The Judgement of Solomon, Raphael, 1509-1511, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican
September 8, 2019
Our reading today is from the Book of Wisdom. As we have seen previously, it may be the last book of the Old Testament, written possibly as late as 30 BC, although the author speaks in the name of King Solomon from about 1000 BC. It was composed most likely in Alexandria, Egypt but nonetheless shares some of the concerns and features of the Book of Sirach, which we read from last week. The authors were both teachers of the young Jewish elite and labored to show them how they could be part of the wider—by this time Greek and Roman culture—and still be authentically Jewish.
Today, the author of the Book of Wisdom will emphasize through Solomon the importance of Prayer. This section is indeed called the Prayer of Solomon. To be precise, it is the final of three sections. We will need to look at each, but first it should be remembered that in the chapters leading up to this, Solomon is relating his successes but ends with:
And knowing that I could not otherwise possess her except God gave it—
and this, too, was prudence, to know whose is the gift—
I went to the LORD and besought him,
and said with all my heart:
The prayer follows. He knows that he cannot succeed without Wisdom, which is more than intelligence, understanding or talent, and must be given by God. He will first acknowledge that it must be given to every person and not just kings. He offers his prayer in a typically Jewish form:
Address to God:
God of my fathers, LORD of mercy.
you who have made all things by your word
Attributes of God:
And in your wisdom have established man
to rule the creatures produced by you,
To govern the world in holiness and justice,
and to render judgment in integrity of heart:
Give me Wisdom, the attendant at your throne,
and reject me not from among your children;
For I am your servant, the son of your handmaid,
a man weak and short-lived
and lacking in comprehension of judgment and of laws.
Indeed, though one be perfect among the sons of men,
if Wisdom, who comes from you, be not with him,
he shall be held in no esteem.
Please note that, although he will soon speak as king, he speaks for all of us in our need to have wisdom. Dominion over the earth has been entrusted to all people:
Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.”
This is the essence of our responsibilities to the earth and its proper care as Pope Francis reminds us. The ecological imperative cannot be outsourced.
The next section, verses 7-12, has a similar structure but the request is as king:
Address to God:
You have chosen me king over your people
and magistrate for your sons and daughters.
Attributes of God:
You have bid me build a temple on your holy mountain
and an altar in the city that is your dwelling place,
a copy of the holy tabernacle which you had established from
Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
Who understands what is pleasing in your eyes
and what is conformable with your commands
The great achievement of Solomon was fulfilling the prophecy in Exodus and building the temple according to God’s plan:
They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst.
This Dwelling and all its furnishings you shall make exactly according to the pattern that I will now show you.
Thus, we read in Wisdom:
Send her forth from your holy heavens
and from your glorious throne dispatch her
That she may be with me and work with me,
that I may know what is your pleasure.
Both Jews and Catholics believe that the Liturgy we celebrate on earth is a reflection of the heavenly Liturgy and thus even the furnishings of the worship space must be constructed according to the Divine plan. It is Wisdom that makes the plan of God visible and real, sometimes flesh and blood, sometimes stone and brick. Note, we say in the 1st Eucharistic prayer to this very day:
Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven. Then, as we receive from this altar the sacred body and blood of your Son, let us be filled with every grace and blessing.
This reflects the tradition about Solomon that he found favor with God because he sought Wisdom above all things:
O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father David; but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act.
I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.
Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”
(1 Ki. 3:7–9)
For she knows and understands all things,
and will guide me discreetly in my affairs
and safeguard me by her glory;
Thus my deeds will be acceptable,
and I shall judge your people justly
and be worthy of my father’s throne.
It is here that our section for the day begins. There is however a change in both tone and intent. We begin with:
For what man knows God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what our LORD intends?
The answer of course is no one. He gives several reasons:
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and unsure are our plans.
For the corruptible body burdens the soul
and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.
Human beings are easily distracted by the things of this world. We need not believe that humans are composed of a corruptible body and a spiritual soul, which do not work altogether seamlessly, to know that we can be led astray by bodily passions. Pharisaical Jews however, like us, ultimately believed that we do not have a body but we are our bodies and thus we hold with Orthodox Jews to this day in the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul;
Solomon looking at his own life acknowledges that he succeeded only because of the gift of wisdom not his own native abilities:
And scarce do we guess the things on earth,
and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty;
but when things are in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given Wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
Wisdom is not only a gift; it is one that be found on earth with and among us to have any meaning:
And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight,
and men learned what was your pleasure,
and were saved by Wisdom.
This prayer forms a pleasing whole. It begins with God as “creator God of my fathers, LORD of mercy. you who have made all things by your word” (Wis. 9:1) and in the verses we have just quoted ends with God as Savior. It is a characteristic of wisdom that it becomes real only in concrete reality, especially flesh and bone.
Wisdom is not what we find in our heads but what we put into the world. It is therefore always relevant. The need for Wisdom is as close as our newspapers or video screens. Offering thoughts and prayers for victims of yet another slaughter of the innocents reveals the necessary and preliminary virtue of piety, effectively addressing the issue shows Wisdom.
Addendum to this week’s homily:
This week’s Gospel (Luke 14:25-33) continues the situation of last week’s (Luke 14:7-14). Jesus is in the house of a leading Pharisee and his guests who are subjecting him to considerable scrutiny. He has already told them that the scramble for places of honor is futile. Today, he will again remind them that following him is difficult and needs full commitment. There is, however, a section in between which we will not read at Sunday Mass (Luke 14: 15-24) and to fully understand the Lord’s message, it should be examined. It is quoted below. The text for the section in between last week’s and today’s readings is listed below in regular print, sections from other parts of the Bible are in bold, and the sections from today’s reading which respond are in bold italics.
One of his fellow guests on hearing this said to him, “Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God.”
He replied to him, “A man gave a great dinner to which he invited many.
When the time for the dinner came, he dispatched his servant to say to those invited, ‘Come, everything is now ready.’
Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard and never yet enjoyed its fruits? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another enjoy its fruits in his stead.
Is there anyone who has betrothed a woman and not yet taken her as his wife? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another take her to wife.
Even in a Holy War a person who has land to cultivate or a new bride is exempted from military service.
But one by one, they all began to excuse themselves. The first said to him, ‘I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.’
And another said, ‘I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them; I ask you, consider me excused.’
In the same way, everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.
And another said, ‘I have just married a woman, and therefore I cannot come.’
“If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple
The servant went and reported this to his master. Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
And he said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
As promised by the Lord in Luke, the marginalized will be brought into the kingdom of God. Note these are Jews.
The servant reported, ‘Sir, your orders have been carried out and still there is room.’
The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled.
For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Then as we saw a few weeks ago even non-Jews will enter. The full implications of this will be addressed in this week’s homily.