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Friday, June 3, 2016

Wisdom, Limits and Trust

Ecclesiastes  6:1-12
Luke 12:32-40

Wisdom Literature is included in the Jewish Bible under the heading of "The Writings" (Kethuvim in Hebrew), which includes the Psalms, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, First and Second Chronicles and "The Scroll" (The Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Eccelsiastes, Esther). The place of Wisdom Literature is much debated. Different churches disagree about the canonical status of Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. The variety of materials makes it a loose collection at best!

The content and style of the Wisdom genre are different from Torah and Prophetic literature. There is a notable absence of reference to the central theological content of the Jewish Bible (Promises and Covenants with Patriarchs, Exodus and the Sinai Covenant). It might be said the the goal of Wisdom literature is leading "a good and the good life." A good life would be one where a person exhibits good manners and social skills, cleverness, artisan skill and a knowledge of the world and nature. The good life includes wealth, health, good social standing and progeny. Often times Sages reflect on experiential knowledge, so as one reads different books one encounters some tension. If Proverbs seems optimistic about the benefits of a good, our reading from Ecclesiastes reminds us that Qoheleth emphasizes the futility of a passing world. For me this is important for understanding what "revelation" is. God is found speaking to us in two books communicating through humans who are offering competing schools of thought. However, is this terribly different from the different religious orders in the Catholic church, or the various denominations which make up the Protestant world? Perhaps the particulars are always but one aspect of a whole too great to be encompassed by one school!

The Bible has compiled numerous works which seem to "contradict" one another. As one approaches Scripture as "Divine Revelation" our view of the trustworthiness of Scripture can take many forms, I have written about this many times in the past. It is simply not helpful to see the Bible as a series of factual statements and the declaration that there are no contradictions is based on a rejection of reality. The Bible is trustworthy, but it is true about a world full of contradictions, nuances and "on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand"! Quite obviously "look before you leap" and "he who hesitates is lost" can both be true, but circumstances determine which is true in a particular moment. The lazy man is reduced to poverty, but all poverty is not a result of laziness. Life can not be simply reduced to one size fits all pithy sayings.

Chapter 6 gives Qohelth's ruminations upon the worth of wealth and the "bad/evil" of the many who cannot enjoy what they have. Much of this chapter focuses on the lack of satisfaction people experience, in spite of their blessings. "Is that all there is?" crooned the singer, and many human hearts resonate with that experience. The Teacher then points out that in some ways to die at birth is to spare one the miseries of life. In the end we all end up in the same place, and our lives are spent trying to fill an appetite which will not be satisfied. In a later age, Augustine will say our hearts will not be satisfied until they find God. That never-filled emptiness of the soul is a proof of God for Aquinas. The insatiable human soul witnesses to a greater fullness in the Kingdom. This is not where the Teacher takes us, his beliefs probably did not include communion with God in the hereafter. Yet his insights are a valuable "pre-Gospel" meditation in that they remind us of the limits which we face in this limited human existence.

Luke 12:32-40
Jesus' teaching today provides an interesting complement to the Teacher's reflections. The Father has (eudokeo) gladly given us the Kingdom. There is a command not to fear. We pause to consider how often "do not be afraid" is commanded in Scripture. Fear is a great enemy of the Kingdom. 1 John 4:18 "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear." Luke 8:50 "Do not fear. Only believe and she will be saved." Fear then is a lack of trust and love. As we understand God's purpose (giving the Kingdom) and His disposition (with enthusiasm) we are able to be at peace to receive. As we read Friday in MP, Mt 14:22-36, Jesus told the apostles, "Take heart, is I; fear not." Bravery is a Christian virtue.

Luke 12:32-34 parallels Mt 6:19-21with a notable shift in emphasis. In Mt the exhortation is "do not store up treasure on earth" which Luke makes a positive injunction, "sell your possessions and give alms." The Greek word (works of mercy/alms) eleemosyne occurs eleven times in eleven verses, ten of those in Lucan writings. Luke has a focus on the poor which is consistent with the rabbinic faith of Judaism. Alms were considered salvific (much as the early church seemed to advocate) and the practice of giving to the poor was considered the most appropriate response to grace. The principle of generosity as gratitude (what you receive as a gift you give as a gift) is the concrete expression of faith and love. James 2:16 (what is the value of saying, "peace, keep warm and well fed," but do nothing to help?) is a common sense and practical expression of this. Both Mt and Lk conclude "where your treasure is there your heart will be." In other words, "you are what you value/care about deeply." Jesus seems to be emphasizing an organic or holistic understanding of the life of faith. Our faithful choices and behaviors cannot be sliced off from cognitive believing. Trusting God is not an emotion---it is a lifestyle choice.

Our reading ends with two parallel illustrations of preparedness. The first is the image of the wedding feast, with a focus on men awaiting their master. It is a far briefer version of the wise and foolish virgins. "Waiting for the Bride Groom/Master" parables easily lend themselves to becoming a metaphor. An attitude of expectant hope is a Christian duty. We must live each moment in anticipation. We are like Secret Service agents ever scanning and prepared. Jesus often warned against the numbing effects of daily life and worries. It is hard to stay focused. We often focus on the wrong things. We tell ourselves there will be time to set things straight. The future stretches before us as a promise of better things. The Christian must live each day as our last. The preoccupations and worries of the pagan, fallen world seduce us. What really matters? We do not have timers at birth which tell us how long we will live. God the Father has not revealed the day or time to His children. What then must we do? We return to The Teacher's reminder of the folly of storing up riches which cannot satisfy, which will all disappear. We hear Jesus, the Lord and New Teacher, tell us to value the riches that will sustain us---Kingdom treasures, the treasure of giving alms!

Jesus' view is: trust God, live in generous gratitude by helping the needy, and scan the horizon in anticipation of the Lord's coming. For those who argue this goes against "saved by faith alone" I would simply ask, "and what does Jesus think faith alone consists of?"


  1. Such a great post, thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Such a great post, thank you so much for sharing.