Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 15, 2000
At St. Martin de Porres
(Based on Wisdom 7:7-11 and Mark 10:17-30)
The first reading for today, from the Book of Wisdom, might seem at first like a simple catalog or exhortation, with no significant story connected with it. But once we know the context, it turns out that very important things are going on.
The Book of Wisdom was written in Egypt around the first century before Christ. The Jewish community at that time was beginning to move out beyond the narrower confines of Palestine, into new countries and cultures. In particular, in Egypt it was meeting a secular world with very different values. The risk was that the Israelites would lose their sense of their own religious heritage and simply be absorbed by the dominant culture. So it's very relevant because the situation is much like that of our church in the midst of secular society today, isn't it?
The author of the book wants to help the people to realize who they are and what their religious tradition stands for. So he writes the book as if it were written by Solomon. The book is often even referred to as "the Book of Wisdom of Solomon". Actually it is not written by Solomon but rather many centuries after him. But it was a common literary device, to associate your writing with a super-figure in the people's history. As if someone in our day might write a book entitled "The Wisdom of Lincoln."
But in presenting today's passage as the prayer of Solomon the author does a very interesting thing. In the passage right before our reading of today, he puts these words in Solomon's mouth:
I too am a mortal man, the same as all the rest,
and a descendent of the first man formed of earth.
And in my mother's womb I was molded into flesh
in a [nine-] months' period -- body and blood,
from the seed of man, and the pleasure that accompanies marriage.
And I too, when born, inhaled the common air,
and fell upon the kindred earth;
wiling, I uttered that first sound common to all.
In swaddling clothes and with constant care I was nurtured.
For no king has any different origin or birth,
but one is the entry into life for all; and in one same way they leave it.
He's telling the people to take Solomon off the pedestal. He was just like everyone else. He had the same choices to make as each of the people the author was writing to. There's no escaping responsibility for our own choices.
Then follows our passage, with the prayer Solomon makes. And what does he ask for?
For wisdom; for the ability to see things clearly, to judge what's important and what's not as important.
His choices are interesting because they are the same ones we face as Christians in our society.
First he prefers wisdom to power, to the ability to dominate over others. Then he prefers wisdom to wealth, to gold and silver and jewels. He goes on to say wisdom is more valuable than health. (How often have you heard people in our society say "Your health is the greatest thing you have"? Maybe not.) And he chooses wisdom over beauty ("comeliness" in the text). I guess that's one choice a lot of us don't have to worry about; we weren't there when they gave out pretty.
So he is telling the people to pray above all for wisdom in this situation of conflicting systems of values.
But notice that he doesn't say that these others things are bad, much less evil. That's important, because there is a school of evangelists who want us to see everything in this world as baaaad, while the church is all goooood. That's not what Scripture is about, it's not what our Catholic tradition teaches. The world and everything in it is good, the gift of our God. There's nothing wrong with wanting power; it can be put to a lot of good uses. There's nothing wrong with wealth, or wanting to be healthy, or even being pleased at being beautiful. What the reading is all about is that it's a matter of priorities, of the importance we attach to things and the way we expend our time and energies on them. What makes things good or evil is how we respond and use them, it's situated in our heart.
Then in the second reading we hear a story we've heard many times. It's frequently referred to as the Story of the Rich Young Man.
For many years this story was misused in our church. It was presented as a 'vocation' story, where the point was that it's not bad to be an adult layperson but if you really want to be a full disciple you've got to be a priest of religious sister or brother. Those vocations were called the "state of perfection", while a layperson could just drag along and feel bad that they never got the call to the big leagues.
At the Vatican Council our pope and bishops went through a conversion and came to the realization that an attitude like that was all wrong. For the first time in the history of our church they proclaimed that everyone is called to the fullness of holiness. There is no 'higher' or 'lower' state. (I can't tell you how often I as a priest have people say to me, "Oh Father, you have an inside track with God.") The fact is that I face the same choices you do, that we all are called to pray seriously about how we use the good things of this earth, to challenge the priority our American culture tells us we should give to them.
But the Council went farther than that. It called the church to see that this is not just a matter of individual calling, it's the vocation of the whole body of the church. The church is called to realize that our God is on the side of the poor and excluded of this earth, that we as a church are called to speak up on issues of justice and oppression in this world. When the bishops and the pope got together in an important meeting in 1971 they made a solemn declaration, that action for justice in an essential component of a life of faith. Taking the side of the poor is not an 'add-on' or a luxury after we've done the essentials.
Have you ever thought about the reality that we live today in an age of martyrs? Martyrs are not some shadowy figures that lived in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, in the time of the great persecutions. There are men and women -- lay men and women giving their lives for justice right in our day. This year we celebrate a significant anniversary of the four Maryknoll women raped and killed in El Salvador for speaking out against an unjust regime; three were sisters, one was a lay volunteer. Nine years later there was the murder of six of my Jesuit brothers, with their two women housekeepers. Events during our lifetime.
Let me close by telling you a story I heard two weeks ago that just won't go away.
It took place only two years ago, in East Timor, that country up off the coast of Australia where the people had been fighting for their independence much as our people did in the time of our American revolution.
When things were getting worse and worse, the word got around that it would come to a climax in one or two days. The people were afraid for their lives, so 2,000 of them fled to the house of Archbishop Belo (who had won the Nobel prize for his efforts at peace). He was their leader who had spoken out against the dictators, so his compound was their place of refuge. There was a space around his house with a low wall around that. The soldiers broke in with rifles drawn. The first thing they did was to torch his house. The soldier in charge stood there with a sneer on his face as if to say "you have no power, do you? We're in charge now." Then one of the soldiers came up behind the archbishop and stuck his rifle in the bishop's back, prepared to shoot him. The crowd was silent and tense, not knowing how this would end. Then very quietly a young man of about 18 or 19 edged out of the crowd and came up behind the bishop. He nudged the bishop forward so that he could wedge his own body between the bishop's back and the soldier's gun. The people could watch and stare. Finally after an interminable minute the soldier apparently realized that if he shot there would be mayhem and the crowd could go mad. He lowered his gun and the soldiers left the compound knowing they had lost.
There is a final paradox to the story, because in the excitement that followed, the young man just drifted back into the crowd, so that no one even knows his name.
As we continue our worship let us pray for ourselves and for our church that we may be given the kind of wisdom that young man had, that in all our choices we may know what is really important and may put it above all else as the pearl of great price in our lives.