HEBREW SCRIPTURE READING-Ecclesiastes 9: 13-18
I am a recent fan of a television show called Leverage. Last year its second season was actually produced across the river in Portland. The story of the show can be summarized as follows: Nate Ford was once a successful insurance investigator who saved his insurance company millions of dollars by tracking down stolen paintings and the like. When his son became sick, however, his company refused to pay for the treatment that could have saved his son’s life. Fueled with a desire to right wrongs such as the one he experienced, Ford becomes the leader of an elite team of righteous avengers who work on behalf of clients victimized by the corrupt and the greedy.
His team members are former thieves whom he once pursued. All of them have unique talents ranging from computer hacking to contortionist acrobatics. Through elaborate scams strategically masterminded by Ford, they exact their revenge. Among those forced to face the consequences of their wrongdoings are a post-Katrina building contractor who swindles money and homes from residents, a Madoff-like funds manager, and, of course, Ford’s former boss at the insurance company. All of them have used their wealth and influence to operate above the law. In the words of Ford, his team picks up where the law leaves off. They provide the leverage needed for their clients to put an end to the victimizing and obtain compensation for their loss. This usually means a Robin Hood-like pay off for the victims at the expense of the victimizer. The show is essentially a modern day version of the trickster tale. The audience experiences the catharsis of the tables being turned by the shrewd and clever thieves.
I can’t say revenge is Christian, but I rationalize my watching of the show out of appreciation for its implied social criticisms. In one of the early episodes, the head of a private military firm declares that buying a congressman is one of the best investments a company can make. While churches might employ different methods and different conceptions of justice then a gang of former thieves, I do think that part of the work of churches should be to give leverage to the underdogs of the world so that justice can be won. Churches can give leverage by bringing people of diverse talents and abilities together, giving them a community of support and encouragement, providing them with a common mission to make the world a better place, and fostering the values and faith that can sustain them over the long haul.
I think our church and others already do a lot of this. Along with organizations like WHO and FISH, we are able to take meager resources and turn them into food and housing for the homeless. Like decent Christians everywhere, however, many of us probably wish there was more we could do to give leverage to the cause of justice. The desire to do more and be more and accomplish more is the great itch to be scratched. A few of us may have this itch at some point in our lives but then we get tired of it. We grow frustrated of stretching and reaching but never being quite able to scratch it. We feel weak and powerless in the face of so much that seems wrong in the world. And, so the itch becomes more like an irritant we would rather forget. Others of us might not give up, but instead settle for the simple dignity of holding onto our ideals and being a witness regardless of the results. We tell everyone about the great itch but are never able to actually scratch it ourselves.
Beyond how we feel as individuals, there is also the itch that churches and denominations like ours can collectively feel. Take the UCC, for instance. We are not a big denomination. While many of our members tend to be middle and upper class, we do not have much in the way of collective resources compared to more conservative denominations and movements that have television channels and mega churches broadcasting their message everywhere. Simply put, we do not seem to have a lot of leverage. In general, our members have lots of hopes for justice and equality that seem nearby impossible to achieve in a world that skews resources in the other direction.
This is why I find the parable of the poor, forgotten man in our scripture so compelling. He was the one without resources, without money, power, or influence. He was the one who went unrecognized and unappreciated, yet he was the very one who held the key to deliverance from the mighty king and his powerful army as they laid siege to the city. So what was the key that this poor man possessed? Our scripture tells us it was wisdom. So what does that mean? Was he super-smart? Was he the ancient equivalent of a computer nerd? In our present culture, the word “wisdom” often has a variety connotations. For me, it brings to mind an image of Oprah Winfrey writing self-help slogans for fortune cookies.
Wisdom in the Bible actually means lots of different things. In our scripture for today, it implies a form of strategic thinking. The poor man knew how his small, little city could somehow outwit and outmaneuver a massive military force that was clearly the odds on favorite. The poor man was essentially an ancient Nate Ford, a mastermind behind the scenes. The poor man’s wisdom, however, was not the product of sheer brainpower. It was the product of a mind and heart put to the service of the underdog and the cause of righteousness. Wisdom serves what is good and just. In the Bible, wisdom comes from God.
