The Two Ladies [Proverbs 2]
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The Two Ladies – 05.22.2022
Once upon a time an angel appeared at a faculty meeting and tells the dean of the university that in return for all his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, infinite wisdom OR infinite beauty. Pick whatever you want, and God will grant that wish. Without even hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom. “Done” says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke with a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn towards the dean, who sits surrounded with a faint halo of light. After a long pause, an extended moment of silence, one of his colleagues whispers, “say something.” The dean looks at each of them and says, “Now that I have infinite amounts of the greatest wisdom in all the world, I can clearly see – I should have taken the money.” [laugh]
Today is the first sermon in a brand new series called One coin, two sides where we will be spending some time in the book of Proverbs. Now I’m going to admit something to you all – this my first time attempting to work exclusively with the book of Proverbs. It’s a difficult book to navigate because it’s wisdom literature. The bible has inside it lots of different types of literature. It’s not the same type of book cover to cover. Some of the books are history books, meant to teach you what happened in the past, and then other books are poetry, like the book of Psalms, some are prophetic texts. Some are letters that have been collected – and each genre is read a little differently. I wouldn’t read the book of Psalms like a history book. But right in the middle is this small collection of books called the “Wisdom literature” – Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. But here’s what makes Proverbs so weird – you know those inspirational quotes that get painted on a wooden sign and then hung like decoration? You know what I’m talking about – the one that says, “please excuse the mess, but we live here.” Ok, so imagine you collected an entire book of clever, quippy phrases like that… and that’s the book of Proverbs. There’s no narrative, there’s no story, there’s not even a single teaching or theme that flows through each chapter. It just jumps from topic to topic - it might give you three verses of how to manage your money, and then it’ll switch to sexual ethics, and then it’ll talk about honesty and the power of the words we use and then it’ll finish up by talking about how important hard work is. It's all very good, but it can be a little hard to read through. You know what it is? If King Solomon, the wisest king in the history of all Israel, if he had a twitter account – that would be the book of Proverbs. So what we’re going to do for the next five weeks is dive into five topics from King Solomon’s twitter thread, which might have us jumping around a little bit, and see if we can’t find some wisdom.
Chapter two gets us started, [read v.1-4]. Alright, now that was really just four verses that were basically four different ways to say “HEY LISTEN UP THIS IS IMPORTANT.” Just scanning the keywords, you’ll see a theme. Listen, tune your ears, concentrate, treasure commands, cry out for insight, search for understanding, ask for understanding, seek them like hidden treasures. So the writer clearly wants us to understand that wisdom, whatever that is, wisdom is important and we should be paying attention.
[read v.5-10] If you go searching for wisdom, you will find God and if you gain knowledge of God, you will get all the benefits of having wisdom. The benefits of wisdom are such things as “common sense” and integrity. And you might think, “that’s not that big a deal, it’s just common sense.” To which I want to respond – have you been outside lately? Our culture, our country and our planet are in DESPERATE need of a little common sense. Common sense, integrity – these things come from wisdom, which is a gift from God. This journey that we are beginning into the book of Proverbs, this is something all of us desperately need to pay attention to.
But let’s take it back for a second to the first verse I read, verse 5. It says, “Then you will understand what it means to fear the Lord, and you will gain knowledge of God.” I want to talk about that phrase, “fear of the lord.” You have to remember the world where this was written – ancient middle eastern culture valued strength and power. When someone understands how powerful you are, they have a healthy understanding of what you can do, a fear of your power – it creates a respect of your authority. We saw this last week with Pharaoh and God. Moses comes to Pharaoh and says, “let God’s people go” and Pharaoh says, “Who is God? I don’t know him, I don’t know what he can do – why would I listen to him at all? There was no understanding of power, so there was no fear, so there was no respect. Here’s another example: toddlers and wall sockets. Anybody have that experience? The wall socket is not a scary thing, but it’s good to have a healthy fear of the wall socket’s power. You know what’s another one in my house? Gravity. My children do not have enough respect for gravity. They’re just climbing on the back of stuff, walking along the outside of every raised platform – teetering on the edge… Now, I don’t want my children to live in fear, jumping at shadows like scaredy cat, but a healthy understanding of gravity’s power, a fear of its authority over their lives would go a long way towards keeping everybody out of the emergency room. The phrase “fear of God” is closely linked with an understanding of who and what God is. God doesn’t want you to be scared of him, but he does want us to know him, and understand his power and authority and ultimately that comes down to respecting him. The phrase “fear of the lord” is about having respect for God, and following the guidelines he has given us for how to live our lives.
