A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
An Offer We Can Refuse
The woman is behaving outrageously. Not only is she raising her voice in places where respectable women rarely go, but, with an unmistakeable note of superiority in her voice, she is inviting people to a party in her newly built house.
"... she calls
from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come eat of my bread
And drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside simplicity and live
And walk in the ways of insight’.”
If we have read the earlier chapters of Proverbs we have already met this woman, hokma, Wisdom, and knows why she feels so confident – she is, after all, the darling of God himself who rejoiced in his presence when he created the world (Proverbs 8.22-31). We have heard her warning that, if she is ignored, then calamity will follow (Proverbs 1.20-32), and her repeated insistence that she is the source of all that truly enriches us and helps us flourish (Proverbs 2.1-22, 3.13-18, 8.1-21). However, we have also met her enemies, the wayward and alien women who also cry out to the simple and unwary, but who offer them only foolishness, who flatter their pride to lead them to their destruction (Proverbs 2.16-19, 5.1-6, 7.6-27). There is a choice here; other voices can be heard and wisdom can be ignored.
And, of late, the church has largely ignored Wisdom. Modern scholars found little of interest in either the book of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes which, along with Job, are the biblical books which specialise in wisdom. For example, Henry McKeating in his Studying the Old Testament (1979), which many local preachers will remember reading for their exams, taught that both books were disorganised collections of banalities:
‘The contents of the book of Proverbs are of very uneven worth. Many of the sayings are mere truisms. Many contain such general advice that we are bound to wonder why the collector bothered to set them down … Like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes is basically a collection of sayings, but it is not quite such a hotch-potch as Proverbs is (p. 159)’
When such attitudes prevailed, small wonder that there are few readings from these books in our lectionaries and that we hear few sermons on them.
This disdain for Wisdom, would have puzzled earlier generations of Christians. In fifth century Armenia, newly converted – nominally – to the Christian faith, the book of Proverbs was so esteemed that it was translated before the Gospels! Boniface, an English missionary in eighth century Germany writes home for Bede’s commentary on Proverbs. On these ancient mission fields, Christians believed they had, in Proverbs, an indispensable evangelistic tool. The book’s pithy sayings would ring true with sceptical pagans, upon whom complex theology might be lost, but who, for instance, might be both amused by the comic picture presented in the saying ‘One who takes a passing dog by the ears – someone who meddles in a quarrel not their own’ (Proverbs 26.17), and impressed by a shrewd insight.
As might modern pagans! Graham Tomlin writes of Derek Draper, one seeker who discovered Christian faith in recent years, that ‘what appealed to him was the practical wisdom of the teaching of Jesus…he [Draper] was not looking for a guaranteed place in heaven or guilt forgiven, but quite simply a better and less superficial way of life.’ (The Provocative Church, 2002, p. 6).
One great source of Jesus’ ‘practical wisdom’ is Proverbs. For instance, his parable of the wise man and the fool and their houses (Matthew 7.24–7) looks, for all the world, like Proverbs 10.25 – ‘When the storm passes the wicked have vanished but the righteous are established for ever’ – expanded into a short narrative. However, to say that his wisdom was practical does not mean that it was always obvious; indeed it often challenged what seems common sense. Take for example his remarkable command that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5.43-48). This provocative teaching was, in all likelihood, influenced by Proverbs 25:21,22 ‘If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink’’ (which Paul quotes in Romans 12.20). Indeed, Jesus’ habitual manner of teaching in challenging, thought-provoking parables – the Hebrew word for these is meshalim - is close to that of Proverbs, whose sayings – the same word, meshalim – are, as we shall see in future articles, so often intended to challenge and provoke. Not only that, but Jesus often preferred to teach at parties and feasts – he sensed that people were open to wisdom when they were relaxing together with food and drink in front of them – as we have found in Alpha courses, and as Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, understands when she calls the simple to be her guests at a feast that will be a teaching opportunity.
What’s more, Jesus often talked about areas of life that rarely get mentioned in sermons – shrewdness in business deals; family relationships – how they break down and how they get mended - and it is striking how many of his parables deal with the world of work. Doubtless the Lord’s own rich experience of life fed into this, but the book of Proverbs may also have helped him to value the work and enterprise. Proverbs offers wisdom on, for example, how to deal with the boss (25.15), on what makes for success (10.4), on wise investment strategies (13.11), and the danger of accepting financial risks you can’t properly evaluate (11.15). No wonder that Mark Greene, pleading that Christians take the world of work seriously, urges us that:
Proverbs is an important book of the Bible. If we believed that then there would be a lot more teaching from Proverbs - and then we would hear more a lot more about work. (Thank God Its Monday: Ministry in the Workplace, 2001, p.21 )
So it’s time to rediscover the riches of Wisdom and listen again to her voice, so long ignored. Proverbs offers a rich feast of practical advice which, as we shall see, aims not to force people to accept rigid dogmas but to get them thinking. Yes, preachers and Bible study leaders will find here rich pickings, but if every Christian were to get better acquainted with Wisdom, then we should be better equipped to provoke our friends and neighbours - over a coffee in the office or in the canteen, or as we walk the dog - to some deep thoughts about life and the things of the Spirit. They might begin to suspect that the religion of scripture has at least as much to offer as any eastern philosophy or self-help manual. We might even find that if we ourselves sit down at her feast the divine Wisdom will nourish us and help us to lead godly, Spirit-filled, flourishing lives!