This past week the Church has presented as the first reading for daily Mass excerpts from the Old Testament Book of Sirach.
The Book of Sirach is an example of what is called Wisdom Literature, a specific genre of literature in the Bible that begs the questions as to what is the meaning and purpose of life and how does one best live in relationship to God and neighbor. Much of the Wisdom Literature is presented in the form of essays, proverbs and maxims.
Some of the content of the Wisdom Literature of the Bible is poetic and lyrical, and today’s excerpt from the Book of Sirach is a fine example of this. In today’s scripture from the Book of Sirach the author presents his dramatic pursuit of wisdom, whom he represents as a woman with whom he is in a passionate, romantic relationship. This relationship with wisdom has given meaning and purpose to the author’s life.
What is wisdom?
Wisdom is a quality of knowing that exceeds mere facts and figures. Rather than being content with the material, wisdom seeks after truths that transcend the experience of the world- seeing and appreciating all that there is and through this experience marveling at the gift of existence and wondering as to why there is something rather than nothing and what it means that the world greets us as knowable and intelligible. Wisdom begs from human experience the question of the existence of God and considers the meaning of existence that the answer to this question God’s existence imparts.
We live in culture that favors knowledge of facts and figures rather than wisdom. The pursuit of wisdom is seen as merely a diversion that is secondary to pragmatic concerns. Our schools and universities do not so much favor wisdom in their curriculums as they do practical skills. The question of how to best make something that humans can use and buy and sell preoccupies our culture’s attention more than discerning the answer as to why there is something rather than nothing. As such, the Book of Sirach’s passion for wisdom might seem strange.
The Church Fathers, those scholars, sages and saints of the earliest ages of the Church’s life, understood this love poem about wisdom to be a kind of foreshadowing of Christ, who is himself “holy wisdom”. Like the personification of wisdom of the Book of Sirach, in which wisdom is a person who is capable of love and being loved, a person with whom one shares a relationship, so is Christ, revealed to us in his incarnation.
Christ is not merely an idea, but a living, divine person and a relationship with him reveals, as wisdom does, the answers to the kinds of questions raised by human experience.
Not all the answers that Christ offers to us are the answers we want or that we prefer, but they are God’s answers and as such they are always true whether we accept them or believe them or not.
The authority of Christ is at issue in the Gospel for today. Christ makes extraordinary claims about God, about himself and about those things that the Israelites value. In terms of the law and the temple he presents himself as having an authority above that the Israelite’s priests, prophets and kings. He speaks and acts in the person of God. He claims an authority that is not bound by culture, custom, politics or social convention.
The religious authorities are teasing out the implications of Christ’s authority and the conclusion that they are reaching fills them with a sense of anxiety and dread. What they are coming to understand is that Christ is presenting himself to be the God of Israel in the flesh and this was not a revelation that they expected or believed was even possible.
And so they press the question, they want Christ to tell them directly- is he really who he is presenting himself to be?
Christ does not present himself as accountable to their authority to even question him and as such answers their question- he is an authority higher than the law, than the temple, and certainly higher than the rulers of the people, be those rulers priests, prophets or kings. The only authority higher than all that I have mentioned is God.
We should not fail to appreciate the startling revelation of the Lord Jesus. The revelation of the Lord Jesus is that he is God and when we profess to believe in Jesus that is the claim that we are making.
If we truly believe that Christ is God than nothing else in our lives or in this world can have priority over our relationship with him- nothing else. The Gospels help us to understand what this means and invites us to place everything else in our lives in proper relationship to him.
A Christian is someone whose whole life is willingly placed under Christ’s authority. When this happens the Christian is truly free, this freedom expresses itself in a life that looks very much like Christ. The freedom of a Christian is not the freedom to do what we want, it is the freedom to be like Christ- and be like him, not just in some things, or in what we choose, but in all things.