in Ordinary Time
Wis 7: 7-11
Mark 10: 17-30
Oct. 14, 2012
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“I preferred wisdom to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her” (Wis 7: 8).
The Book of Wisdom, probably the last book of the OT to be composed, dates from about 100 B.C. We don’t know who wrote it, but in a style fairly common at the time, the author put much of its contents into the mouth of King Solomon, famous for his wisdom and, at least in the 1st part of his reign, for his piety.
In the teaching of the OT prophets and wisdom literature—the wisdom literature includes Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Sirach in addition to Wisdom—in most of this teaching, piety and wisdom go together. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” is a theme in the Psalms (Ps 111:10) and the Book of Proverbs (Prov 1:7; 9:10), for instance. Here fear means a healthy respect and reverence for the Lord, rather than being afraid of him.
So in today’s short passage from the Book of Wisdom, “Solomon,” i.e., the anonymous author, teaches us that wisdom is to be preferred to power, wealth, prestige, or anything else.
While that’s offered as a religious teaching, ordinary human wisdom agrees with it. How many times have you heard, “Money can’t buy happiness”? I’m sure you’ve all seen the MasterCard ads that go like this: “Object 1 costs $X. Object 2 costs $X. Object 3 costs $X.” Some intangible, valuable experience like “a day spent with your son” of “an evening with your wife” is “Priceless. There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”
Every year the Salesians of St. John Bosco—like a good number of other religious orders—send out as missionaries a good number of generous young lay men and women (more women than men, by the way), most of them fresh out of college. When these volunteers get to their Third World destinations, they find out what’s really valuable. For example, Stephanie blogged from Bolivia on Sept.30 a reflection called “Beauty is everywhere I look!” that began this way:
Last Sunday we went to pick up Lorena [a newly arriving volunteer] from the airport with Sister Nora. Well on the way home from picking her up, we stopped at a festival and then after that, Sister Nora needed to stop at a house of a family that she helps out. While she went in to talk with the family, we stayed out in the truck. This family was a family of ten who was struggling financially. While we were waiting in the truck all of a sudden a few of their children came out to the truck with some Coca-Cola for us. Even though they hardly had anything, they still made sure to give their guests something. This was not the first time I have seen this. This has happened to me while I was in Peru on a mission trip as well. There are some people who have everything but will refuse to give anything. I was truly touched by this act of kindness.
And Caitlin wrote from South Sudan a week before that, in a posting she titled “Late Night Musings of an SLM [Salesian Lay Missioner]”:
Exhausted after chasing the kids around outside, I found myself desperately in need of water. Not thinking ahead, I filled up my water bottle and brought it outside. 10 kids ran over and fought for the “moya”, and in seconds the bottle was drained. Afterwards, I remembered: I am in the middle of a community considered impoverished even by South Sudanese standards. That bottle might be the only filtered water those kids get in God knows how long. I am spoiled.In the same posting, Caitlin—a fair-skinned, red-headed Irish-American lass from New Jersey—also writes:
People appreciate simplicity... Looking at pictures we’ve taken so far, I realized how terribly washed out I look, and how young. At home, this would encourage me to wear more makeup. But here, the fact that I live just as I am (without modifying my appearance), is so much more beautiful a thing than looking a little better in a photograph. It’s not worth losing that feeling for the sake of a little mascara. I think I’ll stay washed-out.
Without a doubt, our bonds of family and home and hospitality and belonging are priceless. Without a doubt, no price can be put on the blessings of fresh air and clean water and the beauty of nature—sunrises and sunsets, woods and oceans, “purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.” Without a doubt, it’s a privilege to be able to worship God freely, to be loved and forgiven by him, to be invited into his family as his children and heirs. That we’d call priceless, except that, as St. Paul says, twice (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23), it did come at a great price—our being ransomed by the Son of God.
It’s wisdom—human wisdom on one level, divine wisdom on another—to recognize all that, and then to make decisions that correspond to that wisdom—to live wisely. We’re easily tempted by transient things like the “riches, health, comeliness” that “Solomon” lists (Wis 7:8,10)—things like fine clothes, nice vacations, cosmetics, jewelry, pleasure and entertainment, concern about what people will think—all of which the Bible tells us is foolishness; none of which leads us to God or keeps us in touch with God or satisfies the longings of our hearts. St. Augustine 1,600 years ago wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
The gospel reading today tells us of a restless young man who came to Christ seeking the solution for his restlessness. But he wanted an easy solution, and Christ doesn’t offer one. In the end, money separated him from Christ: “he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). The pursuit of power and prestige separated the scribes and the Sadducees from Christ and induced Pontius Pilate to crucify him.
And us? When we look into our hearts, do we find any foolishness separating us from him? If so, we don’t have to imitate the young man of the gospel, or the scribes, or Pilate. We can renounce whatever it is we’re chasing that’s not God, such as an over-concern for money or self-importance that shows little concern for other people or finding pleasure and comfort in the wrong places (addictive behaviors).
We can, instead, choose to embrace wisdom. And what might that mean for us? The liturgy today gives us hints. In the Collect (or opening prayer), we prayed that God would “make us always determined to carry out good works,” and in the gospel Jesus advised the man who came to him to “give to the poor” from his wealth and “follow me” (10:21). In this context, wisdom consists in doing good to other people, especially by sharing what we have with the poor—or the weak or the vulnerable. If we don’t have money, we might have time to spend with someone in need of company and compassion, or time to give to a charitable or community-service organization that needs volunteers; we might have talent and expertise to offer, like teaching a child to read, teaching someone to cook, to knit, to operate tools, to do CPR; next month we’ll vote for our political leaders, and our vote will include an approach to the most vulnerable members of our society, namely, children in the womb. And while any of that—donating time or talent and voting—is good in itself, if we do it in Jesus’ name, if we do it because that what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes (allowing, obviously, that Jesus might work miracles but you and I don’t!), then we’re “following Jesus”—which is the wisest thing we can do, because Jesus satisfies the deepest longings of our restless hearts; Jesus leads us to eternal happiness.