Wisdom from Above

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

I was an English major in college.  Originally I pursued a professional writing concentration, but switched to literature midway through my undergraduate career.  My advisor informed me,  “If you make this change, you will graduate very educated but not very employable.”  I told him that I was attending college to get an education, not a job.

The purpose of studying at a university is to gain knowledge.  What we do with it is up to us.  Some seek to advance in a specialized field of knowledge with the goal of gaining employment in that field.  Others seek knowledge generally.  This was the goal of the classical liberal arts education which consisted of grammar, rhetoric and logic, to which the medievals added arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The goal of such broad learning was to move beyond mere knowledge of facts to an understanding of why things are the way they are, how things all fit together, and (most importantly) how one should live one’s life accordingly.  We could (as the ancients and medievals did) categorize all this as philosophy, which comes from the Greek words meaning “love of wisdom.”

“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me,  receives not me but the One who sent me” (Mk 9:37).

We sometimes speak of someone being “wise in the ways of the world,” but our scriptures this week speak of “wisdom from above.”  Our gospel accounts both this Sunday and last Sunday give us examples of the difference.  Last Sunday we saw Jesus rebuking Peter for “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mk 8:33).  Jesus spoke of the need for His own suffering and death; Peter could not see the wisdom in his Lord suffering for others.  This Sunday we see the Apostles arguing among themselves over who is the greatest among them, while Jesus identifies greatness with the humble child and the servant.

This wisdom, which seems paradoxical from the world’s perspective, is not learned through study but received as a gift.  In fact, wisdom is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “a spiritual gift which enables one to know the purpose and plan of God.”  It is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1831).

The fact that we cannot achieve this order of wisdom by the strength of our own intellect is underscored by its end — to know the purpose and plan of God.  We seek this wisdom whenever we ask the question, “What is the purpose of my life?”  The answer comes not by earning a degree, but by being open and receptive to God’s truth.

“God’s truth is His wisdom, which commands the whole created order and governs the world.  God, who alone made heaven and earth, can alone impart true knowledge of every created thing in relation to Himself” (CCC 216).  God’s wisdom is truth.  We are wise to the degree that we conform our human will to the truth.  Being wise also means knowing ourselves in relation to God.  This is the most perfect form of self-knowledge, because only by knowing who we are in relation to God can we know our true selves.

This sometimes means unlearning what the world has taught us.  The world teaches us to put ourselves first, but Jesus teaches us to be meek and serve others.  This leaves no room for selfish ambition (seeking to be greater than others) or jealousy (resentment of others’ gains).  Our second reading (Jas 3:16-4:3) tells us these things are incompatible with wisdom.  St. James further describes “wisdom from above” in this passage.

Wisdom from above is pure.  When something is pure, it is uncontaminated and clean.  Pure air is healthy.  It is also clear, allowing us to see the world unmarred by the haze of pollution.  The purity of wisdom is healthy for our minds and gives clarity to our understanding.

Wisdom from above is peaceable.  When someone is described as peaceable, it means they avoid conflict and needless argument.  St. James says that the “fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace” (Jas 3:18).  The wise enjoy peace both in the home and the heart not by compromising the truth or moral principles, but by avoiding conflict for conflict’s sake and always relating to others in charity.

Wisdom from above is gentle.  To be gentle requires mildness, not severity.  It means being kind and tender, compassionate and sympathetic to others.

Wisdom from above is compliant — not in the sense of being a push-over or weak-willed, but in the sense of being good-natured and willing to obey rightful authority.  It means being willing to cooperate with another and accommodate another’s needs and desires.

Wisdom from above is full of mercy, meaning always willing to forgive others who have wronged us.  Lest we forget, in the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive us our trespasses only to the extent that we ourselves forgive those who trespass against us.  If we are not merciful to others, we should not expect God to be merciful to us.

Finally, wisdom from above is consistent and sincere.  This means all of the above characteristics are genuine and unchanging.  The wise person is not gentle with some people but harsh with others.  The wise person does not speak words of mercy with her lips while holding a grudge in her heart.  The wise person does not seek peace on Sunday and sow conflict with a neighbor on Monday.  Wisdom involves a profound and deep consistency, for God’s will and His love are consistent.  Wisdom that comes from the mind of God is unchanging because God is unchanging.

The world preaches “wisdom” that says watch out for number one; put yourself first because no one else will; take what is yours; be aggressive and assertive; seek fame, fortune and accolades.  God offers a higher wisdom.  The last shall be first.  The meek shall be exalted.  The greatest among you shall be your servant.

To the world this seems like a paradox.  But God demonstrates the truth of His wisdom through His Son who is both Lord of all and servant of all.  Jesus is the perfect image of God, and perfect source of Wisdom.  Be a philosopher — be a lover of wisdom.  Seek and understand the wisdom from above which Christ offers and strive always to live your life in conformity with this truth.