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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 9
“Two Invitations”
June 22, 2014 - Second Sunday after Pentecost

         You got two invitations to Thanksgiving dinner. A relative invited you to their home for a vegan dinner with “turkey” meat manufactured from tofu and wheat germ. There would be slides of their most recent trip to Boise, followed by an interminable game of charades. Fortunately, you were also invited by some close friends to come and enjoy a genuine juicy turkey roasted for hours in their oven, accompanied by plenty of good conversation and some football on television. Which invitation do you accept?

         For Thanksgiving, you might think the answer is, as they say, a no-brainer, but when it comes to deciding between another pair of invitations pictured here in Proverbs 9, “no-brainer” is a more literal description of one choice.

         This chapter wraps up the first big section of Proverbs, the nine chapters which set the basic parameters of the whole book. We’ve met the female figure of Wisdom several times along the way, and we’ve been warned about an evil, immoral woman. Back in chapter 5 we saw her as a literal and human temptress, luring unwary men into unfaithfulness. But now in this chapter, both female figures are purely symbolic, allegorical images representing Wisdom on one hand, and Folly on the other.

         The first and last six verses of this chapter are invitations from those two, from Wisdom and Folly, dinner invitations to their homes. All the rest of what follows in this book is a way of asking which invitation you are going to accept. Are you going to eat the good food of Wisdom or are you sitting down to the meager fare of Folly?

         Each woman has a house. Each of them invites us in. Each of them offers us a meal. Which woman, which house, which meal will we choose? Wisdom or Folly? That question sums up the previous eight chapters. And it tells us that all the little either/ors, the little choices of the proverbs still to come, are really steps in one direction or the other.

         One evening a long time ago our family arrived at a little seaside village on the island of Crete. After checking into our hotel, we were hungry. We went down to a long promenade on the water where at least a dozen open-air restaurants were lined up side by side. Every establishment had a menu and their specials displayed on a sandwich board out front. It was a slow night, so the proprietors stood at the entrances and made their pitch. “We have the best souvlaki!” “Our fish is the freshest!” “We will give you a free glass of wine!” We were hungry, but we took our time, walking the length, examining each menu, listening to each pitch, looking at how clean the tables were. We went back and forth at least twice before we decided where to eat that night.

         Proverbs is asking you to consider these two invitations. Look at the menu, listen to the pitch, examine the house and what it holds before you decide, before you enter into an establishment from which there may be no return. This is not just about what you will have for dinner tonight, or where you will live for a season. As we hear and see in the description of these two invitations, the choice between Wisdom and Folly is life and death, an eternal and everlasting decision.

         In both cases the invitation starts out the same. Verse 4 and verse 16 are identical. Wisdom and Folly both say, “Let all who are simple come to my house!” They are both appealing to the same sort of customer, the simple, the ignorant, those who lack understanding and knowledge. It’s not very flattering, but the first step in making a good choice here is admitting that’s a true description of you and me.

         Walking along that boardwalk of eating places, our family was pretty “simple.” We had never been there before. We had no one to advise us. We couldn’t speak modern Greek. After a couple of days we would have some experience, we would find one place we liked and one we didn’t, but to start with we were ignorant tourists and both we and our eager hosts knew it.

         In many ways we are ignorant tourists as we walk through life. Most of the major decisions that face us we make without any experience, without ever having done it before. Where to go to college. Whom to marry. Which job to accept. Which house to buy. How to raise a child. What church to attend. When to retire. When to give up driving. What retirement center to enter for our last few years. Many choices only come once and all of them have to be made once for the first time, with no first-hand knowledge, little understanding, and not much wisdom. If we’re honest, we will admit that we are simple as we listen here to Wisdom and Folly giving us their best shot.

         We are simple, we start out so ignorant when it comes to much of what matters in life, but it’s still possible to make good, reasonable choices. You can start by looking, like we looked at the décor and cleanliness of those various tavernas, at the houses where Wisdom and Folly live and at the patronesses themselves.

         Verse 1 starts out telling us Wisdom has “built her house,” “set up its seven pillars.” Some interpreters want to figure out what those pillars represent, maybe the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit I talked about on Pentecost or the seven churches of Revelation or perhaps the seven days of creation. But in Scripture seven is also a number of completeness, of wholeness. Seven pillars means a large house, a spacious, open, beautiful place.

         Going on we get a picture of Wisdom as a busy woman, a woman working hard to make her house ready for guests. She built the place. In verse 2 she’s cooked the meat and mixed the wine and set the table. In verse 3 she sends out her servants to call in her guests. I picture her like all the good hosts and hostesses I’ve every met, bustling about making sure everything is prepared and perfect, but still there at the door ready to greet her guests with warmth and love.

         On the other side in verse 13 we’re told that Folly is an “unruly woman,” literally a “loud” woman, noisy and undisciplined. What is she doing? She’s sitting there, on a seat, constantly calling out, trying to get those who are going straight by to turn aside, to come into her house. There’s no hint of preparation, not any mention of work. And you can see the difference in the menu.

         Wisdom has prepared meat and mixed wine, probably with spices to make it especially delightful. And she invites us in to drink her wine and eat her food. But Folly has only water to offer. And the only attraction of her water is that it’s stolen. Instead of meat, her food is literally merely bread, but she suggests we eat it in secret, like junk food addicts sneaking off to wolf down a bag of potato chips.

         The real difference between the homes of Wisdom and Folly is in the last verses of each of their descriptions, verse 6 and verse 18. Wisdom invites us to “Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight.” Wisdom’s house is a house in which you learn and live and that’s part of her invitation. At Folly’s house we have to be told by the writer that “little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.”

