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Wisdom Literature

Wisdom Literature

Today the Lectionary for daily Mass shifts our attention to the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures.  We don’t read complete books but rather sample several different books for the next three weeks: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth) and Job.

Wisdom Literature generally consists of the experience of a life lived in accord with the Sinai Covenant as opposed to a life which ignores the dictates of the Lord.  In that respect it tends to be practical rather than theoretical.  While much of the Wisdom Literature aims itself to an audience of young men who are counseled to learn from their fathers, there are also passages which include the older generation in the search for Wisdom. 

If there is anything that one should be cautious about it is the notion that following the way of Wisdom is often looked upon as a way to gain a successful and prosperous life, a healthy and loving family environment.  The reader is counseled to practice Wisdom in order to get on in the world.  Consequently, it upholds the Biblical notion of retribution: God gives good things to good people.  This attitude is challenged directly in the Book of Job.

The Christians Scriptures mirror the Wisdom Literature in that Jesus is portrayed as a Wisdom Figure.  St. John’s Gospel in particular identifies Jesus as the Incarnation of God’s Wisdom, God’s Word.  The dissertations which we find in St. Matthew and St. Luke draw much of their ideas from the Wisdom Literature.  In that way, the Wisdom Literature is helpful in preparing the way for Jesus and his teachings regarding the Law and the Prophets. 

The passage that we hear today comes from a section of the Book of Proverbs which contains a father’s instruction of a son.  The father’s purpose is to form the son’s character so that it will be in line with the dictates of the Law while providing a smooth path for his dealings with other men.  Specifically we are given three proverbs that teach us how to deal with a neighbor followed by the promise that those who pursue Wisdom will be blessed and those who are humble will receive kindness from God.

For those of us who struggle daily with the consequences of chronic illness or disability, the admonitions of this kind of literature can be hard to swallow.  This literature would reinforce the idea that illness and ill fortune are the result of a life lived separate from the commandments.  That is why we much read these lessons with a mind turned toward Jesus, the thoroughly just one who has done no wrong.  Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Wisdom, yet he suffered the most ignominious death.  He always treated his neighbor with fairness and respect, yet he was betrayed by evil men and women.  He is portrayed by the Scriptures as the Wisdom that was present at the creation of the world, yet he is condemned for his kindness, mercy and compassion.  If we keep this in mind, it is easier to read these verses.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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