Wisdom 7:7-11 Hebrews 4:12-13 Mark 10:17-30
Wisdom relates to intelligence to the extent that intelligence brings about and fosters an increase in goodness, justice, compassion, respect, prudence, and any other such virtuous, constructive, and healthy life qualities among individuals and within society. Wisdom in sacred scripture is sometimes personified as God’s helpmate, and in Christian theological reflection, as the very Holy Spirit of God.
In the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon (the source of today’s Old Testament lesson) Wisdom is the ultimate, most precious, and rightly the most sought after of all possible possessions. It surpasses everything else, even health and personal beauty. As an ideal which overlaps into the real, it is something in which every person can participate to great profit. Indeed, it makes wealth and fame crass substitutes for the values of life. Anyone who would assert that being rich and famous would provide genuine happiness possesses not Wisdom but rather a morally defective attitude. Such an individual must not be trusted with anything of importance. Those, however, who find peace and contentment in the gifts provided by Wisdom, are the virtuous ones by whom we all profit by association. Wisdom brings peace; wealth tends to bring strife. Wisdom’s contentment fosters life and love, justice and dignity; wealth’s responsibilities easily overwhelm those with too little talent, and easily produce the idolatry of greed and power, too often raising blandness and mediocrity to illusory heights of respect. Death separates one from wealth, power, and position. Death loses all power over the wise because one fruit of true Wisdom is security and peace even as death strips away all those parts of life which matter little. The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon uses many sayings and descriptions in a noble attempt to summarize so much of the Hebrew Wisdom Tradition which evolved through ancient Judaism. It attributes such Wisdom (often inaccurately) to King Solomon. He was by reputation the wisest human to ever walk the Earth. Perhaps that was an overstatement, but nonetheless, he enjoys the reputation even today (nearly three thousand years after his life) as still most noble for his willingness to pray for (see Wisdom 9:1-18) and embrace Wisdom even in his position of absolute kingly power.
Mark records the memory of how Jesus was once engaged by a rich man who asked for Wisdom after paying Jesus a compliment, calling him “Good teacher.” Jesus of course replied according to traditional Jewish Wisdom with the love commandment from the Torah which is considered the ultimate source for all moral behavior in the Jewish faith. But, the man who “had many possessions” was far too attached to them to embrace Jesus’ Wisdom for what it was, the superlative possession. Wealth often and easily impedes understanding. Jesus, however, “loved him” in the encounter as he looked upon him, so the text suggests that the man was not a crass or unwise individual; rather he was quite lovable. He was willing to risk and to possibly struggle with his daring quest how to acquire “eternal life.” So even in his wealth, he was not irredeemably over-focused on his possessions. He was looking to the future. He sought beyond that which was temporary (possessions are always temporary) even though he enjoyed them. That he went away sad is not the end of the story for him, only for the written text. We, however, are allowed to wonder and imagine how the Grace of his encounter with Jesus might have had a long-range effect upon him. His question was the question of a thoughtful believer. We can imagine that he continued in his ordinary thoughtfulness and might well eventually have appreciated the insight provided by Jesus. Indeed, he received precisely that for which he had asked: Wisdom. Perhaps the seed of Wisdom which Jesus planted sprouted and bore fruit later in the man’s life. Such an ordinary and common experience (hasn’t it happened to each of us?) is certainly a hope-filled conclusion to the story as Mark’s Gospel remembered it.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews held sacred scripture in very high regard. In fact, it was not simply what was written that commanded respect, but the contents of the writing, i.e., the message of what was written: the Word of God which penetrates that which is normally impossible to penetrate, which discerns, reflects, and thinks in the most profound of ways. The message of God’s Word is meant to be critical, i.e., to challenge as well as to console, to provoke as well as to enlighten. When heard, remembered, and considered over time, it becomes the gift provided by Jesus in today’s Gospel encounter. It is inexhaustible; it is a well which never goes dry. It enriches and fills with peace which can be acquired no where else. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews seems to be writing to Christians who had come to the Gospel of Christ through an active and deeply religious life in Judaism. Last Sunday we heard Jesus described as the new and eternal high priest, who replaced for Christians the Jerusalem temple priesthood with the heavenly, post-Resurrection Christ. Today, we hear of what the early Christians also embraced as another description of the Risen Christ, the very personification of the Word of God (the Logos or Word as John’s Gospel would later describe Jesus): the Word Made Flesh who lived among us. Today we cannot encounter the Risen Jesus Christ as did Mary Magdalene and the others on that first Easter. What we can and must encounter, however, is the very Word of the Risen Christ, the Gospel message as the early Church remembered it, elaborated on it, and handed in on to others, and eventually to us! We must allow the message to penetrate our conscious and unconscious motives and attitudes, and to critique our lives in specific detail. In the Gospel today, Jesus uses hyperbole (literary exaggeration for the sake of emphasis) in order to provoke his audience (perhaps saddened just as the rich man had been) with wonder and self-critique. In Jesus’ day, Judaism could attribute an individual’s personal wealth to God’s particular fondness for that individual. So, if God had made this man wealthy, why and how could such wealth become something he ought to relinquish?!?! The Gospel message places the burden back upon each individual to wrestle with the real cost of true discipleship. It is truly impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle; Jesus used a touch of humor for his audience. But, isn’t it possible to be as generous (give your possessions to the poor) so as to replace them with conscientious and confident discipleship (follow me)?! The Gospel message is perhaps posing the question, “In the case of great wealth, who possesses whom? Does the individual possess the wealth OR does the wealth possess the individual?” Even in poverty, this same question is applicable. Are you and I really and truly free enough to do good with all our possessions without hugging them tightly? Does our faith and does our love lead us to follow as genuine disciples with selfless generosity? Or do our possessions, power, and situations rule us as slaves? If we are slaves to possessions, then what kind of disciple of Christ are we? It is a great riddle how persons can have tens and hundreds of millions of dollars and still be blind to the good such wealth can do directly to so many who struggle to have merely the basics required by life. What is this power the possessions have over those who have been blessed? Disconnect with reality? Insensitivity? Greed? Blindness? Apathy? Arrogance? Fear? Insecurity? Delusion? What ... ? And yet each of us who has been blessed in any manner must apply this reflection to his or her life. As today’s Hebrews lesson concludes, we must be prepared to explain to “him to whom we must render an account.” Discipleship involves profoundly personal self-criticism along with tremendously generous love of neighbor, especially because we have been blessed.
The Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword. It penetrates . . . with Wisdom! Let us love with Wisdom and generosity!!