useful, of course. If it’s wise and helpful, share away. But it’s how we react that matters. The social media companies know that the feeling of being right and popular is intoxicating. The technology is new, but human nature hasn’t changed much. Solomon understood this trap very well:  

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,  but only in expressing personal opinion.” (Proverbs 18:2)  

“The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps.” (Proverbs 14:15)  

That sense of feeling special is what we have to watch out for. The ego is easily seduced and flattered. In this respect, we can all be enticed by Folly. In our time, conspiracy theories are the voices of Folly. They invite us to belong to a special club, with insider knowledge. As Solomon says in today’s reading, Folly’s dinner is eaten in secret, with stolen water. Conspiracy theories claim to know what the government and the doctors are really up to. Downtown there are walls covered in graffiti announcing that Covid-19 is fake. At Yonge and Bloor, there are stickers on telephone poles that declare this is all a grand psychological experiment where we are the guinea pigs. In the United States, this is the golden age of conspiracy theories, the age of Q Anon, and the Big Lie about the election. Subscribing to these alternate reality narratives has proven very popular, a club whose theories are more enticing than even the truth.  

For people who get enticed by these theories, the fact that they sound so different from the official line is part of their appeal. It is very flattering to have been granted inside knowledge that few others understand. The secrecy and private nature of Folly’s banquet is what gives it so much appeal to the ego. The tragedy is that those some of those seduced by conspiracy theorists are now waking up on ventilators in covid wards. The disease they were told was all an exaggeration has become a deadly reality. In the United States, where covid cases are rising again, the vast majority of those hospitalized with the virus are people who were not vaccinated. Folly’s game can have tragic, deadly consequences.      

If we want to avoid this fate, how do we choose wisdom? It requires a shift in mental perspective. In today’s scripture passage we are told that Wisdom calls out to the simple and the senseless. Does that sound like you? If you don’t think so, then perhaps you are not ready to enter wisdom’s house. Wisdom is for those who have realized that they don’t really know what is going on in life. If the fool is certain that he or she has all the answers, wisdom is for those who have realized that they don’t. Wisdom is for people who can dial down their egos and are ready to listen to instruction, and even be corrected.  

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

For many of us, this is not what we want to hear. We want to be told that wisdom is for smart people like us who have a pretty good idea of how life works. After all, isn’t that what wisdom is about? We must be wise already because we know what’s going on, after all, that’s how we’ve been able to do so well in life. Our material and professional success is proof of our wisdom. But wait, Solomon has a proverb about that, too:   

“Do you see persons wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for fools than for them.” (Proverbs 26:12)

We shouldn’t assume we are already wise. But then, who is? We typically associate wisdom with old age. Why is that?  Older people discover that the senior years come with many humbling experiences. Your body starts to betray you. You may have been encouraged to retire so younger blood could take your place at work. Or you may have a partner or loved one who has had a stroke, cancer or has been diagnosed with dementia. Perhaps one of these things has happened to you. In old age, one thing becomes abundantly clear: we are no longer fully in charge of our lives. Nature and the aging process have their own agenda, and we will need to find a way to fit in and endure it. “Getting old is not for sissies,” as people often say.  

It is not in our power to be fully in control of this stage of our lives. And that is humbling. It puts life in perspective. You get a chance in your senior years to see your life and the life of others from a different perspective. Looking back, it becomes clear that throughout our lives there are social and biological forces at work that we thought were our idea but weren’t really. Why did we want children at that age? Was our rational mind calling the shots, or our biology? Or our family’s expectations? Was it our idea to stop travelling so much for work, or was it the fatigue we felt as we got older? Or was it the tensions created in our family? Did we choose that addiction, or was it a symptom of something else we couldn’t deal with yet?  

In retrospect, our personal life trajectory looks less like one triumphant personal decision after another, and more like a white-water rafting trip.  Sometimes we get to steer the raft, and other times the river takes over. But the entire time, the river was going to win and take us where it wanted us to go.  

“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” Proverbs 27:1  

In Proverbs it says the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. That’s like saying that The Lord, God, is the river of life we are travelling on. The truly wise respect the power of the River.  

Solomon invites us to come to wisdom as soon as we can, long before old age arrives with its lessons. Wisdom is not a collection of information, but a way of being. It starts with that recognition that our ego doesn’t know it all, and that there are bigger forces at work which we can’t control. To some that may sound like an existential nightmare – we’re powerless in a world we can’t control. That’s one way of looking at it. The other approach is to marvel at the fact that even though each of us is so small, and here for so little time, the universe still takes care of us. We may have small parts, but we are participating in an astounding cosmic drama of often breath-taking beauty. God creates the sets in this play, and often decides on sudden scene changes, but we are free to write our own lines and move around as we will.  

“The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)  

God wants to help us get through this life, and live well, come what may. Pandemics may throw our lives completely off course. Economic meltdowns like 2008 may wipe out most of our savings. The real estate bubble may burst. Or we may have children who suffer from anxiety and depression. Throughout all these unsolicited changes, wisdom can carry us through.  

All the days of the poor are hard, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast. Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15: 15:17)  

So, how do we get this wisdom? In our scripture reading today it presents wisdom as the host of a banquet of fine food and wine. God wants us to thrive and offers us the bread of wisdom. Like food, it needs to be eaten, over and over again, it is not a one-shot deal. Folly also offers a meal, but it is to be eaten in secret, with stolen water. Wisdom’s banquet, by contrast, is open to all, and occurs in full view of God. No secrets, no conspiracy theories for the chosen ones.  A wise life is one where we can debate what it means to be good in our day and age. We can puzzle over what God wants us to do now, and what a good and fair life looks like in the 21st century.  

The key to that debate is that at times, we may find we are wrong. And that’s a good thing. A debate where no one changes their mind isn’t very useful. Throughout the proverbs we are reminded that the wise welcome correction. It’s the only way we can get from where we’re at to the next level of understanding. This is true of institutions, too. Over the past few weeks, we have been reminded of how churches and our government have mistreated Indigenous people for centuries. Now we have a choice. Should we flatter ourselves in Folly’s house, and claim we did nothing wrong?  Or should we head for wisdom’s home, where we will honestly debate how we should change? Solomon’s proverbs suggest that wisdom is not about being right all the time. Wisdom is about being willing to change.  To make our lives and the lives of all people better. In the words of the proverbs:  

A fool’s way is right in his own eyes, but whoever listens to counsel is wise. (Proverbs 12:15)  

God has given us humans a choice. We can choose which house we spend our time in. We can sit among the flatterers and have our egos stroked, or we can sit in wisdom’s house. There, a banquet awaits that will feed the soul, and help us correct our path when we go astray. The reward is a sense of belonging to a beautiful universe where justice for the lowly goes hand in hand with care for ourselves, and the companionship of God. It’s a pretty sweet deal for those who accept the invitation.  

Thanks be to God.