Wisdom is saying some weird things, and quite publicly too.
In my tradition, we follow the semi-continuous readings from the Old Testament as outlined in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Season After Pentecost. Unlike the lectionary readings during such seasons as Easter and Christmas, the first reading and psalm are not chosen to jive with the readings from the New Testament. But there is a certain convergence in these readings for this coming Sunday, which is perhaps not so surprising given that they are all biblical texts.
In the reading from Proverbs, Wisdom cries out to the people from very public places—the street, the public squares, the busiest corner, and the entrance of the city gates. She yells at them for choosing to be stupid. She begs them to listen to her. She warns that she will laugh at them when calamity comes, as it is sure to if they continue to ignore her. By focusing on their own understanding, they have become simple, scoffing fools. Psalm 19 eloquently backs her up.
Christians, of course, understand Jesus to be the embodied Divine Wisdom. Wisdom, there from the beginning of Creation, now walks amongst us, and can get just as frustrated (Mark 8: 18-21, 32-33, 9:19). And now, just over half way through the Season After Pentecost—a season of deeply lived out discipleship—we hear Jesus telling his disciples and the crowd quite openly what is at the heart of it all:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross
and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their
life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)
“…let them deny themselves and take up their cross…”
This is where it gets weird. Because this message doesn’t seem like it could sell any better in first century Palestine than it will in twenty-first century North America. Crosses were a horror to both Hebrews and Romans. Deuteronomy 21:23’s “for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” would be foremost in the minds of Jesus’ contemporaries, while the Roman practice of crucifying the lowest of the low would also spring to mind. Jesus has already had to rebuke Peter in the strongest terms for his inability to see that the Messiah would have to undergo suffering, rejection, and death. Peter’s way of seeing things has invoked Satan, the Tempter.
And what does it mean for us as present-day disciples to take up our cross? Getting this right is vital. Thankfully, Jesus has already given us a clue: “let them deny themselves…”
In the story of the Fall, when Eve and Adam ironically see that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was desired to make one wise and they eat of it, the first thing they become aware of is themselves. And when God asks them if they have disobeyed his commandment not to eat the fruit of this tree, both of them attempt to protect themselves by blaming others—Adam throws both God and Eve under the bus, while Eve accuses the serpent. The sin of disobedience, which has caused a separation in the relationship between God and humans, has led to a narcissistic awareness of the self, and the sins begin to pile up.
The good news is that Wisdom does not abandon us completely to our own devices. Denying ourselves is about recognizing and trusting the healing that Jesus has brought to our separation from God. We no longer need to worry about protecting ourselves. “Be not afraid,” after all, is the most frequent command in the Bible.
“…and follow me.”
Now we can recognize that in Christ we are freed from ourselves, so that we can take up our cross. Jesus’ cross was a burden we placed on him. He took it up and followed it through to his death. His resurrection proclaims that violence and death will not put an end to what God is up to in and for the beloved world. Jesus shows us the Way, Jesus becomes the Way, that we might not end in calamity.
Our individual crosses, our churches’ crosses, our nations’ crosses, the world’s crosses, are about putting our need for protection aside (it’s already assured after all in Christ) and taking up the suffering and burdens of others. This is about taking up our responsibilities as disciples, as parents, as children, as seekers of justice and mercy. It is about being a reliable source of trust.
Despite the shame of the cross, Jesus took it up for us all. Let us set our minds on divine things. North America, even the world, is craving cross-bearers. May it be so.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)