Proverbs 30:24-25 says: “(There are) things on earth (that) are small, yet they are exceedingly wise: the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer.”
I have to admit I’ve never really paid much attention to ants. I haven’t studied their living patterns as an adult and I wasn’t one of those kids who went out looking for ant hills to poke around at or try and fry one with a magnifying glass held up to the sun. One of my more recent experiences with ants came when we were having a problem with some ants coming in our house through the side door. We got a spray that we sprayed across the threshold that has pretty much kept them out ever since. Usually they keep to their world and I keep to mine. In the last few weeks I’ve come across a couple different statements about ants that have caught my attention.
One of them came from the book Cradle to Cradle. It’s a book about how we can shift our focus in how we design everything from buildings to cars to shoes in a way that imitates the rest of nature where waste always equals food, a nutrient to help other things live, rather than waste equals toxic garbage dumps. The authors give the example of the ant as a creature that is well adapted to its local environment. Wherever ants show up, in all their 8 thousand different kinds, they enrich their environment and adapt to its peculiar features. Their food economy allows them to store food them themselves, even as they recycle nutrients and by taking them deeper into the soil so plants and microorganisms can process them. In their transportation economy they aerate soil around plant roots which lets water better penetrate the ground, helping plant life and reducing erosion. To the argument that ants are too small to make a negative impact on the planet while humans are a massive, industrial species, the authors point out that it is estimated that all of the ants on the planet are equal to the body mass of all the humans on the planet, and yet they not only do no harm, but improve the systems they live in. (Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, McDonough and Braungart, 2002)
The other statement I heard included ants but was about all insects. If all insects were to die, or disappear, within 50 years, all the rest of life would die. Or, at least, life as we know it, the complex life of plants and animals, would utterly collapse.
And if humans were to disappear, within 50 years, all of the rest of life would flourish. Kind of sobering.
The Proverb says that there are things on earth that are small, yet exceedingly wise. Among these things being the ant.
This is not a sermon about ants. I’ve already mentioned pretty much everything I know about them. This is a message about wisdom, and the month of September will keep this common theme. Wisdom as the art of living well. Wisdom in action. Wisdom in speech. Wisdom in thought. Wisdom as involving, at least in its most basic form, the reality of living a balanced life in this created order, one of the most urgent issues of our time. But also, in its exalted form, Wisdom as something that exists for itself, something that is a direct emanation of God, the first of all God’s creations as Proverbs says (8:22). Wisdom as the radiance of God that shines in every feature of creation, if we would just pay attention and look closer. The practical and the mystical dimensions of wisdom. So we’ll be dwelling on some Wisdom texts and pondering Wisdom together.
Wisdom is actually a category of biblical literature. It includes the book of Proverbs, but also includes Ecclesiastes, and Job and the apocryphal books of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. One reason for the designation of these books is that – surprise – they use the word wisdom a lot. Of the 318 times that the Hebrew root for wisdom mkx (chakam) shows up in the Hebrew Bible, over half are in the Wisdom books. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon are associated with Solomon, the king who, when given the choice to ask God for anything in the world, chose wisdom and a discerning mind. Solomon would not have written all of these himself, but the wisdom tradition connects itself to this one, who, at that one point in his life, chose the highest good of all, the most beautiful of God’s creations, Wisdom.
Proverbs 9 is one of several texts where Wisdom is personified as this dynamic woman who calls out to people. “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
I like here how Wisdom is portrayed as an active recruiter for her cause. Wisdom is not just something for which we must search high and low, turn over rocks, and sniff out. Wisdom has built a house, she has set this luxurious table of food and drink, a meal fit for a king and a queen, and she is the one who has the search party going out and searching for people who will come and feast. Her servant girls are going to the most public, most visible areas, the highest places in the town, and are calling out multiple times, repeatedly, for people to come and sit down with Wisdom. To learn her ways. To make her house our house. It sounds to me kind of like the parable that Jesus told in Luke where the master of the house has set out this great banquet, but nobody comes, so the master sends the servants out to “the highways and the hedges”, as the King James translates it, to bring in the poor and anyone, anyone who will come to this feast to fill the house of the master.
