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Blending Salt and Spice, Joining Wisdom and Prophecy

by Belden C. Lane

Belden C. Lane is professor of theological studies and American studies at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri. This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 10, 1989, p. 499. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We sat on benches made of wood planks laid over gallon paint cans. A single light bulb dangled from a thin wire in the middle of the room. Our Lady of Guadalupe gazed from a worn and yellowed picture on the opposite wall. My first experience in a Christian base community was with believers living in a poor neighborhood two hours south of Mexico City. Faces I had expected to impress me by their poverty were tired, but proud and alert. The strong hands of a potter held a Bible open to the Gospel of Luke. Limestone workers with dirty jeans listened as he read. The brightly embroidered dress of a child sleeping nearby gave color and dignity to the room. This was obviously a community that did not understand itself to be impoverished. When a grandmother suggested taking up a collection for the "poor people" in El Salvador, no one found it ironic.

What is it in the experience of Latin American Christians that allows such a community to celebrate wholeness in the midst of "deprivation"? Why are visitors from the U.S. always surprised by the hope they find among the poor? As Robert McAfee Brown, says, it is truly "unexpected news" that First World Christians discover in the faith of Latin Americans. These Christians are open to the totality of biblical experience in a way that has been lost to many of us. Given their consciousness of themselves and the world in which they live, they are able to join biblical traditions that would seem to us irreconcilable.

We find sharp differences, for example, in the biblical motifs of prophecy and wisdom. The one is usually associated with poverty, the other with wealth. Solomon seems to have little in common with Amos. The biblical metaphors that represent these two traditions are salt and spice -- an unlikely match. We are more accustomed to speaking of "sugar and spice . . . and everything nice." Yet, comfortable as that may sound, it simply isn’t consistent with our biblical inheritance. Third World Christians teach us about a much deeper connection between the salt of prophecy and the spice of wisdom.

Salt is often associated in Scripture with judgment, calling to mind the salty sweat and tears of the poor (Eccles. 4:1; Ps. 80:4). Paired with brimstone, it warns that the justice of Yahweh is forgotten only at great peril (Deut. 29:23). Salt, of course, is not simply a flavoring for one’s food, but the means of survival for those who labor all day in the heat of the sun (Eccles. 39:26) Gandhi made use of the image in his celebrated Salt March to the sea in 1930. He knew that the ministry of prophecy is always a salty one -- provocative, marginal, given to tears. It stands in solidarity with the disinherited.

By contrast, spice is associated in the Bible with wisdom and royalty. It speaks of extravagance, wealth and splendor (II Chron. 9:9). To be blessed with spice is to experience life in all its expansiveness, overflowing with abundance and largesse. Spice symbolizes the sacramental goodness of the world, the oils and fragrances of love (Song of Sol. 5:1 f.) , the beauty of an oriental garden with its blossoms and beds of aromatic herbs (Song of Sol. 6:2 f.) Spice, frankincense and myrrh represent a life comfortably rooted in the land, partaking of the opulence of the king. How, then, can such disparate metaphors -- the harsh simplicity of salt and the leisured elegance of spice -- ever interrelate?

The two form a necessary corrective to each other. Wisdom speaks to prophecy and prophecy to wisdom. Indeed, the two experiences sometimes intertwine. Marginal peoples, barely surviving, can be found reaching for beauty as well as justice. First World peoples like ourselves, in the midst of surfeited plenty, are drawn back inexplicably to the rudiments of a primitive wholeness. The fullness of human createdness demands attention to both the sublime and the elemental (see, for example, Walter Brueggeman, Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom [Pilgrim, 1982], pp. 27-36) .

Liberation theologies from Latin America, Asia and Africa have in recent years offered important and painful gifts of prophecy to Christians in Europe and North America. We have heard their clear witness to the Bible’s demands for economic justice, the self-determination of peoples and God’s preferential option for the poor. We have recognized the gospel in their lives and words. Yet we middle-class citizens, dependent upon shopping malls, mortgages and school board decisions, haven’t known how to understand our royalty and wisdom in light of these prophetic proclamations. We have felt a vague sense of uneasiness and guilt; we know we are not necessarily called to the mountain villages of Honduras, but we don’t know how to justify our experience of blessing and stability.

This is the great dis-ease, the sad irony, of Christianity in the developed West. Surrounded by so many social and economic benefits, we fail to achieve the wisdom they should engender. We lack the capacity to celebrate, or even to make good use of, all that we have. If Third World Christians are able to share the gifts of prophecy, one might hope that First World Christians could offer wisdom in exchange. After all, it is in the U.S. and Europe that the wealth and leisure necessary for reflection is possible for many. We have the governmental structures, financial assets, health care and cultural advantages that could occasion the triumph of wisdom, but have lost the capacity to find meaning and to take pleasure in any of these things.

