17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; July 26, 2020
Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12; Ps 119:52, 72, 76-77, 127-130; Rm 8:28-30; Mt 13:44-52
One characteristic of our times is the loss of confidence in the various institutions that give order and structure to society. There is little confidence in government institutions and organizations; little confidence in major business institutions; little confidence in educational institutions, or health care institutions; little confidence in religious institutions. Connected with the loss of confidence is the general lack of leadership. I would suggest that underlying the loss of confidence in institutions and the lack of leadership is a lack of wisdom. Not only is true wisdom rare, it is little esteemed. How can it be otherwise when there no concern for either the truth about God or the truth about human life.
In today’s 1st reading, the young King Solomon, conscious of his responsibility both to God and to the people who have been entrusted to his care, conscious on the enormity of the task that he faces, prays for the wisdom and understanding he needs to rule the people in the name of God.
Who today, whether on the large scale of government, or even on smaller scale, seeks from God the wisdom they need to fulfill their responsibilities?
Still, even that way of putting the question is, shall we say, reveals a lack of wisdom. That way of putting the question puts wisdom more in the category of ‘know-how’. We are a practically minded people and can grasp the importance of ‘know-how’, a set of skills that enable us to do something, even helping or guiding others. We are like the teenagers who have no interest in understanding the subject matter, but only want to know the answers needed for the test. If that is all we seek, we will not attain to wisdom.
Nor will it do to remark, “Well, I am not responsible for ruling a great kingdom, like Solomon was, so I don’t need to worry about those things.” You might be responsible for ‘ruling’ the little kingdom of a workplace, of a family, of children. Finally, you must at least rule the little kingdom of your own life. ‘Know-how’ is not enough. Everyone needs some measure of wisdom. If we do not seek wisdom we will be in danger of becoming a worthless catch in the net which is Christ’s Church.
St. James tells us: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. … all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. (Jm 1:5-6,17)
Well, what is this foreign thing called ‘wisdom’ that God actually wants to give us?
It might help if we get clear what wisdom is not.
Wisdom does not consist in slogans, memes, and clever sayings.
Wisdom is not found in journalism and is not reported on the news.
Wisdom is not found in astrophysics or economics.
Wisdom is not found in epidemiology or virology.
Indeed, wisdom is not a form of ‘expertise’. Experts are specialists and outside their field of specialty they are, as far as their expertise is concerned, no better than idiots. An expert
might have a brilliant mind, might be the master of his field, but that field is no more than a part of a larger whole. An epidemiologist might know a lot about how viruses spread from one human being to another, but precisely insofar as he is an epidemiologist, he knows nothing about human beings, nothing about the whole of human life, whether individual or social, nothing about good and evil, right and wrong. Maybe the man who is an epidemiologist happens to be a wise man, but not because he is an epidemiologist.
Whatever wisdom is, it has to do with the whole of human life. Actually, human life, especially human life in this world is only a part of a larger whole. Wisdom has to do with the whole.
So, what is wisdom? Wisdom is the knowledge of the highest truth, which is God himself, the Creator of all, and the whole of reality in the light of that truth. The Holy Spirit’s gift of wisdom enables us to begin seeing reality as God sees it.
The words of St. Paul, in today’s 2nd reading, give us a glimpse of reality seen in the light of divine wisdom: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
After the death of St Teresa of Avila a bookmark was found in her breviary containing these words that reflect the gift of wisdom:
Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God.
God alone suffices.
We cannot attain to this wisdom ourselves unless first we believe in and put our trust in God’s complete, perfect, and absolute goodness. That is hard to do in a sin-filled world. The presence of evil and sin both in others and in ourselves puts us to the test. How can the good God permit such evil?
Jesus Christ crucified is the light of God’s goodness in the midst of the evil and sin that afflicts us. Jesus Christ crucified is the proof of God’s goodness to those who have learned to doubt him. Jesus Christ crucified and the life he gives to us, now and in eternity, for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. (John 3:16) By revealing God’s goodness upon the Cross, Jesus Christ, from the Cross, teaches us the way of wisdom. This goodness of God comes to us very concretely here and now in the most Holy Eucharist, the living memorial and unbloody representation of the sacrifice of the Cross.
The first two Gospel parables we heard today also teach us about the way of wisdom. First of all, wisdom is so precious that giving everything we have to get it (and there is no ‘sale price’ available) is a bargain.
In the first parable, that of the treasure hidden in the field, the man was not looking for wisdom, but stumbled upon it. Note, simply stumbling upon the treasure was not enough to make it his own. He not only needed to recognize the value of his find, but he needed also to pay the price, everything he had to give.
