Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 10, 2002
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Wisdom 6:12-16; PS. 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew
"Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him."
As our secular year and our church year begin to wind down, our energies are drawn inward. The leaves turn and fall; the seed is buried deep in the ground to die and germinate. And our wise old church invites us to slow down and meditate more deeply on what's important.
Ever since Pentecost we have been walking with Jesus on mission, watching what he does, and what he says, and how he relates to people.
Then in today's liturgy and those of the coming weeks the church will lead us to the end point, culminating in the last judgment in Matthew 25 and the solemn recognition of Christ the King.
And so today we are invited into the mystery of wisdom: God's wisdom and his gift of wisdom to us.
There are really three stages in the development of a theology of Wisdom as we move from the 'Old' or First Testament to the Gospels and Epistles.
The first stage appears in our first reading, in the so-called Book of the Wisdom of Solomon. This book was composed just about a century before Jesus' day. It was a time of intense change for the Israelite people. They had become subjects of a Greek regime and world. There were a lot of new questions opened up by this interaction between their world and what might be described as more modern, cosmopolitan society. Old traditions were being challenged, and the pace of change was rapid. Sounds much like the world we face today, doesn't it?
People were looking for some anchors to hold onto, so the author of Wisdom went back through all the Scriptures to pull together all those tiny bits of insight that the people had learned through their long journey. They were small lights to guide everyday life, accumulated through hard experience. There is nothing really new here but the author has assembled it into a kind of brief manual for living.
It's all about practical guidance, not great theory and speculation. A lot of it can be found in similar collections among other ancient peoples. You might say it's about 'getting along'. About how to weigh life's choices sanely. 'It involves seeing with the heart.' (I suspect that if I were to ask you whether you know any wise person you'd probably be able to say yes. And most probably you'd point to someone who might not know a lot, might not have done much schooling, but someone who can quickly survey the scene and not go off and do something foolish; someone with 'street smarts'.)
They were asking about important things: what does death mean? How does the story -- your story, my story, our story -- end? Is it possible that it goes on beyond our death? What's it all about?
(As I thought about that last phrase I was reminded of a wonderful wisdom figure in my life that I want to share with you. He was an older Jesuit, well into his high seventies. I lived with him in an apartment in New York. One morning as I came into our little kitchen area I found him sitting there in an old ratty bathrobe, his hair all disheveled from the shower. He had a cup of coffee in his hand and was just string out the window. I said, "How're you doin'?". He paused, and then said, "I've just been sitting here wondering -- what the hell is this all about?" What a great gift! This man who accompanied so many people on their spiritual journey, able to live serenely with the mystery of it all. Without answers but with great trust in a loving God.)
Parallel to that development of wisdom, there was a second one evolving among some schools of the people. Wisdom for them was becoming identified with the Law. Wit the Torah. If you want to be wise, here are 614 commands to guide you; if you carry out these 614 actions you will be living the life of a wise person. Do these and you will be wise.
Then in the third stage along comes Jesus and, much like the act of God the Potter in the Scriptures, he upsets all of that. He calls it into question. Not, as he said, to take away the Law but to lead us to its deeper fulfillment, to the spirit beneath the letter which gives the whole thing life.
By the time Paul reflects back on what happened he reaches the conclusion that Jesus not only is wise, Jesus is the personification, the entirety of Wisdom itself.
And how does this Wisdom manifest itself?
. . . you are wise if you take the lowest place and don't put yourself up front like those seeking to be recognized
. . . wisdom means being thirsty and asking a Samaritan women for a drink of water when your whole tradition sees her as loathsome and cut off from God
. . . you are wise when you help someone in need even though it's the Sabbath and that's a sacrilege, because you assert that the Sabbath was made for us and not vice-versa
. . . wisdom means allowing a notorious public sinner to kneel at your feet and anoint them and kiss them and sensuously wipe your feet with her hair -- while your host looks on in horror and says "What can he have to do with her?"
. . . you are wise if you distance yourself from the official religious leaders and challenge their hypocrisy, if you call them 'whited sepulchers'
. . . wisdom means accepting the invitation of tax collectors and prostitutes to dine with them
. . . wisdom means respecting the dignity of a human child, in a society in which children were necessary baggage at best
. . . and ultimately wisdom involves taking on the principalities and powers of this world, and failing; and suffering the death of a criminal
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is good as far as it goes. It's all about being prepared ahead of time. (Scholars remind us that it's not really about being 'awake' or 'asleep'. All the virgins slept while awaiting the bridegroom; the difference is that the wise ones had attended to what they were going to need.) We must be wise and 'pay attention' -- but it doesn't tell us how, what we are to do. To appreciate that, we need to remind ourselves that when the early Christians heard this parable they knew who the bridegroom was. It was not some generic bridegroom, it was Jesus who is Wisdom itself.
They learned that, of course, only through the experience of his dying and rising. Listen to how Paul puts it so dramatically in First Corinthians:
The message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin, but to us who are experiencing salvation it is the power of God. Scripture says,
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and thwart the cleverness of the clever."
Where is the wise man to be found? Where the scribe? Has not God turned the wisdom of this world into folly? Since in God's wisdom the world did not come to know him through "wisdom" it pleased God to save those who believe through the absurdity of the preaching of the Gospel. Yes, Jews demand "signs" and Greeks look for "wisdom," but we preach Christ crucified -- a stumbling block to Jews, and an absurdity to Gentiles; but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's folly is wiser than men, and his weakness more powerful than men. (1:18-25)
And Paul sees where it all ends:
. . . the saying of Scripture will be fulfilled: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting."
This is the promise held out before us: reunion with all those who have gone before us and passed on to us the hard-won wisdom of the cross in their lives.
We go now to participate in a feast. It is not yet the final wedding-feast, and we do not know how long the bridegroom will take in coming. But it is already a participation in the gift of a wisdom this world does not understand.
Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.