20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Preached August 19, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

Wisdom has built her house. 

Before we talk about the house that Wisdom builds for herself, we need to talk a little about ‘Wisdom’. When the times are evil – when such vile filth regarding the crimes of bishops and priests is being made public it should be evident that the times are evil – we would do well to make the most of the opportunity, to seek the wisdom that understands in depth, from the inside, the will of the Lord and the teaching of Christ. Simple obedience is a start; it is good to say, “The Lord commanded it, I will do it.”  Still, the Law of the Lord is not just a command, it is the instruction of Wisdom. Simple faith is a start; it is good to say, “Jesus said this is my Body, this is my Blood, and I believe that it is really, truly, and substantially the Body and Blood of Christ.” Still, the words of Jesus are the teaching of Wisdom.

The words of wisdom are dense and difficult. If we wish to understand them we need to apply our minds and be patient. In the passage immediately before today’s 1st reading Wisdom says, Now listen to me, O children; instruction and wisdom do not reject! Happy the man who obeys me, and happy those who keep my ways. Happy the man watching at my gates, waiting at my doorposts. For he who finds me finds life, and wins favor from the Lord; but he who misses me harms himself, all who hate me love death. (Pr 8:32-36)

He who finds me finds life. Where then are we to find wisdom? Maybe we should turn to a wise man.

In the Old Testament the most famous wise man, of course, is King Solomon.  The 1st Book of Kings tells us about how the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s wisdom from her distant country and made the long journey to visit him and to see and hear for herself if the report was true.

We read there: When the queen of Sheba witnessed Solomon’s great wisdom, the palace he had built, the food at his table, the seating of his ministers, the attendance and garb of his waiters, his banquet service, and the holocausts he offered in the temple of the Lord, she was breathless. “The report I heard in my country about your deeds and your wisdom is true,” she told the king … “I have discovered that they were not telling me the half. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report I heard.” (1 Kgs 10:4-6,7)

The Queen of Sheba shows her ardent desire for wisdom. She must have known that is was lacking in her own life and in her own kingdom. Hearing about Solomon she did not hesitate to make the difficult trip. Wisdom was that important to her. When she arrives her breath is taken away at what she sees. It was not just Solomon’s words, but his accomplishments that amazed her. Solomon’s wisdom was revealed in the good order and prosperity of his kingdom, especially of his palace and of the temple that he had built; his wisdom reached to such fine details as the food at his table and the garb of his waiters.

Like the Queen of Sheba it might help us if we could see wisdom made visible to us in a breathtaking fashion, revealed in the good order and prosperity of an impressive institution? Where we could find such breathtaking wisdom visibly manifest in the world today?

In my experience of Oregon I can readily say that the most breathtaking institution I have seen, as regards visible excellence, prosperity, and order is OHSU. Around the country I would generally say the same. The most breathtaking institutions are the most advanced cutting edge hospitals, usually connected with a university in some way. That suggests that the highest wisdom that is treasured in the United States today is the wisdom of medical science.

Well certainly medical science today can work wonders in keeping a body alive, but it must finally bow before death.

Certainly medical science today can work wonders in keeping a body alive, but it cannot provide any reason why we should want to live in the first place.

Indeed, medical science is very easily placed at the service of death through abortion and assisted suicide. It also deforms human life through in-vitro fertilization and sex-change surgery.

That, I am afraid, is about the highest wisdom our culture has to offer. If we are content with the ‘manna’ of modern medicine, we will be part of the culture of death; we will die.

How about the Church?

