The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Sir 15:15-20 + 1 Cor 2:6-10 + Mt 5:17-37
February 12, 2017
“Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden….”
1. IBM’s super-computer: intelligent, smart or wise?
Some years back, IBM challenged champions of the TV game show Jeopardy to match their wits against a computer—called “Watson”—that the company had programmed to play that game. Almost ten years earlier, an IBM computer called “Deep Blue” had beaten the world chess champion, and ever since, the company had been looking for another way to pit its computing power against human wits. When two Jeopardy matches were held, IBM’s Watson beat its two human competitors, winning one million dollars in the process.
Did this victory prove that computers are superior to human beings? Well, that depends on what skill it’s important in life to be superior at. Is it important to be able to recite pieces of trivia? Is it important to be able to ring a buzzer faster than others? Do these things matter to someone on his deathbed, as his life flashes before him?
Another way to ponder the differences between machines and human persons is to consider the differences among the following three adjectives: intelligent, smart, and wise. What does it mean to be intelligent, or smart, or wise? Are they interchangeable words?
It’s certainly a useful skill to be able to sort pieces of information quickly in your head. It’s certainly a useful skill to be able to put different pieces of information together into a larger picture. But it’s something altogether different to be wise.
Being wise doesn’t correlate to being useful. You could argue that machines can be programmed to be intelligent, and also smart, in certain ways. Computers can also be extremely useful. But can computers be wise? For that matter, can human beings truly be wise? What is wisdom? Our Scriptures today explore all this, and show how wisdom can help us make moral choices through the virtue of divine love.
2a. Sirach: God’s commandments vs. God’s Wisdom
In the stories of the Old Testament, wisdom often seems a rare commodity. Although we hear about wisdom in today’s First Reading, it’s spoken of in terms of the Lord Himself, not human beings. Sirach proclaims, “Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; He is mighty in power, and all-seeing.” Most of us, I think, grow up thinking about God like that, but we’d hardly attribute those qualities to ourselves. Likewise, in our First Reading there’s not much about ordinary folks possessing wisdom.
When today’s First Reading does speak about ordinary people like you and me, it’s in terms of making simple moral choices. Sirach explains plainly, “If you choose, you can keep the commandments”. He then uses analogies to show how black and white such choices are. He declares that God “has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Sirach portrays moral choices as being so simple, that wisdom hardly seems needed.
2b. St. Paul on Wisdom leading to Glory
But Saint Paul in our Second Reading bridges the gap between the simple choices of ordinary folks, and the immense wisdom of the All-Powerful Lord. Through the Power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian is granted a share in the Wisdom of God, and this for a reason.
St. Paul explains that the Wisdom of God isn’t just God’s prerogative. He chooses to bestow His Wisdom upon His children through the preaching of His apostles. In this light, St. Paul explains to the Corinthians: “We speak a wisdom to those who are mature, not a wisdom of this age”. St. Paul wants the Corinthians to be among this group of “mature” disciples, just as God wants you among this group. God wants to pour His Wisdom into your heart and mind.
By contrast, St. Paul makes clear that there’s a very different type of wisdom making the rounds in the first century. St. Paul warns the Corinthians about a worldly, false wisdom: the “wisdom of this age”. He contrasts the two when he explains that “we speak God’s wisdom[:] mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for, if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” St. Paul makes clear that it’s the crucified Lord of glory who leads us into glory through His mysterious, hidden Wisdom: that is, the Wisdom of the Cross. In other words, there’s a great wisdom in self-sacrifice, although to call it merely “great” is an understatement. There’s an infinite wisdom in self-sacrifice.
When you and I make choices that are wise—not only smart or intelligent, but wise—we follow after Jesus. Living your life by sacrificing your life for others, as Jesus did, leads us into the Father’s Presence. By contrast, following the “wisdom of this age” leads to eternal death. So either way, there is death. Your choice is whether to embrace death in this world in the form of self-sacrifice, or to allow death to embrace you for eternity, once you’ve breathed your last. The British writer C. S. Lewis once put it this way: “At the end of life, there are two types of persons: there are those who say in the end: ‘Heavenly Father, thy will be done’, and then there are those to whom God the Father says in the end, ‘My child, thy will be done.’” It’s divine wisdom that helps us to see this distinction. But it’s divine love helps us to choose “the better part”.
