True 'wisdom figures' reflect God's truth

By  Fr. Scott Lewis
  • October 6, 2006
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B), Oct. 15 (Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30)

Who are the "wisdom figures" of our culture? Genuine wisdom figures are not those who have all the answers or possess the truth. Rather, wise people are those who have mastered the art of living as an authentic human being.

They have paid their dues, and often their wisdom has been gained through their own struggle and pain. Their own courageous engagement with life has given them insights into how to be just and loving, and how to bear life's challenges with grace and dignity.

A fine example is Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of the justly famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Devastated after the death of his young son to a rare disease, he soon realized that pat and pious answers to suffering would just not do. The book is a testimony of refashioned and renewed faith in God minus explanations and reasons. He has gone on to write several other books on dealing with disappointments, moral living and searching for meaning in one's life. The honesty and authenticity of his writings resonate with many people.

Kushner aside, our society's dubious wisdom figures are for the most part celebrities, athletes and talk show hosts. No wonder we feel so lost. Wisdom is indeed more precious than gold and gems. We need only trade in our illusion that we possess absolute truth or have all the answers. Life itself is our teacher.

Assisting us in that quest for wisdom is the word of God, which is alive and active. That spells change, transformation and challenge rather than the status quo. In fact, meeting the word of God is downright disturbing and disrupting, for we are forced to confront our own inner shadows.

Unfortunately, centuries of spiritual compromises — plus our own — often deaden us to the power of God's word. There is a big difference between reading or studying the Bible and actually allowing its spiritual principles to penetrate our heart and soul.

The Old Testament prophets used the metaphor of tasting or eating God's word, thereby allowing it to become part of them. And it is meant for that: nourishment and living, rather than polemics or prooftexting.

Do we need a belief in God in order to be good people? Apparently not, for there are many moral and upright people who have no explicit religious faith. But our faith is not about being good; it is about spiritual transformation and empowerment.

In the Gospel passage, the rich young man approaches Jesus seeking the bottom line to the age-old question: what do I have to do to go to heaven or be saved? Jesus brushes aside his flattery by deferring all goodness to God whose emissary He is. The answer is clear and part of your tradition, He answers, and He goes through the list: do not murder, lie, steal, cheat, commit adultery or fail to honour your parents. No surprises, and most people would be on the same page.

But the young man senses that there is more to life than just "being good," for he assures Jesus that he has observed these laws his entire life. Jesus recognizes the goodness and sincerity of the man. There is no censure or condemnation as He observes that the man is lacking one thing that prevents him from slipping across that threshold into the Kingdom of God. His wealth and status make it possible for him to control most aspects of his life, even his decision to "be good." Leaving that behind would enable him to embark on a journey of radical discipleship and dependence on God. That is where the true spiritual transformation, the "treasure in heaven," begins.

Sadly, fear of letting go and of the unknown win in this case as the man shuffles off in a dazed and disappointed state. And he is not alone: fear drives most people — and churches — to take refuge in conventional religiosity and morality. The domestication of the word of God is a sad event, for it is no longer living and active in peoples' lives.

Fortunately, for God all things are possible. God will ensure that life itself will offer us challenges sufficient for awakening from our spiritual slumber.