Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly

From a sermon preached on August 19th at St. Luke’s, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Earlier this week our family experienced a life-changing moment, at least for my husband and me: we took our youngest son, David, to college. Six hours in the car to the University of Iowa, several hours to see that all was well, and then six hours home. Home to a house that seemed quieter and a bit darker. It’s a different feeling in a house when a teenager is out and will be home later that night than if he is not coming home for months.

We are blessed that David is happy and healthy and facing new and hopefully wonderful adventures, but find ourselves a bit out of sorts, even though his older brother is home for another week before he, too, returns to school.

We wonder if we have said the right things this summer, given the right advice. As a mother, I fear that I have forgotten some piece of wisdom on which his very life depends. Did we talk about not drinking, the importance of good friends and keeping up with homework, of eating well and getting enough sleep? We did. Over and over. Did we talk about traveling in groups at night, keeping an eye on personal safety? Yes. How about having cash in his wallet along with the ever-active debit card? Taking a sleeping bag in the trunk in case of an Iowa blizzard? (Hmmm…not sure. Wait. He doesn’t even have a car with him…guess we’re okay there.)

Yet I am sure we missed something. But surprisingly, and I know you will be shocked to hear this, our son seemed to want less and less advice as the summer progressed.

Apparently we are not alone in that experience. And that is why there are entire books full of advice and wisdom in the Old Testament. Our reading today is from Proverbs, written for — aha — young men. (Women apparently, in ancient times, soaked up such wisdom by osmosis.) It was the men, the young men, that such books were directed toward — written by the older men, the fathers, the grandfathers, some lines by perhaps King Solomon himself — so that their boys would stay on the straight path, would have a good life.

And the authors knew how to get the attention of many of the young men. Three kinds of women are portrayed in Proverbs: Lady Wisdom, from whom we hear today; Lady Folly and The Good Wife, in Proverbs 39.

Here are some of today’s words, taken from The Message, a Bible translation by Eugene Peterson… subtitled “Lady Wisdom Gives a Dinner Party.” (Read along in your bulletin; these are just slightly different words.)

Lady Wisdom has built and furnished her home

It’s supported by seven hewn timbers

The banquet meal is ready to be served: lamb roasted,

wine poured out, table set with silver and flowers.

Having dismissed her serving maids,

Lady Wisdom goes to town, stands in a prominent place,

and invites everyone within sound of her voice:

‘Are you confused about life, don’t know what’s going on?

Come with me, oh come, have dinner with me:

I’ve prepared a wonderful spread—fresh-baked bread,

roast lamb, carefully selected wines.

Leave your impoverished condition and live!

Walk up the street to a life with meaning.’

(Proverbs 9:1-6)

An invitation to a wonderful dinner, a calling to a place of spiritual refreshment, a symbolic opening the door to a good life. There are no tricks in these words: all one has to do is walk through the open door, sit down, eat and be part of the celebration.

What we don’t see in print today is the opposing image of Lady Folly that follows it only five verses down in Proverbs.

The foolish woman is loud —

brazen, empty-headed, frivolous.

She sits on the front porch

of her house on Main Street.

And as people walk by minding their own business, calls out:

‘Are you confused about life, don’t know what’s going on?

Stolen water is sweet,

and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’

But they do not know that the dead are in there,

that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

(Proverbs 9:13-18)

Pretty intense.

“Come MY way,” she says. “Turn in my door. I’ll show you secret things. You will be forever changed.” And what she’s not saying is this: You might not get out at all. If you leave, you’ll be digging yourself out of a hole, and I will do all I can to make it a deep one.”

Vivid imagery. As I said, Proverbs was written by older Jewish men for the young men in their families. The images of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly run side by side through Proverbs. Equivalent pictures of Lady Folly also show up in some of the prophetic literature, including Hosea, Isaiah and Amos, where the nation of Israel is compared to a prostitute, seeking other lovers than the one true God.

The writers do not hold back. And let me say that as a feminist, I am deeply aware, especially in ancient societies, that prostitution was most often not a real choice. With no means of support if widowed and without a family, a women’s very survival was at stake.

Here, Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly represent two different paths in life: the first, life-giving and eternal; and the second, shallow and short-lived.

Choices. The Christian life, the moral Christian life, is about choices. It’s about turning in the right door, taking the right path. And it’s more than that. It’s about drawing boundaries around ourselves so that we don’t wind up in trouble, so that we don’t wind up where we shouldn’t be.

My aunt Betty, who lived to be 92, would tell my sons not to date people they didn’t want to marry. And she started this when they were about 10 and 12. That’s kind of a crazy thing for a kid to hear, especially at that age.

But they figured it out. She was talking about life choices. She was talking about not putting themselves in situations that might affect their lives forever.

The church has long realized that these stories are broader and deeper than their original audience, that of young men. For the last three weeks in our lectionary, as you know, Jesus has been talking about being the bread of life. He’s been discussing what gives life, about what sustains us, what keeps us complete and whole over the long haul.

“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever,” says Jesus, “for I am the bread of life.” (John 6:58)

A very simple proposition, then, this morning.

You and I, and our children, live in a culture where temptations, or Lady Folly, is a very present persona. Just look at the ads on TV, just note those “adult” channels on the TV menu in any hotel. Just listen to the music or the dancers or new books or almost any of the voices loud and pervasive in our culture in school, in business, in our communities….. urging, more, more, more of almost anything. Think of the temptations on business trips, in schools, even in summer internships.

The voice of Lady Wisdom is more hidden, suspect. Someone speaking for God’s voice is a dismissed voice in our culture, a voice mistrusted. We could ask how did we come to such a place… but more important is to recognize that we live in a time where making good choices is more needed than ever.

Our sons and daughters, as well as all of us, can find good voices, sane voices, Lady Wisdom voices. Turn in here… to this dinner party, to this table that is set before us today and every Sunday: the feast of the lamb of God. Surely Lady Wisdom’s voice will be heard here — pure and beautiful, full of energy and light, joy and truth.

God bless you.

Amen

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