Walter Brueggemann, one of the most significant Hebrew Bible Scholars alive, once characterized the Hebrew Bible, what some call the Old Testament, as something like “a frequently vexed conversation between the divine and all who are not the divine.”
How many times do the Hebrews beg Moses to ignore God and take them back to slavery? We heard, over the summer, as Israel ignored God’s warnings and demanded a king so they could worship a government, like all the other nations.
We read about David’s slow decline from someone who worked as a vessel for God’s will to someone who tried to lock God in a box. Our historical journey has since focused on Solomon, the presumed author of Proverbs, including the passage we read today, which begins:
“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?’”
It is easy to read this and identify the speaker as God, yet another example of God being, as Brueggemann put it, “frequently vexed” with these stiff-necked, foolish humans. I think it is significant, however, that our author, whether Solomon or someone else, does not make that connection. There are plenty of texts containing speech explicitly attributed to God, and while today’s passage is not necessarily out of character—it is, after all, clearly quite vexed—the author held back from putting these words in God’s voice.
If the character of “Wisdom” in Proverbs is not standing in for God, who might the character represent? I wonder if it represents Solomon, if he might use the character “Wisdom” to say things that Solomon feels but does not want to say himself. Solomon is, after all, chiefly remembered for building the Temple, his immense wealth, and his wisdom.
Solomon is also remembered for ruling during the apex of the Israelite kingdom’s power. Saul and David formed the kingdom, uniting the tribes and centralizing power, but Solomon reigned over a period of great territorial and economic expansion. After Solomon, however, the kingdom began to crumble before literally splitting in two. Solomon must have seen the seeds of this destruction, and surely tried to warn his successors, to teach the people, to maintain the kingdom he inherited from David, nurtured, and grew. How vexing, how frustrating it must have been for Solomon to see his failure to successfully teach the generations to follow! How easy to see them as “fools [who] hate knowledge.” How like a politician to declare “those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”
Solomon was not, of course, alone in his frustration. We see this again and again throughout history as every generation faults the ones after for being inadequate to their example, for failing to learn the lessons of their elders in one way or another.
We all have a few teachers we will never forget. Several of mine were professors in the Conflict Resolution program at George Mason, which since I graduated has been renamed for the Carters. Dennis Sandole is one of these. Many of the students at what was then called S-CAR were veterans and even active-duty military, and one moment that I will always remember from Dr. Sandole’s class was the day an army colonel spent 40 minutes of a two-and-a-half-hour class arguing with him over a book this colonel had admitted he never read. Eventually, Dr. Sandole, who, prior to becoming a professor, was an enlisted Marine, cut off the debate by saying “I don’t know what else to do. Clearly, I am not getting through to you, it is my fault, but for the rest of the class, we just need to move on.”
Much like Solomon, and Dr. Sandole, Jesus feels this frustration in todays Gospel account. Our Gospel text begins with Jesus asking his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus hears their varied answers and then asks “’But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’”
Finally, Jesus has been recognized by a human. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been recognized before this, but only by demons he is in the process of casting out. Now that Jesus has been recognized, now that Peter has correctly identified Jesus, Jesus’ teaching and destination shifts. From this point forward in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is no longer wandering around the Galilee, visiting different cities and regions, but begins to move toward Jerusalem. From this point forward, Jesus’ teaching adds a new dimension: “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Jesus has been laying the groundwork for this moment of recognition so that he can begin to teach just what it means to be the Messiah, the Christ, but Peter immediately rejects it. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Peter is certain he already knows what the Messiah, the Christ is supposed to do, and it certainly does not involve being rejected and killed by the authorities! It cannot involve the voluntary surrender of earthly power but must involve seizing ever more power, taking control of the authorities, raising an army of humans and angels, and driving out the Romans!
Just as surely as Steve, remember my friend Steve, has been taught by his church and by this nation’s so-called “Christian” culture that one must merely be baptized to be a Christian, Peter has been taught by his religious community that the messiah will come to take political power.
What does Jesus say to this? Jesus tells Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then, Jesus turns to all those with him and says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Jesus says go, claim all the power you can, fight wars, create governments, win elections, gain political power, even over the entire world, and none of it will matter because that is not the way God teaches.
So why have we let that become what we teach? You might say that is not what we teach here, but it is the lesson that far too many have learned, and the educators among us know, like Dr. Sandole, that if the student is not learning what you are trying to teach, if a student is just not understanding, it is the teacher who needs to change. It is the teacher who needs to try something different. It is the teacher who needs to try something new. A few weeks ago, after a baptism, I reminded us that we are all teachers, whether we intend it or not. We are not only teachers for those younger than us, not only teachers for others in our congregation, but we are teachers of all those we encounter, and so I challenge us all to consider what we are teaching.