Father Donald Senior, CP

Oct. 14: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 11, 2018

What is wisdom?

Wis 7:7-11; Ps 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17; Heb 4:12-13; Mk 10:17-30

Paul Ricoeur was a distinguished French philosopher who taught for several years at the University of Chicago before returning to Paris to become the president of the Sorbonne. One of his contributions was to make the distinction between what he called “first naivete” or “simplicity” and “second naivete.” This distinction can be applied to our entire life cycle. 

As children, for example, we may have “first simplicity,” which means that without a lot of experience to complicate things, a child can have a relatively unexamined view of things. Life is simple, as it should be for a child. 

The older we get, our first simplicity begins to erode as we are faced with more data, more complicated situations and decisions. Life does not seem so simple anymore.

But if we persevere and are true to ourselves, we may gain a kind of “second simplicity.” We can discern what really counts in life and we can put aside things that make demands on us but, in fact, are of no lasting value. We value more deeply the people we love.

In biblical terms, this is what it means to gain wisdom, the kind of wisdom spoken of in our first reading for this Sunday. Wisdom is an intriguing notion in the Bible, occurring in several biblical books, such as Wisdom, Sirach, Proverbs and often in the Psalms, to name a few.

From one point of view, the Bible conceives of wisdom as a special gift of God, as, in fact, the very presence of God experienced by humans. Humans themselves can partake of this personification of God’s presence — true wisdom — when they too understand what is most important, enduring and truly valuable in life. 

Thus the narrator in this Sunday’s reading from the Book of Wisdom prays and pleads for the “spirit of wisdom.” He deems “riches nothing in comparison with her” (wisdom or “sophia” in Greek is a feminine word). Likewise the psalmist in today’s response Psalm 90 asks God, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”

The Lectionary pairs this reading from Wisdom with a powerful scene in the Gospel of Mark, the story of the rich man who reverently asks Jesus, kneeling as he does so, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

His question could be rephrased as, “Teacher, how can I gain true wisdom?” The man is truly sincere. Later in the account we learn that Jesus “looking at him, loved him.”

Jesus’ first response is that of the faithful Jew he was: God alone is good and God has given us the commandments that guide us toward a virtuous life, toward true wisdom. Jesus quickly recites the key commandments for the man. 

This is a good man seeking more, so Jesus reveals to him the ultimate challenging path to a life of goodness. The man is told to sell those possessions that restrict his freedom, to give the proceeds to the poor and, above all, to follow Jesus. By doing so, the man will “have treasure in heaven.”

This is too much of a challenge for the man and he “went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

This poignant story of what could have been does not end there. The disciples themselves are stunned at Jesus’ words. 

Jesus warns them that an excess of possessions can be an obstacle for authentic life, a burden that takes away our freedom to choose to live fully — as difficult as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. (This is a metaphor that some have tried in vain to soften by speculating it was a small city gate.)

What are we to make of Jesus’ challenge today? Many of us have a lot of stuff and sometimes it distracts us from turning our lives in love and generosity to those around us who need our attention and our care.

The way of Jesus is the way of generous love. Anything else we put our ultimate confidence in will come up short. That is true wisdom.




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