Peter Enns points out that in Proverbs 26:4-5 you find two very interesting, diametrically opposed verses which appear right next to each other…
They read as follows in the NIV Bible...
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Isn’t that fascinating? Two verses right next to each other that give diametrically opposed advice.
Which verse is right? Which verse should we follow? If we follow the one verse, won’t we be going against the advice of the other, and vice-versa.
But Peter Enns suggests another approach: What if, under different circumstances, both verses are right. But it takes wisdom to know when to follow the advice in the one proverb, and when to follow the other proverb.
And this is the complexity of living with wisdom in the world. Sometimes under certain circumstances a set of actions may be right. But under different circumstances those same actions may in fact be wrong or inappropriate. In one situation it might be important to hold one’s tongue. But in another it might be important to speak. And it is only wisdom that will help to know the difference.
And so Peter Enns believes that in these two verses in Proverbs we get a micro-scopic view of the way the whole Bible works. Instead of providing simple and ready-made answers for living, learning to navigate the complexity of the Bible helps us to learn to humbly navigate the complexity of life itself where sometimes things are not as black and white as we would like them to be.
Take for example Jesus teaching in the sermon on the mount where Jesus says “Let your yes be yes and let your no be no.” It is a verse that seems pretty straightforward, encouraging us to conduct ourselves in the world with a clear and transparent honesty and not with duplicity.
But what would happen if you were transported back in time to Nazi Germany and your Jewish friend had come for refuge to you at your house because he or she was being hunted down by the Gestapo. When the Gestapo knock on your door and ask you are you hiding a Jew in your house, do you say “Yes, come right in and arrest him?” Or out of an attempt to protect the life of your Jewish friend, do you say “No! There is no Jew hiding in my house.”
It is a very extreme case, but it illustrates the point that while on the whole, it is wise and good in life to let your yes be yes and to let your no be no, there are shades of complexity that sometimes we need to navigate, when letting our yes be yes and our no be no, is not always the proper thing to do.
Reading the Bible invites us into a world of complexity that will over-time teach us how to navigate the complexity of the world with greater wisdom, and humility. And I use the word humility alongside the word wisdom, because to be truly wise is to acknowledge that I could also be wrong.
And so when you read the Bible in its entirety and take note of the detail, you will discover that rather than simply reading a completely uniform set of ideas, at times you are invited to enter a world of ancient Jewish debate.
One of the big debates that takes place across the New Testament is the relationship between faith and works. Paul had come to the conclusion that good works could not put you right with God, because human beings are incapable of consistently doing good works. And so Paul comes to the conclusion from his own life experience that we are not saved by good works, but rather by faith and trust in God’s saving grace made known in Jesus. As you can imagine, there is a danger in the position of Paul, and even Paul saw that some Christians used his argument to say that it no longer mattered how you acted as long as you had faith. Across the pages of the New Testament as a counter-balance to the words of the Apostle Paul, you hear the counter voice of the book of James that “Faith without works is dead.”
And one of the great debates that rages across the books of the Bible is the question: “Who can belong to the people of God?”
In Deuteronomy there are very clear instructions that certain people are to be excluded from among the people of God:
Eunuch’s, men who have been emasculated, may not be part of the people of God. Certain races and nationalities, the Moabites and the Ammonites are not to included within the people of God.
In Leviticus, there is a list of people excluded from the serving God as priests which includes people with defects of various kinds. People with skin defects, eye defects, crippled limbs, hunch-backs, dwarf’s, and the list goes on.
And yet across the pages of scripture, we find that in various places and in various ways, other writers have come to different conclusions about many of these exclusions that were enshrined in some of these very laws.
In the story of Ruth the Moabite, as she follows her mother-in-law Naomi with those moving words, “...your God will be my God, your people will be my people...”, it becomes apparent that detested Moabites in the laws of Deuteronomy can in fact be included in the people of God.
In Isaiah 56:3 Isaiah comes to the same conclusion, contrary to his own scripture in Deuteronomy: “Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain ‘I am only a dry tree’”. According to Isaiah, there is nothing to prevent a foreigner or a eunuch from being included in the people of God. This is reiterated in the books of Acts, where we discover that an Ethiopian eunuch can indeed be incorporated into the people of Jesus as he is baptised by Philip on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
What is interesting is that nowhere in Scripture do we find those laws excluding people with defects explicitly overturned in Scripture. We have had to come to that conclusion ourselves based on an intuitive sense of the spirit of Jesus who treated all people with equal dignity and respect.
Perhaps we find this supported also in the story of David 1 Samuel 16, where the author suggests to us that God does not judge by outward appearance, but rather God looks at the heart. Maybe, contrary to the perspective of the writer of Leviticus, God is not so concerned about our outward defects as the book of Leviticus suggests. Maybe God is really only truly concerned about what is happening in our hearts.
And so being a good Christian is not simply learning the Bible by heart and learning to quote selected verses to try and end the debate on contentious issues. but rather it is about learning to discern the spirit of Jesus. And to learn to discern the spirit in which Jesus lived, is an invitation to humbly enter into the complexity of the Bible and to seek to navigate that complexity with wisdom and humility as a way of training us to navigate the complexity of life with similar wisdom and humility.
In 1 Cor 1:30 The Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus as having become, for us, the Wisdom of God. In other words, Jesus is an embodiment of God’s Wisdom. In the humanity of Jesus, God’s Wisdom is made manifest within the complexity of human life and living. When we learn to navigate the complexity of the Bible and the complexity of life with humility and wisdom, we become followers of Jesus who became the Wisdom of God for us.
When In John’s Gospel we hear the words of Jesus: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” we are being invited to see that the truth is not something that can be captured in words on a page. Instead, truth is ultimately something that is incarnated in a person. Truth needs to be embodied and lived in the world. It is a Way… that brings life. It is a Way of Living in the complexity of this world that brings life to ourselves and others. It is about learning to live courageously. honestly, compassionately and wisely. All qualities that we find in Jesus whose life was an embodiment of the Way, an embodiment of Truth, and an embodiment of Life. Jesus thus becomes for us the Wisdom of God incarnate that the Wisdom, the Way, the Truth and the Life of God might also become incarnate, or embodied, within us.