Today when asked to think of someone wise many people may still come up with the name of Solomon, to whom the Book of Wisdom was once attributed. But Yoda and Gandalf are just as likely to come to mind. Albert Einstein, Jimmy Carter or Ruth Bader Ginsburg are possibly more serious contenders. Or perhaps even the Pope. None are young, not even the fictional characters. Traditionally, with age comes wisdom. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Oscar Wilde is reported to have quipped, wisely, “sometimes age comes alone.”
In any case, every people, time, and place needs its wisdom figures, guides who have learned from often grueling experience how to conduct life with dignity, compassion, honor, and even a dash of humor – qualities always in short supply. Today is no exception. (You may quote me.)
Wisdom doesn’t just mean just being smart or intelligent or clever or wily. The word conveys a sense of sound judgment, the ability to choose well in matters of practical consequence, being able to determine the best course of action and follow through to a satisfactory conclusion.
Wisdom isn’t something you learn in school, not even the university. It’s taught by life itself. And it takes a while. That’s why we tend to associate wisdom with age: we think of grandparents as wise, while parents are just smart. At least to their children. Until they’re teenagers, anyway, when parents somehow manage to get dumb and dumber. (They have a way of getting smart again, once the kids have left home and go to college or get a job, and get in debt, but that’s another story.)
It’s not far off the mark to call wisdom a gift, which is what the Christian tradition does. And God’s wisdom is so far beyond what the world values as smart that, as St. Paul says, it looks like foolishness to many. And what is too-often taken for human wisdom counts as folly in the eyes of God.
That’s what we’re considering today in the readings from the Word of God — knowing how to recognize what is of true
and lasting value and what isn’t. Something doesn’t have to permanent to be valuable, but we tend to prize things that neither fade nor tarnish, one of the reasons why gold, platinum and silver, gems, and monuments made of steel or stone are usually preferred to wood, paper (especially paper money), tin and iron. I suppose that plastic should be the most valuable of all, given its half-life in drawers, landfill and now the oceans. But even in this case, the more costly and dangerous your credit card, the more likely it will be called gold or platinum. But how does one measure the value of a sunset, a rose, or the smile of a new-born child?
In the Book of Wisdom, we first hear Wisdom being extolled as if it was a commodity like wealth, only far more precious. More precious even than health. And for several hundred years, it was considered so among the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora, especially in Egypt.
The Wisdom tradition first developed in Persia, during the captivity of the Jews in the sixth century before Christ. We learn in the Book of Daniel how young Jewish men were groomed in the skills of court protocol and intrigue, if only to survive. But true wisdom as well as the touch of cynicism we find in the Book of Proverbs developed in that period and continued both in Palestine and the other cities were Jews wandered in the centuries just before the Christian era. The Book of Wisdom, one of the treasures of late Jewish literature, was written in the city of Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. In it, the ancient figure of King Solomon is recalled as the embodiment of true wisdom, the kind that knows how to value life rightly in relation to God. It is the most precious thing in the world.
The incident in Mark’s gospel identifies real wisdom when Jesus contrasts the lure of money and the demands of the Kingdom of God. In the plight of the rich young man (only Matthew provides that telling detail — twice), Jesus shows us that wealth is not to be amassed for its own sake, or it simply annexes us to itself. Rather than accumulating what is in fact all-too perishable, wealth is to be used for the good of all, especially the unfortunate. St. Thomas Aquinas, that cagey Dominican from the Middle Ages, taught that the purpose of money is spending, not hoarding, and especially to help others in need. Debt is admittedly a bad thing and savings are a good thing, but not for their own sake. Stinginess and hoarding are just the little sisters of Greed, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. But how often have we heard in recent times that those who really love God will prosper materially? that material wealth is the reward of Christian commitment? Whole churches have been founded on that premise, complete with the promise that God wants us to be really, really rich.
It’s an old story and as untrue today as it was when the rich young fellow approached Jesus for some advice on how to become even better. We find the story in the other gospels, but only Mark tells us that Jesus loved him. His heart went out to him. But the young man loved his fortune more than he loved Jesus — he had to choose, and he did not choose wisely. Not in God’s sight. But I’m sure his broker was relieved.
When Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price for which a man sells all that he has in order to obtain, he is not advising anyone to set up tax-free accounts in the Cayman Islands. He is telling his followers to sell their surplus possessions, give the money to the poor and follow him. You can lose your shirt in the stock market or in a gambling casino, or by helping those in need — including those in need of an education, or medical care, or hurricane relief. You’re just as poor in the end, but real wisdom still means following Christ and the real reward is proportionate. That’s not worldly wisdom, but God’s wisdom.
Today especially, we are faced with difficult choices and hard decisions — but every choice and decision we make politically and economically has to be evaluated in the light of the Gospel of Christ. It’s wise to ask whether our choices and decisions promote the welfare of the whole human community and give glory to God. Or do they exalt selfishness at the expense of others, especially the poor and vulnerable, and disgrace any kind of real Christian understanding of God’s will?
Let us pray, then for the gift of true wisdom, that with God’s grace we will know how to choose well in the complex uncertainties of today’s world because we have made God’s rule the first and always the deciding factor in our lives.