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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ageless Wisdom

Like Biblical books, the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom is of uncertain authorship or time. Some see enough similarities to the Jewish philosopher Philo (a contemporary of Jesus) to think him the author. Many think it sprang forth from the Jews living in the diaspora (dispersed Jewish communities throughout the world) in Egypt. Clement of Alexandria (175-230) considered it Scripture. Ireneaus, a generation prior to Clement, is the first written work to quote from it. Origen and Jerome questioned its canonicity. St. Augustine did not. And in an early list of Biblical books, called the Muratorian Canon (c 180) it is listed as part of the New Testament. In all likelihood it was written between 30BC and 40AD in Alexandria. [Michael Kolarcik, SJ, has a fine commentary in the New Interpreter's Bible series. I borrow extensively from him!]

It begins with a simple exhortation: Love Justice and seek the Lord. It continues with the sage advice: those who test God and seek evil do not find Him. It provides classical Christian teaching in that sense. Let us look at a few statements which seem remarkably contemporary.

God did not make death nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living. (1:13) This reflects Ezekiel 33:11 ("I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked") but seems to contrast with Deuteronomy 32:39 which says God is the author of Life and Death. Herein lies the first issue. All talk about God is, by definition, inadequate. God is beyond our thoughts and words. What we say can do little more than point in  the general direction. With that in mind, the apparent contradiction may be a mystery. While God is the ultimate source of everything (good and evil) because He is the Creator, He does not desire nor intentionally will evil things. It was the Fall (Adam and Eve) which generates death. God is life, separation from God/Life is death. Death is a negation, an emptiness, a nothingness. It is not-life.

Similarly, James 1:13 says God tempts no one; temptations come from our sinful desires. Along those lines Wisdom says the wicked...invited death, consider it a friend, and pined for it, and made a convenant with it. These words may seem over-harsh, yet if we ponder current events we see, in fact, all manner of unhealthy and violent choices which we make; choices which literally summon death.

What I found most striking was what followed. Those who do not think right believe "we were born by mere chance and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been...the body will turn to ashes and the spirit will dissolve like empty air...there is no return from death" The "wrong thinkers" accepting their fate then come up with a rule of life with which our culture is very familiar: Let us enjoy the good things that exist and make use of the creation to the full...let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes...let us leave signs of our enjoyment...And let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless." Life styles of the rich and famous, anyone?

This bleak outlook finds parallels in other wisdom writings of the Jews (especially Ecclesiastes, also Lamentations, Job and Psalms) but much of it seems generated by the Epicureans. [They believed the world was made up of atoms, that the gods are not involved in the world and the pursuit of 'pleasure' was the highest good. He did not define pleasure as dissolution, however others are more hedonistic]

We are often tempted to think we are so different from other people and other times. There are differnces, but often times not as many as we think. The author of this work, whether Biblical or not, shares with us important insights which are as relevant today as they were in the time of Jesus Christ. There is nothing new being uttered by our critics nor are our sins somehow unique. Doubt and fear, hopelessness and despair have always had their following. If we choose that path it is NOT because we now know something which the ancients didn't. To trust or not, to believe or not, to embrace God or not is an ageless and eternal (from a human timeline) choice. There are substantial reasons to question. There are more substantial reasons to embrace God as the answer. Reading the work of this unknown author (perhaps under divine inspiration?) opens my eyes and mind again to that truth. My believing is the wise choice. My trusting God is the life-choice.

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