ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 4, 2018
Rev Sabrina Ingram
NOT SO CLEVER NOW
Exodus 20: 1 – 17; 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25; John 2: 13 – 21
We all remember the wisdom of King Solomon, when the two women asked him to arbitrate over who was the rightful mother of an infant. On a different day another two women, Sadie and Luba, dragged a young man into the court of King Solomon seeking his legendary wisdom. “This man agreed to marry my daughter,” said Sadie. “No! He agreed to marry MY daughter,” said Luba. They yelled at each other heatedly while yanking on the young man’s arms. “Silence!” declared Solomon, “Bring me my largest, sharpest sword and I shall hew the man in half. Each of you can take one half back to your daughters.” “Fine. Sounds good to me,” said Sadie. Luba backed down, “O Sire, do not spill blood. Let Sadie’s daughter marry him.” “Indeed,” decreed Solomon, “The man will marry Sadie’s daughter.” Confused, the King’s advisor exclaimed, “But, Sire, Sadie was willing to hack him in two!” “Precisely,” said Solomon, “That proves she’s the true mother-in-law.”
There’s a reason Solomon’s wisdom was famous. Not many people are truly wise. Just ask Lorean Simmons who locked herself out of her house so, to get the fire dept to come and open the door, she set the house on fire. Or the prison that offered computer courses to inmates, only to have their own computer system hacked by Nicholas Weber, a man convicted of computer hacking. Or the Decca Records executive who, in 1962, turned down the Beatles because he didn’t like their sound and guitars were passé. Or the people who worked in the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years who thought they’d get rich offering a money exchange.
Back in the time of Jesus, the Jewish people journeyed to Bethlehem from all over Israel, Judea and the surrounding countries making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Passover. They were required to go to the temple to sacrifice a young male lamb without spot or blemish. Prior to this, some of the people would also seek ritual cleansing by offering a pigeon or dove. As well, they paid a tribute tax of a silver coin to the Temple. For many people, finding an unflawed lamb and carefully transporting it to the Temple, was a huge task. As well, they risked having their offering rejected when they arrived at the Temple because it didn’t meet the required standards. To alleviate this burden on the people, the priests began to sell pre-approved lambs, doves and pigeons in the outer court of the Temple. And, perhaps with a kick back, the Priests approved currency exchange booths to help those with foreign coin and those who needed to change their pennies to silver. It wasn’t long before clever people figured out they had a gold mine at their finger tips. It was something akin to Hydro One – they were the only show in town, there was no competition and people needed what they had, so they began to charge exorbitant prices for their products. The Talmud recorded, “The money changers were installed in the Temple itself to help in the collecting of the silver donations. It wasn’t just the moneychangers that were robbing people, but history records that excessive prices were being charged by those who were selling animals used in ritual sacrifice.” Not only did this put a tremendous financial strain on the average peasant, but it also desecrated a holy ritual which was created to glorify God. No doubt these merchants saw themselves as “worldly” and “wise”. And they reaped the profit of their cleverness until the day the itinerate preacher from Nazareth showed up. Jesus went into the Temple saw this travesty of worship and justice and went ballistic. He got a whip and drove out the animals and maybe a few merchants with them; creatures were stampeding in every direction. He overturned the tables of the money changers; coinage flew everywhere. People were running, screaming and hiding. No doubt the Temple guard was called to restrain him. No doubt they viewed Jesus behaviour as a little off the wall. How did Jesus explain himself? “Stop making my Father’s house a flea market.” (vs. 16). One would hope that the Priests who served in the Temple, if not the money changers, would be stopped in their tracks. The financial rewards they had sought and the way they’d sought them were an affront to God. What they thought was so clever in worldly terms, was foolishness in terms of the Kingdom of Heaven. The wealth they thought would elevate them, ended up being their undoing.
But a distorted view of wisdom wasn’t limited to the Jews. St. Paul made most of his mission trips in the eastern Mediterranean countries – Syria, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia – places where people were steeped in the works of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These were places where education was esteemed, where people sat in the town square and argued philosophy and where wisdom was highly valued. While the “Greeks” went around thinking they were wise, Paul argues that the opposite is true, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20). Paul understood the upside-down quality of wisdom. Those who are wise in worldly ways are foolish in God’s eyes because they don’t know God. They think they have the best life going but they are perishing.