First let to speak about what is not obvious, especially today, but should be obvious. Just as wisdom is revealed in the world created by God, so it is made manifest in the Church established by Jesus Christ; for those who have eyes to see the Church is a breathtaking institution, more amazing than the Kingdom of Solomon, built not by Solomon, but the descendant that he foreshadows, Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, sadly, tragically, the visible day-to-day reality of the Church probably looks a bit like Solomon’s kingdom centuries later, divided and corrupt, ready to be conquered by the Babylonians. But we have the promise of Jesus: The gates of hell shall not prevail against her. (Mt 16:18) And, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age. (Mt 28:20)

So in the Church, the basic structures are still there, but often the ministers are no longer to be trusted, the garb of the waiters is getting to be a bit ragged, the banquet service has become sloppy and second rate, and very few people care about the holocausts offered on the altar.

Sad to say it is hard to find much wisdom living in the minds and hearts of Catholics today, of whatever station, whatever office, whatever education. Instead Catholics have rather given themselves to pursuing the wisdom of the world.

Back in 1972 Blessed Pope Paul VI observed that people (including Catholics, including bishops, including priests) no longer trust the Church as possessing the formula of true life, but instead they trust the first profane prophet who speaks in some journal or social movement and run after him and ask him if he has the formula of true life. (Homily, June 29, 1972) Since that time, bishops and priests have done terrible things to lead people even further to lose their trust in the Church. They have scarcely acted as though they possessed the formula of true life.

We need to start looking. We need to start prizing true wisdom. We need to cultivate a love of true wisdom. It is there to be found. It is there before our very eyes.

If we are to become lovers of wisdom, then first we must forsake folly. That seems obvious, but we need to recognize folly when we see it. So let us consider the image of Lady Folly who later in the same passage from which the 1st reading is taken appears in mocking opposition to Wisdom. (cf. Pr 9:13-18)

Lady Folly sits at the door of her house and makes a show of herself as she calls out to passersby. Lady Folly is represented in living flesh by those – like Oprah – who set themselves up as ‘teachers of wisdom’, as possessing the secret of life, but are accredited by no one but themselves. Wisdom’s invitation is proclaimed by her accredited ‘handmaidens’; Lady Folly offers herself as the authority. Lady Folly makes a show of herself, while Wisdom invites to a banquet. The words of Scripture reveal Lady Folly to us, but we should be aware that when we meet her in day to day life she will not be wearing a sign on her forehead.

Lady Folly declares: Stolen waters are sweet, and bread gotten secretly is pleasing. (pr 9:17) There is an echo here of the flattering words of the ancient serpent, You will be like gods. (Gen 3:5) The implicit claim is that the public  ‘authorities’  – civil authorities, religious authorities, family authorities, all traditional authorities, all of which are in the midst of a deep crisis today – are either ignorant, or are trying to keep the people in ignorance to control them. It is therefore necessary, it is said, to learn the ‘real story’, to ‘steal’ the secret of life that the ‘authorities’ are trying to keep hidden. For example, if it is said that if you want to know the truth about Jesus do not read the Gospels, do not listen to the Church, but turn instead to the latest ‘profane prophet’ who claims to have discovered the real secret that no one before has ever known. If the truth be told, the profane prophet has stolen this ‘secret’ from someone else and ‘customized’ it to make it his own.

For some reason these profane prophets always want to open the door for all manner sexual indulgence; that is itself a sign of folly for nothing is so opposed to wisdom as sexual sins. We should add that the pursuit of pleasure (not the simple experience of pleasure, which belongs to the world God created) prepares the way for sexual sin. Maybe all this helps explains the lack of wisdom among Catholics today.

That is Lady Folly with her deception. The Scripture concludes, In the depths of the netherworld are her guests. (Pr 9:18)

Instead, we must forsake folly and turn to Wisdom in order to gain true life.

How about Wisdom and the house she builds? The passage follows immediately after a description of the role of wisdom as being present to God from the creation of the world. She says, I was beside him as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while playing on the surface of his earth; and I found delight in the sons of men. (Pr 9:30-31)

The reference to creation of course brings us back to the book of Genesis, to the very beginning of the Bible. There God speaks his word and all things are made, in order and good.

