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A Word to the Wise

lettersofstpaul1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
Mark 1: 21-28
Introduction to the reading – 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
You will be hearing the scripture passage for this morning – from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – from a translation called The Message by Eugene Peterson. Peterson began his work of translating Scripture into contemporary language in order to make ancient words more understandable for a Bible study group at the church he was serving in Maryland. Eventually, Peterson expanded his work into translating both the Old and New Testaments, thus The Message.

I am reading from The Message because, like much of Paul’s other writing, Chapter 8 of First Corinthians is a bit convoluted. Peterson’s work clarifies the situation without losing the meaning.

A word or two about the Corinthians. Corinth was a major urban center, a busy hub of commerce and trade at the center of Roman imperial culture in Greece. There were lots of different kinds of people and in Peterson’s words, “a reputation in the ancient world as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch.” In the church, Peterson writes, “Factions had developed, morals were in disrepair, [and] worship had degenerated into a selfish grabbing for the supernatural.” (Peterson 2064)

Paul spent about a year and a half with the Corinthians, teaching them how to live together in Christian community before moving on to Ephesus. Inevitably, the people fell back into old ways. But they wrote to Paul seeking faithful resolution to their problems, and Paul wrote back.

Let’s start this morning with a little game. I’ll start a sentence and you fill in the blank:

  • If it ain’t broke ______________ (don’t fix it).
  • Let sleeping dogs ____________(lie).
  • What goes around _____________(comes around).
  • And from our Amish friends: We grow too soon old and too late _______(smart).

These old sayings usually don’t need explaining. We just know what they mean and they always have the ring of truth. A word to the wise is sufficient, so they say.

Much of the book of Proverbs, classified as wisdom literature in the Hebrew scriptures, is a collection of memorable sayings like this, pithy truisms written down to transmit insights for living a good and righteous life. For instance:

  • A soft answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger.
  • Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.
  • A cheerful heart is good medicine but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.

At the heart of Proverbs is the belief and understanding that the God of Israel is the author of all real wisdom, and so verses in Proverbs often contrast wisdom and foolishness or God’s perfect wisdom and human imperfect knowledge. Wisdom is based on and built upon God’s love for the created world. Knowledge is a product of human endeavor and discovery, both of which can lead to hubris.

Notice, for example, the declarations in the reading from Mark. They [Jesus and the first disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. He even commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.

The scribes knew the law and the prophets and the traditions; they wrote down what could be written down and they passed on what they could pass on. They were the literate elite of scholars, teachers and lawyers. They had knowledge and a certain standing in society for what they knew and what they did.

But they didn’t hold a candle to Jesus. Here was God incarnate in their presence – even the unclean spirit recognized him. Here was an authority and a power above and beyond their own. They had knowledge and ability, but Jesus was God’s wisdom.

Then take the situation at Corinth. Paul raises the matter to divine proportions. He infuses a practical problem with spiritual meaning.

Here is Paul’s first point, stated at the very beginning (from the NRSV):

“all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. In other words, one can be smart and sophisticated and knowledgeable as all get out but still far from wise, when that knowledge serves to separate him or her form the love of God.

And his second point: One can be knowledgeable but far from wise when that knowledge serves to pit one member of the Christian community against another to the point of destruction. And this is what was happening in the Corinthian church over the matter of eating food leftover from pagan sacrifices. So Paul writes: When you thus sin against members of your family [that is, Christian community] and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Professed love for God should demonstrate concern for one’s fellow believers. The question is not one’s freedom to eat – knowledge – but how one should freely act toward one’s spiritual family –wisdom.

Information today… knowledge today… it’s like a barrage of incoming missiles! I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just can’t read any more, listen any more, watch any more, on line or on television or in print.
We hawk drugs, advertise cars, and predict the weather down to a raindrop. We give advice – how to manage wealth; how to stay safe and how to keep healthy; how to raise children and care for aging parents; how to succeed in business, avoid taxes and grow your retirement funds. We can’t cope with all this; we can’t absorb most of it, it let alone manage it.

Layer on top of the sheer volume of reasonable material all the “fake news”, accusations of fake news and outright lying. We skew facts, manipulate data, create alternative truths out of whole cloth and then spew them out in books and blogs and opinion pieces.

We are in information chaos. Somewhere in all this there is wisdom … maybe… but it’s very hard to find.

But a word to the wise is sufficient, so the saying goes, and so I end with a simple thought: That the word to the wise is LOVE. God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. That’s pretty much all we need to know. Amen.

Peterson, Eugene. The Message. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
January 28. 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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