A group of rabbis gathered one day after a long day of studying the Book of Bereshit, which we call the Book of Genesis. The question that was before them was this one: Why had God waited until the sixth day of creation to create human beings?
Rabbi Rivkah said, “God wanted to make sure the universe was well ordered and operating smoothly, so that we could make use of creation, made for our benefit.” Several of her companions nodded in agreement. Certainly the marvels of the universe had been made for the use of human beings, who had been given dominion over all things on Earth.
Rabbi Chaim said, “Perhaps, perhaps. But God started with animals so that God could learn from God’s earlier attempts. God waited to make humans so that God wouldn’t make the mistakes God made with the various animals and their weaknesses.” Other rabbis nodded in agreement with him. Surely human beings were the crowning achievement of creation, with the ability to talk, and to think, unlike stupid animals!
Rabbi Susan, known for her humility a well as her wisdom, arrived a few moments into the meeting, apologizing profusely. She was running late because she had been engaged in prayers before the sun set. She asked what they were debating about so intently. “We are discussing why God waited until the sixth day to create human beings,” Rabbi Akiva told her. They repeated the two premises put forward by Rabbi Rivkah and Rabbi Chaim.
Rabbi Susan thought for a moment. A dog whined outside in the street, and a mosquito whined past the ear of one of the other rabbis, and he swatted at it forcefully. “I wonder if the answer is more simple. I think it was so that when we were filled with pride, we would remember that even a lowly dog and the annoying mosquito were awarded priority in the grand scheme of the Divine Creator.” And all the other rabbis took what she said, and pondered it for the rest of their lives.
Our readings today focus on two qualities: humility, and wisdom. We begin with a brief collection of verses from the Book of Proverbs. The backstory behind this collection of sayings was that they were written by King Solomon himself. As you know, Solomon was crowned with power and honor: he had hundreds of wives and concubines; he lived in a magnificent palace, and he was the son of the great King David.
Yet, if you remember three weeks ago, when he ascended to the throne, Solomon prayed to God for help in governing God’s people. In a dream God appeared to Solomon and told Solomon to ask God for what he wanted God to grant to him. Solomon could have asked for untold wealth, or military power, or an exceptionally long life and reign. Instead, the new king humbly compared himself to a little child, not up to the task of leading so great a people. Solomon therefore asked for wisdom, so that he could be a good king to protect the people and lead them. God was pleased not just by the thoughtfulness of the answer, but by its humility. Solomon didn’t ask for things for himself, but for a gift that would benefit his people. So God granted Solomon wisdom, and his sage judgment was famous far and wide. Solomon’s humility, his openness to admitting his lack of perception and knowledge, was the beginning of his wisdom.
The proverbs before us are likewise focused on wisdom and humility themselves. Specifically, they depict the wisdom of being generous, just, and hospitable in one’s relationships with others. The wisdom of being open to each other. In the social system of the early Mediterranean world, social division and status was very important—much like our society today. Just like now, there were many ways to close oneself off from those considered lowly or unclean. All these centuries later, we too have the same many ways to separate ourselves from each other—by race, class, ethnicity, ability or disability, wealth and poverty. Those who are considered to be “less-than,” like the poor or immigrants, become invisible—if they are lucky. If they are not lucky enough to be invisible they become objects of scorn, exploitation, and scapegoating.
You’ve seen and heard this done over and over by people around you—some even claiming to be leaders. Businesses that pay starvation wages complain that they can’t find workers, and so smear all of them as lazy rather than consider that the wages they pay do not allow for a person to make even a modest living and pay all of their bills. Lately there’s even been the claim that the $300 a week jobless benefits are actually rewards for laziness. There are public school districts ending breakfast programs because they claim it will make children dependent on handouts for the rest of their lives. The reasons stated for this decision runs like this I guess: Better for seven-year-olds to suffer from the pain and distraction of hunger right now than to expect that the wealthiest country in the world owes them anything.
