In Jesus’ words, we can hear the dim echoes of a time gone by. Long before Jesus came there was a character who called out in the marketplaces. You can read about her in the biblical books of Proverbs, Job, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. What students of the Bible call the “Wisdom literature” is full of stories about a character who so many people have never heard of.
In the book of Proverbs, she claims to have been there when CREATOR was busy creating and she declares: “When God set the heavens in place, I was present, when God drew a ring on the surface of the deep, when God fixed the clouds above, when God fixed fast the wells of the deep, when God assigned the sea its limits…when God established the foundations of the earth, I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman. Delighting God day after day, ever at play by God’s side, at play everywhere in God’s domain, delighting to be with the children of humanity.”
So, just who is this master craftswoman? Job insists that, “we have heard reports of her”. But, “God alone has traced her path and found out where she lives.” The writer of Ecclesiasticus admonishes the reader to: “court her with all your soul, and with all your might keep her ways; go after her and seek her; she will reveal herself to you; once you hold her, do not let her go. For in the end, you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”
In the Wisdom of Solomon, she is described as, “quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; hence nothing impure can find a way into her. She is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God’s active power, image of God’s goodness. Although alone, she can do all things; herself unchanging she makes all things new. In each generation, she passes into holy souls, she makes them friends of God and prophets.”
You may not know who she is, but Jesus certainly did. Tales of her deeds were popular in Jesus’ day. Jesus, a student of the scriptures who was referred to as a rabbi, would certainly have known who this heroine of the scriptures is. In the ancient Hebrew texts of the Wisdom Literature she is called “CHOKMAH.” In the ancient Greek translations of these texts she is called “SOPHIA.” In our English translations of these texts she is simply known as “wisdom.” The ancient Hebrew and Greek languages were written without punctuation. Often in Greek, there were no spaces between the words. Until long after Jesus’ day there were only capital letters. Upper- and lower-case letters were not used. Unlike our system where personal names begin with capital and are followed with lower case letters, ancient texts consist of lines of unbroken capitals. Often ancient Greek, the words did not have spaces between them and so translating these texts into English is tricky. This is just one of the reasons why Sophia’s story has remained hidden from most of us.
When you read the texts that describe “wisdom,” it is clear that they are, at the very least, speaking about Wisdom as though Wisdom is a person. SOPHIA is wisdom personified. SOPHIA is spoken of as being around from the beginning–before Creation. She was with YAHWEH at the time of creation; creation couldn’t happen without her presence. Other biblical passages show her coming to be with humanity, reaching out to people to be in relationship with them. She walks through the streets, calling out to people, trying to get them to listen–to follow her. She’s also a welcoming hostess inviting people to her table, a bountiful provider of food, the source of all good things. She is the way to abundant life.
She is also a trickster and play is one of the ways she gets things done. You may not have heard of her, but when Jesus speaks to the people about children calling to one another in the marketplaces, the people would have remembered SOPHIA standing in the marketplaces and calling the people out to dance. But the people refused to join in SOPHIA’s playful dance. SOPHIA’s reputation for playfulness led the people to refuse her invitation. In the same way, Jesus who came eating and drinking, called out to the people and his reputation led the people to label him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!
Jesus declares: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”. Jesus harkens back to the images of SOPHIA in the Scriptures and insists that, “SOPHIA/WISDOM will be vindicated by her deeds.” SOPHIA’s reputation as a trickster who accomplishes great deeds through play and Jesus’ reputation as a glutton and a drunkard who comes to the world eating and drinking aren’t usually emphasized these days, by those who tout their religion in the public square, or on social media. I can honestly say, I have never heard people who call themselves, “Bible believing Christians,” taking to social media to encourage friends and followers to eat, drink, and be merry. And yet, this stuff is in the Bible.
The Bible describes playfulness as an important part of the God in whose image we are created. All too often those of us who profess to follow Jesus, refuse to hear Jesus’ cry: ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance.” Jesus is calling us out to play. Yes, I know this is a summer like no other summer we have ever experienced. I would love to just go out to the lake and splash and play in the water. But the beaches remain closed, so let Jesus’ words take us back to the words of Sophia, so that we can play together in the words of the scriptures.
In the Bible, it is Sophia who is first given the task of calling God’s people out to play, and that playfulness goes way beyond dancing. Despite the church’s history of attempts to contain and or constrain our playfulness, Jesus continues to call us out to play!
On this glorious summer Sunday, on a weekend when it is meet right and salutary to celebrate, we can listen to the tune Jesus is piping and we can dance for joy for we are wondrously and gloriously made. Weekends are not the only things designed for play; we are. In the biblical books which are known as Wisdom Literature, it is made very clear that our bodies are blessings given by God so that we might delight in them.