         Wisdom versus Folly is a life versus death choice. It’s the choice that Jesus was talking about in our Gospel lesson from Matthew 10 when He told us what to fear. Don’t fear those who persecute us. Don’t fear those who can kill us. Instead fear the One who has the power of life and death, who loves us and cares for us like He cares for all of His creation, even the smallest birds. Likewise Paul in Romans 6 told us to make the choice to die to sin so that we can live with Christ.

         Just like we saw two weeks ago in Proverbs 8, Wisdom here is a stand-in for the God who created the world and offers us eternal life. Wisdom leads us to God. The house of Wisdom is God’s house, God’s kingdom. You can see that here in Proverbs 9 in the little interlude or parenthesis between the two invitations, verses 7-12.

         Verses 7 to 9 take a different perspective. We move from looking at Wisdom and Folly inviting their customers, their students if you like, and look at it from a teacher’s point of view. It doesn’t do any good to try and correct a “mocker,” a person who laughs and scoffs at wisdom. All you will get for your trouble is insults and hatred.

         You’ve seen it. What happens if you honk your horn at the crazy driver who deliberately cuts you off, or if you point out to some rushed shopper that her basket has way too many items for the express aisle she’s in? Right, you get a rude finger, a curse, a look of anger and hatred. They’re already mocking the law, mocking courtesy, so don’t expect them to welcome correction.

         As paradoxical as it sounds, it’s the wise who are ready to accept the wisdom of rebuke and correction. It’s those who are already trying to find the way to Wisdom’s house who are willing to receive directions. Verse 9 says “Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”

         But if those verses are true, how can we ever get started? If we are all simple and ignorant, how can we make a good choice? How can we find our way to Wisdom’s house before we are wise? The answer is in verse 10, which repeats the great and central theme of Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

         We are simple. Even more, we are sinful. We may dislike those “mockers,” those people who give us and all that’s good the finger and do what they please. But the only way to be different from them is to admit we need help, we need instruction, we need the grace that only comes to us from the Lord. That admission, that acceptance of help, that willingness to be taught by God is the beginning of wisdom.

         It’s a kind of dying to admit we are not already wise, not already really living a good life. It’s a death of pride to admit we cannot save ourselves or make good choices on our own. That’s why Paul told us today that we need to die with Jesus in order to live, why he said that baptism is being baptized into the death of Jesus so that we can be raised into the life of Jesus. It’s why Jesus told us today to forget about fearing all that world can do to us and instead to learn to fear and love and trust God and God alone.

         Wisdom begins when we recognize that God alone holds the power of life and death and that the only good house in which to eat and live is His house. Wisdom is constantly inviting us. Jesus is always calling and ready to receive us. But we only go through this life once. We have some time, but not forever to get it right.

         Last week in Chicago we went with our friends to see the new Tom Cruise science fiction movie, “Edge of Tomorrow.” Somehow Cruise’s character gets stuck in a time loop that starts over every time he dies. Whether he’s blown up by an alien or shot by an ally he wakes up over and over at the same time and place, starting the day again and trying to get it right, to get a little further toward his goal. That is not reality!

         As our friend Jan pointed out, that film is just a glorified video game, with a thousand do-overs for every time you fail and die. But as Scripture tells us in Hebrews 9:27, we are destined to die only once, and if we haven’t found Wisdom by then, it’s too late. If we’ve spent our time at Folly’s house, then we end up there forever, “deep in the realm of the dead.” God has given us this life we have, right now, to seek Wisdom, to seek Him, the beginning of wisdom, and to find the life that lasts forever.

         I mentioned awhile back reading Father Gregory Boyle’s book about his work with gangs in Los Angeles.[1] One of his stories highlights this choice between death and life, between wisdom and folly. There were two brothers, George and Cisco, both gang members. George ended up in juvenile detention camp where he started to change, to listen to what he’d heard from Father Greg. He asked to be baptized.

         On the night before George’s baptism, his brother Cisco, still out on the street, still active in his gang, was gunned down in front of his eight-month pregnant girlfriend. The next morning Father Greg drove to the camp and baptized George. Then he took him aside and told him about his brother. What Boyle saw was not the usual reaction of a gang member to the death of loved one. He wrote, “There is always flailing and rage and promises to avenge things.” But the newly baptized George just sat on a bench, put his head in his hands and wept, offering proof, says Boyle, that the sacrament had worked. George had begun to fear God rather than those who can kill the body, and it brought him wisdom and a sad but quiet peace in his loss.

         Who will we be? George or Cisco? Will we turn our steps, our hearts, our minds, our dreams toward God and the beginning of wisdom and be raised up to life and help and peace? Or will we mock and doubt and fear and keep on going toward foolishness and destruction and death that lasts forever?

         As we will see next week and on through this book of Proverbs in the months to come, it’s not just big decisions like George’s choice to accept baptism and faith in Christ. As we go along in this life, our path constantly branches between the house of Wisdom and the house of Folly. That’s why Paul is so urgent as he wrote to the Romans, asking them how, if they have chosen Christ, if they have died to sin, how can they go on living the old way?

         Yes, there is one big choice. Will you accept Wisdom’s invitation, which is Jesus’ invitation? Will you trust in Him, let Him save you? May you all make that choice, today if you never have before.

         But then, and this is where many of us are now, will you keep on living in Wisdom’s house? The old Swedish Covenant folks used to ask each other, “Are you still living in Jesus?” That’s the question for us. Are you eating His food and drinking His cup at His Table? Are you enjoying the blessing of life together with all your brothers and sisters in His kingdom? Are you leaving old foolishness behind and coming to learn His words and His truth for your life and your soul? Are you sharing His good food and your other blessings with everyone willing to receive them?

         Those are the choices. Those are the two invitations always being offered us, Wisdom or Folly, Christ or the world. Which will you accept today? And then tomorrow? And then the next day? And finally forever?


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010).

Last updated June 22, 2014