2c. the difficult path that Wisdom points to
Making such a basic choice—between life and death, between self-sacrifice in this world or eternal death in the next—might seem like a no-brainer. But for most of us, it’s not, and this is for at least two reasons.
The world camouflages itself in its own false form of glory. This is what St. Paul in the Second Reading is driving at, in preaching against what he calls the “wisdom of this age”. The excitement, glamor, glitz, and notoriety that come with spending money and pleasing the senses are a form of glory in the eyes of the world. If we wanted to give a name to the sort of life that dedicated to the wisdom of this age, we could use a game that’s a lot like the game show Jeopardy: it’s called Trivial Pursuit. So you have to ask: is it smart to pursue this type of glory? Is it intelligent? Is it wise? It really all depends upon where you’re headed.
The second reason that it’s so difficult to choose the path of self-sacrifice is because even for baptized followers of Jesus, our souls are tainted by what the Church calls “concupiscence”. Concupiscence is a tendency towards sin that remains within us every day of our life on earth. There’s no shaking it. It’s not washed away at our baptism like Original Sin. Just as gravity constantly pulls you towards the earth, and it takes effort and strength to move your body up against gravity, so it is in the moral life. Concupiscence is a sort of “moral gravity” that constantly pulls us down towards sin. To resist requires wisdom, to recognize that we’re being pulled down. But divine love gives the strength needed to strive against its pull.
3. Choosing wisely
Against all the forces that pull you towards the false glory of “this age”, you have to choose to follow Christ Jesus. His divine Wisdom shows us the path that leads to Our Father. But Wisdom doesn’t confer the strength to walk that path. That strength comes through God’s grace. The greatest source of grace that Jesus gifted you with was the Gift of Himself at the Last Supper, which becomes present before your very eyes in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
There are only sixteen days until the start of Lent. You need to choose now what you’ll do during Lent to allow Christ to work more deeply in your spiritual life. Along with choosing what you’ll give up during Lent, and what prayers you’ll offer above and beyond your normal regimen of prayers, you ought also zero in on one particular vice that you constantly struggle with. Our Gospel passages this Sunday and next help us consider how to do this, and the sermon next Sunday will go into several of the specific examples that Jesus gives us about the Seven Capital Vices.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church you can find the Seven Capital Vices listed. But more important than being able to name them, and more important than knowing how much harm they can do to our spiritual lives, is to know how specifically to counter them. The Seven Capital Vices are countered by the seven chief virtues of the Christian life. The Christian uses the virtue of humility to fight against the capital vice of pride, pride in fact being the mother of all the capital vices.
Likewise, the Christian uses the virtues of generosity and chastity to fight against the vices of avarice and lust; the virtues of meekness and temperance against the vices of anger and gluttony; and the virtues of brotherly love and diligence against the vices of envy and sloth.
Over the next sixteen days before Lent begins, choose one of these vices. Focus on this vice during Lent by focusing on its corresponding virtue. For example, if you struggle with pride, do not try to tell yourself that the next time you’re tempted to pride, that you’ll just set your pride aside and not be proud. That never works. Pride is a vice, which means that it’s a habit of doing evil: the emphasis here is on the word “habit”. It’s not a coincidence that this same word is used to describe the clothing of monks and nuns. What a monk or a nun wears is called a “habit” because it’s constantly on them. It’s practically part of them. You can’t imagine them without it. So it is with moral habits: they clothe us constantly. They’re not going to go away because we want them to go away.
To destroy an evil habit, you need two things. First, through your own efforts you need to cultivate the opposite habit: the corresponding virtue. To destroy the evil habit of pride, you must cultivate the virtue of humility by performing acts of humility: not when you’re tempted to pride, because it’s too difficult at that point. You have to perform acts of virtue consistently and often. This is difficult, but the source of strength to stick to this comes from Christ, who wants to strengthen you with the grace of His own divine life through your prayer, and worthy reception of the sacraments.