This was also the case with Solomon in the tenth century before Christ. Solomon was blessed with all the appurtenances of wisdom, yet its full appreciation eluded him. The Preacher (Koheleth) came to recognize, in the unforeseen weariness of prosperity, that all was vanity. In the ancient world a paradoxical relationship existed between royalty and wisdom. The stability of the kingdom made possible the sages’ contemplation, yet royal values had a way of undermining the force of wisdom. Solomon the wise became known for his oppressiveness, his policy of forced labor, his self-aggrandizement (I Kings 5:13) . In the political corridors of Jerusalem, the international spirit of wisdom could be bent to the purposes of expediency and explotation. Court wisdom could degenerate into yesmanship, serving the centers of entrenched power. Knowing "who" could become -more important than knowing "why"; doing well could take precedence over doing good. Hence the dynasty of the wisest king of ancient Israel gave way to the political rebellion of Jeroboam (I Kings 11) (see James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, John Knox, 1981) .

True wisdom, then, is not guaranteed to those whose background may be most conducive to it. Third World peoples may be in a position today to teach us not only the rugged lessons of prophecy, but also the genteel and humane insights of wisdom. Only by getting outside of ourselves and our narrow consumerist vision can we discover the world of good that is ours. The genius of wisdom can never be fully realized apart from the critical discernment of prophecy.

This experience drove me to look more carefully at the biblical traditions of wisdom and prophecy. The more dominant prophetic tradition in the Old Testament is grounded in the experience of precariousness. This tradition concerns a faith in relentless motion -- on the road from Egypt, through the wilderness, out of Canaan and into exile, searching always, but never finding a home. Its God is a mobile God, leading with a fierce freedom and unexpected deliverance. This is a God who is free to answer the cry of slaves, speaking for those who have no other voice.

In Mexico I met prophets who had been beaten for their stand on labor rights, and others who had escaped from Guatemala to tell of incredible conditions on the coastal plantations. Theirs was a hope in the apocalyptic justice of a sovereign God. Their faith required a profound rejection of the world as it is, a longing for a kingdom not yet come. Like all prophets, they used poetry, the "psalmic language" of petition and lament. This is a language of brokenness, pointing to what is dying in their midst as well as what is trying to be born.

The tradition of wisdom does not contradict prophecy, but it views God and the world from a different perspective. It emerges from a context of prosperity, where the celebration of the good life looms more prominently than the distribution of necessary goods. In Israel under the United Monarchy and later after the return from Babylon, life was rich and full for many. They needed wise management and festive celebration. The wise sought guidance in the natural order of creation itself, in the visible workings of a stable world. Their theology was rooted in human experience and observation, attentive to the ways of nature and the solace of tradition. In Latin America, such persons have included those who tell of ancient Mayan greatness, old grandmothers with their colorful needlework and health-care workers who retain wisdom about the use of traditional herbs and medicines.

Wisdom does not look for another world to break into history; it accepts the present age. Its image of God is not the strong Father intruding into human affairs by his mighty acts, but is rather the nurturing Mother, Sophia, who embraces stability and enhances relationships (Wisd. of Sol. 7:24 f.) The language of wisdom consists of proverbs and precepts, riddles and wise sayings passed down from parent to child. To be wise is to be instructed in the folkways of the grandmothers and grandfathers.

At their best, these two traditions live in tension but not conflict. The creative imagination of the one requires the sober and joyous caveats of the other. Full access to the treasures of wisdom depends on a spare, prophetic simplicity; the power of prophecy draws strength from its vision of the good life.

An interesting story is told of Dorothy Day, a woman whose life was marked by prophetic simplicity, and yet who loved nothing so much as books, opera and the fine touch of knit wool. Someone once donated a diamond ring to the Catholic Worker community, and instead of using it to buy soup for a month or more, Dorothy gave it to an old woman who lived in a tenement down the street. She explained that the woman’s dignity was important. She could choose to use the ring to help pay her rent, to take a trip to the Bahamas, or even to keep for her own enjoyment. "Do you suppose," Day asked, "that God created diamonds only for the rich?" (Robert Ellsberg, editor, By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, Knopf, 1983, pp. xl-xli) Jesus makes the same point in Matthew 26:6-13. The woman with the alabaster jar of spice had "done a beautiful thing," he said, in anointing the sweaty brow of a poor man on his way to death. Biblical faith insists that the sheer goodness of life is, ironically, most often discovered in the extremities of life.

