Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Wisdom 7:7-11
I remember standing on a street corner in Chicago with a pack of thirty people waiting for the light to change so we could cross the street. A man stood shouting at all of us, trying to sell us newspapers. As part of his sales pitch, he promised that if even one of us bought a paper, he would stop talking until the light changed. Sometimes I wish that all the purveyors of ideas, the salesmen, the advertisers, the self-help gurus would do the same and just stop making so much noise. The world is full of people doling out advice. Just open any page on the Internet and be prepared to be overwhelmed by advice about relationships, money, sex, jobs, politics, golf, fantasy football, getting six-pack abs, dieting, wrinkle-removal, and anything else you can think of! In all that seeking, we can get lost in a maze of suggestions, recommendations, and “quick tips.” After a while, it feels like we’re being shouted at by a newspaper man rather than actually learning anything. What we really are looking for is not silly tips, but wisdom.
Solomon’s Prayer for Wisdom
In this Sunday’s reading, we overhear the inner prayer of Solomon, reflecting back on his choice to receive wisdom from God rather than riches and power. (The text where this reading comes from, the Book of Wisdom, was written in Greek by a poet writing long after Solomon’s death, but he puts the words of the book in Solomon’s mouth, so to speak.) When Solomon became king, God appeared to him in a dream and gave him the opportunity to ask for whatever he wished. Solomon made the right choice in his response:
Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people? (1 Kings 3:9 RSV)
God rewards Solomon for his prayer not only with wisdom, but with riches and power besides. Wisdom is an intangible, a hard-to-grasp concept that deserves a closer look.
What is Wisdom?
Since wisdom takes so many different forms, it can be hard to define. St. Thomas refers to it as a right judgment in accord with eternal law (ST II-II, q. 45, a. 2). Put another way, wisdom is seeing things the way God sees them. We can distinguish at least three kinds of wisdom: practical, speculative, and revelatory.
The Art of Living
On the first level, practical wisdom consists in the kind of learning that can only be obtained by experience. There is a difference between a wise carpenter, who has been building houses for decades, and one who has only been on the job for a week. The longtime carpenter has had his intuition and his judgment shaped by his experience. He knows just how hard to hit a nail, how to join a stubborn board to another, how to fix a wall that has bent out of shape. That kind of build-up of practical experience is a real form of wisdom. Yet it is limited to a technical sphere. We can also gain wider life experience that over time helps us live more effortlessly. Learning over time how to get up early, work hard, save money, help others, and consistently make good decisions is a kind of wisdom that comes with experience. If we live well, we will accumulate this type of wisdom that enables us grow in the art of living.
At the second level, speculative wisdom consists in a deep ruminating about the nature of life, death and the plight of man. Ecclesiastes dishes up this style of wisdom reflection. When we ask the deep questions about the meaning of life, the significance of suffering, the origin and destiny of man, we enter into this kind of wisdom. Coming to appreciate in your gut your own creaturely status or wondering at the beauty of creation fall in this category. While we can read philosophy books all day (and be bored to tears!), if we begin to experience the impact of the reality that we find ourselves in, we start to tap into this kind of speculative wisdom that surpasses mere book-learning.
Wisdom From God
The last form of wisdom is the kind that God gives. When Solomon prays for wisdom, he is not asking for the merely human, but for a gift of wisdom from God. God, of course, is infinitely wise, the perfect sage. God’s Wisdom is so powerful that it is personified in the Old Testament as “Lady Wisdom” (Prov 1–9) and again in the New Testament, we learn that Jesus is the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). Yet God does not hoard his wisdom, but bestows it as a gift. Solomon receives the gift of wisdom in a special way, but it is also available as part of a package deal: Wisdom ranks among the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isa 11:2-3). Through this divine wisdom, God grants us a sharing in his very own eternal wisdom. It as though he hands us his pair of spectacles through which to see the world.
In our reading, Solomon reflects on how the wisdom from God trumps all worldly pursuits: wealth, fame, riches. Wisdom is better than power (Wisd 7:8). Wisdom is better than good health and good looks (Wisd 7:10). All those gurus, advertisers, and wrinkle-cream peddlers would take notice of their thinner pocketbooks if we took Solomon’s example seriously. If we really regarded wisdom as more valuable than daylight (7:10), we might spend our time and money a bit differently. Think about it.