Monday, November 7, 2011

11-11-06: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wisdom 6:12-16 / Psalm 63 / 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 / Matthew 25:1-13

Never before in the history of the world have there been so many educated men and women, schooled in varied disciplines, degreed and certified. The wise, though, seem few and far between. According to tradition, the Book of Wisdom is attributed to King Solomon whose judgment regarding parental rights of a baby claimed by two women is legendary. But the Book of Wisdom was written in Greek and conveys a school of thought which was more than likely foreign to Solomon and his Hebrew categories of thought. Wisdom is tinged by the best of Greek pagan philosophy and, thus, does not appear in either the Jewish or Protestant bibles as part of the canon of scripture. From the vantage point of the Book of Wisdom the wise and the noble are one-in-the-same.

In American literature there is perhaps no better example of such a wise and noble man than Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Finch is the educated lawyer, the stoic widower who, despite loneliness and challenges, is nobly raising two young children. Atticus Finch’s wisdom, though, is not born of organized religion. His implicit agnosticism seems basic to his courageous commitment to justice as he defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in a small town in the segregated South.

It’s not far-fetched, I think, to see in Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck in the film version) an uncanny resemblance to the very real Abraham Lincoln. The self-educated lawyer, also emphatically non-religious, Lincoln embodied that same wisdom, which sought justice despite enormous challenge and extraordinary sacrifice, and evoked a courage that continues to inspire.

Then there’s the story of the five foolish and five wise virgins of the gospel. Their foolishness and their wisdom are set against the backdrop of their awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, symbolizing the approaching end of the world and the inevitable judgment to come. As a tangential issue one might wonder if Jesus was alluding to the practice of polygamy when he teaches this parable about ten virgins awaiting one bridegroom. We might also wonder why the Church places this parable alongside the selection from that Book of Wisdom, attributed to Solomon who, tradition also holds, had a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines! Depending on your point of view – a wise achievement or a very foolish mistake.

This parable about the end times, about the wisdom of being prepared, assumes something those of us who are religious seldom acknowledge – that the wise virgins lived their faith with a healthy dose of skepticism. The wise virgins were prepared in the event that the bridegroom didn’t come when he was expected. We could infer that their wisdom – which saves them in the end – is born of doubt and skepticism regarding their faith. Both Atticus Finch in fiction, and Abraham Lincoln in real life, were skeptical of human nature, doubtful of others’ intentions regarding justice and truth – in this, they were wisest in a very practical way.

What we learn from the Book of Wisdom, and the wise virgins of the gospel, is that wisdom is but a circumlocution for God Himself. Wisdom transcends religion - or the lack of it - and is available to all. Wisdom mixes faith and doubt, it’s both idealistic and eminently practical. Or as St. Augustine put it: Pray as though everything depended on God, but work as if everything depended on you.

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