Monday of Week 32 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Wisdom 1:1-7

Today we go back to the Old Testament and during the whole of this week our readings are from the Book of Wisdom. This is one of the later books in the Bible and, unlike most of the others, was written in Greek rather than Hebrew. It dates from only about 100 BC and was written in Alexandria, a centre of Hellenism on the north coast of Egypt. It is one of the so-called deutero-canonical books, not part of the Jewish Bible nor recognised as part of the Bible by most Protestant churches (although some non-Catholic bibles may include it in a section of ‘apocrypha’). It was used by the Fathers of the Church from the second century AD, and despite some hesitation and opposition, notably from St Jerome, was recognised as being inspired in just the same way as the books of the Hebrew canon.

The name of the author is not known, but he was a member of the Jewish community at Alexandria in Egypt. Alexandria was the second city of the Roman Empire at this time. He wrote in Greek, but following a Hebrew-verse style. In order to give greater credence to his statements, he puts them in the mouth of Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, but who lived long before this book was written. Throughout, the author shows himself deeply familiar with the earlier Old Testament writings.

His main purpose in writing was to give encouragement to his fellow-Jews during a time of great suffering and oppression, not least from apostate fellow-Jews. The first 10 chapters prepare us for the fuller teachings of Christ and his church. And many passages from this part of the book, especially Wisdom 3:1-8, are used by the church in her liturgy.

The opening reading today is an evaluation of Wisdom as an essential factor in our lives:

Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth;
think of the Lord in goodness
and seek him with sincerity of heart,
because he is found by those who do not put him to the test
and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him.

‘Righteousness’, also translated as ‘justice’ or ‘uprightness’ (from the Greek, dikaiosune), exists when there is perfect harmony in both thought and deed with the known will of God as expressed in the Law or in the injunctions of one’s conscience. We see this in Jesus as he prays in the garden to his Father:

…not my will but yours be done.

Perfect uprightness then is when God’s will and mine are in such harmony that I not only submit my will to God’s, but where both wills totally coincide. I want what God wants.

The author speaks to the “rulers of the earth”. Later on in the book, he will imply that he is Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, speaking to his fellow-kings. This, of course, is just a literary device. In fact, he is addressing his fellow Jews in Alexandria, who are threatened by the ‘unrighteousness’ of their Gentile neighbours.

The writer tells us:

…seek him with sincerity of heart…

‘Seeking God’ in order to ‘find him’ is a recurrent admonition in both prophetic and wisdom literature. Another version of this is found in the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
(Matt 5:8)

And that is the meaning of ‘simplicity’ here. It does not imply ‘naivete’, but a vision that is clear and not cluttered by distorting factors.

For perverse thoughts separate people from God,
and when his power is tested, it exposes the foolish…

Perverse thoughts are the opposite of that simplicity of heart because they cut people off from God. And ‘power’ confounds the stupid. That is the power of God which, if challenged by rebellious acts, confounds the stupid because only the stupid would do such a thing. In the course of the book, the author will identify the power of God with God’s Spirit and Wisdom, which, for him, are interchangeable terms. In the Gospel, too, the ‘Reign of God’ which Jesus put at the heart of his teaching is not the power of a secular ruler but the power of Wisdom.

…wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul
or dwell in a body enslaved to sin.

Wisdom and sin are incompatible. No truly wise person, whose wisdom comes from God, who is Wisdom, can be in conflict with God. A person who deliberately does what is wrong is closing his mind to true wisdom. Nor can wisdom dwell in a body enslaved to sin. We do not hold that the body is evil in itself, a principle strongly held by the New Testament. However, it may become the instrument of sin and thus dominate the soul. In John’s gospel Jesus says:

Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (John 8:34)

Paul, too, speaks of the struggle between the “flesh” and his “inner self” (see Rom 7:14-24).

From Wisdom:

For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit
and will leave foolish thoughts behind
and will be ashamed at the approach of unrighteousness.

If we are under the influence of the ‘holy spirit’ of Wisdom, we will avoid all deceitfulness, which is the direct opposite of the ‘simplicity of heart’, that transparency which is the path to ‘uprightness’. We will avoid all ‘unintelligent thoughts’, which, by definition are not guided by wisdom. On the other hand, wisdom is blocked once vice is allowed to take over.

For wisdom is a kindly spirit,
but it will not free blasphemers from the guilt of their words,
because God is witness of their inmost feelings
and a true observer of their hearts and a hearer of their tongues.

‘Wisdom’ is, of course, friendly to humanity, because to be truly wise is to be in close harmony with God, and that is what our whole being is made for. When our lives are guided by wisdom, then we become the kind of people that God intended us to be. As wisdom grows, we too grow more and more into his image.

On the other hand, Wisdom “will not free blasphemers from the guilt of their words”. The blasphemer is one who speaks or acts in a way derogatory to God and all that God stands for. To behave in such a way is to alienate one from the God in whose image we are called to live. And there is no escape from this, because “God is witness of their inmost feelings and a true observer of their hearts and a hearer of their tongues”.

For the word translated here ‘soul’, the author used the traditional word ‘kidneys’. In the ancient world, the kidneys – and not the heart – were considered the centre of the emotions and instinctive impulse. On the other hand, the ‘heart’ was the seat of the activity of intellect and will. Where we tend to say ‘heart and mind’, they would say ‘kidneys and heart’. Hence, in the ancient world, ‘heart’ and ‘kidneys’ were frequently linked to signify all the inner forces of the human person.

Because the spirit of the Lord has filled the world
and that which holds all things together knows what is said…

In the concluding sentence of the reading we are told that the ‘spirit of the Lord’, another name for the ‘wisdom of God’ fills the whole world, because he created that world and, wherever creation is, God’s wisdom is immanent there, giving it and conserving it in existence. It is that Wisdom/Spirit which “holds all things together” and hence “knows what is said”. Wisdom/Spirit links all things so intimately that He is immediately aware of every word uttered. The liturgy of Pentecost adapts this text to the ‘gift of tongues’, where, after the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, everyone could understand what they were saying.

God sees deep into our inmost self, into our heart and overhears all that we say. For God’s spirit, the source of wisdom, penetrates the whole world and knows all. Wisdom is our sharing in that knowledge and insight of God into things.

Both the transcendence and the immanence of God are implied in the whole passage. God’s transcendence means that he is far above and beyond all the capacity of the human mind to grasp. That is the meaning of the Incarnation, by which in the humanity of Jesus, we can get a dim glimpse of what God is like as expressed through Jesus’ way of living his human life. But the fullness of God’s being is something that we cannot grasp in the humanity of Jesus. That will have to wait for the Beatific Vision.

God’s immanence speaks of his deep presence in every created thing. This is not to be confused with pantheism which believes that everything is God. Some have come up with another term ‘panentheism’, God’s creative, transforming and loving presence in everything. We need to keep both God’s transcendence and immanence in mind when we try to understand his nature, but a full understanding will never be reached in this life.

Also, we must not confuse wisdom with intelligence or having encyclopaedic knowledge. It is not a question of knowing much. To know the Catechism of the Catholic Church by heart and to be able to enunciate every doctrinal statement with perfect accuracy does not constitute wisdom. Nor does impeccable orthodoxy equip one with wisdom. Rather it is the ability to see all things in their proper relationship to each other and to see where we ourselves fit into the whole picture and, of course, to see it all in the light of God. As we go through life, it will be a constantly changing picture. It is a gift which began to flow into us at Confirmation but it never ceases to call for a further deepening.

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