Those of you who’ve come into my office lately may have noticed a card posted on my bulletin board. It features a lovely picture of Jesus, and the caption reads “Jesus is coming. Look busy!”. It makes me laugh (which I need) partly because we are living in a culture where being “busy” is considered the norm, the expectation. Our culture is one of industry and commodity, rather than one of contemplation and relationship. This is reflected, at times, even in our theology.
Today’s reading from the Wisdom of Solomon portrays a different kind of spirituality: one that values the seeking of knowledge, the desire to deepen one’s wisdom. The word for Wisdom in Hebrew is Chochma; the Jews to whom these passages were written lived in Alexandria, and spoke Hellenistic Greek, in which the word for Wisdom was Sophia. The writer (not Solomon, although this is often attributed to him) is connecting Jewish wisdom tradition – such as we read about in books like Proverbs and Job and even the Psalms – with the Greek philosophy of that time, trying to remind those Jews living in diaspora about their heritage.
In these writings, Wisdom is depicted as a beautiful woman, one who is sought after. She sits at the city gates, where one goes to enter into worship, and also to give alms to the poor. In Proverbs, Wisdom tells us that she was there at the beginning with God, rejoicing in all God’s creation. Later the word would be translated into post Hellenic Greek as Logos, another word for the Christ.
Wisdom — the Wisdom of chochma, of Sophia, and of Christ, the Logos, at the beginning and the end — dispels fear; fears such as our fear of isolation, fear of violence, fear of death. Fears that have been awakened by events in our nation during the past several months. Wisdom gives us the courage to act even though we are afraid. For those early Christians, being persecuted, feeling alone and fearing violence, the Wisdom of Logos dispelled their fear and gave them hope.
This past week, I took a few, much-needed days off, and went to visit my oldest friend who lives in Los Angeles, and works in Beverly Hills. Walking up and down the sparkling Rodeo Drive gave me a striking experience of our culture of wealth, of commodity, of transactions. It was certainly a culture of service – everywhere you went, stores welcomed you in and gave you a glass of wine, to help you forget the price on the items them were selling – and I had a great time, and enjoyed the hospitality (it gave me some ideas for our ushers at coffee hour!).
Sitting at the bar at Nieman Marcus one afternoon, I began talking with a woman – I couldn’t tell her age, due to some impressive hair extensions and botox – who surprised me with her story of being a caregiver for a woman with Alzeimer’s disease. She told me how, every day, this woman insisted that her family were coming to get her, and how they kept a bag packed and by the door because it gave this woman comfort, to think that she would be going “home”.
Being “ready” is a theme that runs throughout Jesus’ parable today – ready for the coming of God’s kingdom. For those early Christians, who still believed that Jesus would return very soon, it comforted them to focus on getting ready for that joyous homecoming. And how would they prepare? What should they pack?
Parables used symbols familiar to ancient listeners: Oil represented faithfulness and obedience, from miracle stories of God helping to sustain oil of faithful servants; Light represented their mission, to spread the light of Wisdom throughout the world. Thus it has continued: our faith keeps our mission glowing brightly, to bring hope during the darkest of times. And it is our responsibility, with God’s help, to deepen and sustain our faith; not just the appearance, not just going through the motions, but deeply and truly.
And the banquet – the banquet is God’s glorious reign of righteousness and abundance. Prepared for all of us, and there for us to enjoy, if we pay attention, and are alert to its blessings. “Jesus is coming, don’t just look busy – get busy!”
How are we to prepare ourselves to participate in God’s reign? How shall we trim our lamps? In the presence of such a disparity of wealth, in the wake of tragic violence, in a culture of commodity, how are we to keep our faith alive and burning? How can we ignite in ourselves and others a faith that transforms us, rather than being simply another transaction of money paid for services?
One common aspect between the description of Wisdom – chochma, Sophia – in the Hebrew scriptures, and Jesus, the Logos, incarnating God’s kingdom of love, is the idea of relationship. The banquet to which Jesus, the bridegroom, leads us is not just any banquet: it is a wedding feast, a celebration of relationship, of covenant with one another. And to participate in that feast, to be ready to enter, one must be humble and open enough to enter into relationship with one another and with the Living God.
In those moments of relationship – when we think about the story and needs of the other person, and not just our own wants and desires and paying to have them met – that a transactional encounter becomes a relational one. Whether it be at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, or at St. James Parish in Kent, the shift is a small one, the simple opening of a door.
As we were preparing to leave the store, my friend and I came upon an older woman, who was afraid of being toppled by the wind that was blowing that day. She asked us to help her into the store, and my friend – always gracious and warm – walked her arm in arm, and held the door open for her. Even in those small moments, when we reach out to one another, supporting another story, another ministry, for no profit of our own, but simply as a gracious participation of our shared humanity, that we encounter the elusive Wisdom, the Spirit of God. And all of God’s servants said together AMEN!