17th Sunday of the Ordinary Time
Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart
to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.
For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” [ I kings 3:9]
The great Solomon, the son of David, was renowned in the ancient world for his great wisdom. The Bible informs us that people came from great distances to seek the King of Israel’s counsel and wisdom. This included important people like the Queen of Sheba who evidently was noted for her own intelligence, and who tested Solomon’s wisdom with a series of difficult questions or riddles that Solomon solved for her, thus winning her great praise.
However, we must not confuse the meaning of intelligence with what the Bible means by wisdom. In the biblical perspective, our modern world could be seen as producing a great many people of high intelligence, but few of them, unfortunately, would be judged to be wise in the biblical sense of wisdom. For all the learning and scientific and technical knowledge that our world has accumulated in our day, there is little of what the Bible calls true wisdom around these days, and thus there are few “Solomons” in our day whose learning, power and wealth are crowned by the gift of wisdom.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Kings shows us Solomon, a mere youth when he ascended David’s throne, who is already wise in his early adulthood. The text teaches us that the foundation of his wisdom is his humility, that is, his recognizing his own natural incapacity to rule wisely without sivine assistance, that is, his lack of the true wisdom man needs to live justly in this world, and man needs even more to be a just and prudent ruler. In the Bible, a man manifests a spirit of wisdom only when he recognizes his own ignorance relative to this higher knowledge, this higher wisdom found only in God. Man can only ask for a share in this wisdom in prayer, and then he must be well instructed in it by God’s Word.
And so young Solomon asks God not for riches, or power over enemies, or even for a long life. What he asks for is an understanding heart, that is, for the wisdom that enables man to understand the world and judge aright of earthly matters, which requires above all the knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, knowledge of the moral order established by God in creation.
And so Solomon would have to be instructed in the Word of God in the Psalms and in the teaching of Moses recorded in the Pentateuch, especially the Law of God that regulates human conduct, the moral law. He would learn the truth that fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. Od coursem when we say that wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, we are not talking about the kind of fear that we experience in the face of some physical threat to our life or well being. The fear of God, which the bible speaks of as the beginning of wisdom, has to be learned because it is actually a profound humility based on a recognition of God’s absolute goodness and God’s absolute justice and hatred of evil. Since every man is to render an account before this justice of God or his every action, it is critically important that every man must know with certainty what is good and evil according to divine law and that he should struggle to avoid all evil and do as much good as possible
If this wisdom is important for the individual and his own personal salvation, it is even more important for the ruler who must guide his people wisely and render an account to God of his public service as well as his personal life. And how important the ruler’s wisdom in ruling is for the society he rules, that the laws and administration of laws be based upon a sound moral foundation that provides stability for the civil order. When the civil order is based upon the moral as found in the Word of God, then that order is firmly established for the well being of all. Where this is not the case, the civil order is in deep trouble and begins to disintegrate.
On the personal level, the fact is that man does not always accurately know the difference between good and evil and tends at times to justify evil by calling it good. The human heart, by itself, lacks this moral wisdom due to sin and its consequences, and thus man often calls good evil and evil good. For instance, those who commit terrorist acts will often call their actions good, good for some purpose they have in mind, as if the end justifies the means, even when it comes to killing innocent people. However, in the end it is God’s judgement alone that counts when it comes to determining matters of good and evil, and that is why Solomon asked God for wisdom, so he could know the difference between good and evil, and, hopefully avoid doing evil to his people in the name of good, or leading his people into evil in the name of good.
Modern individuals and modern leaders of government have largely abandoned this biblical notion of wisdom, and today more and more people look to the current moral fashions and their own subjective desires to establish their personal and civil systems of morality. They rarely if ever seek God’s wisdom, found in the Word of God as handed down, when it comes to matters of good and evil, right and wrong. Thus, it is not only terrorists in the modern world who call good evil and evil good and who justify their evil deeds in their own hearts by calling them good for some reason or another. Countless crimes are committed in this country, and the perpetrators of these crimes most often do not think they are doing evil, for their hearts tell them they have a good reason to rob, swindle, lie, or even kill, simply because they have suffered this or that evil which this makes up for, or they have been deprived of this or deprived of this or that good they deserve. So they refuse to seek wisdom in matters of good and evil where it can only be found, in the Word of God.
Reducing the moral order to a matter of personal choice rather than a divinely established, and therefore an unchanging set of moral principles and norms leads to the present deranged moral system that holds that each individual must be the source of his or her own moral law. The results for human society are tragic. For instance, over a million unborn children die in their mother’s wombs each year in this great country because that moral evil is called morally good by their mothers, fathers, doctors and legislators and friends who refuse to oppose the moral judgement that springs from the heart’s own darkness. The truth is that the human person either submits to the wisdom of God in moral matters, or that person will create a personal world in which human life no longer has any guarantees, where no absolute value is attached to it. And when this subjective morality takes hold in a society, then crimes and acts of terrorism and mass killing can also become a way of life that we all have to with in our daily lives
But once again we must come to understand that man only knows evil truly as evil in this world when he submits himself to God’s wisdom, as Solomon did. Yet even possessing this wisdom does not by itself guarantee that its possessor will always avoid evil and God’s consequent justice. Indeed, even Solomon’s wisdom did not keep him from eventually doing great evil and falling away from God and the Covenant. In addition to God’s wisdom, every man also needs God’s powerful grace to be able to do what he learns from God is right and just, and to avoid doing what he learns from God is wrong and sinful. Solomon depended upon His wisdom alone to save him, and so he eventually fell away, and his Kingdom soon followed his own fall from God. Perhaps he failed to ask for God’s grace after he asked for God’s wisdom.
One question remains, then, where exactly do we find this wisdom and grace in this world? The New Testament tells us; we find God’s wisdom Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God made flesh, and in His Kingdom. Jesus is the Wisdom and the power of God for us, says St. Paul, and He has called us into His Kingdom, into His Church, where he distributes His truth and His grace to us. Did he not say to his Apostles that whoever hears and accepts their teaching hears Christ himself, and whoever refuse to hear them refuses Christ’s Word, which He speaks through them, and rejects His Father as well. Christ is not a voice from the past, but a living voice, a current Word that teaches us through His Church what the moral law is, what is truly good and what is truly evil.
His Kingdom, His Church, is the pearl of great price we heard about in the Gospel, is His Church, and it is always there that we find the Lord, the Wisdom and Grace of God, teaching us a wisdom that surpasses that of Solomon, if only we have the humility of Solomon to seek it and accept it as His wisdom. So it is there, in His Kingdom, that Jesus constantly offers to us the grace to live according to that true wisdom which Solomon refused to do. That is surely why the Lord says that the least in His Kingdom is greater than even the great John the Baptist, so long as John was not yet in the new Kingdom which he finally entered through his martyrdom.
Indeed, the wisdom and grace of Jesus Christ will raise even the least of his brethren above the whole old covenant,, and in fact above the whole of the wisdom of the secular and pagan world surrounding us. A brilliant French Philosopher once wrote about how he marveled at the fact that the simplest Christian peasant who had learned his simple Catechism well, had more wisdom than the greatest of the Greek Philosophers or any secular philosophers today. The simple believer, versed in his penny catechism knew the truth about the world’s purpose, the meaning and purpose of man’s life, man’s destiny and how to reach it, about the dignity and value of every human life, and about the moral law that should regulate all human conduct and society. Even Solomon in all his glory was not as wise as the little ones Jesus teaches and so loves.