by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Wisdom shines bright and never grows dim.” Wisdom 6; 12-16
All three of today’s readings have something to say about wisdom. However, the word “wisdom” has so many connotations in English that it is very difficult to define it with any real precision. Moreover, today’s readings taken together, while they encourage us to cultivate and pursue wisdom, don’t exactly inspire us to get involved in that pursuit or identify for us what exactly it is that might be the focus of our searching.
Before looking closely at the three readings, we might direct our attention to asking ourselves what value we put on wisdom and what do we understand wisdom to be. Sometimes we might be inclined to equate common sense with wisdom, possibly because common sense is much more a rarity than it is a commonality. We experience it so infrequently in our everyday interactions with others that we come to regard it as wisdom in practice. At other times, I suspect that we come to see wisdom as the distillation or by-product of a long succession of life experiences, believing that we will attain that kind of wisdom if we can successfully negotiate the various challenges that confront us as we grow and mature. At other times, wisdom might be best expressed in doing nothing, in resisting the urge to embark on a risky action.
Yet, coming to understand what wisdom is and the role it plays in our lives is something we don’t know how to achieve. But we do know that wisdom is a quality we would like to attain in the course of our lives. We all know something of the story of how Solomon responded when God said to him: “Ask what you would like me to give you!” Solomon replied: “I am a very young man unskilled in leadership, so please give your servant a heart to understand how to discern between good and evil.” (1 Kings 3: 1-15) God was so impressed with Solomon’s humility that God gave him the gift of wisdom – a quality that became synonymous with the king’s name.
Still, we all have different understandings and experiences of wisdom at different times in our lives. We would like to have wisdom, but we are not sure what it is. We experience it as elusive. We can recognise and admire it in others, but we are not sure that their wisdom fits us. The wisdom we see in a young mother rearing children is different from the wisdom of an octogenarian reflecting on life. The wisdom accrued by a parent who has accompanied a son or daughter through rehabilitation from drug-addiction is different from the wisdom required of a principal of a school full of adolescents and young adults. Wisdom in many of Shakespeare’s plays issues from the mouths of fools and jesters. And there are times when we all catch ourselves believing that we have the wisdom that seems to evade our politicians.
With that as introduction, let’s look more closely at today’s readings. The first reading from the Book of Wisdom and the gospel-reading from Matthew focus on the theme of wisdom through specific reference to it. The writer of the Book of Wisdom personifies wisdom as a woman who lingers on doorsteps prompting residents to welcome her and make her feel at home. The suggestion is that admitting wisdom to one’s everyday decision-making will transform those who welcome her into living with rectitude, integrity and virtue. But that reading does not tell us precisely what wisdom is. The gospel-reading is an allegory of the Second Coming of Jesus – an event for which we need to be prepared. But neither Jesus nor Matthew is exhorting us to frenzied activity, to hasten to tidy ourselves up as though there is a programme of set activities to be undertaken. But we are left in no doubt that we are to imitate the five wise virgins. Still, there is no set of clear procedures to be followed for making ourselves like them.
However, if we are to engage with this gospel-reading as participants, we have to shift from the position of side-line observers and decide what actions we will need to undertake in order to identify ourselves with the five wise virgins. The second reading from Thessalonians might give us a clue in that it gives us a glimpse of how the very early Christians, including Paul himself, believed that the end-times were just around the corner. Their thoughts were so focussed on the imminence of the Second Coming of Jesus that they were discussing who would get preferential entry into the presence of God – those who had already died or those who would die when the created world came tumbling down on the last day. Paul dismissed their query as nonsense, pointing out that admission to God’s presence would not be the result of a competition but would be the logical continuation of the relationship faithful Christians had already built with God by living as Jesus had consistently taught them to live. Identifying with the wise virgins means being ever ready to welcome Jesus whenever he invites us to be with him, just as they were fully prepared when the bridegroom eventually arrived.
Yet somehow, we know that wisdom makes a significant contribution to teaching us how to live as Jesus taught us. We acquire that wisdom by reflecting on the Word of God in Scripture. We will rarely find it in books or in compendiums of doctrines. Pope Francis has repeatedly reminded us that wisdom is alive and well in the hearts and practices of the faithful people who make up the Christian community we call Church. Moreover, we know in the depths of our being that the wisdom for life is to be found in the person and teaching of Jesus, our brother. And in the model for living embodied in the Gospels. After all, he did say of himself: “I am the way, the truth and the Life.” (John 14: 6) Therein lies the essence of wisdom.
Expressing it a little differently, we can say that wisdom is ever present at our doorsteps in the invitation to us to be present to God present in our encounters with the people and events with whom and with which we interact each and every day of our lives.