Worldly wisdom has certain qualities. Worldly wisdom convinces us it’s clever to take advantage of people, to bully people, to use them and to exploit them. Worldly wisdom tells us that cheating, lying and coercing are the tools of those who come out “on top”. And being “on top” proves you’re wiser than the people under you. Worldly wisdom reminds us to be cynical about life and suspicious of everything and everyone. Get rid of your idealism and live in the “real” world. Play your cards close to the vest. Look out for number one. Hit first and hit hard. Worldly wisdom encourages vengeance. Never forget a hurt and always get even. Worldly wisdom tells us that we are the master’s of our own lives. You are the centre of the universe. Don’t listen to anything but your own “inner authority”. You are the expert on good and evil; you get to decide what’s right and wrong for you. The world tells us the wise are those who are powerful, educated, rich, attractive, famous or fit. It confuses success with wisdom and holds up these people as role models to emulate. Worldly wisdom tells us in our youth to follow the crowd, be cool. When we’re older it tells us to follow the culture around us, or we will be left behind. Worldly wisdom believes there is nothing after this life and no consequences or it believes there’s a heaven and everyone gets in. Our goodness deserves to stand before the most high and holy God.
What do you consider wisdom? It’s easy for us to look down on those ideas and the people who live by them but all of us, given the right circumstances, easily adopt this kind of thinking. All of us have been persuaded by it to some degree. All of us have acted on all or part of it. Paul asks, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (vs. 20). If we’re going to cling to our own wisdom, our cleverness, we’re going to be found out. Unlike the merchants and money changers in the Temple, Jesus isn’t going to walk into our lives and overturn tables. But he will overturn every thought and presumption we think is wise. He’ll overturn our need to promote ourselves at the expense of others. He’ll overturn whatever ways we distort the worship and holiness of God. He overturns it first by showing up on earth in a human body; not the son of a King but the son of a carpenter. He overthrows it with his compassion and his teachings. He overturns it by dying on a cross. And one day he will walk into our lives, he’ll return and he’ll make a whip and toss tables and proclaim judgement. And won’t we look foolish then?
All of us have been cowed by worldly wisdom. We’re intimidated by it because we fear looking foolish to those who are worldly wise. To be followers of Christ we need to be willing to take that risk. What choice do we have, except to look foolish? We follow one whom the world sees as foolish. Alan Jones writes, “Jesus was a scandal; peculiar, particular, one of a kind”. And the good news that shapes and directs our lives is, to others, equally as ridiculous as Jesus himself. Not only because it seems absurd to believe that someone rose from the dead, but also because the teachings of Christ and message of the gospel are contrary to everything the world believes to be wise. Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” And it is foolish! God’s is far beyond all human understanding. God’s wisdom is secret and hidden and glorious. Yet, in the person of Jesus, God’s wisdom is willing to be mocked, shamed and understood as foolishness. God’s wisdom is willing to take the blows of violent power and the slurs of arrogance in order to make clear that the things of worldly wisdom will not last, but what will last is the foolish proclamation that power can serve, that forgiveness brings freedom, that God’s ways are just, that the first will be last and that life comes from death. What a foolish message to give to a world who thinks life works differently.
To our discomfort, God asks us to be the ones who communicate this foolish message. Frederick Buechner writes, “God is foolish to send us out to speak hope to a world that slogs along heart-deep in the conviction that things can only get worse. . . . He is foolish to have us speak of loving our enemies when people have a hard enough time loving our friends. . . . God is foolish to have us proclaim eternal life to a world that is half in love with death. . . . God is foolish to send us out on a journey for which there are no maps, and to aim us in the direction of a goal we can never know until we get there. Such is the foolishness of God. And yet, and yet, Paul says, ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than all human wisdom.’ (vs. 25) God is foolish! And we are fools for Christ’s sake. When asked to prove his divine authority, Jesus told the Priests, “Tear down this Temple and in 3 days, I’ll re-build it.” (vs. 19). His words perplexed these wise, wealthy, educated men. They didn’t understand that Jesus was speaking about his own body and his coming death and resurrection. Fools that we are, “we proclaim Christ crucified.” (vs. 23) That may be a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others “but to those who are the called, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vs. 24).