Wisdom’s Playfield – Dennis Ormseth reflects on partnering with Wisdom in the play of discovery and the exercise of responsibility.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for First Sunday of Christmas, Year C (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
1 Samuel 2:18-20
The psalm for the First Sunday after Christmas conforms to the pattern of praise and witness we have observed in the Christmas lectionary thus far. Indeed, the circle of nature’s praise is dramatically enlarged here, and our understanding of the reason for this praise is deepened. Psalm 148 is the classic example of the points made by Terence Fretheim regarding nature’s praise (see the introduction to our comments on the lessons for The Nativity of Our Lord). Heavens, heights, all the host of angels, sun, moon, shining stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens; sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind; mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, and human beings: the list amply illustrates the psalmist’s “ecological” awareness. Each entity contributes its unique voice, but it does so in complementary ways as an orchestrated whole. Why does all creation raise this extraordinary chorus of praise? The psalm itself emphasizes God’s generative, ordering creativity: God “commanded and they were created” (v. 5); God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” All things know their limits and work together cooperatively and sustainably (v. 6).
The other readings for this Sunday appear at first sight to offer little in support of this praise; closer reading opens up a different perspective, however, one that is surprisingly consonant with these affirmations. The first lesson is correlated to the focus of the Gospel on the childhood of Jesus. The comparison of these two stories suggests that like Samuel, who “grew up in the presence of the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:21), Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). If in spite of the revelations and signs that Mary repeatedly “treasured in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51), Jesus’ parents were not as understanding as Hannah and Elkanah of the independence merited by their precociously religious child, theirs was the greater challenge: Jesus, was already “strong, filled with wisdom” by the time he made this first visit to the temple; and afterward, he only “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52).
There’s a surprise here for the reader as well as for Mary and Joseph, David Tiede observes: we are “caught off guard by another perspective which is not preoccupied with worry. The wisdom of this child of God captures the attention of those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear” (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 81). In point of fact, an interest in Jesus’ wisdom is shared by all of these readings. What Jesus was doing “of necessity” when his parents found him in the temple was teaching; and what he was teaching about, Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, was his “Father’s affairs” (Johnson favors this reading over “being in my Father’s house” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 61). This is indeed what, according to Luke, Jesus is always about when he is in the temple, Johnson points out: “this is precisely the activity of Jesus that Luke emphasizes at the climax of his ministry. From Luke 20:1-45, Jesus responds to the questions put him in the Temple precincts by Jewish leaders, and this activity Luke calls ‘teaching in the Temple’ (Luke 19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 22:53).” So also in the matter of his parents’ incomprehension: Luke “shows the reader how even the most faithful of the people ‘did not understand’ in the time of the prophet’s first visitation. The reader is also reminded that just as Jesus must ‘progress’ in wisdom, so must those who follow his story, who, like Mary, ‘keep these words in their heart.’” Accordingly, our second lesson this Sunday appropriately lists what good results for living derive from attending to “the word of Christ” and teach[ing] and admonish[ing] “one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16).
Is Jesus’ teaching of wisdom the great reason in these texts for creation’s praise? Although the link here is not obvious, we urge that this is so. Once the “embarrassing stepchild” of Old Testament theology in the twentieth century, the wisdom tradition in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures has received significant attention in more recent scholarship precisely because of the need to articulate a more fully-developed biblical theology of creation. In the theology of the wisdom tradition, Walter Brueggemann points out:
“Yahweh is the hidden guarantor of an order that makes life in the world possible. The operational word is order, and Israel marvels at, ponders, sings about, and counts on that good order without which life would not be possible . . . . Wisdom reflections on Yahweh are attentive to the life processes that constitute creation . . . . The ordering that Yahweh guarantees is not a tight hierarchy, as the term order might imply; it is rather a network of cooperative, interrelated parts, whereby nourishment and well-being are given to all in due course . . . . Creation theology, as here expressed, is a glad affirmation that ‘the thing works!'” (Walter Bureggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; p. 336)
There are important ethical and aesthetic dimensions to wisdom’s theology.
The wisdom witness who marvels also warns and traces out the disciplines, cost, and limits that belong to life in this good order. By the long-term observation of recurring patterns of human behavior, wisdom teachers have sorted out the limits of freedom and the shape of acceptable behavior, beyond which conduct dare not go without bringing hurt to self and to others. These limits are understood to be the restraints that Yahweh has ordered into the very fabric of creation (Brueggemann, p. 338).
While Yahweh is “not at all visible in this process,” Yahweh is “nonetheless indispensable for the process.” Moral accountability thus “belongs to the very character of life in the world offered by the hidden Yahweh,” the God “who wills life in terms of responsible relatedness to the whole fabric of creation” (Brueggemann, p. 388).
The propensity of the church to emphasize the ethical produces “a coercive hardness,” Brueggemann notes, wisdom provides a corrective balance with an aesthetic sensibility that “exults in the artistry of God, in the beauty of the created order, culminating in a response of amazement and astonishment” . . . and “a glad affirmation of creation” that is “moved more by awe and delight than by ethical insistence or command” (Brueggemann, p. 339). Wisdom includes the skills to artistically “enhance the presence of God’s holiness in the midst of Israel,” to govern and to communicate well, to observe faithfully the “artistry and intentionality that makes a world of symmetry, well-being, and generosity available for human enjoyment,” and to appreciate in “exotic, erotic detail the goodness of life as given by the hidden God” (Brueggemann, pp. 339-41).
