The Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Wisdom 9:13-18 + Philemon 9-10,12-17 + Luke 14:25-33
Catechism Link: CCC 1806
September 4, 2022
“… when things are in Heaven, who can search them out?”
Asking God for things is a tricky business. We might even say that of the four basic types of Christian prayer (that is, petition, adoration, contrition, and thanksgiving), the prayer of petition demands the most deliberation.
The First Reading addresses this challenge indirectly, asking rhetorically: “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends? For the deliberation of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.” We might paraphrase these verses by asking, “When I pray, how can I get my human free will to align with God’s divine and providential will?”
So to “fine tune” our prayers in order to make them more effective, here’s a question for you. But be careful, because it’s a trick question: “When we petition God in prayer, should we pray for a good thing?” The answer is “Yes… and No.” Today’s Scripture passages explain why by giving us examples of, and by describing, the virtue of prudence.
To most persons, prudence does not seem the most compelling Christian virtue. After all, it’s not as simple as humility, as bold as courage, or as sublime as charity. As virtues go, prudence sort of seems like oatmeal.
Nonetheless, if someone were to ask you, “Should you pray for a good thing?”, then you should answer “No!” The definition of prudence shows us why we should not pray just for a good thing. Notice in this definition the two tasks that prudence enables us to carry out.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prudence as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance, and to choose the right means of achieving it” [CCC 1806]. Prudence empowers us to do two things: first, to see our “true good” in a given circumstance; and second, to choose the means to reach this “true good”. So prudence guides both our intellect (in seeing the true good), and our will (in choosing the true good). Prudence is really the most practical of all the virtues, because it guides the marriage of our intellect and will in daily life.
Nonetheless, as insightful as this definition is, it begs an important question. What is this “true good”?
Our Scripture passages today show us how this “true good” is not just the good as opposed to the bad. The true good is the best good out of many good choices.
When we were little, our parents taught us to make moral choices by recognizing right from wrong; good from bad; what is holy from what is evil. This is the first stage of moral wisdom. This is the foundation of making moral choices. It’s essential that we understand that difference. In fact, to put it bluntly, this difference is the difference between Heaven and hell. But as a Christian, you have to build upon that foundation. God doesn’t leave us to do whatever good on earth we might choose.
So while the foundation of Christian morality is about good versus bad, we build upon that by hearing God call us beyond only choosing what is good. God wants us to do far more: He wants us to choose what is best over and above what is merely good. It’s in this sense that God does not want you to choose a good thing: God wants you to choose the best thing. “Good” is not good enough. Only “the best” is good enough for God, and for you and your vocation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses a striking image to describe prudence, calling prudence the “charioteer” of all the other virtues. In other words, you might think of prudence as being the “inner ear” of the Body of Christ. As your inner ear controls your body’s sense of balance, so prudence controls the balance of your soul, including the balance of your moral choices. You could be the strongest football player, the most poised ballerina, or the most agile sprinter in the world. But if that one little part of your inner ear didn’t work, then you and your strength, poise, and agility would fall flat on your face.
Everyone needs a sense of balance: not only physical balance, but even more so moral balance. Other virtues may be more powerful and even more important. But without prudence, they won’t allow you to reach for the greatest good in life.