The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      22nd October 2017
The Two Paths: Wisdom in Proverbs
Jeremy Fletcher

Proverbs 4. 1 - 18

The lectionary, the pattern of Bible readings, for Sundays only gives us a tantalising glimpse of the Book of Proverbs. The readings are on a three year cycle, and Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of Proverbs appear this year alone. The eagle-eyed or bat-eared will encounter Proverbs 8 on Trinity Sunday two years out of three, and that, I think, is it. You have to come to daily Morning or Evening Prayer to encounter the whole of the book. So it’s worth having another look at Proverbs tonight. After all, it won’t happen again on a Sunday until 2020. 

I said last week that, at its most basic level the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures is an accumulation of generally held wisdom: the sort that now appears on fridge magnets, on page a day diaries, or on cheerily handwritten signs on the Tube – some of which have their own Twitter feed. Do have a look at @Oval_station. Last Wednesday’s was “I don’t speak of revenge or forgiveness; forgetting is the only revenge and the only forgiveness” – a quotation from Jorge Luis Borges. It is demeaning Proverbs to say it’s a kind of ancient self help manual or management text, but it did perform that function: manuals were written for young people at court to be taught the way the world works best. 

As I noted last week, there is much more than this. Proverbs has poetry and prayer and meditation. Some of the book is purported to be the wisdom of Solomon himself, who had not only learned from his mistakes (the best kind of wisdom), but was also given wisdom as a gift, so that he could do the right thing even if he’d not been there before. Chapters 1 to 9 have a series of extended reflections on the nature of wisdom and the nature of the world. They are written as from a wise parent or grandparent to a young person, and, far from being a prehistoric “You young people know nothing. It wasn’t like this in my day”, these passages drip with the authentic reflections of someone who has been there. Here is someone we can trust. 

Michael Sadgrove, sometime Dean of Durham, and, more importantly, sometime Head Chorister of Hampstead Parish Church Choir, reflects on the integrity of this writing in his book Wisdom and Leadership. The writer of Proverbs never implies that he or she is a success who has conquered everything. The worst kind of self help book says: “I used to have a problem, but I have conquered it, and so can you”. The best of this writing acknowledges that human nature is always prone to make the wrong choice, the stupid decision, the foolish path. 

Proverbs 4 contrasts the “paths of uprightness” with the “paths of the wicked”. It’s not that there was once an irrevocable choice, which determined your destiny for ever. Rather, those choices exist at every turn, and even the wisest can be led the wrong way, unless they are truly attentive to the voice of God. Michael Sadgrove says: “Perhaps the author of Proverbs is a sadder and wiser man who knows only too well that adulthood continues to [present us with choices we thought we had resolved years ago.” This is about our continuing identity, questions of who I want to be and whose I want to be. As Sadgrove puts it: “These questions will never go away. If anything, they are more intense with age, as we become more aware of our endless capacity for deceiving ourselves.”

The wisdom we need to make a life giving rather than life denying decision, at every turn, has little to do with knowledge (in terms of facts) and everything to do with an intention to look for the light. “Formation in the way of wisdom” says Sadgrove, “is a call to walk in the path that begins and ends in God.” Proverbs says: “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day”.

It is impossible to restate enough that the invitation to hear the voice of God, personified as the Lady Wisdom, created at the beginning of all things, that invitation is constant. Falling from the path, seeking out the dark, does not disqualify anyone from the search, from hearing the call. When we blow it we are not cast out for ever, tainted so that we are banished for all time. Believing that is folly too. Wisdom calls. So does folly. Not only the young are led astray. And not only the young can find themselves basking in the light of the dawn of the righteous. Thanks be to God that, in walking with Christ, true wisdom is constantly to be found, to whom be all praise, unto ages of ages. Amen. 

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