Friday, July 25, 2014

Seek Wisdom Above All

Seventeenth Ordinary Sunday Year A

We are bombarded with information like never before, due to the availability of and speed of access to data via the internet. Relationships are built that exist only in cyberspace; new religions are founded in the same place. If in the past, we would read editorials, features in magazines and books to determine what people are saying, today, the internet has allowed access to countless of opinions with just the click and the roll of the mouse.  Research has taken on an entirely new meaning with the dawn of the Google search engine and Wikipedia. But the real setback and downside of this informational deluge is that we are unable to separate the wheat from the darnel, the true from the false.

Perhaps, what we really need is not an information overload, but wisdom.  Today, wisdom has become for many, indistinguishable from knowledge. But the two are very different. Often, what we find touted as wisdom is simply opinion. In fact, wisdom itself can be shattered by too much information. Here is where we need to make this important distinction – knowledge does not equal wisdom. Knowledge can help us to make something, provide us the tools to use it, and the means to find it. But only wisdom can teach us the true value of things. Wisdom is the sure path of comprehending the absolute Truth, which is God himself, as the Proverb affirms, “The Fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom.”

That begs the question, what is wisdom? In Greek, the New Testament word for wisdom in the Greek language is ‘Sophia’, which refers to a concept, an object of philosophical speculation. To be wise to a Greek meant to understand a concept, to analyse something, to think about it, to come to a comprehension with regard to it. That's not the word in Hebrew. The word in Hebrew is ‘chakam’, and shares a common etymology with words related to judgment and the Law. Thus, ‘chakam’ refers to skill in living. The concept of wisdom in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament therefore pointed to a form of practical knowledge – its making all the correct choices in life – to make right judgments. Wisdom is not simply factual knowledge or information. Neither is it some clever opinion. Rather, it is insight into the very nature of things, the reality of things. Wisdom helps us to distinguish Truth from falsehood, the good from the bad, the beautiful from the ugly.

This was the kind of wisdom that King Solomon had asked for – the ability to grasp the mind of God, his Laws and to distinguish good from evil. Strangely, this is the same knowledge coveted by Adam and Eve and which they attempted to steal from Eden. They failed to recognise that they already had this gift at their disposal. It was God’s to give; not for them to steal. It was not as if they did not have knowledge of what was good or bad. God told them that the fruits from the entire garden of Eden was good. The exception was the fruit that came from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, of which God had warned them was bad. In their hubris, they sought autonomy from the will of God and the rest is history. If Adam and Eve had chosen to discard the will of God, Solomon desired to know His will. He could ask whatever he wanted of God and God would have given it.  But he chose wisdom, which was far more valuable than all the power and treasures the world could offer. 

The first two parables in today’s gospel, the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, teach us about the incomparable value of Wisdom. Both parables highlight the single-hearted response that is demanded when one finds the Kingdom of Heaven. Both protagonists didn’t haggle over price. Nor did they bemoan what their acquisitions would cost them. On the contrary, they made their transactions joyfully, because what both men stood to gain was so tremendous that it made any cost, any sacrifice, any leap of faith insignificant in comparison. In the eyes of the world, their actions would have been regarded as foolishness. Only Wisdom would show that they had made the most significant investment of their lives.

The parables also teach us that Wisdom is never easily accessible. In both parables, the treasures are hidden, indicating that spiritual truth is missed by many and cannot be found by intelligence or power or worldly wisdom. The theme of hiddenness lends weight to the idea that such wisdom is sacred. In today’s society, the idea of mystery and ‘hiddenness’ is often associated with elitism. Most people demand accessibility and intelligibility. For example, a common point made by many is that a person cannot fully participate and appreciate the liturgy unless he is able to sufficiently to understand every single aspect of it. This point is often made when discussing the wisdom of using Latin text for the ordinaries in the Mass. The problem is that accessibility is often mistaken for banality, pandering to the popular. In our effort to ensure accessibility to the masses, we have chosen to adopt a pedestrian language, a dumbing down, to the point that we have to abandon both the theologically rich language and imagery for the empty and the banal. In the name of accessibility, our worship has descended into a flattened and disenchanted liturgy. On the contrary, the Liturgy seeks to express the mystery of the holy and the enduring, and not just what is current, contemporary and transitory. People often fail to acknowledge that even if the participants do not perhaps understand every single word, they still can perceive the profound meaning, the presence of the mystery, which transcends all words. It is when a mystery becomes totally comprehensible, that it ceases to be sacred. Likewise when a treasure is no longer hidden, it ceases to have value. The familiarity which accessibility breeds often leads to contempt.

The parables also remind us that the most valuable things in life, and the Kingdom must certainly rank first, involves not just an element of sacrifice, but is essentially sacrificial. Both of these parables involve men had to make sacrifices, selling everything that they had to obtain their treasures. There is a cost of salvation, if not it would be ‘cheap grace,’ in the words of the German Lutheran martyr of the Nazi era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer  There is a heavy cost involved in being a follower of Christ, and Jesus wants us to understand that. I realise that I’ve grown up in a generation that doesn’t know much about sacrifice. To people my age, the hardships of the past that our parents had to endure are just boring repetitive stories about how terrible things were in the ancient long, long ago. We’re used to having things easy. And sometimes that attitude carries over into our own Christian faith and lifestyle. And so we want to enjoy all the blessings of the kingdom, but we don’t want to do anything, we don’t want to give anything, and we certainly don’t want to sacrifice anything.

Even though great sacrifice is required, it is never a burden. Holy Wisdom will help us to appreciate that the Kingdom is always a source of Joy. Notice the joy of the discovery as well as the joy of parting with one’s possessions to acquire that treasure or the pearl of great price. These men do not just sell everything they have, but they do so with exuberant joy. There is no regret in their actions. We hear no complain about the sacrifice that has to make. Perhaps the real test of a disciple’s commitment is not so much whether he is willing to make sacrifices for our Lord, but whether he is able to make those sacrifices with joy.

Finally, Wisdom is not just a concept of speculative value. And wisdom here need not stop with practical knowledge. In fact, Scriptures would eventually speak of wisdom as a personified attribute of God.  It is here where the New Testament writings begin to demonstrate that Christ himself is the “power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). The Divine Logos, the Word, became the manifestation of Sophia, Holy Wisdom. Christ is the Perfection and the Incarnation of Wisdom. He is the physical embodiment of the words of wisdom. St Irenaeus reminds us that Christ himself “is the treasure hidden within Scriptures” and according to St Augustine, the one pearl of great price, is Christ Jesus, and no other.

Contemplation of holy wisdom is certainly quite relevant in our present day and age. How many sincere parents have been fooled into thinking that the best education can be gained at the best school. Our children may indeed receive the best education but come no closer to wisdom, they have no time for awe and wonder, not time to contemplate the marvelous works of God. St John Bosco, the wise educator said, “to cultivate only the intellect, abandoning all the other human faculties, is to deform man.” Man needs to contemplate the good, the beauty and the Truth of the Universe around him, so that he might form an idea of the absolute goodness, beauty and truth of God, so that he can come to love God with his whole heart, soul and mind. Man must come to discover the treasure hidden with the profound mystery of the Liturgy, a sacred mystery that must be guarded and not sullied by our demands for banal innovations and accessibility. It is wisdom that allows man to know and love the creature, but above all, the Creator. Therefore, the truly intelligent is the man who seeks Wisdom. Today, let us come to love Wisdom, for in doing so, we come to love Christ, the perfect Incarnation of Wisdom. And finally, it is in Him that we will find the perfect antidote to the false worship of knowledge so prevalent in our days.

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