Today we do not know how to read and understand the account of creation, because we only want to know the mechanics of how things work.  We follow the wisdom of science that would explain the workings of a movie projector but then look at the movie on the screen and say, “Huh? Just a bunch of colors.” We will not understand Genesis and the story of creation that way. Learning the mechanics gives us power that enables us to manipulate things; learning the meaning gives us direction. Genesis gives us the meaning and the direction.

To put the matter briefly, Genesis shows God creating the world as building a house for himself. He puts man in that house as his ‘image’. The world is created to be a temple in which God dwells. Unfortunately, the living ‘image’ in the Temple of creation was unfaithful to his role and turned away from God. That is why Wisdom must build a new Temple.

What God did in creating the world, then, is mirrored by Wisdom building a house for herself. In the Old Testament, the house that mirrors the world that God created is the Temple in Jerusalem. Now as God set man in the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it, so he sets the priest in the Temple to give worship or ‘cult’ to God by keeping the rituals.

The Temple, then, which Wisdom builds, which mirrors the creation, was made necessary because of the entrance of sin into the world. That is why it is no longer sufficient just to go out into nature to worship God.

The Temple in Jerusalem, however, was just a figure or symbol of the true Temple, the Body of Christ, crucified and risen, the way of salvation. (cf. Jn 2:19) Wisdom builds her house; Jesus Christ, the incarnate Wisdom of God, builds his Church, his Body, his Temple.

We are invited to consider and contemplate the meaning of the symbols. The seven columns refer to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; or the seven Sacraments of the Church, through which we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit; or the seven virtues, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, together with the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, which the Holy Spirit works in us; or the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, through which we beg the Father to send his Holy Spirit to work within us.

The banquet with the meat and the wine refers us to the Eucharistic celebration, the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, this is true food and true drink, the sacrificial banquet of true wisdom. This is where true wisdom is found; this is where true wisdom is made visible. This is where the holocausts are offered; this is the place of the banquet service of the true Solomon; this is where his ministers are seated.

When we put together the words of Proverbs and the words of today’s Gospel we learn that in order to feed on the Body and Blood of Christ in spirit and truth it is not enough just to receive the outward sacrament, we must do so with understanding. If we are to receive the sacrament with understanding, then we must not only let ourselves be instructed by the word of God, we must let ourselves be instructed by the visible ceremonies, by what we see and hear in Church. This sort of visible instruction does not work on us like a lesson to which we can give a rote answer, but works like the morning dew on the grass. For that reason we must come frequently (at least every Sunday and Holy Day) and we must at least recognize that what we see and hear is pregnant with meaning, even if we do not understand it. Everything done in Church, at Mass, has meaning; for that reason it must be done with the greatest care, according to the mind of the Church, the Temple of Wisdom, built by the true Solomon, Jesus Christ. Then we will be able to advance in the way of understanding.

Everything is connected in the House that Wisdom has built, teaching, worship, and life. We have learned sadly of the way in which many of our Bishops have failed in their own conduct and in their oversight of their brother bishops and the priests under their care. Those failures, though, are bound up with failures in the supervision of the teaching of the faith and the rituals of the sacraments.

St. Augustine comments on another passage of the Proverbs: If you sit at the table of a ruler, observe carefully what is set before you; then stretch out your hand, knowing that you must provide the same kind of meal yourself. (Pr 23:1, LXX) He writes: “What is the ruler’s table if not the one at which we receive the body and blood of him who laid down his life for us? What does it mean to sit at this table if not to approach with humility? What does it mean to observe carefully what is set before you if not to meditate devoutly on so great a gift? What does it mean to stretch out one’s hand, knowing that one must provide just the same kind of meal oneself, if not what I have just said: as Christ laid down his life for us, so we in our turn ought to lay down our lives for our brothers?” (St. Augustine, On The Gospel of John, quoted Liturgy of the Hours, Vol II., pg 449).

Jesus, the very Wisdom of God made flesh, says, This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This is the banquet of wisdom.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.