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Tiny Wisdom


OT reading: Proverbs 6:6-11

NT reading: Matthew 6:25-34


On my recent trip to North Carolina, I was prompted to think a moment on the tiny wisdom of the ants. How we can recognize their wisdom both in the similarity of their behavior to ours and its difference. In some ways they seem as smart as us because they do some things like we do, but in others they seem smarter than us because they do not do what we do.

Let's take a close look at the text of Proverbs 6. Imagine you are trying to get a good look at what happens in an anthill. If you are both near-sighted and far-sighted like me, this may take a good bit of concentration. Verse six says not "Look to the ant," as I had mistakenly remembered. It says "Go to the ant." This implies going to the ant for advice. You want to learn wisdom? I know a sage, an expert, you should look up. Here's the address. And that address is not a high mountain in Lhasa, though there is great wisdom there, to be sure. It's just that you need not go so far. The mountain to which you are directed is an anthill. There you will find a tribe of Lilliputians who know things you, a dumb and clumsy Gulliver, have neglected to learn. What things?

In verses 7 and 8 we are told that the little creatures act with self-preserving prudence without having to be told to do it. The folktale of the ant and the grasshopper, which is in some ways a commentary on this passage. You know it: the grasshopper whiles away his time when he should be working his thorax off--which is just what his neighbors the ants are doing. They know enough to collect for the coming winter. When the winter comes and takes the grasshopper by surprise, he makes his way to the anthill and asks for help. The answer? Pretty much the same as in the Bible: "Depart from me; I never knew you."

Of course this folktale is not politically correct today. Today's version would read, and in some school book somewhere probably does read: the ants established a welfare system to feed the grasshopper and all other grasshoppers through the winter, every winter. Christianity as Nietzsche critiqued it fits today's politically correct party line. It is an ideology of slaves and cowards who resent the strong and perversely exalt weakness as superior to strength, making the victim the most honored victor of all. But the ants are too smart to be taken in by it. The proverb in the Bible, at any rate, takes the same view as this folktale: it speaks to grasshoppers who are too lazy or short-sighted to consider the future. It tells them to stop their sluggardry. And that is wisdom, politically correct or not.

Call me a nitpicker (you know what a "nit" is, by the way? It's a louse egg, so I'm continuing right on with the arthropod theme here!), yes call me a nitpicker, but in fact, the proverb isn't quite accurate on one point. It says the ants lack a chief officer or a ruler. But you've watched enough Learning Cannel programs to know that's not accurate. Like bees, they do have queens. In fact, the little critters have social classes, a political system, almost a Platonic Republic. That's one of the reasons, like Albert Schweitzer said, you shouldn't squash the little things callously.

I said something like this the other day to my mother, and she didn't see it my way: she had just had the heck stung out of her by a fire ant. OK, but that doesn't invalidate my point. In a case like that, their political system is at war with yours. Go ahead and strike back.

The Bible seems to have trouble with little things. Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, but it isn't. The orchid seed is smaller. The Pentateuch says insects have four legs. But the basic point in this proverb is a good one anyway. The main point seems to be that things not as smart as you know to do things that you may be too stupid or short-sighted to do. And they don't need to be told. And this detail makes me think of something else.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to cover a class for a colleague at Bergen Community College. He asked me to talk about Thomas Aquinas's Cosmological Proof for the existence of God. The gist of it is that all the species of creatures in the world have no trouble acting for their own survival even though no one tells them to do it. They don't have a conference on "the Future of the Species," all the ants with their glasses and briefcases, one of them up at a little podium, charts up and pointers waving. No five-year plans for economic recovery among ants. No ant Popes issuing decrees about birth control. They just do what they have to do, as if its all been brilliantly designed. And yet they cannot be the ones who designed it. Who did? asked St. Thomas. Must have been an external mind, and this all man call God.

Now this may not prove anything. David Hume sure didn't think so, but I won't pursue that any further. What the so-called proof lacks as a philosophical argument, it may retain as a statement of faith. It is the faith implicit in the proverb. Why is it that the ants act in so wise a way when they ­don't­ have a king or president or pope to tell them what to do? Why, it's just as Aquinas surmised, their wisdom is built into them by a wise designer, God.

