New Sermon: “Wisdom Is Vindicated by Her Deeds” (Matthew 11)

“Each of our diverse ways of being the word will ultimately be tested by the fruit — the results — of our efforts, for what make a difference in this world is ultimately not the words shouted back and forth between adults acting like children on a playground, but our acts of loving-kindness toward one another — for ‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’”

Wisdom Is Vindicated by Her Deeds

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg        

24 July 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” 

Matthew 11:16-19

Before we dive into today’s scripture reading, I would like to invite us to take a brief step backward and briefly survey the larger terrain of Matthew. The beginning of Matthew 11 is one of those perfect places to see, again, some of the peculiarities that makes this book, not just any generic Gospel, but The Gospel According to Matthew.

Specifically, I have mentioned previously that Matthew made an editorial decision to present Jesus’ teachings in five distinct sections to draw a parallel between Jesus and Moses — adding to the many other parallels we have seen Matthew draw between Jesus and Moses throughout this Gospel. Here in chapter 11 we see evidence of the second set of these five blocks of Jesus’ teachings. In verse, we read that, “[W]hen Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.” This verse, especially the word “finished,” signals that the second large set of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s Gospel ended last week at the conclusion of Matthew 10.

We first saw similar words to these at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:28, “[W]hen Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching.” And as we continue through Matthew’s Gospel we will see similar phrasing three more times: first, in Matthew 13:53, “When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place”; then in Matthew 19:1, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee…”; and finally in Matthew 26:1, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples….”  In the fourth-century and again in the late Middle Ages when various systems were applied to divide the biblical writings into chapters and later into verses, scholars looked for internal markers such as these to help them construct logical outlines and section headings for the Bible. So, we see here both the evidence of Matthew’s editorial hand and some of the decisions that shaped how the Gospel was told according to Matthew — which, as we have seen, is quite distinct from the different editorial decisions made by Mark, Luke, John, and other Gospel writers.

Turning to our focal passage for this morning, I invite you to listen to this Gospel lesson again, but this time as reconstructed by the International Q Project. The International Q Project is a cooperative effort by a group of scholars to reconstruct some of the earliest strata of the sayings attributed to the historical Jesus. Some of you may recall that the initial Q is the first letter in the German word Quelle, which means “Source.” And Q is the shorthand abbreviation for the approximately 200 verses that Matthew and Luke share almost verbatim that are not in Mark.

The vast majority of New Testament scholars believe that the Gospel According to Mark was written first. And that when Matthew and Luke were composing their respective Gospels, they had on their desks a copy of Mark and a copy of Q, which was, for the most part a list of Jesus’ sayings. From a different angle, Matthew and Luke did not know each other’s work (and John came later), but they did both know Mark and Q. Q is a hypothetical document that has been reconstructed to explain how it happened that there are more than 200 verses which Matthew and Luke share almost verbatim that are not in Mark.

As you may have surmised, our focal verse for this morning is also found in a very similar verse in Luke 7:35 because all of the verses in Q are in both Matthew and Luke, and the International Q Project has sought to make their best educated guess as a committee as to the earlier version that appeared in Q by comparing the verses we have in Matthew and Luke and taking into account Matthew’s and Luke’s editorial styles. For instance, we can see the many instances that Matthew and Luke have changed Mark in particular ways: Matthew consistency changes Mark in some distinctive ways and Luke consistently changes Mark in other distinctive ways. We don’t have time to explore all of these particulars today, but suffice it to say that you can uses these patterns to extrapolate the ways that Matthew and Luke likely altered Q, and then use that knowledge to reconstruct Q.

With that perspective in mind, the following is our scripture for this morning as reconstructed by the International Q Project:

To what do I compare this generation and what is it like? It is like children seated in the market places, who, addressing the others, say: “We fluted for you, but you would not dance; we sang a dirge, but you would not cry.” For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and you say: “He has a demon!” The son of humanity came eating and drinking, and you say: “Look! A person [who is] a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” But Sophia is vindicated by [all] her children.

I’m particularly interested in this Q reconstruction because they translate the concluding sentence “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” as “ Sophia is vindicated by [all] her children.”

First the choice to translate “Wisdom” as “Sophia” recalls that the Greek word for wisdom is sophia, as in our word philosophy, which means “love of wisdom” (philiasophia). More importantly, this translation alludes to two curious sections from the book of Proverbs. The first is from Proverbs 8, which says,

God created me [Wisdom/Sophia] at the beginning of God’s work, the first of God’s acts of long ago. 23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth — 26 when God had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. 27 When God established the heavens, I was there, when God drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when God made firm the skies above, when God established the fountains of the deep, 29 when God assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress God’s command, when God marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, 31 rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race. 32 “And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.

These verses sounds a lot like the first chapter of John, which talks about the preexistent Christ: “1 In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” But in Proverbs that Greek word Sophia is a translation of the Hebrew word hokmah, which is feminine.

The next chapter, Proverbs 9:1-6 also speaks of a personified female Wisdom/Sophia:

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. 2 She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. 3 She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, 4 “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, 5 “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. 6 Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.

To me, these verses are especially interesting because they parallel the Eucharistic imagery of Jesus’ own meal practice of bread and wine — and of finding wisdom through common table fellowship. Perhaps these verses were in Paul’s mind in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, where he speaks of “Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom [Sophia] of God.”