In the second parable, the merchant is out searching for fine pearls. He is looking. It is in his power to look, but finally it is no more in his power to find than it was for the man who simply stumbled across the treasure.
This teaches us first that wisdom is a gift that comes from God’s grace: it is not in our power to acquire it, but we must receive it from him as a gift freely given. Second, wisdom comes with the gift of grace, like the treasure that comes with the field; it comes with the gift that is called ‘sanctifying grace’, given to us first in baptism; this is the grace that makes us to be children of God, the grace which is a share in the life and nature of God himself. With that gift of sanctifying grace come also the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the gift of wisdom. The gift of sanctifying grace can and should grow; with it the gift of wisdom grows.
So, if we have been baptized, if we have are living still in the grace of our baptism, or if through penance we have regained the grace of baptism, then the gift of wisdom is their within us, hidden like a treasure.
The treasure will lie there unknown, untouched, and unused, unless we give everything to acquire the field of our own soul. Usually, though, we are preoccupied with the problems of the world out there. The precious pearl will not be found unless we apply ourselves to look for it. If we ask God for the gift of wisdom, not doubting him, we will show our desire by the effort we put into acquiring the gift.
If, however, we live out our faith like the teenager who wants only to know the answers needed for the test, the gift of wisdom will, at best, lie dormant, a hidden treasure buried in our soul. If we live out our faith seeking only the bare minimum for salvation, we will fail to attain the gift of wisdom. If we fail to attain the gift of wisdom, we might very well fail to attain the gift of salvation. Why? Well, wisdom consists first of all in the intimate knowledge of God, the Most Holy Trinity. Salvation consists in the face to face vision of the Most Holy Trinity. If we are not interested in the first, here and now, how will we attain the fulfillment in heaven?
So how do we cultivate the gift of wisdom?
Wisdom has something to do with knowledge, so someone might think that the path of wisdom means dedication to a life of learning, something that is possible for only a few.
There is indeed a beautiful human discipline that directs the mind in the search of wisdom. This discipline is sometimes called “philosophy”, but the same name is much abused and applied to many things that really have little to do with wisdom. In any case, the serious pursuit of philosophy requires not only the requisite intellectual capacity, but also the opportunity, the guidance, and the time. True philosophy is capable of much, but it will not attain to the divine wisdom that consists in the intimate knowledge of the Most Holy Trinity.
There is another human discipline that can do much to free the mind from the slavery of passion, fashion, and popular opinion. That is certainly a great good. This discipline often goes by the name of ‘liberal education’, but again the name is often abused and applied other things. In any case, while the human disciplines can be of service to divine wisdom, they are not divine wisdom, nor do they have the power to attain the gift.
So, once again, how do we cultivate the gift of wisdom?
First, we must practice humility by recognizing our lack of wisdom, by esteeming wisdom itself, and by recognizing wisdom in others, by seeking guidance on the way of wisdom. Second, by prayer, committed prayer, a life of prayer. Third, by meditation on the word of God and through deepening the knowledge of our faith. If we do not want to know about God, about his work, his plan, and his will, we are not likely to come to know him intimately and personally. Fourth, by the practice of a regular, diligent examination of conscience, followed by the regular practice of a sincere confession of our sins. Fifth, by departing from vice and practicing in virtue. Sixth, by seeking the purification and rectification of our soul, which leads to the right ordering of our interior faculties of mind, will, imagination, and emotion. Seventh, by a right and devout reception of holy Communion. The Body of Christ in holy communion is the nourishment of wisdom.
By these means we cultivate the gift of wisdom somewhat as a young man might conduct on honorable courtship of a young lady, seeking her hand in marriage. The young lady, or in other times and places, her father, must nevertheless consent to make the gift.
In this case, the gift of wisdom it is God the Father, who bestows the gift of wisdom on whom he wills, when he wills, in the measure he wills. Sometimes the gift is given to the likes of St. Paul, who had been an accomplished rabbi; sometimes to a St. Thomas Aquinas, a great scholar; sometimes to a simple farm laborer, like St. Isidore the Farmer; sometimes to someone who, in human terms, was not particularly bright, like St. Bernadette. Each one of the saints received the gift, in some measure, and the inexhaustible riches of divine wisdom shone with a unique splendor in each one of the saints.
So, we must not doubt that the Lord wants also to give us this gift, despite our incapacity and unworthiness, but we must show to him our desire and commitment.