Saying Yes to Women and Children:
Contrarian Wisdom for a Fallen World

For Sunday September 23, 2012

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Proverbs 31:10–31 or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16–2:1, 12–22 or Jeremiah 11:18–20

Psalm 1 or Psalm 54

James 3:13–4:3, 7–8

Mark 9:30–37

           I've recently enjoyed reading several volumes of Wendell Berry's poetry, especially his New Collected Poems (2012) which gathers 266 poems that were previously published in eleven different books from 1964 to 2010. Berry's fifty books of poetry, novels, essays, and short stories have earned him numerous awards as a truth-telling gadfly. His vision is one of land and localism, our necessary and natural connection to the earth, its seasons of life and death, and how this power of place rightly shapes our life.

           The many guises of the modern world separate us from nature and place, and so Berry contrasts the "world made without hands" to "industrial humanity," which he considers an "alien species" with a death wish. His contrarian poetry finds its power in his opposition to the zeitgeist. He deplores our "idiot luxury," "our economy of greed," "fantasy capitalism," "fashionable lies," the destruction of mountains to mine coal, idiot politicians, the violence of war, and the imperative of technology. "I am done with apologies," he writes in The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer. "If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it."

Children laughting.

           Berry's contrarian strategy has a positive purpose. He's searching for "a language that can make us whole" and that can help us live as "true human beings." To do that, though, we must deconstruct the wisdom of the world in favor of new narratives. And that's what the lectionary readings for this week do. They give us new scripts to write better stories about our world and ourselves.

           Proverbs idealizes and personifies wisdom in women. "Whoever finds me finds life," says Lady Wisdom, "but whoever fails to find me harms himself" (8:35). Chapter 31, an acrostic poem in which each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, portrays a multi-tasking Über-frau who does all things well. She supports her family, buys and sells land, makes profitable trades, and, above all, "she speaks with wisdom" (31:26).

           "So long as women do not go cheap for power," writes Berry, "please women more than men."

           In the epistle for this week, James contrasts a demonic wisdom from "below" characterized by "bitter envy and selfish ambition" with heavenly wisdom from "above" that's peace-loving and merciful.

           And in the gospel, Jesus reverses our normal ideas about greatness by saying that children epitomize the ethos of his kingdom.

           Three different times in Mark's gospel Jesus warned his disciples about the tragic end that awaited him in Jerusalem — betrayal, condemnation, suffering, rejection, violent death, and then resurrection. All three times the disciples responded to Jesus with objections, disbelief, fear, and ignorance. They repeatedly demonstrated how badly they misunderstood the true nature of his redemptive mission.

Somali girl laughing.

            After his first "passion prediction," Peter objected: "Lord, this shall never happen to you!" But Jesus rebuked Peter for trying to prevent his sufferings: "You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man" (Mark 8:33). After the third prediction (10:32ff), James and John asked Jesus for positions of glory. The ten other disciples indignantly objected, clearly worried that James and John might gain some advantage over them.

           After Jesus's second prediction in the gospel for this week, the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest (Mark 9:34). There's a tragic irony in this because in the previous paragraph the disciples were unable to heal a little boy. Whereas in predicting his death Jesus signaled that his kingdom was characterized by self-sacrifice, the disciples were intent on self-aggrandizement.

           Jesus responded to his disciples in two ways. First, he gave them a teaching: "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all'" (9:35). Second, Jesus dramatized a parable. In a piece of street theater that illustrated his teaching, he placed a little child before the disciples. He then embraced the child and said, "Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me" (9:37).

           Matthew's parallel account of the same story makes an interesting editorial change. Jesus says, "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Just one page later in Mark's gospel the disciples rebuked people who brought little children to Jesus so that he would bless them. "When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it'" (10:13–16).

           To welcome a child is to extend the simplest of acts to an individual whom society dismisses as perhaps cute but ultimately insignificant, someone who lacks any accomplishments, greatness, status, or pretensions. By extension, Jesus invites us to welcome every person in the same manner, without regard for external measures of their worldly importance. The simple act of welcoming another person in that way, Jesus says, is to welcome him, and in turn to welcome God the Father who sent him.

Two boys laughing.

           Similarly, to imitate children is to understand our own selves in the same manner. Instead of striving for significance in titles, honors, and success, as if those might gain us favor with God or man, we enjoy the knowledge that we are simply human beings loved by God. To live as a child is to live free of the self-justifications that adults use to prove their worth, and the heavy burden of self-consciousness about our status. To live like a child, says Jesus, is the only way to enter his kingdom.

           Wendell Berry's poem Look Out urges us to "say no" to the deathly wisdom of the world in all its many forms. We do this by "looking out" on the world, and then, despite all that we see, "going out" into the world and "saying yes" to all that is good and true.

    Come to the window, look out, and see
the valley turning green in remembrance
of all springs past and to come, the woods
perfecting with immortal patience
the leaves that are the work of all of time,
the sycamore whose white limbs shed
the history of a man's life with their old bark,
the river quivering under the morning's breath
like the touched skin of a horse, and you will see
also the shadow cast upon it by fire, the war
that lights its way by burning the earth.

    Come to your windows, people of the world,
look out at whatever you see wherever you are,
and you will see dancing upon it that shadow.
You will see that your place, wherever it is,
your house, your garden, your shop, your forest, your farm,
bears the shadow of its destruction by war
which is the economy of greed which is plunder
which is the economy of wrath which is fire.
The Lords of War sell the earth to buy fire,
they sell the water and air of life to buy fire.
They are little men grown great by willingness
to drive whatever exists into its perfect absence.
Their intention to destroy any place is solidly founded
upon their willingness to destroy every place.

    Every household of the world is at their mercy,
the households of the farmer and the otter and the owl
are at their mercy. They have no mercy.
Having hate, they can have no mercy.
Their greed is the hatred of mercy.
Their pockets jingle with the small change of the poor.
Their power is the willingness to destroy
everything for knowledge which is money
which is power which is victory
which is ashes sown by the wind.

    Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is Money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.

Image credits: (1); (2) Edna Adan Hospital of Somalia; and (3) University of Calgary.