Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Trinity 17. Divine Wisdom
October 17, 2011, 5:17 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 16th October 2011

Proverbs 4.1-18; 1 John 3.16-4.6

“Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction.” “Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth…. Little children, you are of God.”

One of the first things that struck me, on reading tonight’s two lessons, was that each is couched in the form of a father speaking to his children. The unknown Rabbi who compiled the Book of Proverbs, and St John the beloved disciple writing to his own disciples, each thought of himself as not just a teacher but a parent. St Paul too writes somewhere to his disciples, “Though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1Cor 4.15). What he meant was that, by bringing the good news of Jesus to them, he had engendered a new life in them, just as truly as a natural father does. Precisely because God is the Ultimate Father of us all, we can share in his parenthood in relation to our natural or spiritual children. And that means that we have a continuing responsibility for them, at least until they reach adulthood and can take responsibility for themselves. Paul and John stood in a long tradition  of rabbi-hood, stretching back to the ancient Rabbis of the Exile and beyond.

“Hear, O sons, a Father’s instruction.” The instruction does not pretend to be original. It is a wisdom passed down through the generations. “When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one of my mother, he taught me.” The entitlement to teach comes from having been taught oneself. We pass on what we have received.

The nub of the Rabbi’s instruction is this: get wisdom. What follows is one of several poetic praises of Wisdom, personified as a beautiful and noble woman. (This, by the way, is why these passages are sometimes used in the Liturgy in reference to our Lady.) The personification is at least partly derived from the fact that in ancient languages, abstract known such as “wisdom” (sapientia, sophia) are of the feminine gender. We should not read too much into this.

The Rabbi tells his disciple, his spiritual son, “Prize her highly; guard her, for she is your life.” The pursuit of true wisdom is something like a courtship, a love-affair. The medieval troubadours would have understood such language; St Francis, pursuing Lady Poverty, would have understood.

For the old Rabbi, Wisdom was in fact identical with Torah, the Teaching which had come from God, which we often (but misleadingly) translate as “Law”, but is more accurately “Way of Life”.  It was God’s own guidance for a fulfilled human life. It was God’s own word.

And here, of course, we find a cross-over point with St John. For the Evangelist, the Word of God that was in the beginning with God was the light of men. “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day:” that is from Proverbs. “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world:” that is from the Evangelist. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” For St John, the Word and Wisdom of God has taken human form in Jesus of Nazareth. The Torah was indeed the way; Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus exemplifies the Law of God, summed up in the commandments to love God with all our heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if anyone has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” The new Law is as down-to-earth as the old Law, they are in essence the same: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” What “believing in the name” means is that we should place our trust and confidence in the fact that Jesus of Nazareth, a particular man like ourselves, who died a particular (and atrocious) death at a particular time and in a particular place- that man is to be identified as Messiah, as the Emissary of God, and as indeed the very revelation of God. It is because God has come among us, even though he was not recognised by his own people, that we can both know and live the way of life that God has always intended for us, namely that we should love one another, not just in word or speech, but in deed and truth.

For the old Rabbi, the Torah of God was a light to lighten our steps: “When you walk, your step will not be hampered; and if you run, you will not stumble.” But there is another way, against which he warns: “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evil men. Avoid it… for they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.” John too warns against false prophets, false guides who would lead us astray, were we to follow them. “They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them.”

“Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction.” Hear, in fact, the very Word of the Father. Hear his commandment of love, generous, overflowing and universal. Not for us the bread of wickedness and the wine of violence! Rather, our reliance is in the Bread of Life, and the wine which is the Blood of Christ, shed for us upon the cross. We draw near and worship the Body of the Lord; we bow down and ask for his blessing.



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