30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Wisdom, in the Old Testament, is personified as a woman. And in this final portion of the final chapter, the conclusion to the book of Proverbs, we are given a portrait of wisdom. This portrait is not of her physical attributes … instead, it documents her character traits. The author of Proverbs celebrates wisdom’s strength and tireless energy. Wisdom is always at work, and is always productive. This text is often used on Mother’s Day or to celebrate a beloved mother at a funeral, but this portrait goes beyond what any one individual can be or hope to be. In fact, to celebrate this vision of perfection is to celebrate the tendency our society has for over-achievement and a workaholic ethic. This country, in fact, was built on people who did just what this text says. Families that we celebrate had a good work ethic and so brought peace and happiness to their family and to the country. We are a country based on productivity and industry.
It is important to note that while this passage can be a wonderful tribute to women; it is not really talking about one superhuman, wonder woman who is somehow able to do it all. In fact, it is unlikely that all of these “admirable traits, characteristics, and accomplishments will be found in one person.” Regardless of gender, these characteristics are examples of practical ways that we can make a positive difference in the world. (“Clothing oneself with strength & dignity; speaking with wisdom and teaching kindness.) These are attributes of wisdom that we should strive for as a Christian community.
There is one line in this portrait of wisdom, however, that always trips me up … “She laughs at the time to come.” It’s that word ‘laugh.’ I have always thought of wisdom as belonging to more experienced, mature (and let’s be honest here) older individuals. Laughter and mirth were not aspects that I associated with the ‘wise.’ But here it is in Proverbs. If this picture of wisdom is supposed to be for the community, what does it mean that the wise community laughs? Both medical researchers and psychologists have been working for years to understand laughter and happiness. Some researchers believe that there are distinct health benefits gained from laughing. One of the main functions of laughter, they believe, is to bring people together. In my research for the sermon this week, I ran across this joke:
A plane hit a patch of severe turbulence and the passengers were holding on tight as it rocked and reeled through the night. A little old lady turned to a minister who was sitting behind her and said, “You’re one of God’s people. Can’t you do something about this?”
“Sorry,” replied the minister. “I can’t. I’m in sales, not management.”
See? We’re feeling closer already. I am certain there is some wisdom in this biblical way of saying that laughter is the best medicine. Laughter helps us to relax as we face an uncertain future. We can relax because we know that we are doing all that we can do, and we know that God is with us. So why not laugh?
I used to have a small card that I carried with me that had Ralph Waldo Emerson’s answer to what it takes to be a success. It is a more recent way of explaining this mixture of wisdom and laughter:
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
And affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and
To endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better
Whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or
A redeemed social condition;
To know even one life breathed easier
Because you have lived …
This is to have succeeded.
It does not matter what job you hold, or what achievements you lay claim to, this is a definition of success that everyone can live into. It is a description that would make any Christian proud. Emerson, here, taps into both our passage on Woman Wisdom, and into the talk that Jesus gives the disciples in Mark.
Mark tends to paint a rather dim view of the disciples. They go through the journey with Jesus just barely comprehending the importance of what is happening around them. But, they had to have known something about the importance. Nobody willingly walks away from a job that provides them security and stability without a solid reason. We know that some of the disciples had family, but here they are being told some hard truths about what the Son of Man will endure (the 2nd of 3 announcements in Mark) and they are full of questions … about which one of them is the greatest.
We would like, at this point, to be able to say how foolish the disciples were and how ridiculous they were for not listening. We would like to able to distance ourselves from their stupidity, but how often do we fully focus on the person in front of us? How many of us are guilty of listening with just one ear while we mentally make a list of things we have to do next? And if God suddenly called us to the present moment and asked us, “What were you thinking about just now?” How many of us would be embarrassed or ashamed to tell God what we were thinking?
Perhaps this is why Jesus uses the small child as an example. Children are dependents, and they focus only on one thing at a time. They are either blissfully happy or painfully upset based on that specific moment in time and nothing else. If you can successfully redirect an unhappy child, they will forget why they were upset in the first place. Jesus is telling the disciples to focus on what he has to say. If we accept that Jesus is the Son of Man, then we are required to ask ourselves what that means for how we are to live.
Knowing this would be the question we always seem to get stuck on, Jesus tells us that to follow Jesus means to live as a humble servant of Christ.
We live in a society that indulges children, striving to provide a safe, idyllic, lovely childhood. Children, in Jesus’ time, however, were not thought of so sentimentally. The word used for child is very close in origin to the word used for servant, in fact. They were the nobodies of society. The fact, then, that Jesus implores the disciples and us to welcome children (and so welcome Jesus) into our midst has multiple implications for how we are to live as a community and body of Christ.
- We are to be servants. Emulate children in their ability to focus on one thing. Make that one thing Christ and God’s will for our lives.
- We are to welcome the nobodies and recognize that we have no greater status that they. We are all equally beloved by God. We should live in such a way that others whom the world may see as different feel that they are on equal footing with us.
- We are to be a community that believes in one another. We are not supposed to be competitive, bitter, or angry with one another. We are called to fellowship.
So, be a servant that is full of cheer, knowing that you are loved by God and that here in this circle of Christians, you are seen in the best possible light. Laugh often, appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, believe and see the best in others, and leave the world better for having you in it.
Let us pray, O God, we believe that you are the Messiah, the son of Man. And we are listening with our whole heart. Teach us to focus on you. Help us to welcome all children of God, and help us see our worth not in the measures of the world but in you who created us and loves us still. Amen.
 H. James Hopkins in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4