Putting aside the pop psychology of Oprah, I have become a fan of the word “wisdom.” It doesn’t have the class connotations of the word “education.” Education is the great middle class value that is often detached from any real ethical value. Why do middle class people tend to value education? Is it because education is the means by which they secure their position in the hierarchy of class? One gets a “good education” to get a “good job,” and a “good job” is often defined as one that has a “good salary.” Whatever happened to an education that makes one a good citizen, an active, informed participant in society? What about an education that’s more concerned with the common good than the good of the individual? What about an education that fosters a sense of empathy for others rather than a desire to climb over others?
Maybe the word “education” has become too sullied by the rat race. “Wisdom,” on the other hand, seems a bit more pure and humble to me. It’s something that anyone of any class or position in society can have. Wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes, however, is not a super hero elixir that allows the underdogs of society to always come out on top like they do on the show Leverage. One of the great things about the book of Ecclesiastes is its theological realism. Earlier in the chapter from which our scripture reading comes, it tells us that “the same fate” comes to us all whether we are righteous or wicked, good or evil. It doesn’t buy into the idea found elsewhere in the Bible that declares good things happen to good people while the wicked get their just deserts. Instead, it simply encourages us to enjoy the gifts of merriment and love as we can take them. With such a worldview, however, why would one even care about gaining wisdom? At one point, the author of Ecclesiastes even describes the pursuit of wisdom as something akin to chasing wind. It will only make you more vexed, frustrated, and even sad. It’s kind of like trying to scratch that itch. The author, however, still cares about the inhabitants of that small city. The author doesn’t want to see them ruthlessly slaughtered. Despite its limitations, the wisdom of the underdog is still the great hope. One biblical scholar sums up the book’s view as this: “Practical wisdom is not a formula for sure success, but it may yet do some good.”[i]
As I was preparing for my sermon this week, I wanted to find a story that might encourage us to put a little hope in the wisdom of the poor man despite the overwhelming advantage of the rich and powerful in our world. I was reluctant, however, to tell a story that would reinforce what Studs Terkel once called the myth of the “cabdriver-philosopher.”[ii] It is not that wise people do not drive cabs. It’s that there is a tendency to romanticize such humans out of their own humanity. Instead of a story about a solitary cabdriver-philosopher what I instead found was a story about a community learning to be wise. In New York City, only a little more than half of the students who enter high school graduate. Despite such statistics, the School for Democracy and Leadership in Crown Heights decided that it would seek to have its public high school students not only graduate but also become equipped to live as engaged citizens. While the students are being prepared for college, the principal avers that they are also “incredibly steeped in activism.”[iii] She says, “We encourage the students to pick something in the world or the community they want to change and then act on it together.” In fact, every year students must undertake a “change project.” In one project, they “focused on the inadequate funding of New York City public schools.”[iv] They looked at inequities between schools in the state. They probed the causes, studied tax policies, and raised money for a social change organization called Campaign for Fiscal Equity. One of the organization’s victories was a court decision that required that more funding be sent by the state to city schools like the School for Democracy and Leadership. Now that’s leverage.
The School for Democracy and Leadership is a new school. Over 90 percent of the school’s first class graduated. The school that it replaced only graduated 43%.[v] The students, however, are not just getting an old fashioned education. They are getting wisdom. The school’s principal declares that “to be a good citizen means that you have to be always thinking about your responsibility in the world.” Her school focuses on building responsible communities and looking out “for those who do not have power and who don’t have a voice.”[vi] She believes every school should do this. We might say the same for churches. Amen.
[i] C. Leong Seow, “Ecclesiastes,” in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary, ed. by James L. Mays, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000), 470.
[ii] Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), xxiii.
[iii] Andrea Batista Schlesinger, The Death of “Why?”: The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009),135.
[iv] Andrea Batista Schlesinger, “The Power of ‘Why?,’” Yes Magazine, <www.yesmagazine.org/yes/yes/issues/learn-as-you-go/the-power-of-why>.
[v] Schlesinger, The Death of “Why?,” 139.
[vi] Ibid., 136.