Remember that “Christ” isn’t Jesus’ last name; it is the title of “Messiah” or “Anointed One” that was over time attributed to him by some of his followers. So here in 1 Corinthians perhaps we are seeing Paul trying to subtly attribute some of those attributes of Sophia onto Jesus as well. Perhaps here you can also begin to see some of the motivation behind the choice of Jann Aldredge-Clanton in the hymn we looked at earlier to include the unusual term “Christ-Sophia” in her hymnody.

Returning to our focal scripture, New Testament scholar Melanie Johnson-Debaufre makes a persuasive case in her book Jesus Among Her Children regarding the verses we have seen above about Sophia from the Hebrew Scriptures as well the concluding verse of our scripture today that, “Sophia is vindicated by [all] her children.”

She argues that we need to hear these verses antiphonally, as if it is literally, as Jesus says, “like children seated in the market places, who, addressing the others, say….” We can be tempted to read it simply as one long saying by a group of children, but she reminds us that an oral culture might be much more likely to hear it as two groups speaking back and forth, in turn, at one another:

Group A: We fluted (+) and you did not dance (-)

Group B: We sang a dirge (-) and you did not mourn (+)

Group A: For John came not eating and drinking (-) and you say he has a demon (-)

Group B: The son of humanity came and you say he is a glutton eating and drinking (+) and a drunkard (-)

And these two groups, much like the extremists among the Democrats and Republicans in our nation’s current debt ceiling debate, who both insist on hearing each other in the least generous and least charitable way possible. Group A does something positive by fluting beautiful, joyous music, but Group B just sits there negatively and does not dance. Group B then sings a dirge after some tragic event, but Group A, perhaps still spiteful from having their music spurned, refuses to mourn with them. When it is Group A’s turn again, they remind Group B that John the Baptizer came living a spartan, ascetic lifestyle, eating locusts and honey and living in the desert wearing camel hair, but Group A refused to see the good in what John was doing and said, “He has a demon!” So Group B reminds Group A that when Jesus came eating and drinking and trying to invite others to an abundant life of sharing, Group B accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard.

Having laid out this scene of these two groups of children — or perhaps, better, two groups of adults in “this generation” acting like petulant children — we are now prepared to see Johnson-Debaufre’s most important point. She invites us to take the next step from considering what the Q Gospel we referred to earlier looks like (those more than 200 verses of Jesus’ saying that Matthew and Luke share) and consider what community this Q Gospel may have originally been composed for.

Remember that Mark wasn’t written until around 70 CE, almost forty years after the historical Jesus. Matthew and Luke did write until a decade after Mark. But the Q Gospel was perhaps compiled much earlier since it was just a written list of Jesus’ sayings, not a full-fledged narrative.

So Johnson-Debaufre invites us to consider that irrespective of how this saying or some version of this saying was spoken by the historical Jesus, we can perhaps speak with greater confidence about how this saying may have functioned in the community of Jesus followers for whom Q was originally compiled. And specifically the point may have been that in the wake of Jesus’ death, we all need to find a way to work together despite our diversity. Yes, there will be times that some want to dance at the same time that others want to mourn. And yes there are those that preferred the apocalyptic, ascetic way of John the Baptizer more than Jesus’ style of eating and drinking with everyone, whether friends, strangers, or enemies. But we all need to work together if God’s vision of the Beloved Community — what Jesus called the “kingdom of God” — is going to have any chance of becoming a reality in this world dominated by the violence of the Roman Empire. And, indeed, “Sophia is vindicated by [all] her children.” We need all of us: the dancers and the mourners, the John-followers and the Jesus-followers. After all, there is the old story of the sage warning the young man, “You do not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.” So we must look to wisdom wherever we can find it, even in the most unexpected places. We need all the wisdom that all of us together can muster.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. argued in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” And each of our diverse ways of being the word will ultimately be tested by the fruit — the results — of our efforts, for what make a difference in this world is ultimately not the words shouted back and forth between children on a playground, but our acts of loving-kindness toward one another, for “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”


1 The International Q Project —see James Robinson, Paul Hoffmann, and John S. Kloppenborg, The Critical Edition of Q: A Synopsis Including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark and Thomas With English, German and French Translations of Q…and Historical Commentary on the Bible). For a much more accessible introduction to Q, see John S. Kloppenborg, Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus.

2 Sophia — see also the apocryphal book Wisdom 7:22-8:1, “22 for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, 23 beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. 24 For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. 25 For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. 26 For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. 27Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; 28 for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. 29 She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, 30 for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. 1 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.”

3 Christ-Sophia — see Jann Aldredge-Clanton and Larry E. Schultz, Inclusive Hymns for Liberating Christians. See also Jann Aldredge-Clanton, In Search of the Christ-Sophia: An Inclusive Christology for Liberating Christians.

4 Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, Jesus among Her Children: Q, Eschatology, and the Construction of Christian Origins (Harvard Theological Studies).

5 Oral Culture — Johnson-DeBaufre, 53-54.

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to New Sermon: “Wisdom Is Vindicated by Her Deeds” (Matthew 11)

  1. Jack Stanley says:

    Carl.. where is your church? I just live down the road and am a chaplain at Andrews AFB… This is a great breakdown of the wrestle match. I took a spin into the hebrew and find this is a demon that is wrestling with Jacob.. Elohim later blesses the blessing and the name.. I’d never heard that before, and not sure what to do with it come Sunday.. any ideas?

  2. Pingback: Carl Gregg » Confronting the Unconscious: From Supernatural to Natural Spirituality