32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Preached November 12, 2017; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

Taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence.

It is by taking thought for wisdom that we become like the wise virgins who filled their flasks with oil. Unfortunately, wisdom is sadly lacking in our world today. I would dare say that scarcely anyone ‘takes thought of wisdom’, indeed scarcely anyone has a clue to what the word even means any more, or else it is thought of as the most useless and impractical of things.

Prudence fairs a little better because people realize that prudence is supposed to be something practical, though the common image of a ‘prudent’ person is of someone who is overly cautious, timid, and fearful.

The word of God, however, goes against our worldly ways of thinking. We are told: Happy the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding! For her profit is better than profit in silver and better than gold her revenue; she is more precious than corals, and none of your choice possessions can compare with her … she is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and he is happy who holds her fast. (Pr 3:13-15,18)

To put it simply: The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. (Ecc. 2:14)

Yes, the light is useful and wisdom is useful, like a spiritual light, it helps us see the path we are to take. Nevertheless, if we only appreciate the light because it shows us the path and keeps us from stumbling, then we are sadly lacking. Light is more than useful; light is simply delightful and we rejoice in its presence. No one needs to be taught to take pleasure in a beautiful sunny day. The delight of wisdom, though, takes a little work and a little learning on our part.

All of this is incomprehensible to a world that has little care to understand reality, but only to manipulate reality for pleasure and profit.

All of this is incomprehensible to a world that is always asking things like, “What use is it?” Or, “What good do I get out of it?” Or, “How does this benefit me?”

All of this is incomprehensible to a world that judges good and bad, right and wrong in terms of a calculation of measurable results like the number of jobs that will be produced, improved health for a greater number of people, reduced crime. Today we do not want to think; we want to see the statistics.

Still, I am rather hesitant to say anything more because does anyone really care? Who needs wisdom? Who wants wisdom? Who has time for wisdom?

Even in the realm of religion or spirituality what people want is something that is going to help them with their daily life, something that is ‘relevant’.

Even those who want to ‘go to heaven’ are asking nothing more than, “What do I have to do?”  Or better, “What is the minimum I can do and still get through the door?”  If that is our way of thinking, we are in danger of ending up like the foolish virgins, who did not take oil in their flasks.

The rich young man asked our Lord, Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life. (Mt 19:16) The rich young man, to his credit, was not looking for a minimum; he realized something was lacking.

Even so, the rich young man only asked a question about ‘prudence’, prudence is the virtue that shows us the path to take to get to the goal, but it does not show us the goal itself. The rich young man asked about the path, not the goal. He takes eternal life for granted as a prize for doing something. He did not ask, Teacher, what is eternal life? What good would a question like that be?

Now some times the word of God can give us the impression that wisdom and prudence are the same thing. Some times the word of God can give us the impression that the wise thing is to take the path, obeying God’s law. Today, though, we heard that in a certain way taking the path is not even the highest prudence. Instead we heard that taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence.

The wise man tells us: I determined to take her [wisdom] to live with me … within my dwelling, I should take my repose beside her; for association with her involves no bitterness and living with her no grief, but rather joy and gladness. (Wis 8:9,16)

The wise man is using a comparison and we need to pause and consider the meaning and power of this comparison. He compares the presence of wisdom within himself, as a personal reality distinct from himself, to that of a husband who returns to his home finding there a wife who gives no bitterness, no grief, but only joy and gladness.  Men could readily imagine how pleasant home life would be with such a wife! Yet, life in the home is still exterior to us. We don’t carry our home with us wherever we go. Sometimes the man must be away from his home and away from his wife.

What, on the other hand, would it mean for a person to enter into himself and to find there a companion, always present, who brings no bitterness nor grief, but only joy and gladness? We carry ourselves wherever we go, at home or abroad. We are with ourselves when things are easy and when things are hard. We are with ourselves at all times; we cannot escape ourselves. What would it be for a person to enter into himself and find not just peace, but a personal presence, a companion?

The great Spanish mystic of the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila, wrote a book called The Interior Castle. In it that book she describes the soul, created in God’s image, as a splendid castle, with many rooms, but in whose very center is a throne occupied by Christ the King.

Unfortunately, most people do not even enter into the castle, but dwell outside in the courtyard, living among the reptiles that inhabit the moat and becoming like those reptiles, leaving the castle itself and all its rooms, plunged in darkness and filth. That is the condition of the soul in mortal sin because the conscience stained by sin and the soul caught in the turmoil of passion keeps a person from entering himself and finding peace.

When, however, by the grace of God a person is set upon the interior path, and guided by the light of the Holy Spirit, he is able to arrive before the throne of Christ; there he sits, as Mary, the sister of Martha, sat at the feet of Christ in her own house, and enjoy the one thing necessary. (cf. Lk 10:38-42)

The Bible itself, in the law of Moses, gives us a similar image, only rather than a castle, it is the tabernacle in the wilderness, in the midst of the people of God. There is the outer court, with the altar of sacrifice; then moving from east to west the priest would enter the tent itself, going first into the Holy Place; there he would find to the north the table with the 12 loaves of the Presence and to the south the seven-branched candelabra and before the veil, the golden altar of incense. Each of these things is rich in symbolic meaning.

Still, that was as far as the ordinary priest was allowed to go. The high priest only, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, went past the veil to sprinkle the blood of atonement in the Holy of Holies towards the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, covered over with gold, was a chest containing the tablets of the law, the Rod of Aaron, and a jar of Manna. It was covered over with the ‘Mercy Seat’ and overshadowed by the images of cherubim with their outstretched wings. The ‘Mercy Seat’, over the ark and beneath the wings of the cherubim was a sort of throne, only this throne was empty, empty that is except for the presence of the God of Israel, the “Shekinah”.

Alas, only the high priest could enter and that only once a year and only into the tent that was a mere symbol, a shadow of the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 8:5; 10:1). Jesus Christ, however, high priest of the good things to come has passed through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands … he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of bulls and goats but with his own blood, thus obtaining for us eternal redemption. (Heb 9:11-12) Through the Blood of Jesus we are now given confidence to enter into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh … with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in the pure water [of baptism]. (Heb 10:19-20,22)

Here, in the celebration of the Eucharist, we have not just the shadow, but the very image that contains the reality. (cf. Heb 10:1) We come here and enter into this new sanctuary, and Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, (Jn 14:6) comes to us in Holy Communion; he enters us to lead us on the interior path, to lead us to his dwelling place within; there to abide in his presence.

The rich young man asked, Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life. (Mt 19:16) In the end, he turned away sad, because he was not ready to do what was required. Don’t get me wrong, there are things that we must indeed do in order to gain eternal life, but we above all we must learn to live that life already here and now, we must learn to live in the presence of the Lord and to abide in his presence. That is wisdom.

Andrew, together with John, the beloved disciple, who would receive the Mother of Jesus as his Mother, heard John when he pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (cf. Jn 2:35-36) They started following after Jesus who turned to them and asked, What are you looking for? (Jn 2:38). They replied, Teacher, where are you staying? (Jn 2:38)  He replied, Come and you will see. (Jn 2:39)

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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.