Playfulness includes exploring the pleasures that one body can give to another body. There’s a little book in the Bible which we call the Song of Solomon, which for centuries was simply known as the Song of Songs and there you will find words that can make self-righteous Christians blush and televangelists positively apoplectic. “Look, there my love stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; and come away; for now, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Let my love kiss me with kisses on the mouth!” How did this get into the Bible?
The Song of Solomon, or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs is surely the most erotic book of the Bible. This erotic song of songs is a long poem in which a woman, “Black and beautiful,” woman and a man, “radiant and ruddy,” speak the language of desire, cataloguing every inch of each other’s body, every smell and every taste. The radiant young man declares to his lover, “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine.” And she tells anyone who will listen that, “His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh,” He responds by exclaiming that her, “two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. I am my beloved’s” she exults, “and his desire is for me.”
The Song of Songs is a song about desire, and so it is also a song about the pain of separation, of missed meetings, and of absence. “O that his left hand were under my head,” the woman sings with palpable yearning, “and that his right hand embraced me!” When this passionate woman’s lover knocks on her door, she hesitates for a moment to open it. And when she begins to speak, this ancient biblical woman speaks some of the sexist lines in any literature. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.”
When she opens the door, he is gone, and she heads out into the city to search for him, crying, “I implore you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.”
How did this erotic love poem make it into the Bible? No one knows for sure. But scores of interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have found in it the song of human yearning for the DIVINE ONE and the DIVINE ONE’s desire to be in intimate relationship with humanity.
The Song of Songs is read at the festival of the Passover as a reminder that YAHWEH delivered Israel from slavery not only because the DIVINE ONE was bound by the covenant to do so, but also because the HOLY ONE loved the people of Israel and desired goodness for them.
The ancient Christian writer Bernard of Clarvaux wrote more than eighty sermons on the Song of Songs without even making it past the third chapter. According to Clarvaux the poem provided a means by which the individual believer could come into intimate relationship with God. Like all great poetry, the Song of Songs can easily sustain a wide range of interpretations. But it resists being read only as a spiritual text about human beings devoid of bodies. Clairvaux warned young monks and nuns not to read it until their faith matured, because of the sexual feelings it is able to inspire.
The song is so erotic, that to this day, orthodox Jews are cautioned not to read it until they reach the age of forty. For to read the Song of Solomon without the wisdom that comes from age could cause the reader to unwisely give in to their own passionate desires.
From the pages of scripture sacred to Jews and Christians alike, the Song of Songs remains a testimony to mutuality in love, to the beauty of the human body, to the goodness of sexual desire and the power of love. The Song proclaims that “Love is as strong as death, and passion fierce as the grave.” “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”
And we’re not talking about agape here. No this is not the agape love shared between friends or members of a faith community. We’re talking about eros. Eros, the love that is expressed in the passionate embrace of bodies. In the Song of Songs, we find no anxiety about erotic desire’s power.
In the Song of Songs, passionate desire is portrayed as the force that binds us to one another. The relationship described in the Song is one of mutuality; the lovers are evenly matched in the force of their desire. They are equally vulnerable in their desire to be desired by one another; they are equally determined to give and to receive pleasure. For centuries, the church has selected particular pieces of scripture in order to say, “no” to the pleasures of sex in any way shape or form.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus declared that “WISDOM/ SOPHIA will be vindicated by wise deeds.” Surely WISDOM/SOPHIA is vindicated in relationships so intimate and satisfying that they draw us out of ourselves and more deeply into the passions of life in Creation? Relationships in which pleasure is given and received with joy. Relationships in which knowledge of the body is sought with care and gentleness, in which the body is pronounced beautiful over and over again.
As we come to experience the erotic as sacred, we can begin to know ourselves as holy and to imagine ourselves sharing in Creation with one another for our common well-being. When we recognize the face of the HOLY ONE in the face of our lover as well as in our own face, we can begin to feel at ease in our bodies. The DIVINE ONE moves among us. In, with, through, and beyond our bodies the DIVINE ONE lives and breathes and plays.
Jesus implores us: “come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yolk is easy, and my burden is light.” In these strange times, we may not be able to enjoy our regular summer pleasures. So, as our beaches remain closed, why not open up the Song of Solomon and rejoice and be glad, as you read: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s desire is for me. Come, my beloved let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; let us go out early into the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened, and the pomegranates are in bloom. Then I will give you my love.” According to the Scriptures, SOPHIA stood out in the streets and invited the people to come and play–to tell jokes–to laugh at our blunders.
In today’s gospel Jesus compares his generation to children who sit and refuse to play. Do NOT let it be said of this generation that we refused to play, that the delights and pleasures which come to us as gifts from our CREATOR were shunned or wasted. Our bodies are sacred instruments designed to play. In the sacred dance of desire, we are opened to the transforming power of LOVE. So, remember to give and take delight in your play. Let yourselves be transformed. Let your bodies open you to the wonders of life and for God’s sake dance! Dance, and rejoice for you are wonderfully made; designed to play. Amen.
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