It keeps going, [read v.11-15]. Ah-ha! So we’ve introduced our bad guy. Wisdom is good, and it will save you from evil people. But we have to be careful with this teaching. There is a temptation to circle the wagons and assume that “evil people” are out there. We are the good guys. We are always the heroes of our own story. And this is built into the very fabric of our culture – especially in America, where we have a two party system. I don’t want to name names, but let’s just say it rhymes with shmemocrats and shebublicans. We are presented with two choices – and they work so hard to present themselves as a battle between good and evil. And if you’re on one side, the other side is basically the devil. We’re the good guys, the ones with the wisdom, and they’re the bad guys – the ones with the dark paths and the twisted words. Us good, them bad. But here’s what I want you to realize – this is the most important thing I’m going to teach you today: “evil people” is not an external group. Wisdom doesn’t save you from “those evil people over there” – it saves you from becoming those evil people in here (point at your heart). The “evil people” wisdom saves us from is not some foreign, external group that is attacking you, it’s the evil that lives potentially in each of us. There’s a Russian Novelist named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who once said, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” The line between good and evil is not us versus them, the line cuts right down the middle of every person in this room. This is how wisdom will save you from evil people. Wisdom, understood as knowledge and understanding of God, saves us from becoming evil people. To get started on this path towards knowledge of God we have to realize in most cases there aren’t good guys and bad guys – the truth is that we carry the potential for both inside each of us.
It keeps going, [read v.16-19]. You can’t throw a rock in the book of Proverbs without bumping into one of the two ladies – wisdom and folly. There’s a persistent metaphor of a promiscuous woman who is foolish and leads to destruction and an honorable woman who is wise and leads to a good life. But again we have to be careful. I have seen passages like this weaponized to hurt women and even critique their clothing. Oh no, if you wear that clothing you’re an evil person, and you’re going to control me and I will be seduced. Weak men with no self control often use passages like this to create shame. But that is a misunderstanding of the text. Wisdom is not a weapon that we use on an external evil. It is a mirror that we hold up for self reflection. Now, there is some great stuff in the bible about pursuing modesty and respecting the bodies that God has given us – and that’s beautiful, but that’s not what this is here. If you look at this text and all you’re getting is, “hey prostitution is bad for your marriage” – yes, you’re right, but there is so much more going on here. You might remember, one of the most common metaphors in the bible for the relationship between God and his people is that of a marriage covenant. The nation of Israel, and then later the Christian church are constantly described as being unfaithful to God. We are the unfaithful ones. So when we read passages like this, the warning is not, “oh no, watch out for a promiscuous women.” No, the warning is don’t BE the promiscuous woman. Don’t be unfaithful to God. It’s self reflection, just like the last section, we’re not looking for evil men out the window, we’re looking in the mirror.
The chapter finishes up, [read v.20-22]. Follow the steps of good men, stay on the paths of the righteous. Think for a second, why did they have to tell us that? Stay on the path? Why is that the last reminder the author throws in there in this chapter? The chapter starts out by saying, “hey listen up this is important!” This wisdom thing, it’s going to help us know more about God. If you know God and understand God, you’ll have a healthy respect for God – you can call that “fear of God.” And wisdom is awesome. If you have wisdom, if you know and understand God you can avoid becoming an evil man, you can avoid becoming unfaithful to God. Wisdom is not a weapon we use on other people, but rather it is a mirror we use to grow – and then they close it out by saying, “stay on the path.” And the reason they say that is because you are GOING to fall off the path! You’re going to be tempted, and things in your life are going to try and lead you astray – and so you’ve got to stay focused! Stay on the path! It’s like I teach the 5 year olds in my son’s soccer league that I get to coach. What happens when we make a mistake and we fall down? We get back up again and go after the ball. The writer of proverbs is telling us as we begin this journey – okay, we’re on our way, we’re trying to know God and grow closer to him and when we fall off the path, we’ve got to get back up and stay on the path.
