Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter, Vasily Polenov, 1871
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24
Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
June 27, 2021
The reading from the Old Testament this Sunday is from the Book of the “Wisdom of Solomon.” Although it sounds ancient it is perhaps the last book in the Old Testament and could have been written as late as 30 BC. Also, although it takes the name of King Solomon of Jerusalem from about 1,000 BC, it was most likely written in Alexandria, Egypt for the children of the Jewish elite who were immersed in the Roman world and tempted to give up their faith. Some things do not change.
The conceit of the book is that King Solomon is presenting to the other kings and princes of the world the mind of God. Note it is assumed that God has created the entire world and his laws are based on this creation. Thus, they must be obeyed by everyone. Memorably, he begins:
Love justice, you who judge the earth;think of the LORD in goodness,(Wisdom 1:1-3)
and seek him in integrity of heart;
Justice connects us to reality and reveals God’s Goodness. It may be found only by those with integrity of heart. The consequences of this are revealed in the first part of today’s reading:
Because God did not make death,(Wisdom 1:13-15)
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
And there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the nether world on earth,
For justice is undying.
This is an important passage because it directly addresses prominent Greek ideas which would have been attractive to the young elite. When older Jewish writings promised life to those who lived justly they meant health, prosperity, children, etc. in this life. If there was an afterlife it was a pale reflection of this one. Wisdom claims that there is an afterlife that is positive and robust because the world reflects the goodness of God and just as God is everlasting so is his creation especially, we who are specially created in his likeness.
The life of which he speaks is not so much continuing breathing but an existence which reflects the presence of God. To deny the image of God in the way we live our lives is to invite destruction of our very being. We were created for bliss, but we can embrace destruction. As the concluding section of today’s reading puts it:
For God formed man to be imperishable;(Wisdom 2:23-24)
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who are in his possession experience it.
This is not the view of the Pharisees and ultimately not of Jesus. They and we do not hold to immortality but to “the resurrection of the body.” Yet we should not pass over this passage too quickly. The author of Wisdom is clearly teaching that there is more to life than this life. We connect with the life that continues forever by being true to God’s commandments. This is especially important for the children of the elite. They are not the rulers of the earth, but they are the real audience of this book. As we noted this was most likely written in Alexandria, an important and cosmopolitan city. Despite their location in Africa, they would have been immersed in Greek culture and the author’s aim was to show them the differences. It is like Americans who attend Ivy league universities—no matter how strong their spiritual upbringing, the ethics of the Global North are part of the air they breathe. Much of Pope Francis writings are devoted to affirming what is good in this world’s view, but clearly showing what is not. He too roots his teaching in the eternal.
Wisdom writers believed that in the final analysis a person either walked on the way of righteousness or in the way of wickedness.. As Jewish writers have long promised, the evil are often more powerful than the good in the here and now.
Let us test him with insult and torture,(Wis 2:19–20)
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
A person who has understood the purpose and of creation knows that God has created the world that the good will ultimately triumph over the bad.
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,(Wis 3:1–3)
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
The wicked however will have a markedly different fate:
But the ungodly will be punished as their reasoning deserves,(Wis 3:10–11)
those who disregarded the righteous
and rebelled against the Lord;
for those who despise wisdom and instruction are miserable.
Their hope is vain, their labors are unprofitable,
and their works are useless.
The author of Wisdom knows what all who teach the children of the powerful know and he is not afraid to speak: clinging to eternal truth no matter how difficult is the difference between being a leader and a thug.