Indeed, themes in wisdom literature appear with surprising clarity in the experience of the poor. One theme is the essential goodness of all created things. This is the constant refrain of Genesis 1, and it echoes through the rest of the wisdom writings. God looks at flowing streams, at the flight of an eagle and the way of a man with a woman and says, "I like it. It gives me pleasure!" The human capacity to take pleasure in these gifts, however, does not necessarily flow from their abundance. The deep Franciscan truth is that those who have least may be able to enjoy what they have the most. A lean crust becomes the bread of fatness in the tents of scarcity.

I expected to find utter despair among people living in La Estación, a squatter settlement near the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Cuernavaca. These people have nothing -- families live in one-room corrugated tin shacks alongside a creek flowing with open sewage. When going to sell flowers in the town square each day, a woman named Estella leaves her three young children on the piece of carpet they use as a bed. Yet Estella takes great pleasure in her children. They dance together. She puts flowers in her daughter’s hair, and is proud of her son’s ability to read. In a situation where I imagined only desperation, there exists an inexplicable hope -- an uncanny ability to value not only the basics, but even the little extravagances of life. One must not romanticize the poor, or imagine Estella is content with her lot. Yet the stunning truth is that she put me to shame by her capacity for expansiveness and joy. I went to Mexico to see the degradation of the poor and was shown instead my spiritual poverty. I had anticipated a powerful prophetic witness and was given a keen lesson in wisdom. This is in part what liberation theology means by mission in reverse: the evangelization of the rich by the poor.

A second theme in biblical wisdom is the celebration of beauty, particularly the artistry of subcreation. During the Solomonic enlightenment, the best Phoenician architects helped design the temple. Artisans who worked in stone and woodcraft were encouraged. Poetry flourished -- a word fitly spoken was compared to apples of gold in settings of silver (Prov. 25:11) One might take this thriving of fine arts for granted in a setting rich with patrons and time for leisure. Yet the creative impulse of the human spirit seems equally forceful in situations of wretchedness. Art forces itself up like ragweed through cracked asphalt. Jewish survivors of the Terezín ghetto in Czechoslovakia spoke of artists and musicians who continued their work under unimaginable circumstances -- forming musical ensembles, copying books, creating paintings. "Art in any form helped us to survive," said one prisoner. "I would go to the extent of saying that . . it was sometimes more important than food" (Ludmila Vrkocová, "Musical Life in Terezín Ghetto," Remembering for the Future: The Impact of the Holocaust on the Contemporary World, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 1730)

In the remote Nicaraguan community of Solentiname, a school of primitive painting developed during the last repressive years of the Somoza regime. An artists’ colony of peasants began painting firing clay and writing poetry as a way of reflecting biblically on their living conditions. Dwelling in thatched huts, having long and persistently cried out for land reform, these campesinos used bright colors and traditional folk patterns to sketch a landscape restless with hope. Anxious for the coming kingdom of God, they were already inspired to create its culture. They knew that art reveals the beauty inherent in justice (see Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, Orbis, 1976, 4 vols.)

Still other themes in wisdom literature find their parallel in the lives of marginal peoples longing for justice. These themes include the crucial importance of the family (Prov. 4:1 f.) , the artistry of speech prized by the oral tradition (Eccles. 10:12) , the poetry of love (Song of Sol. 2:8 f.) , even the symbolic significance of plentiful food (Eccles. 9:7) One is touched deeply by Latin American parents’ devotion to their children. The power of storytelling as a political act becomes obvious in Christian base communities: it awakens consciousness as it spins its verbal magic. Love poetry, woven with folksongs of political protest, forms some of the most poignanat music heard in Latin America today. The spirit of fiesta, the sharing of bounteous, if humble, food, is a promise of God’s awaited kingdom. All these characterize a people who know how to enjoy the life God gives. In their wedding of prophecy and wisdom, they offer us the wholeness that a liberating justice would bring to our lives.

Middle-class Americans need to be evangelized by those who are able to anticipate the coming, kingdom of God in the embracing of pain and in the dancing of hope. In the Old Testament, salt and spice were blended together to make incense for the altar, setting it apart as holy, a place for meeting God (Exod. 30:34-37) In the New Testament, the two come together in the sacrifice of the body of Christ. The same kind of spice given by the kings at his birth and poured over his head in an excess of love is later used to anoint his dead body. The salt that characterized his pungent words and marked his call to discipleship dripped from his brow in bloody sweat at Calvary. In Jesus -- prophet, priest and king -- we discover the final model for joining wisdom and prophecy. His is an invitation to abandonment and to merriment, to the pain of life on the margin and the joy of the kingdom breaking into the world at its center. In Christ we hear the fierce and ancient cry of Irenaeus: the glory of God is human beings fully alive! It is a glory discovered in the joining of salt and spice.


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