What is wisdom?

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C).

I’m back to my day job in Rome, so this week I’m posting a homily from 2016, given the day after my ordination to the diaconate.

Ordination to the diaconate 2016, St. Ignatius Church, Boston, MA

Today’s Gospel reading is perhaps the single most unfortunate passage in Scripture to have to preach about to a congregation consisting mostly of family members, so we’re going to work our way up to it by starting with the Old Testament.

The Old Testament reading is from the Book of Wisdom.  You’ll be happy to know that I took an entire course on the Biblical wisdom tradition and have prepared a brief 45-minute summary as an introduction to the homily.  We can skip all that, however, if you will consider for a moment the question of what it means to be wise.  

To understand what wisdom is, it can be helpful, first, to think about what it is not.  Wisdom is not the same thing as being clever; we probably know people who are clever manipulators, for example, but not really wise.  Wisdom is not the same as knowledge, as knowing lots of facts.  Teachers know that there’s a difference between a student who memorizes what he hears and then regurgitates it, and a student who actually thinks about what she’s learning.  Wisdom is not the same thing as being educated.  If you’ve been in school as long as I have, you realize that there are some very foolish people with PhDs.  And we all probably know people who didn’t receive much education who nonetheless we’d consider wise because they had a sense for people, a sense for what was right and wrong, a sense for what really matters in life. 

And here I think is one of the key aspects for understanding what wisdom is.  For any wise person we would probably say, he has his priorities right.  The example I have in mind is the woman being canonized tomorrow, Mother Teresa.  Not a woman with academic degrees, not a policy expert, but someone whose opinion really mattered because she was wise.  Now Mother Teresa had many literally saintly qualities:  she was brave, she was generous, she was compassionate.  But what made her wise, specifically?  I’d say it was because she understood what matters in life, and what doesn’t.  We could say that wisdom has to do with getting our priorities in the right order.

So now we get to the Gospel, because Jesus is talking about priorities:  “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”  Jesus is telling us what our top priority has to be:  God.  Fidelity to God, to Jesus himself, to following him, to being his disciple, to keeping his commandments has to be number one.  Period.  No exception, no compromise.  The language that Jesus uses sounds harsh because he’s making this priority absolute.  It’s similar to the language he uses when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, or if your eyes causes you to sin pluck it out.”  He doesn’t want us to take these passages literally—literally hating our family members, literally dismembering ourselves—but he wants to drive home the point that when it comes to our priorities, God can have no competition.  If we try to strike a balance, a compromise, between commitment to our faith and our commitment to anything else we’ve already gotten it wrong.

In life, lots of people, groups, even ideas claim our loyalties.  Good businesses will try to reward their loyal customers; political parties will demand party loyalty.  If someone is disloyal to his country, we call him a traitor; if he’s disloyal to his friends, we call him a jerk; if he’s disloyal to his family—to marriage vows, for example—we call that adultery.  Not all of these loyalties are equally important.  And in life, we need wisdom to determine how to sort out all these loyalties.  Sometimes this can be hard; a lot of parents struggle with how to balance the priorities of career and family, for example.  Because there are so many different decisions, big and small, that go into such a balance it’s impossible to come up with a general rule that will cover everything, so we need wisdom to make good decisions.  And the first reading tells us that wisdom comes from God, that it’s something we actually have to pray for, to ask God explicitly to give us when we’re making decisions.  It also helps when making decisions to explicitly think about what the priorities at stake are, what place should they have in our lives.  

In one case, however, Jesus does give us an absolute rule.  Our first loyalty is to God.  Anytime we allow anything else to take priority over God, we have stepped away from Jesus.  He drives home the point in the Gospel—and this is what makes it so hard—by picking those things in life that are most important to us:  our possessions—and think about your homes here and the amount of time and effort that rightly goes into acquiring and maintaining a decent and comfortable place to live—God is more important; our families—mother and father, brother and sister—God is more important; and our lives.  Jesus is telling us that there is something more important than whether we live or die.  And that’s whether we know him, our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Jesus is telling us never to let anything take priority over our relationship with God.  When it comes to our faith we don’t try to strike a balance—50/50—with other things; when there’s a conflict, our faith always has to win.  So if, for example, there’s a conflict between our loyalty to our country and being faithful to the teachings of our Church, being a Catholic is more important than being an American.  Or if we find ourselves in a situation where we are tempted to not rock the boat among non-Catholic (or non-practicing) family or friends by neglecting our religious obligations—say our Sunday Mass obligation—then we suck it up and go to Mass.  Let other people think we’re foolish for insisting; sometimes being wise means letting other people think we’re foolish.

It’s perhaps worth saying as a final footnote that Jesus is not telling us that our religion has to be our only priority, but it does have to be our top priority.  We should love our family and friends, we should be patriotic citizens of our country and conscientious members of our community; I would not be here serving God as a deacon today if I had not been taught his love by mother and father, brothers and sisters.  But we should do all of these things precisely because we love God and we want that love to spread in the world.  Wisdom means, to borrow from Mother Teresa, not necessarily doing great things, but knowing how to show God’s great love in small things.  It means letting that love determine what matters in our lives and what doesn’t.

Readings: Wis 9:13-18b; Phm 9-10, 12-17; Lk 14:25-33

St. Peter Faber Jesuit Community, Boston, MA, 2016

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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