Wisdom, Justice, and The Just One
As people who live in a nation that is only a little over 200 years old, we Americans easily forget how long some traditions and histories of peoples actually are. A case in point is the history of the Jewish people. Their story goes back over 4,000 years. Lots of things happen in 4,000 years, including growth and change in understandings of how things are and how they were meant to be from the beginning.
In the past few weeks, we have heard readings from the writings of prophets and holy ones during the invasion of the Assyrians and, many years later, during the exile in Babylonia. The basic theme has been the same: God will protect those who are faithful to the covenant, the Law. When that faithfulness fails, God no longer protects the nation and disaster follows. A remnant of faithful people remain and God protects them and restores them to their land and freedom.
This week, the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we jump much closer to the beginning of our Christian experience. The book of Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt in Greek by an unknown Jewish author who was well-versed in the traditions and literature of his people. It dates to about fifty to one hundred years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In the approximately 250 years before it was written, the Greeks conquered Israel and attempted to impose their own traditions and religion. It had been a time of great suffering and some heroic witness by faithful Jews. Independence was gained at last and Rome had not yet conquered Israel. At least part of the writings in this work are attributed to King Solomon, a ruler remembered for his great wisdom. Despite being written in Greek, it follows the patterns of Hebrew verse. It also includes a notion of life after death. This is a new idea for the time and not accepted by all the people.
A Call to Justice
The book begins with a call to Justice. Justice is not a question of punishment for misdeeds. In this context, Justice is a moral quality that is universal and refers to the way in which moral conduct relates to Wisdom. When behavior is good and honest, when people care for each other and those who are most vulnerable, then justice is present. Wisdom is also called discipline. All are called to live justly.
But a group of people reject the calls of justice. They basically express the idea stated by folks in another time and culture, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Why spend our lives looking out for others? We should live happily while we have the chance – get everything we can right now!
The only fly in the ointment is the example of the Just One(s) who try to live by the Law. These folks are also called son of God (child of God), meaning one who is so faithful to God as to be “like God.” They persist in openly living lives of faith and reminding others of the necessity to do so. They were a real pain to “the wicked” who preferred to live for themselves.
It is at this point that today’s reading picks up. (Wis 2:12, 170-20) The wicked ones decide to put the Just One to the test. Accuse him falsely. Torture him. Make fun of him. Condemn him to death. Kill him in the most shameful, personally embarrassing way possible. Find out in this way whether the Just One is truly gentle and patient. Find out also whether God will step in to take care of him!
The early church looked to this reading from Wisdom following Jesus’ death, seeing it as a prophecy of who he would be and what would happen to him. They saw the resurrection as fulfillment of the promise that God would take care of the Just One.
Jesus was also familiar with this prophecy and its history. He tried to warn his disciples that things were not going to go well for him. The Romans always condemned anyone who was called “messiah” among the people. Anyone who threatened the status quo would be seen as an enemy of Rome. St. Mark (Mk 9:30-37) describes Jesus’ efforts on the journey through Galilee to prepare his disciples for what was coming, but they were afraid to ask too many questions. Only after the resurrection did they begin to understand what he had said.
The inclusion of Jesus’ statement that the “Son of Man” would rise on the third day would not have been understood. “Son of Man” was another title of the coming messiah. The third day figuratively referred to the day when God would come to the rescue and make everything OK again. It was not only a question of a time period between 48 and 72 hours after an event had occurred. It was a much greater promise.
Then there was also the question of what they were discussing as they walked along with him. This was quite embarrassing, because they were doing a very human thing – trying to figure out which one of them was the best among them. Jesus put that to rest quickly. He stated flat out that only the one who was a servant to all, with the same lowly status as a child, could or would be the greatest. So much for worldly power and prestige. The one who receives a child in Jesus’ name receives the One who sent him.
Living in Wisdom and Justice
Early followers of Jesus did not find it easy to live as humbly and lovingly as he did. St. James addressed this problem in his letter (Jas 3:16-4:3). He noted that jealously and ambition are fundamental issues that cause disorder among people. Instead of living with these qualities, he describes wisdom and righteousness from above, which lead to peace. Purity, peaceability, gentleness, mercy, bearing good fruit – these are qualities that lead to peace in the community and within individuals.
St. James similarly describes the basis for wars and other conflicts as due to reliance on one’s passions rather than on wisdom. Those who ask God’s help based on their passions and personal self-interest will not receive a positive answer to their prayer, because they are asking for the wrong thing. The key to answered prayer is to ask for the right thing for the right reason.
Not an easy path … but one that can bring great and very positive change to a world.
How do I live in harmony and wisdom? What qualities do I need to favor in myself, so I can be gentle, merciful, kind, and wise? Where does self-care come into the equation? When must I say “NO” to demands that interfere with my ability to be loving, kind, and considerate?
In these times of great division and challenge, our answers to these questions will without a doubt ripple out into our world. Pray with me for wisdom.