One morning, while in Guatemala, we set out on a pre-breakfast hike. We met our guide, Moises, at 6 a.m., at the gate of our hotel. As we headed through the streets to the far side of town, all was quiet except for the crowing of roosters and the barking of stray dogs. The good smells of breakfast cooking mingled with the other not-so-good smells. The climb was steep but not too long. The sweeping vista at the top included San Lucas Tolimán and surrounding villages, Lake Atitlan, and the green volcanoes that rise from its shore.
On the way down, we crossed paths with several Mayan men. With machetes swinging from their belts and hoes in their hands, they were clearly headed for a day of labor in their coffee fields. When we stepped aside to the edge of the path to let them pass, they would pause to say “Buenos Dias.” We would ask them about their work. And in turn they would inquire what we were up to. Before they continued their slow and steady climb, they would reach out a hand, clasping our hands in theirs. “God bless you,” we would say to each other.
The Book of Proverbs is a collection of short, pithy sayings, folk wisdom passed down from one generation to the next, through the culture. For example, in the first chapter of Proverbs: “Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching; for they are a fair garland for your head, and pendants for your neck.” (Proverbs 1: 8-9) Professor Wil Gafney explains that,
In Biblical Hebrew, wisdom is as much technical expertise or craft(wo)manship as it is intellectual knowledge. I tell my students that it is heart-and-hand knowledge. . . . The women (Exodus 35:26) and men (Exodus 31:6) who craft the Tabernacle in the wilderness are all called wise; if Israel keeps the Torah [that is, if they observe the law that guides daily living] they will be a ‘wise and understanding people.’ . . . The wise woman [in the book of Samuel] who led her city seems to be the governing official who saves her people from certain death by shrewd and lethal political dealing. So wisdom is craft: statecraft, Torah-craft craftwomanship, craftsmanship and craftiness.”
Indeed, this morning’s passage from Proverbs portrays wisdom as a strong and hands-on craftswoman with an impressive array of skills. “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.” The house wisdom builds herself is a grand structure. The seven pillars she carves out of wood or stone suggest a temple or a banquet hall. In Chapter 8 of Proverbs, wisdom plays the role of God’s partner in creation. Ancient cosmology imagined that the earth was set up above the sea on pillars. And seven is of course a sacred number—there are seven days of creation; the seventh day is the Sabbath, the holy day of rest and renewal. So wisdom’s seven-pillared house may in fact be a reference to the earth itself, both our home and God’s temple. The clear purpose of wisdom’s house is hospitality. There is no limit to the number of guests; anyone who passes by is invited to come in. The feast is abundant; the provision of meat suggests a meal far beyond the means of an ordinary person in the ancient world.
What I hear in this text is that wisdom is the craft of right relationship, the heart-and-hand-knowledge that allows us to build and sustain community, both locally and globally. In many cultures, hospitality is expressed through food. The food that we share at the table is both concrete and spiritual. The extravagance of wisdom’s feast is a metaphor for the value of our gift of time and attention, for the richness of truly being present to each other. In my experience, the Mayan cultures in Guatemala are wise in this sense. The greetings that people exchange are not just an empty custom; they are heartfelt and important, even sacred. It’s almost never just “hola!”; it’s also “Buenos Dias.” “Buenos tardes,” or “Buenos noches.”
The slower pace of life in San Lucas, and the way people seem to prioritize relationship, always causes me to reflect. Things move so fast here. We seem to have very little time for the building and nurturing of community. I’m not trying to romanticize life in Guatemala. It is very hard, harder than it should be. There are many problems—lack of adequate work, poverty, alcoholism, ecological destruction. At the same time, being given a window into cultures in which, generally, people place a higher value on community makes me aware that in our culture we seem to be losing touch with this wisdom, with this skill, with this heart and hand knowledge. And I realize I am grieving this loss. I am longing to slow down my schedule and simplify my needs, to be less isolated and more connected, to relate to people more deeply and intentionally.
I am longing for my country to be a place where we welcome our neighbors with grace and curiosity instead of demonizing and deporting them. I am longing for powerful people and institutions to stop abusing children, exploiting the poor and sustaining racist systems. I am longing for us, together, to practice truth-telling and repentance, to commit ourselves to the material and spiritual changes that will move us toward equity. As wildfires blaze and smoke fills our skies, I am longing for us to act together to honor and protect what is sacred to us—the earth—our home and God’s house.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus, like woman wisdom, hosts a meal. He doesn’t bother, though, with building a house or hewing pillars, with mixing wine or cooking food. He simply sets a table with his own body. He offers us his flesh and blood to eat and drink. This sounds like a reference to the communion meal. It sounds like one side of a centuries-old argument about what happens in the Eucharist. Does the bread and wine actually turn into Jesus? Is Jesus really present? Is it a meal of deep remembrance? We could rehash these old arguments. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus hoped we would do.
The sixth chapter of John is all about Jesus feeding people: with actual bread, and with heavenly bread. There is a shift that happens in Jesus’ vocabulary in the course of this chapter. Until we reach the section for today, Jesus uses a common and polite word for eating, esthio. New Testament Professor Brian Peterson explains that beginning in verse 54, Jesus chooses “a less common word, trogo, . . . a word that has a connotation closer to ‘munch’ or gnaw,’ a graphic word of noisy eating, the sort of eating an animal does.”
In other words, as Jesus seeks to get his point across to the confused crowd, the defiant religious leaders and the skeptical disciples, his language grows more and more visceral, more intimate, and more urgent. Take me into yourself, body and spirit. It reminds me of the old song on public TV: “You are what you eat from your head down to your feet/Yes you are what swallow, so the next time you feel hollow/don’t just fill your face with any old kind of treat!” If we are going find the wisdom, learn the craft, absorb the heart and hand knowledge we need within our own tradition and culture, then perhaps “believing in” Jesus is not enough. What if, rather than holding him at a skeptical, analytical distance, we consume him, taking him into ourselves wholeheartedly? How might having a flesh and blood Jesus inside of us give us the nourishment we need to navigate our time? Would we be changed? Would we live together differently—if we chewed and swallowed and digested Jesus’ parables and teachings, his compassion and justice and hope, his washing and weeping, his cross carrying and touching of untouchables, his dying and rising? Would this intimate relationship with Jesus fulfill our longings and bring healing to our grief? Would it mend the body—the body of creation, the body of humanity God’s own body?
My friends, let us come to the table. Let us taste and see. Amen.