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 renowned for her high intelligence. This Queen tested Solomon’s wisdom with a series of difficult questions or riddles which Solomon easily solved for her, thus winning her great praise.
However, we mustn’t confuse “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 very high intelligence, but few of them, unfortunately, would be judged to be wise in the biblical sense of of that term. Honestly recognizing the great secular learning and scientific and technical knowledge that our world has accumulated in our age, nonetheless, we see little these days of what the Bible calls true wisdom, and thus there are few if any “Solomons” in our day whose learning, power and wealth are crowned by the gift of wisdom. In the Middle Ages, we had scholars and doctors of great learning and wisdom, like Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, but we don’t find rulers with those same gifts he 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 renowned for her high intelligence. This Queen tested Solomon’s wisdom with a series of difficult questions or riddles which Solomon easily solved for her, thus winning her great praise.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Kings shows us Solomon, a mere youth when he ascended David’s throne, as a ruler 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 divine assistance. So Solomon turns to God in prayer, and he asks for one thing, the gift of wisdom which he sees as so necessary 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 gift of understanding, this higher wisdom found only in God. Man can only ask for a share in God’s wisdom in humble prayer, and then he must be well instructed in it by God’s Word.
And so when God says to Solomon, “ask something of me and I will give it to you,” young Solomon asks God not for riches, nor power over enemies, nor even for a long life. What he asks for is an understanding heart, that is, for the wisdom that enables a person to understand the world and enables a ruler to judge aright of earthly matters, which requires above all a certain knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, that is, true knowledge of the moral order established by God in creation.
God is pleased with Solomon’s request and pledges to give the young ruler, “a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.” But in order to acquire such a wise and understanding heart, Solomon, like anyone else, would have to be instructed in the Word of God, especially as it is found in the Psalms and in the teaching of Moses recorded in the Pentateuch. He would have study the Law of God that regulates human conduct, the moral law. He would have to learn the truth that fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. He would have to recognize that the fear of God, which the bible speaks of as the beginning of wisdom, has to be learned fear, 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.
Thus, since every man has to render an account of his life and every action before this absolute justice of God, it is obviously of critical importance that every man should come to know with certainty what is truly good and truly evil according to the divine law . Moreover, every man must learn to take seriously the duty to struggle hard to avoid all evil and do as much good as possible in accordance with God’s Law.
Now, if this divine wisdom is important for the personal salvation of any and every, 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. Think how important the ruler’s wisdom in ruling is for the well being of the society he rules, how crucial it is that the laws and administration of laws be based upon a sound moral foundation that provides stability for the whole civil order. When the civil order is based upon the moral law 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.
Returning to the personal level, we know well that people do not always accurately understand the difference between good and evil, and that many people will tend at times to justify evil by calling it good. The human heart, which means the human soul in the Bible, because of sin often lacks this moral wisdom and will call call good evil and evil good to justify its actions.
For instance, to take an example from our current situation, those who commit terrorist acts will actually declare their actions to be good, good for some purpose they have in mind, as if the end justifies the means, even when it involves killing innocent people. Nonetheless, in the end it is God’s judgement alone that will count in the final judgement, for God alone perfectly knows the truth about matters of good and evil. And that is why Solomon wisely asked God for greater 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.
Unfortunately, most individuals and most modern leaders of governments have largely abandoned this biblical notion of wisdom. Thus all too many people today who pride themselves on their high intelligence do not seek wisdom and simply look to the current moral fashions and their own subjective desires to establish their personal and civil systems of morality. When it comes to matters of good and evil, right and wrong, in their unbelief, they never seek God’s wisdom, found only in the Word of God as handed down to us in Scripture and Tradition and through the Church’ teaching.
Thus, it is not only the terrorists in the contemporary world who call good evil and evil good and thus justify their evil deeds in their own hearts. Countless crimes are committed in this country, and the perpetrators of these crimes most often do not think they are really doing evil, for their hearts tell them they have a perfectly good reason to rob, to swindle, to lie, to defame others, or even to kill innocent children in the womb. They justify their deeds perhaps because they have suffered this or that evil, or because they have been deprived of this or that good which they deserve. So they utterly refuse to seek God’s wisdom in matters of good and evil in the only place where it can be found, in the Word of God.
Reducing the moral order to a matter of personal choice rather than a divinely established, unchanging set of moral principles and norms leads to the present deranged moral culture 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 truly knows evil, 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 such 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. That knwoeldge is also part of wisdom. 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 for God’s grace after he asked for God’s wisdom.
One question, however, remains. Where exactly do we find this wisdom and grace in this world? The New Testament tells us. We find God’s wisdom in Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God made flesh, and in His Mystical Body, Church. Jesus is the Wisdom and the power of God, says St. Paul, and He has called us into His Kingdom, into His wonderful Church, where he constantly communicates His truth and His grace to us. Did Jesus not say to his Apostles that whoever hears and accepts their teaching also hears Christ himself; and that whoever refuse to hear them refuses to hear Christ. 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, and because it is truly His body, it is always there that we find the Lord, the Wisdom and Grace of God. It is in His Church and through His Church down the ages that he is personally 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. And it is there, in His new Kingdom, that Jesus constantly offers us the grace to live according to that true wisdom, which Solomon unfortunately refused to do. This 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 wisdom of the secular and pagan world surrounding us. A brilliant French philosopher, Etienne Gilson, once wrote about how he marveled at the fact that the simplest Christian peasant who had learned well his basic Catechism, had more wisdom than the greatest of the Greek philosophers or any secular philosophers today. The simple believer, versed in his basic catechism learns the truth about the world’s purpose, about the meaning and purpose of man’s life, about man’s final destiny and how to reach it, about the dignity and value of every human life, and about the moral law that must regulate all human conduct and society. Even Solomon in all his glory was not as wise as the little ones whom Jesus teaches and loves so much.