Search This Blog

Monday, October 12, 2015

Second thoughts: Wealth, Wisdom, and Futility (B28O)

In my rush to finish something for week 28 of Ordinary Time the other day, I forewent writing anything about the first reading and psalm, and thought that, having listened to the scripture proclaimed twice (so far), I'd give you some of what I heard when I was present to the Word.

The book of Wisdom, as you probably know, is a very late book in the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, it dates from only a few decades before the Common Era, before the birth of Christ, maybe just fifty years. Its prologue and voice makes it sound as though it were Solomon who were the author, but this kind of ascribed authorship is a common technique of the period, and is certainly found in the Christian scriptures as well, with non-Pauline material being attributed to St. Paul, for instance. In Sunday's passage, to prepare our ears for the gospel with its back-story in the Torah and the contrast between the Way and the cult of money, we hear how the author opts for wisdom over wealth and power, health and beauty. So we might take "wisdom" by its generic usage to mean something as simple as choosing to be intelligence over other praiseworthy "gifts."

Our recent exploration of "The Difference that Jesus Makes," part three of James Alison's four-part Jesus the Forgiving Victim series brings another kind of insight that ties the late Jewish concept of Wisdom to the memory of the First Temple, and all that has happened in Israel since then. In a way, this is no surprise. The experience of exile and return had a great effect on the consciousness of Israel, in no small way influencing the editing of their sacred texts as they gradually moved from being generally oral traditions into the written versions we know today. In a sense, the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the leveling of the Temple, and the deportation to Babylon and the return from there under Cyrus of Persia became not only the Exodus, but the creation of the world. But Alison has this to say about what "wisdom" means in the literature of Second Temple Judaism:
The wisdom literature also kept alive many of the elements of the old priestly vision. In fact “Wisdom” was strongly linked to the priestly understanding of God opening up Creation from the Holy Place in the Temple. The vision was that everything that is, having been brought into being by God, is shot through with, undergirded by, orchestrated by, Wisdom, originally seen as a feminine figure alongside God at creation. The loss of the old priestly world was seen as a loss of sight, and of Wisdom, so that things could no longer be seen as they were, tending towards their glory as created reflections of God. The opposite of Wisdom was vanity or futility, with things tending towards nothing and winding down pointlessly. Naturally this vision of things was strongly contrasted with the Deuteronomic vision in which “asking after the things that are above or below” was strongly discouraged, and a focus on listening to the words of the Law asserted instead. Indeed in the Book of Deuteronomy it was insisted that at Sinai the people did not see the form of God, but only heard the words. Nevertheless, the protests are not silenced, and in the Book of Proverbs, for example, there is a long and beautiful passage (1.20-33) in which Wisdom, speaking as a goddess who has been spurned and thrown out, complains against those who have rejected her and the vision which she offers. (Jesus, the Forgiving Victim, Essay Six, Undergoing Atonement, Kindle Edition, location 2575.)
So maybe we can start by hearing "wisdom" as meaning something more in that light, in the sense of "living in the presence of YHWH," the Creator-God who walked in the Garden, and who was instantiated in visions to Moses and Elijah. This immanent divinity was somewhat played down if not rejected by the Deuteronomist tradition, whose less visionary, more practical theology was focused on keeping the covenant, obeying the Torah, as the path to righteousness. Wisdom might thus be identified, in the mindset of the lectionary today, as choosing the "reign of God" as proclaimed by Jesus, with its priorities of the immanence of Abba whose desire is mutual love among all as sisters and brothers, its insistence that "blessing" or "beatitude" has nothing to do with status, wealth, nationality, or even religion, but is discovered in the need of the other and the surrender to and work on behalf of the reign of God. Thus, wealth is not a blessing, but poverty is, in the sense that it is an opportunity to serve another, correct injustice, and discover in the reign of God an alternative economy. Beauty is not a blessing, but the Crucified one is. Health is not a blessing, but the suffering or mourning of people is, in the sense that it is an opportunity again to discover the reign of God both in service and in being served. Nadia Bolz-Weber has a good insight into this in Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, where she writes:
And to be clear, Christ does not come to us as the poor and hungry. Because, as anyone for whom the poor are not an abstraction but actual flesh-and-blood people knows, the poor and hungry and imprisoned are not a romantic special class of Christlike people. And those who meet their needs are not a romantic special class of Christlike people. We all are equally as sinful and saintly as the other. No, Christ comes to us in the needs of the poor and hungry, needs that are met by another so that the gleaming redemption of God might be known.  
No one gets to play Jesus. But we do get to experience Jesus in that holy place where we meet others’ needs and have our own needs met. We are all the needy and the ones who meet needs. To place ourselves or anyone else in only one category is to lie to ourselves. (emphases mine; Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Chapter 5: You Are Not "The Blessing"; Kindle Edition, location 746)
So perhaps, arriving at the gospel after asking in the psalm that God "fill us with your joy," and that we might live our lives well so as to "gain wisdom of heart," we can begin to see that the difficulty for those who have amassed wealth, or have been given it, is that wealth gives the illusion of self-sufficiency, of being insulated against the vagaries of everyday life in a way that most people do not experience. In order to keep the security that wealth affords us, we have to keep others away from us by building walls on our borders, making laws, gerrymandering districts. Wealth blocks the sight of the heart to the needs, even the rights, of others. The assumption about wealth in the time of Jesus was that all the goods that were available were distributed, so in order to get more wealth, it had to be taken (unjustly) from others. Jesus's preaching of the reign of God, the "jubilee economics" of Leviticus that is genuinely good news for the poor (Is. 61), is that if all that wealth is freely given for the good of the other, and that everyone lives as daughters and sons of Abba in a self-aware communion of love and service made possible by God's indwelling Holy Spirit, then there will be a world of peace and justice no longer blinded by the false security of violence, coercion, and the amassing of wealth at the expense of others. Wisdom is the choice of this gentle path that imitates the Creator and therefore is the path of life; futility is the path of violence and greed that inevitably leads to the cycle of mimetic violence and scapegoating, and thus the path of death.

Even so, as the apostles find out, no claim is made on God by just living. Peter says to him, in the verse following the gospel, "We have given up everything to follow you," the implication being, "so we will be part of the kingdom, right?" The life is God is still given freely, not earned, wheedled, entreated, besought, or bribed. It is already there for the taking. To begin to live justly is to begin to live eternal life, God's life, right now. It is as though a thirsty man, obsessed with the salty ocean in front of him that only increases his thirst, is being told, "Turn around and take a little walk. There's a river of fresh water right behind you." The journey from futility to wisdom, says Jesus, is a step in the other direction. "Follow me."