Year A, 4th Sunday in Epiphany
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ … For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19,25).
How many stories do you know in which the one thought foolish, the youngest with no experience, the weakest or smallest, the one labeled the simpleton, is in the end the wise one? This motif resounds throughout the folk literature of the world. And it occurs in scripture. It is David, the youngest and the shepherd boy, who is anointed king and defeats the giant. It is Jacob, the younger brother, from whom Israel descends. It is Israel itself, a small besieged, enslaved, oppressed tribe of people who bears God’s story of salvation for the nations. A peasant rabbi becomes the leader of a movement bringing God’s healing, deliverance and justice to God’s people and is executed for his message of love. Yet returns from the grave to conquer death. God turns things topsy-turvy to accomplish God’s purposes!
Our texts this week are full of the topsy-turvy and scandalous wisdom of God. Wisdom that the world does not initially recognize but desperately needs. Wisdom that is born of the vulnerability and mystery of faith dwelling in community rather than the certitude of control and power over one another. Micah admonishes the people with the reminder that God does not want our material wealth as offering but the wealth of our hearts in love and the work of our hands in justice. The psalmist speaks of those who” walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; … who fear the LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt …”(Psalm 15:2,4b). In Matthew, Jesus gives the crowds beatitudes, blessings, that lift up the lowly in class and heart as well as those persecuted for following God’s topsy-turvy ways. None of our texts this week “make sense” in light of the power-hungry certitude of the world. They only make sense in light of God’s empowering love and justice. And they are messages our world desperately needs!
There is a great wealth of stories in folk literature that lift up the wisdom of the “seemingly” lowly. I bet you know some already. Many of them might also correspond with a folktale motif, “trickster tales,” such as coyote tales from the Southwestern US and Br’er Rabbit Tales from the Southern US. There is a genre of Appalachian tales, Jack tales, that descend from Scottish and English folklore. Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the most famous. Jack “foolishly” trades his cow for a bag of magic beans the ultimately lead him to providing for himself and his mother for the rest of their lives.
- https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/eco-catholic/nasruddin-and-his-donkey-tales-holy-fool (picture from this website)
There are three other tales I want to recommend, all from the European tradition of folk stories. The first is new to me. In the story, “The Cleverest Fool,” a king is despairing of his son’s ability to learn to govern the kingdom. He sends the prince out on a journey through the world to see what he can learn. As his money wanes the prince makes three seemingly foolish purchases. Yet in the long run they gain him his father’s respect and a new kingdom. In a story titled “The Value of Salt, “ or sometimes “Love as Salt,” a king learns the preciousness of salt and of his youngest daughter’s love.
Finally I recommend a beautiful children’s picture book written by Marian Singer, “The Golden Heart of Winter.” It’s illustrations by Robert Rayevsky are exquisite. In this story three brothers set out on a quest to discover the golden heart of winter. Whoever returns with it will inherit their father’s smithy. The two older brothers do not want to take the youngest, whose name is Half(wit). But the father insists. And it is this young man, who is kind and persistent, who eventually retrieves the golden heart from the clutches of Death. And in offering his own heart to the quest, the return of Spring is empowered and Death is defeated.
Blessings on your story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please find and tell the stories!