For Reflection: this week Benjamin on the wisdom of being foolish!
1 Corinthians 1.18–25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
There is an old joke that the most important question Anglican clergy ask is not about doctrine, or tradition, or liturgical style. The most important question Anglican clergy ask is: “what do I wear?”
Such is the variety of vestments we can wear it is always important to check in advance that you are in the right gear. Is it Cassock, Surplice, and Scarf; or Cassock, Surplice, and Stole. Or Alb and Stole. Will there be copes, and what colour?
The list goes on and on.
The question is asked for lots of reasons, but the most important one is that no one likes to feel like a fool! No one wants to be the one who turns up to a full church or cathedral – when we are allowed to do so – and find everyone is in red stoles and you are the wally in a white one.
Avoiding being a fool, looking foolish is something deep in our psyche, deep in the marrow of what it is to be human. But being a fool, being foolish is precisely what Paul call’s the Church in Corinth to be. Speaking to both Jews and Gentiles, he says that our greatest salvation, our greatest hope in looking to the foolishness of the cross.
Put aside the traditions of signs and knowledge, he says to the Jews, and look for your hope instead to a sign of defeat and destruction. Ignore all you’ve ever known about the sound knowledge and wisdom of the world, Paul says to the Greeks, and find your wisdom in the death of a man on a rubbish heap in a back water of the Empire. You see, the wisdom of the world, a wisdom we all know too well, teaches us to be careful, to know the good order of things.
Life, the world, we are always told has a shape – with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. The world has an order when we know that God is in his heaven. The wisdom of the world is safe, reassuring, and reliable. But that wisdom is nothing, Paul says, to the folly of the Cross.
To know the contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God’s foolishness we only have to look at today’s Gospel. This is the well known story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. We know this story well, of Jesus overturning the safe patterns of the Temple, of bringing himself into direct conflict with the safety and order of the Temple authority.
Many quote this story as evidence of the implicit corruption and rottenness of the world Jesus came to overturn. But this is misread the story I think.
In John’s Gospel it comes not in the final days of Jesus’ ministry, in the week leading to Good Friday, but at the beginning of his ministry, immediately after the overabundance of God’s love is revealed in Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana.
The ordering of the story is there to challenge us to contrast directly the folly of God’s wisdom, of God’s love, with the sensible right-ordering of the wisdom of the world.
The patterns of life in the temple were, by the standards of the world, sensible and ordered. The Jews did not want the money of the Roman Empire to pollute the sanctity of the Temple, and so quite sensibly, it needed to be changed into more acceptable form of currency for the Temple tax to be paid with. Animals required for Sacrifice could not be bought by those coming long distances, so you could go to the Temple to buy the animal required by for the ritual sacrifice demanded by the law. Traders and money changers worked in the temple not for deep venal reasons, but to keep the system going; all very sensible and ordered – just the way the wisdom of the world likes it.
But next to this comes the foolishness of God’s wisdom.
You see God’s wisdom is not the way we’re supposed to do it. It’s a wisdom which, as the beginning of this Chapter from John shows us, provides 144 gallons of the finest wine, more than even the best wedding party could consume. It is a wisdom which pays all the workers the same, whatever time of day they come to the vineyard to work. A wisdom which takes five-loaves and two fishes, and feeds five thousand and leaves enough left over for 12 baskets.
There is a reckless abandon in the foolish wisdom of God’s love that is beyond anything that the sensible, well planned and sometimes well-meaning wisdom of this world can ever imagine.
As we begin to emerge from lock-down we might, quite reasonably,begin to imagine organising a Parish event or party. In our planning we would quite sensibly begin by following the wisdom of the world – you bring this, and I’ll bring that, and we should have just enough.
Now imagine a Parish event run on the foolish wisdom of God’s love. There would be mountains of sausage rolls reaching to the ceiling, acres of Batenburg cake stretching from here to Haltwhistle, and we’d get there surfing up the Tyne on unending gallons of tea!
The foolish wisdom of God’s love does not simply replace the wisdom of the world. Like the tables in the temple, the wisdom of the world is overturned by the power of God’s love.
It is a wisdom which does not care for the posturing and power and prestige of this world. It is a wisdom which, doesn’t just put down the mighty from their thrones, but one that exalts the humble and meek.
When we proclaim Christ crucified – when we say to the world that we believe more than anything else in the foolishness of God’s love – we shouldn’t be surprised, nor should be afraid to feel a little foolish.
As you can imagine I’ve been spending some time recently reflecting on my time here. And I wonder what you would have thought if I’d stood up in the pulpit six and a bit years ago and said that in time, we’d have members of our congregations leading worship and offering to train for forms of ministry? Foolishness I would imagine. How about if I’d said we would build a new community of prayer on Facebook? Foolishness again. Or what if I’d said we would start a new Church in a tent? I’m not sure even I would have believed that one!
Whatever the future holds one truth remains. That if we are as foolish with our hopes and as reckless with our generosity as God is with us, then we will not even begun to imagine the future that God has prepared for those who put aside the wisdom of this world for the sake of the foolishness of the cross.
Questions for reflection
- Have you ever been made to feel like a fool, what did it feel like?
- Have you ever been told you were being foolish in doing something only to prove that person wrong?
- What foolish things do you think God is calling you to do?