August 16, 2015
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Proverbs 9:1-6
Some problems are good – like having too many dates for the prom. Yet not all dates are good dates. Not all invitations ought to be accepted. Some parties are not worth attending. Deciding which invitations to accept, which dates to accompany, and which parties to go to is not always easy. Such is the trouble that confronts us when we read this Sunday’s first reading from Proverbs 9. It is an invitation by a lady that is quickly followed up by an invitation from another lady. The reader is put in an awkward position, having to choose only one of the two. Yet choose we must.
The first invitation comes from Lady Wisdom. She is the queen of the first nine chapters of Proverbs. These chapters are cast in terms of a father-son conversation. The father advises his son to embark on the pursuit of true wisdom as a lifelong quest. Yet the idea of searching is not the only metaphor employed. Wisdom is pictured as a beautiful, pure woman whose hand the young man ought to seek: “Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her” (Prov 4:8 RSV). Lady Wisdom is no passive observer, but actively invites men to seek her. Seeking her might seem like an arduous task, but she describes it as a feast.
Lady Wisdom prepares a banquet for her guests: “She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table” (Prov 9:2 RSV). This will be no meagre fare. Everyone who comes to her feast will dine sumptuously. She hosts her gala in a pillared building on a mountaintop, leaving open the possibility we’re talking about the Temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. She bids all who hear her to “forsake foolishness” (Prov 9:6 NAB) and come to eat her rich food and drink her mixed wine. As a side note, in the ancient world wine was stored and transported as a concentrate (like frozen orange juice) and had to be diluted with water at the time of consumption, so wine-mixing was an important part of banquet preparations. Lady Wisdom has mixed her wine and invites us to drink.
Lady Wisdom doesn’t just prepare a table, but sends her maidens out to the streets to invite everybody. This should remind us of the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14, when the master tells his servants, “Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23 RSV). Lady Wisdom is not a miser. Rather, she wants everyone to share in her riches and enjoy her banquet. The invitations are spread far and wide.
Lest we think that the story is without conflict, Lady Wisdom’s rival shows up to invite men to her banquet as well. Lady Folly also calls out to passers by, saying, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” (Prov 9:16 RSV). While Wisdom wants to enlighten each person with the beauty of truth, Folly tries to deceive each with the glamorous allure of sin. Lady Folly’s feast may seem like an equally extraordinary meal, instead we find that all of the guests at her dinner table are dead! (Prov 9:18) I’d rather share my dinner with the living than a room full of corpses.
Proverbs chapters 1-9 invite the readers into a life-long process of gaining wisdom. It seems so simple at the outset—just choose the good and avoid evil. Yet wisdom is not something that can be granted as a degree after four years of study. It takes a whole lifetime of choosing the good over and over to truly become wise. Every time we choose evil, we become more foolish and every time we choose good, we become slightly more wise. Proverbs puts it this way:
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you. (Prov 9:8 RSV)
When we reject valuable instruction, training, and even correction, we show ourselves to be in the “fool” category, but if we accept solid advice or reproof in all humility, we show ourselves to be on the path to wisdom.
Picking a Path
Shunning invitations might seem rude, but it is sometimes necessary. When Lady Folly invites us to her lethal feast of foolishness, we ought not succumb to even her most ardent pleas for our attendance. Instead, we should listen to Lady Wisdom’s maidens and follow them to the table spread with the rich fare and mixed wine she offers. Choosing the right over and over again may feel tedious, but it is the only way out of the fate of the fool and into the path of righteousness. Daily, two paths are set before us. On the one hand, “The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble” (Prov 4:19). On the other hand, “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Prov 4:18). Only one of those paths leads to the banquet. I hope to see you there.
image: Altar frontal from Avià depicting Mary as “Sedes Sapientiae” (Seat of Wisdom) / Courtesy of the Website of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya of Barcelona, www.museunacional.cat