Reminder -- no Mass on campus this evening, due to Fall Break.
TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (B)
Our first reading today is from the book of Wisdom. This text is intriguing because of the way it speaks about Wisdom as a person, rather than a trait to obtain. Traditionally, the Church has understood Wisdom to be another name for the Holy Spirit. So when we hear today's reading, when we hear "wisdom" we should think "Holy Spirit," which is to say God Himself.
The message in this passage is clear. One should prefer the wisdom of God above any earthly joy, whether that be riches, or beauty, or even our health. But there is a surprise twist at the end -- if we do value God above all these earthly treasures, we will actually get those treasures as a reward! We will receive "all good things" and "countless riches." Sounds good to me!I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her... Beyond health and comeliness I loved her... Yet all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands.
But is it as simple as all of that? Is that the actual meaning of this passage? That interpretation sounds very much like a pseudo-theology popular among some evangelical and charismatic Protestants called the "Prosperity Gospel." It has its roots in the 1950s revival movement, but really became popular after it was adopted by televangelists in the 1980s and by the early years of this century it was being preached by many evangelical missionaries. If you google "prosperity gospel" or "prosperity theology" you will find many articles about it -- and many articles about why it is so wrong.
The message of the "Prosperity Gospel" movement is relatively simple; obey God's will, live a good, moral, upright Christian life, and you will have success, riches, health and prosperity. In short, "all good things," and "countless riches" as the book of Wisdom says this morning. Like most heresies, there is just enough truth in this teaching to make it attractive.
The truth, as taught by the Catholic Church, is that the underlying goal of our moral life is to achieve happiness. If we live moral lives and follow God's law, we can achieve a natural happiness in this world. And aided by God's grace, through the Sacraments, we can even hope to achieve supernatural and eternal happiness in the next world. This is the goal and purpose of our lives. God did not create the moral law arbitrarily. He is the author of our beings, he made us a certain way, and he knows what is best for us. The moral law, as taught by the Catholic Church, is rooted in our human nature. It's like an operator's guide to being human. So it is only reasonable to expect that if we live good moral lives that we'll have an easier time of things. We'll avoid certain troubles, live happier lives in general, and draw closer to God.
But that's not the same as saying we will be wealthy, successful in business, beautiful and healthy. It does not mean we will never have troubles, suffering or sorrows. It certainly does not mean we will never know pain. Just look at the example of Jesus Christ. No one has ever followed God's will more perfectly, and yet no one has ever suffered so much. Does this mean the book of Wisdom is wrong? Not at all. For one who truly values God's wisdom above all earthly treasure will no doubt feel that "all good things" have come to them, even if they do not have a penny to their name. This is because that person rightly understands that earthly possessions are not the highest good.
Look at today's Gospel reading from Mark. Imagine yourself in the position of this man who approached Jesus. You have followed the commandments of God all your life. And you have benefited from it. Indeed, you can describe yourself as having "countless riches" like the author of Wisdom.
You discover Jesus, the Messiah, walking down the road and so you run to him and ask him, face to face, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
And then, you are truly blessed, because the Lord Himself looks at you and instructs you that all you have to do to gain eternal life is one simple thing. Just one thing. "Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor... then come, follow me."
At these words your heart breaks. You cast your eyes downward and sadly walk away from Jesus. Because you cannot bring yourself to do it. You value your riches far too much, even more than you value eternal life. You may have been following God's commandments all your life. But you lack his wisdom -- even when it's staring you in the face.
What is the ultimate good? What is the source of eternal happiness? Only God Himself. We find some measure of joy in earthly pleasures, and that is fine. God made them for us, and he made us to enjoy them, so it is good that we do. The mistake is to confuse these earthly gifts with the Giver. We call them "goods" only because they reflect God's goodness. But, as Jesus says in the Gospel today, "No one is good but God alone." When we come to understand this, we would give up any amount of these finite goods in order to obtain the infinite good of eternal life with God.
When we possess God -- which is to say, when we allow God to fully possess us -- then we can enjoy the earthly goods that we have in a healthy and proportionate way. And more importantly, like the psalmist, we can even learn to be be glad "for the days when you afflicted us, for the years when we saw evil." For times of trial and suffering can themselves bring us closer to God, and therefore we should give thanks for the hard times, as well.
This is true wisdom. When we value the Love of God above all things, we learn to see all things through the lens of his love. We give thanks to him for the good times in our lives and the successes we have. And we can endure the sufferings that befall us because we know that through it all we have a loving Father who will give us the strength needed to overcome. Even if we lose everything we have in this life, we still bless the Father's name for we know no one and nothing can separate us from the treasures he has prepared for us in heaven, as long as we stay true to him.
God bless, and have a wonderful Fall Break.