From beginning to end the Old Testament is full of loose and dangerous women. You know who I’m talking about. They’re the ones your mother warned you about. The kind who lurk in dark door ways and smoky bars and whose voices sound like Lauren Bacall.
Think of Eve. “Here you go, Adam. Doesn’t this apple look delicious? And you won’t believe the way you feel after you take a bite.”
Or Delilah. “Short back and sides and a little off the top as usual, Samson?”
Or Jezebel. Do you remember her? The queen of Israel, the northern kingdom, in the 9th century before Christ? She and the prophet Elisha were on different sides of the whole church/state debate. She worshiped the god Baal, and Elisha worshiped the God of Israel but she and her husband Ahab were overthrown in a palace revolt and she was unceremoniously thrown out of an upper window.
But there are plenty of other women in the Old Testament.
The prophet Deborah led Israel to victory against the Canaanites.
Or Hannah, who longed for a child and when God gave her Samuel, she consecrated him to God’s service in the tabernacle.
Or Esther, the Israelite woman who became a power to be reckoned with in the court of the Persian king Ahasuerus, and who saved Israel from the evil Haman’s plot to exterminate them.
But today the Book of Proverbs introduces us to one of the most important but least known women in the Old Testament – Lady Wisdom.
The Hebrew for wisdom is hokmah, a feminine word. So when the Jews pictured wisdom, they saw her as a woman.
The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are part of Israel’s wisdom literature. The wisdom tradition tells us that if we live our lives according to certain basic principles that can be discerned from the created order, then we will (to quote Mr. Spock from Star Trek) “live long and prosper.”
In other words, we should avoid extremes and live moderately and treat others with kindness and justice; we should heed the counsel of our parents and teachers and be diligent in our work; avoid too much strong drink; above all, we should attend to God’s word. And if we do all these things, then we will find life to be satisfying; we will be content, and life will be worth living.
But the strange thing is that although we know all this to be true, we know from our own experience that wisdom really does offer the key to a happy life, we do not heed wisdom’s call.
So Lady Wisdom goes out into the streets and says,
"How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.”
In other words, the problem is that so many of us have heeded not Lady Wisdom but her sister Lady Folly. You know what they say – good girls go to heaven but bad girls go everywhere!
Although Lady Wisdom calls to us, even though we know that she is correct when she tells us to live moderately and avoid extremes, to listen to our parents, to brush our teeth, and say our prayers, so few of us do that. Lady Wisdom may be right, but Lady Folly is a whole lot more fun.
However, today’s readings include another summons, another invitation.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus, like Lady Wisdom, takes his place before his followers and says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
On the face of it, Jesus’ invitation appears to be exactly the opposite of Lady Wisdom’s. She invites us to lead a long, full, and happy life; to do everything in our power to preserve and extend life. But Jesus invites us to throw our lives away, to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus seems to say that we have a choice – either him or the world.
Although Lady Folly may be a lot of fun to take to a party, her sister, Lady Wisdom, is a whole lot better for us in the long run. If we choose Lady Wisdom then we will do well in our careers, we will have money in the bank, and we will be respected in our communities.
But Lady Wisdom is also worldly wisdom. Jesus offers us something completely different. Jesus tells us that there is more to us than our bank accounts and our careers, that there is something even better than gaining the whole world.
Jesus invites us to an adventure, but make no mistake – it is dangerous. He invites us to to give up everything and follow him.
So why does the Bible present us with these two radically different choices – the invitation of Lady Wisdom to lead “sober, honest, and godly” lives and Jesus’ call to be his disciple? How are we to make a choice between these two very different invitations?
Lady Wisdom really is right. Follow her and listen to her and we will live happy and long lives, and most of the time, that is exactly what we should do. Lady Wisdom offers us good, practical advice for daily life.
The problem is that the time comes when that is not enough. The time comes when we have to pay the cost of discipleship.
The cost of discipleship means telling the truth even though it will cost us our job. The cost of discipleship means giving someone a hand even when we are tired and have already worked a 12 hour day. And sometimes the cost of discipleship may mean giving up our lives for the sake of the gospel.
The great majority of the time Jesus and Lady Wisdom go down the same path, but sometimes they part company. Sometimes wisdom summons us in one direction, but Jesus invites us to follow him in completely different direction.
So when we stand at that crossroads, when wisdom beckons us one way and Jesus a different way, when wisdom goes the way of safety and prudence and sobriety but Jesus goes the way of risk and uncertainty and adventure, then we need to follow Jesus. It may not be wise in the eyes of the world but it will lead to life abundant and everlasting.