What is implicit in the proverb becomes explicit in Matthew, where Jesus points to the examples of the flowers and the ravens. Now at first it seems as if Jesus is diametrically opposed to the sage of Proverbs, as if he is choosing an opposite animal example. Proverbs said the ants are smart enough to work even without a foreman telling them to. Jesus is saying the flowers and the birds do not need to work at all, and God provides for them. Jesus might seem to be taking up the cause of the grasshopper! If he were, well, I can only say it wouldn't be the first time he would have been wrong. Remember that business about not casting the first stone: if no mortal has the right to hand down a judicial sentence, then we are facing implicit anarchism.

Anyway, I don't think this is a genuine contradiction. I think the point instead is parallel. Just like in Proverbs, the point is to say the dumb animals are smarter than you. They do not have something you think necessary to get along, and yet they do better than you. The ants lack a foreman, but work anyway. The lilies and the ravens lack opportunity to work overtime and provide for a secure future, but they have one anyway. And in both cases, they have a wise Creator to thank.

His point is that it is wise to trust the future. We do not tend to trust the future. We work for what we need today, and even when we get what we need today, we are not satisfied, because we do not already have tomorrow settled as well. We will just have to wait till tomorrow before we can take care of tomorrow. And that we would rather not do. We would rather pull tomorrow into today, make a long cast as my father used to do with his fly rod, and reel in the future, haul it flipping and splashing onto the pier of the present. And then stuff and mount it.

We envy the timeless eternity of God in which St. Augustine said God dwells.  But it is precisely because God dwells in an eternal Now that he is in providential control. From his perspective, he is already providing for your tomorrow, because for him it is already here.  You can't see that because of your worm's-eye-view of the matter.  Though I guess I shouldn't say that, because, like the ants, the ravens, and the lilies, the worms probably can see it!

Do your work for today and even for tomorrow. Why not? But once you've done what you can, let it go. Trust the future. Trusting it is all you can do, because you sure can't change it.

I'm not saying you ought to blithely believe God will not let anything bad happen to you. Don't be a fool. Jesus wasn't. Do you think he viewed the cross as invalidating what he had said about trusting God for the future? No, I don't think Jesus was less wise than Job who said "Shall we receive good from the Lord and not receive evil?" Beggars can't be choosers, not where the future is concerned anyway.

Is it faith or fatalism that's being recommended in the Sermon on the Mount? I guess a little of both. As you get toward the end of this section, there seem to be two alternate conclusions. Are you a believer in a personal God who keeps a close eye out for you and your affairs? To you it says that you ought to seek God's kingdom and leave it to him to provide for you, just as a king provides provisions for his soldiers who seek to advance his kingdom.

On the other hand, are you not so sure there is a beneficent Father zealous for your welfare? More like a faceless Kafka-esque bureaucracy where your number is lost somewhere in the bowels of the computer? Fair enough, but you still have no excuse for the foolishness of worrying for tomorrow: "Let tomorrow be anxious for itself. Today's share of trouble is enough for today. You don't need to borrow an extra load of it from a tomorrow that may never materialize anyway.

One reason you can never be justified in worrying over tomorrow is that your worries assume a predictive knowledge of tomorrow, which you just don't have. You don't know that the storm clouds won't part.

The Epistle of James rebukes those smug and heedless of the unknown future. "Tomorrow, next week, next year we will make so-and-so business trip, and so on." James says, "Don't you know that your like is like a mist of smoke? You don't even know whether it will last a single day longer! James is advocating the piety, the humility, of knocking on wood.

But Jesus is flipping you the other side of the coin: if you dare not presume on the future, neither have you any right to worry about it. If you cannot borrow against the future, neither do you have to pay its debt till it comes due. And it's due tomorrow, not today.

Trust the future, trust God, say it whichever way you want. You take every step of every day with the faith that your legs won't buckle, that the pavement won't collapse. Stride forth into the future with the same confidence. Whatever tragedy or misfortune lurks in the future will come as a surprise no matter how much you try to prognosticate it in worrying. Forget it! Make faith, make hope your working hypothesis. Be at least as wise as a flower, as smart as a bird, as an ant!




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