Scholars propose that the reference to Wisdom having built her house and hewn her seven pillars is a reference to the ancient understanding of the pillars of creation that held up the universe. Wisdom is closely linked to creation in Proverbs 8. “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of the acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs about with water. Before the mountains has been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when God had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When God established the heavens, I was there…then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (8:22-27a, 30-31)
Wisdom has built her house, with its pillars, and it is the entire cosmos. We’re already inside the house, and yet she calls us to wake up and take a look around and eat the feast.
Along with mentioning Wisdom a lot, there’s another feature of Wisdom literature that I find particularly interesting for what it doesn’t mention. Unlike so much of the rest of the Bible, the books of Wisdom do not speak much of the typical salvation history of the people of Israel. The patriarchs and matriarchs of Abraham and Sara, Isaac, and Jacob aren’t prominent. Moses isn’t featured. The history of the kings isn’t held up. Covenant isn’t as prominent, or following the particular parts of the law. The temple and the ritual system of worship isn’t there. All of those features that we usually think of making up the religion of the Hebrew Bible, the story of the people of Israel, aren’t center stage. Instead, Wisdom comes from a different place. Wisdom is just out there; it’s what we get when we pay attention to things. It even has a secular nature. It is completely accessible to everyone, those inside the covenant, those outside the covenant, those who know the faith stories, those who don’t. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Proverbs 9 goes on to say. So anyone who begins to have a sense of awe and wonder with Being, with that which is, has already cracked the door of the house of wisdom. Like Jesus’ parables, which were these secular fictions, non-religious stories that pointed to a deep spiritual truth, Wisdom presents itself in all arenas of life. In the farmer’s field. In the marketplace. In the business office. In the seed of the plant. In the classrooms of the academy, the streets of the city, the domestic chores of the home. It’s all in the house of Wisdom.
If we look deeply into something, whatever it may be, there is wisdom there. We are following the trail of the tracings of the finger of God. This is Wisdom as the mystical invitation into awe and wonder that calls out to us from everywhere.
James helps bring us back around to the practical, to the ants. James is the closest thing we have to New Testament wisdom literature. Like the older Wisdom texts, James doesn’t give much space to typical religious topics. He doesn’t theologize about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He doesn’t talk about communion. He only mentions the church once, right at the end. James knows that religion and the practice and language of religion can become a self-justifying system. The sacred shell that religion can create for us can just as easily cut us off from wisdom as connect us to wisdom. This sacred shell can sometimes have us locked up in a closet in the house of wisdom rather than free to walk around. More blind to God’s beauty than enlightened by it. So James is pretty direct about these sort of things. For James, Wisdom is wisdom in action. Wisdom in how we speak and how we live. 1:26 says, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” Ouch. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” He also connects this to the relationship between faith and works. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works? So faith, by itself, if it has not works, is dead.”
If I knew more about ants, this is the place where I would tell another story or two about how they are an example of wisdom. About how, by the very way they order their lives, by the way they relate to their own kind and their neighboring environment, they are an example of wisdom in action. And how much we can learn from that. And how our religion is always subject to this kind of scrutiny. About how this helps us see that religion is in the house of wisdom, not the other way around. Wisdom is not contained within the house of religion. Our religious expressions are our attempt, the attempt of our tradition, to live faithfully in the house of Wisdom. To play joyfully with all the other creatures in God’s playhouse.
An important function of healthy religion is to unplug our ears so that we can hear the call of Wisdom coming from the little creatures and big creatures and the creation that is our home.
But since I don’t know any more ant stories, I’ll just add this observation. Wisdom has built her house, and unlike us and our anti-ant spray over our threshold, she apparently is totally cool with ants and bees and birds and trees and oceans and religions and all sorts of people living inside. If fact, she’s doing all she can to convince us all to come in through her doors. To settle in to the architecture of her ways. To learn to live at peace with all the others she’s invited, feasting around that table.