I’ve always appreciated the humility and wisdom of leaders who actually try to walk a mile in the shoes of those at the bottom of the income scale—like when members of Congress try to eat for a week only on the benefits given through food stamps, or try to find an apartment for 25% of the income of a minimum wage job. I hope that, on this Labor Day weekend, as we all enjoy our time off, we remember a prayer often said in the Compline service, and humbly pray that we honor the labor of workers, no matter how humble, who make our common lives together possible. Thus we hear the author reminding us that whether we are rich or poor, we are all children of God, created in God’s image. We are told not to exploit the poor or take advantage of them, or for those who sit at the gate—which is where people would plead for justice if they had been treated unfairly or unjustly. Applied to our own time, one in which so many people are behaving without regard for anything, but loudly proclaim their own grievances, their own rights to do as they please, regardless of the harm to others, our proverbs remind us to remain humble as the foundation of our relationships with each other and as a reflection of our relationship with God. Likewise our psalm urges us to another set of characteristics that are the basis of wisdom and generosity: trust and honesty. Once again, gifts that seem to be in short supply these days. Our psalm reminds us that the ability to trust and be trustworthy is a sign of strength, not weakness. The letter of James urges us to treat every person with honor—not based on what they can do for us, but based on the love we are called to bear for each and every person, which includes taking care of those who have needs as much as we are able—and we often have more ability to do this than we might like to admit. Look, it’s easy for us to forget sometimes that we have the power to make the lives of those around us better or worse, often by the simplest recognition that here, around me are other people all beloved of God and beloved of their families and friends. All precious. Even Jesus has to be reminded of this sometimes. In our gospel reading today, we have two stories of healing. One is of a man unable to hear—Jesus commands his hearing and his speech to be “opened.” There is Jesus, the miracle worker using his divine power to help someone on the margins of society toward full healing and restoration. But if you look carefully, the story before it informs this command to be open. In the story before this healing, Jesus himself had to be goaded into being open to another. We just for a second get a glimpse of Jesus as a human being—prone to all the weariness and challenges we all face. Jesus has entered Gentile territory to the north hoping for a little R and R, his own version of Labor Day. Maybe if he goes up into Tyre and Sidon, no one will recognize him, and he can move about anonymously for a while until his batteries recharge. Yet no sooner does he get there, and settles into a house to cocoon for a bit, than some woman approaches him and bows down at his feet, cringing like a dog. And so, frustrated and exhausted, he looks on this woman from a wealthy region coming to dare ask him, an impoverished Jew, for healing, and he calls her just that. He calls her a dog, and declares her outside his mission to God’s chosen people. The bounty of his mercy is reserved for his own people, who have hard enough lives as it is. For a moment, his tiredness gets the best of him, and he claims that there’s not enough to go around. There’s not enough of Jesus to go around. And here this woman is, a cross between a mosquito and a dog, annoying Jesus with her request and her refusal to be shaken off. Here it is the woman who displays humility and wisdom. Even as he tries to belittle her, to cast her as an outsider and unworthy, still she presses on. Maybe because she is not asking out of need for herself, but need for her beloved daughter. Still bowed down at his feet, she responds immediately: Yes, I may be a dog-- but even dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from the table. And that image of a table is a reminder of the abundance and mercy that Jesus has been proclaiming and enacting just so people won’t miss the point that God’s generosity and love for us is unlimited and life-giving. She reminds Jesus of the same thing our proverbs did: that we are called to be open, and generous with each other, rather than try to draw lines around who is worthy and who is not. Even the wisest people lose sight of what is important from time to time—it’s part of being human. Jesus was fully human too—we are going to say that again in just a few moments in the creed. If Jesus can benefit from a reminder to be more open with others, there’s good news there for us all, as fallible and prone to pride as we can be. Through the woman’s humility, Jesus is reminded that God truly does mean that the table will be wide enough to hold everyone, and that all are not just worthy but are beloved—as beloved when they are in the wrong as when they are in the right. God’s table is open to all, to be accepted, valued, and cared for. And when people feels accepted and valued, they feel secure. And from that security, we can feel brave enough to treat each other with mercy and compassion. This is the purpose God displayed in sending Jesus to us, and in reminding Jesus and us of the wisdom that relationship is woven into the very fabric of our existence. Jesus is opened to that reminder by the woman, and that gift of understanding, of connection, of caring for each other in generosity, grace, and compassion. And that is the beginning of wisdom. Preached at the 10:30 am Eucharist, held online and in person, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville. Readings: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Psalm 125 James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17 Mark 7:24-37