Sunday, September 8, 2013

True Wisdom



                                    23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    

Giorgione: Jesus and the Rich Young Man*


Today's first reading is from the Book of Wisdom and naturally it's subject is wisdom. In the last few weeks the Church has been offering us the virtues as guides on our journey through life. A couple of weeks ago it was Faith. Last week Humility. This week we have Wisdom. While all the virtues are gifts of God, we have to practice them regularly to stay in spiritual shape.

Wisdom is not intelligence, or book learning. We all know that sometimes the smartest people are not necessarily wise. Indeed, people with no learning at all can often be very wise. Wisdom is the virtue that helps us distinguish right from wrong in any endeavor. It will also help us in making the most important decisions in our lives. Wisdom often means looking outside of ourselves for guidance. Today we regularly turn to doctors, lawyers, and financial advisors for advice in matters of their expertise. We know, as it says in today's reading, that "the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans."

St. Luke's gospel which we have been using all year deliberately follows our Lord on His journey to Jerusalem. Every week we have been urged to accompany Him on this journey. Now as we approach the end it should not surprise us that the road is getting more difficult the closer we get to our goal. It will take a different kind of wisdom for us to find happiness. How many times do the gospels remind us that our ways are not necessarily the Lord's way.

Two weeks ago our Lord told us to be prepared to enter by "the narrow gate." Last week we were advised to "humble ourselves." This week our Lord indicates that if we want to stay afloat, we will have to throw everything overboard:

            anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
            cannot be my disciple.

Not just possessions but also our most dear attachments.

            If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
            wife and children, brothers and sisters,
            and even his own life,
            he cannot be my disciple.

What can we make of statements like these? What kind of advice is this? Right before Jesus turns to the crowd to utter these statements, He told another little parable about the goal of life's journey. This parable was about a man who gave a banquet and invited many to the banquet but they all had excuses for not coming. They were preoccupied by their own affairs. One had just bought a farm and had to go see it. Another had bought some oxen and had to take them out for a test ride. The last said, "I have married a wife, and therefore cannot come."

These refusals angered the man and led him to invite "the poor, and the crippled, and the blind, and the lame." All these were not tied down with possessions and attachments. He even went out into the highways and byways to fill the banquet hall. Wisdom tells us that only if we get our priorities straight will we find true happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

Both of the examples of practical wisdom that our Lord gives us in today's gospel are as appropriate today as ever. Instead of a man building a tower, we could talk of one taking on a load of debt which he would not be able to handle when interest rates rise. Don't we wish that our leaders and politicians would behave like the king in today's gospel who used foresight and wisdom before committing his men to battle?

Is it possible that our Lord is being just as practical when He asks us to renounce all of our possessions in order to find true happiness in our journey through life? Will all our accumulated possessions prove of lasting value? Look at how many people just have to have the latest phone or electronic device. They line up to buy it only to find that it is obsolete a year later.

Today's second reading from the letter of St. Paul to Philemon gives us another example of Wisdom. This letter is unusual in that it is not addressed to a community of believers but to an individual. Philemon like most well to do Roman citizens was a slaveowner. Slavery was a common and totally acceptable practice in Roman society. The Romans believed that it was better after conquering a people to enslave rather than kill them. Slaves were very valuable possessions in the ancient world.

Apparently, Onesimus, one of Philemon's slaves, had run away. Either before or after his escape, he had converted to Christianity and somehow had managed to meet up with Paul in prison. In today's reading we see that Paul sends him back to Philemon but urges him not to punish Onesimus but to give him his freedom. In giving up his slave, Philemon will gain "more than a slave,' but a brother in Christ.

It was our Lord's constant teaching that since we all have the same Father in Heaven, we are all brothers and sisters. We know that we are supposed to see Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters. Paul echoes this teaching when he says to Philemon about Onesimus, 'welcome him as you would me." From that time on it would be increasingly difficult for Christians to own slaves. It is true that there would be resistance to this "wisdom" but Paul's little letter to Philemon would be a constant reminder to Christians of the "un-wisdom" of slavery. 

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Reading 1. Wisdom 9: 13-18b
Reading II. Philemon 9b-19, 12-17
Gospel. Luke 14: 25-33 (carry his own cross).

*The painting by Giorgione is usually called the Three Ages of Man but I have interpreted it as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man." Jesus, dressed in a green priestly garment, instructs the young man. The third man is St. Peter dressed in a red garment that signifies martyrdom. Click on image to enlarge.

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