Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- St Augustine once commented on the fickleness of human behaviour; in times of plenty we forget the bad and in unhappy and frugal periods cease to consider that anything we have had is good. He then went on to reflect on the constitutional instability of humankind. His point, like that which Jesus went on to make, was, (Mark 10:17-30), that we all tend to think that we are doing all right by following the rules of right living; like the rich young man; when in fact something deeper and more profound is called for. Jesus in our gospel was reflecting on riches; clearly initially material wealth, but I suspect there were other riches too that he was critical of people relying upon. Riches of intellect; power; physical prowess and so on; Jesus lived in a time when pagan virtues – what was considered essential for the good life – included physical beauty, courage, wealth and other material assets. Christianity, far from denying the material, which has been hallowed by the Incarnation, nevertheless has always aimed to get the believer to think beyond those material things; since we follow one who deliberately became poor and ultimately died stark naked on the cross. The good life for the Christian -Christian virtues – are not just the same as pagan ones and require us to live with a different mindset. This is not to say we have nothing in common with the ancients, after all, Socrates considered that ‘the unconsidered life is not a life worth living’.
This would appear to be the gist of our reading from Wisdom, (Wis 7:7-11). This book may have been written as late as 50BC, and if it does, reflects on the political situation in Palestine and the Near East. Pompey had conquered Palestine in 70 BC, claiming it for Rome, whilst Egypt has just experienced the shenanigans of Caesar and Cleopatra. Egypt, that jewel of the Nile was doomed to become an Imperial province – the prize of the Roman emperor and Rome’s bread basket. People living in the area might well have paused to ask questions on the nature of the real value of human life and its meaning. Certainly the writer reflects a great deal on the life of the ungodly and the way in which they ridicule and destroy the virtuous man; chapters two and three would have been known to Jesus and almost certainly influenced his judgement of things. The wise man, the ‘righteous’ man’s soul is in the hands of God and such men and women cannot be touched by torture or hardship or punishment. The book reflects on a developed understanding of eternal life with God and speaks of the rich ‘life’ promised to the believer. Our reading rates the life of the follower of Wisdom far above priceless stones, gold and silver; material riches far beyond the possession of many ordinary people but who would have seen ample evidence of wealth in a vast trading emporium of Alexandria in Egypt where the Book of Wisdom was written. Alexandria was a city built by and for wealth with its markets of truly international status in which workers laboured away night and day to feed the insatiable demands of the empire. With its great libraries and university and its splendid architecture Alexandria reeked of wealth, of a rich versus poor society and our writer was at pains to get his readers, initially Jews of the city to adopt a different mindset.
The same is true of the Letter to the Hebrews, (4:12-13); this time a Christian letter to Christians of Jewish extraction. It speaks not of wisdom, often associated in Christian thought with the Spirit, but of the ‘word’ of God, here not personified in Jesus, but in its eternal sense, and means us to see the dynamism and incisive qualities of God’s power at work in human nature, refining and enabling us to become his creatures, alert to God’s ways and able to think and act with his grace and sensitivity. I suppose today we would think of this as a description of the truly well formed conscience, for it is about becoming as transparent to the Father as he would have us be. “No created thing can hide from him; everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves”. The writer is however confident that the God who had made us so liable to his judgement has also made us capable through his word of achieving this openness to the creator. Time and time again in this great letter we are urged to rely on Jesus – the one and only route to salvation and our real home in God. So, for both the here and now, and for eternity, it is wisdom, divine understanding, that is our object and our hope.