Fools for Christ

Sunday 9th November 2014
Year A, The Third Sunday before Advent
Wisdom 6:12-16

Although we can't be certain of the relationship between authors and books of the Bible - which letters did Saint Paul actually write? Were there one, two or even Three Isaiah’s? How many Psalms did David write? - still, I can't help a slight smirk when I open the book entitled the Wisdom of Solomon, from which today's First Reading is taken, because it always reminds me of the grim, pivotal passage half way through the First Book of Kings: "King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh, Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Siddonian and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites: "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods"; Solomon clung to these in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other Gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David." Here is the king who solved the problem of the disputed baby, extended Israel's boundaries to their greatest ever extent, and bore down the spirits of the Queen of Sheba, sunk into lust and idolatry. So much for the world weary tone of the writing attributed to him, his avowed contempt for luxury in general and women in particular.

But even if Solomon was not the author of the works attributed to him, they still bear a warning for us; and that is that we must avoid the temptation of tangling up supposed human wisdom with divine Fiat. The whole history of Christianity is the exercise of power over individual moral choices by a clerical hierarchy, invoked in the name of God almost always at the expense of the exercise of social and ecclesiastical solidarity with the laity in Christ's mission of kingdom building.

But although we might feel oppressed by this exercise of moral power, particularly in the area of sexual behaviour, where Solomon, according to our accounts, was so two-faced, the oppression which we suffer is nothing compared to that which we are in danger of exercising over others. Just think about how many decisions we have made in the past week which affect other people, how often we have expressed a public opinion about private behaviour; and then ask how often we have thought through the likely impact in advance. It isn't only in novels that an unthought, pejorative remark can undermine hard won, slender resources of self-esteem. Our culture is awash with more or less badly informed, self-interested, power-based pronouncements telling us what we should do and not do, almost always for somebody else's convenience, almost always involving a 'top/down relationship of power, wealth or both.

And although this cacophony of supposed good advice has been raised in poor soil and has no roots, that is nothing compared with the temptation from which we both suffer and, in turn, to which we succumb, the temptation of making moral pronouncements in the name of Jesus. That, in a nutshell, is my main criticism of the Book of Proverbs, it suffers from the sin of presumption, far worse than the defect of inconsistency, or even hypocrisy.

Conversely, rather than being wise, so wise that we presume to speak on behalf of God to others, we should be fools for Christ as he was a fool in the eyes of the Temple authorities who presumed to speak for God. As Christ was a fool, so we should be fools, as he listened, we should listen, as he refused to judge, we should refuse to judge.

For the reticent, this is easy, for me it is almost impossibly difficult and so I am preaching to myself, knowing that I will certainly fail from day to day. The best I think I can hope for is to develop the virtue of reticence, not simply in the sense that Aristotle taught that to practice virtue was the best way to attain it, but in the fuller sense that Jesus is the epitome of reticence. In a society obsessed with saying and doing, reticence is counter cultural. But being a fool in this knowing world is even worse.

To understand the idea of the fool we must distinguish it from the now popular use of the word "fool" to mean that somebody is grossly ill informed, unable to draw a conclusion from evidence or, in the most unpleasant use of the term, either refuses to or lacks the mental capacity to articulate views in a way that is socially acceptable. This is not the way in which Saint Paul uses the term nor the way in which I am using it here. The best way to understand the fool is to think of the character in Shakespeare's King Lear who is the only character anchored in reality; but the reality is so unpalatable to the other characters that his views are incongruously anomalous; in other words, contrary to the common use of the word today, the fool in King Lear is the only person with a full grasp of the situation, fearlessly reporting.

Imagine how it would be if we eschewed bogus pronouncements on behalf of God and concentrated instead on fearlessly reporting the good news as the fools of Christ. If we could bring ourselves to tell the good news, the world would undoubtedly be a better place. Contrary to the conventional, almost unquestioned, wisdom of the Western Christian churches, the world does not need our moralising as it knows, deep in its marrow, how imperfect it is; what the world needs is hope, Christian hope, delivered by clear-sighted and unequivocal fools.

So the choice is to be wise in the ways of the weary, the jaded, the person who has seen it all and feels entitled to pronounce, or to be clear sightedly, unequivocal, fools for Christ. Amen.