Was this wisdom of the biblical tradition what Luke was referring to in observing that Jesus “increased in wisdom”? As our Gospel text has it, Jesus’ wisdom was about “the affairs of God.” Marcus Borg distinguishes between the conventional wisdom of the day, which is basically a “consensus about acceptable behavior,” and the “subversive or alternative wisdom found in sources like Job and Ecclesiastes as well as in the teaching of the Buddha and Lao Tzu.” Jesus’ wisdom, he proposes, was the latter kind: “What Jesus said about God, about reality and its character, was grounded not in convention, not in socialized conviction, but in his experience of the sacred. Jesus taught a counter wisdom because of his experience of God. Because of that experience, he saw differently” (Marcu sBorg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. New York: Harper Collins, 2006; p. 167).
What particularly interests us in connection with Jesus’ teaching of wisdom, of course, is what Jesus’ experience of God might have taught him about God’s creation and our relationship to it. We will seek to answer this question in the comments to come on the lectionary texts for year C. Here at the outset we are encouraged in this exploration of Jesus’ teaching by a pair of observations. First, we have already seen that the Gospel of Luke draws heavily from Second Isaiah, because Second Isaiah provided metaphors and models for God’s activity suitable for a gentile audience less familiar with the story of Israel. In so doing, the author would have encountered the prophet’s interest in what Brueggemann calls the “strong and crucial counterclaim” to the core testimony of active verbs that speak of Yahweh as known and seen directly in the ongoing life of Israel.” “Truly,” the prophet confessed, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). Wouldn’t the “teacher of wisdom” whose life in so many other ways conformed to the prophet’s narrative also have learned something of “the God hidden in creation” as part of his experience of God?
We are also encouraged for this search, secondly, by recent insistence that there is indeed much of significance to be found in the wisdom tradition regarding God’s creative activity and our care of creation, precisely for our context. Again we heed Brueggeman, who writes,
“The recovery of these texts and categories of utterance and attentiveness to them are an urgent matter . . . in a cultural circumstance of faith in which the ‘hotter’ theological categories tend to lead either to coercive authoritarianism or, alternatively, to an uncritical response that is expressed either as benign, therapeutic subjectivity or as hostile autonomy. The counter testimony of Israel is more durable, substantive, and wiser than either authoritarianism or distancing subjectivity might suggest” (Brueggemann, p. 357)
Larry Rasmussen similarly suggests that for our cosmopolitan world, “Wisdom may be the biblical eco-theology and ethic. Creation is a teacher of wisdom; measured human responsibility follows” (Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 332). In contrast to other approaches to religious ethics and Earth’s healing, Rasmussen urges, wisdom is ‘not the prophet’s shrill warning that the violating ways of the people, unless we turn around, will bring sure ruin.” Wisdom teaches that “creation and Earth endure within limits established by their Creator, and gaining wisdom happens with careful, patient observation of nature, then learning from its patterns how to craft human responsibility aright.” Moreover, wisdom is universal:
“Wisdom traditions are pan-human, open to all and found in all cultures and religions. She is anything but sectarian and secretive; she is universal, with common themes. One is enlightenment . . . . Another is suffering and sacrifice as part of the process of transformation and of learning responsibility . . . . While Wisdom is confident that human beings can live cooperatively with one another, she is also clear those relationships can be corrupted and in need of repentance that exacts a cost . . . . Not least, God . . . in the Wisdom traditions is never a deus ex machina, the rescuer God who bails out human beings when they are complacent about righteous living. Rather, the presence of the divine is available to all who stand in awe . . . and empowers them as they strive for the fullest possible flourishing of all that is” (Rasmussen, p. 335-36).
At the same time, however, wisdom is always situated in real time and space. “Wisdom always sits in places,” Rasmussen urges, and therefore
“it becomes all the more imperative consciously to tap the genius of a changing and altered place and to discover anew the integrity of creation there. The unsettled world of hard transitions on a tough, new planet, rather than the settled world that formed the character and conduct of the ancestors, becomes the new arena for learning what we are to value and how we are to live. A “re-moralization of the landscape (deBuys) becomes the collective religious and cultural task as people struggle to find a new identity while caught in the throes of death and renewal. Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, treating each locale as a sacred trust worthy of well-being, and “doing first works over” (Baldwin) are done well only if they include a profound and ongoing sense of place, a sense of place that, like wisdom itself, continually listens to and learns from nature” (Rasmussen, p. 354).
Finally, interpreting one of the most “exquisitely crafted poems in all of Scripture,” Proverbs 8:22-31, William P. Brown urges that
“To live in Wisdom’s world is to experience the joy of discovery, the delight of discernment, and the thrill of edifying play. To live in Wisdom’s world, the sages claim, is to walk the path she forges as a child. Wisdom’s path is the journey of discernment in which what is discovered and what is revealed come together. As Wisdom’s growth begins in joy, may the wide-eyed delight of children never be lost on the wise. For in Wisdom’s eyes there really are no grownups. The question for wisdom is ever ongoing, and progress on the path will always be marked with baby steps” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; p. 176 ).
Which perhaps helps us understand why Jesus lost all track of time and need for parental supervision that day in the temple. And it enlists us for the care of creation in the most positive way imaginable: the “Creation according to Proverbs,” Brown concludes,
“is made for Wisdom’s play, and to play is to discover and cherish creation made in wisdom. It is what scientists do best in their quest to understand the wonders of creation. It is what people of faith do best in their quest to cherish and care for creation. Wisdom takes hold of both science and faith to engage in the play of discovery and the exercise of responsibility. Wisdom is Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘beautiful and coherent quilt’ that unites the separate ‘magisterial’ of science and religion. But wisdom also calls for action, the wisdom to relinquish destructive habits and to do so joyfully. The world is Wisdom’s playfield, not a battlefield, and we are her partners, not her opponents (Brown, pp. 237-38).
Who could refuse Wisdom’s invitation to come play with the boy Jesus?
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.