The good news this morning is that God is offering you wisdom. Wisdom is how we can know and understand God more. It creates in us a healthy respect for his power, and ultimately helps us love him better. The fight between good and evil, the two ladies – wisdom and folly, good guys and bad guys – it’s not between us and someone else. This is a battle hidden in the heart of every person in this room. There is a war going on for your mind. God offers you wisdom, and he does this because he loves you and he knows what is best for you. There is a path of righteousness and wisdom and he has given us instructions for how to follow it. God is offering you wisdom, and it’s a journey into our own hearts that will show us both how much we need God and how much he is there to fill that need.
So I have two challenges for you this morning. Well, really it’s one challenge with two parts. The challenge is simply – grow. Pursue wisdom, which is the same thing as growing closer to God. Challenge yourself to grow closer to God every single day. Now there’s two ways to do this. John Wesley back in the day came up with some practical steps you can take. He called them the “means of grace” – the methods by which you can experience God’s gift. And he split it into two categories. Acts of Piety and Acts of Mercy. In order to grow closer to God, in order to pursue wisdom, in order to stay on the path – you have to work on both of them.
First – Acts of Piety. This is vertical growth. Things you do in your life to help you personally grow closer to Jesus. They’re so simple and yet most Christians even in this room neglect them. Ways to grow closer to God – read your bible, every single day, read your bible. When you read your bible ask yourself two questions – what does this passage tell me about God, and how do I respond as a human to what I learned? Read your bible. Pray, every day. Pray a bunch of times every single day. Talk to God every single day. If you don’t know what to say, that’s okay! There’s a lot of really great prayers out there, you can even find some of them in the bible. Read your bible, pray, and third – go to church. Church is that place where we can teach you how to read your bible, how to pray, how to be in community together, it’s also where we do awesome stuff like baptism and take communion – all of which help you grow closer to God, which increases your wisdom. Make church a priority in your life. And not, “when I feel like it" or “if I have time” but “every time I’m physically able to, I’m going to be in the pew.” This is how you grow closer to God vertically. Another good one is fasting – where you cut something out of your life temporarily to be intentional and focus on your growth closer to God. These are the acts of piety. Vertical growth. Prayer, fasting, read the bible, church stuff and the sacraments.
The second category, the second part of the challenge is Acts of Mercy. This is horizontal growth. Where you grow closer to the people around you. Your relationship with God should make the symbol of the cross. Vertical growth. Horizontal growth. Acts of Mercy help you grow in wisdom as well. Stuff like “giving to others” which cultivates a generous spirit, or feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick. Acts of mercy are when we take what we learned in the Piety section and we put it into our actions. We live out our faith in practical ways. This is volunteering, missions, outreach and more. If we believe that God created every person that is out there, that they are made in the image of God – then loving them and caring for them will help you grow closer to them, and ultimately grow closer to God. We grow personally closer to God through our Acts of Piety, and then we grow communally closer to God through our Acts of Mercy. And if you work on both, you will start off on your journey towards wisdom.
There’s an old joke about an angel who offered a man infinite wisdom, infinite wealth or infinite power – but I hope what you’ve seen is that there is no magic genie in a bottle who will just “poof” make you wisdomous. It’s a lifelong journey and it takes a lot to stay on the path, and so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that the line between good and evil is not between us and them – it’s right down the middle of every person in this room. May you accept the wisdom God is offering so that we can know him better and stay on the path. May you grow closer to God through your acts of piety and your acts of mercy. Amen.
 Betsy Devine and Joel E. Cohen, Absolute Zero Gravity, Simon & Schuster.