To this day, while less frequently than in the past, we still hear the phrase “the wisdom of Solomon.” As the young and newly consecrated king of God’s chosen people, Solomon implored God to give him a wise and understanding heart. Wisdom and understanding are, of course, gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Because they are gifts bestowed by and through the Holy Spirit, wisdom and understanding are “charisms.” Unlike the popular parody, a charismatic Christian is one possessed of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These gifts, in turn, produce the fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. Being fruitful for God’s Kingdom is the fundamental point of the torrent of parables we have heard the past several Sundays.
Wisdom and understanding are more than apprehending the truth. This is especially the case given that culturally and religiously we tend to think of truth in an abstract, static, disembodied, and atemporal way. In short, a person can apprehend the truth and still be a fool.
The word “philosophy” is a compound Greek word: philo, derived from philia, one of the four words the Greek language possesses for love, refers to the deep love of genuine friendship. Aristotle thought philia the highest form of human love. He defines philia thus: “wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one's own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him.”1 Let’s not forget that Jesus calls us not to be servants but his friends.2
“Sophy,” comes from sophia, the Greek word for wisdom. Love of wisdom should not be mistaken for possession of the same. After all, there are so-called “sophists.” A sophist is a person who convincingly plays the part of a wise person but who misleads either intentionally or unintentionally. Our world, especially in this age of mass communication, is full of sophists. Many are of the pseudo-Catholic variety. Wisdom requires discernment.
A wise heart is an understanding heart. An understanding heart is a listening heart. Wisdom, we might say, is understanding embodied or, better yet, personified. Wisdom is knowledge + understanding + simplicity x humility.
Wisdom can only grow in the soil of humility. Humility comes from the Latin word humus, which refers to rich soil. “Humility,” it has been observed, “is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” A self-centered person cannot be a wise person.
Wisdom is simplicity itself. Simplicity is trusting God like a little child trusts her Mom. This is the point Saint Paul seeks to make in our second reading. All too often the phrase “all things work together for the good,” like many passages in Sacred Scripture, is ripped from its context and turned into a pious platitude, fitting for any occasion when the inevitable question, Why?, is asked in the face of suffering. Far from comforting, pious platitudes are hurtful, harmful, and often infuriating. As Rich Mullins sang concerning suffering: “… it would not hurt any less even if it could be explained.”3
Paul tempers the well-intended but misguided universality with which “all things work together for the good” is usually employed by adding “for those who love God” and “who are called according to his purpose.”4 In and of itself, suffering has no inherent meaning. Suffering needs to be redeemed and redemption, like childbirth, as Paul notes earlier in the same chapter from which our second reading is taken, is painful and life-giving.5
The suffering Jesus underwent during his Passion and Crucifixion was redemptive because he freely submitted himself when he prayed to the Father in the power of the Spirit: “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”6 As Paul notes earlier in Romans: “We were indeed buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”7 Baptism is your “not as I will, but as you will” offering to God. Paul, in our second reading, writes about being conformed to the image of the Son of God.8 The image of Jesus Christ is cruciform.
Let’s never forget that those who love God and seek to fulfill his purpose are those who not only love their neighbor but who also love their enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, found earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks: "For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?"9
“The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord,” which is why through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, in simplicity we need to ruthlessly place our trust in God.10 It is through this ruthless trust in God, who is love, that you realize “There is no fear in love.”11 This is to experience through the circumstances of your own life the cosmos-shattering reality that Christ has conquered death. Christus resurrexit qui Deus caritas est!- Christ is risen because God is love!12
“The kingdom of heaven is like…” We should always pay attention when this phrase is invoked by Jesus in the Gospels. If you pay attention, you will quickly see that when compared to how the world works, the Kingdom of God is a bizarro world. When approaching the Gospel of Matthew, it is also useful to keep in mind that it was written for Jewish Christians, members of what we might call a Christian synagogue.
Again this week, we hear multiple parables; four to be exact. All of these make more sense when understood from a Jewish perspective. In the first short parable, according to Torah, once purchased, a property, both surface and subsurface, unlike ownership in our society, belongs entirely to the owner.13 Therefore, to sneak into the field and unearth a buried treasure, even one the owner does not know exists, is thievery. So great is the wisdom of God in Christ that it is worth all that is you own, no matter how rich you are.
Several ancient rabbinic sources link Torah study to the great value of pearls.14 The wisdom of God is indeed conveyed in the scriptures. Hence, we must not only read scripture but develop wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to read fruitfully and not to only confirm our lazy preconceptions, which are very often misconceptions. Reading the scriptures faithfully and fruitfully allows us to be both challenged and surprised.
The image of fishermen sorting fish is one readily recognizable to Jesus’s immediate listeners. Remember, according to the inspired author of Matthew, they remain gathered along the shore listening to this teacher from Nazareth as he sat in a fishing boat. Jewish fishermen on the Sea of Galilee would have had to sort kosher from non-kosher fish15. Jesus redefines kosher by insisting that it is what comes out of a person, not what goes in, that ultimately matters.16 According to Jesus, orthopraxis- doing right- trumps orthodoxy- believing rightly- every time.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus insists that he does not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.17 This is likely what he refers to when he mentions bringing out the old with the new. For followers of Jesus, Torah teachings are still valid. Jesus's “new” teachings concerning them not only further reveal their meaning but clarify their purpose.18 In short, Jesus shows how the Torah provides the means for the end of loving God with your entire being by loving your neighbor (and your enemy) as you love yourself.
This kind of love, self-sacrificing love, in Greek agape, in Latin caritas, is the culmination of wisdom.
1 Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1380c36-1381a2. ↩
2 John 15:15.↩
3 Rich Mullins, "Hard to Get," off The Jesus Record.↩
4 Romans 8:28.↩
5 Romans 8:22-23.↩
6 Matthew 26:39.↩
7 Romans 6:4..↩
8 Romans 8:29.↩
9 Matthew 5:46..↩
10 Proverbs 9:10.↩
11 1 John 4:8.16; 1 John 4:18.↩
12 Pope Benedict XVI, Easter Urbi et Orbi address, 16 April 2006.↩
13 Footnote to Matthew 13:44 in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Edition, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 36-37.↩
14 Footnote to Matthew 13:45 in Jewish Annotated New Testament, 37.↩
15 Footnote to Matthew 13:48 in Jewish Annotated New Testament, 37.↩
16 Matthew 15:11.↩
17 Matthew 5:17.↩
18 Footnote to Matthew 13:52 in Jewish Annotated New Testament, 37.↩