Third Sunday in Lent: Turning to God’s Wisdom

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 20:1-17; PS 19: 8, 9, 10, 11; 1 COR 1:22-25; JN 2:13-25

This Sunday’s readings began with the Ten Commandments.  The other readings, including the Psalm, are like commentaries on this.

Immediately after the reading came the second part of Psalm 19:

“The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul;

The decree of the LORD is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

the command of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eye.”

The Psalmist does not merely obey the Law.  The Psalmist relishes the Law.  Indeed, the Psalmist’s relish turns obedience on its head.  Obedience sounds like we are following something imposed on us.  Perhaps we fear punishment, perhaps we accept the rules out of reverence for the rule-giver, but the rules themselves seem like impositions.

But to the Psalmist, the Law is not an imposition, it is a wonderful gift.  The Lawgiver is more like a fabulous teacher than like a judge.

Some day perhaps we will walk through the many levels of the Law.  But notice the words for the Law in the Psalm above: law, decree, precept, command, also ordinances.  The Tradition reads in these not only the Ten Commandments, but the hundreds of other little rules given in the Old Testament – and prefiguring the detailed guidance the Holy Spirit gives us in the “new law” of grace.  The Ten Commandments are just the beginnings of God’s wonderful teaching.

***

As the Psalm commended God’s law immediately after the reading of the Ten Commandments, so the last words of the Gospel commended it in another way.  Jesus, it said, “did not need anyone to testify about human nature.  He himself understood it well.”

Pope Bl. Paul VI called the Church “an expert in humanity”; St. John Paul II often repeated these words.  We trust the Church not just out of “obedience,” but because the Church is wise!  But the Church’s wisdom is rooted in a deeper wisdom.  God who made us, knows us.  In Jesus, indeed, the Word (the wisdom!) through whom the world was made enters into human experience: the ultimate expert in humanity.

The first half of Psalm 19, in fact, speaks of God as master of creation.  Only then does it speak of the beautiful wisdom of his law.  We trust in God because God knows what he is talking about!  What a gift to receive wisdom from him – first the written wisdom of the Law, then “not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3).

***

But there is a problem, identified in our reading from First Corinthians.  Although “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,” Jesus seems a stumbling block and foolishness.

Sometimes people read this powerful section of First Corinthians too quickly, and completely miss the point.  It’s not that Jesus is against wisdom – any more than the Cross, followed by the Resurrection, is a lack of power.  He is very powerful!  He is the true wisdom!

No, it is not Jesus who is against wisdom.  It is us.  We are foolish.  So foolish that when we see true wisdom, we reject it.  So foolish that when God, God himself, shows us the way, we think we have a smarter way.  Just as “the weakness of God,” conquering death itself, “is stronger than human strength,” so “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”  It looks foolish to us – because we are fools.

***

Our Psalm gives us a particular angle on this:

“The ordinances of the Lord . . .

are more precious than gold, than a heap of purest gold;

sweeter also than syrup or honey from the comb.”

Here are two kinds of worldliness: one accumulating gold, the other pursuing sensuality (even in its most innocent kind: syrup and honey!)

The Psalm puts a positive spin on it, but here is the great struggle of sin: mostly, we prefer gold and syrup to the wisdom of God.  That is our foolishness.

***

And this is the dynamic in our Gospel story, where Jesus drives them out of the temple: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

God calls them to prayer – the ultimate sweetness.  They look for gold (with which, perhaps, to buy syrup).

We can see this even at a higher level: God offers us himself, and even in our relationship with God, we are more interested in spiritual good-feelings (honey) or in how God can make our life on earth better (spiritual gold).  Notice how much of the Ten Commandments focuses on prayer – and how little of our thought turns in that direction.  We just want to fight about murder and marriage.  Well, we should embrace the Lord’s law in those things, too – but then, above all, go to meet him, and receive him, in prayer!

Lent is our time to come to grips with our sinfulness: to see how much we prefer honey (fasting) and gold (almsgiving) to the sweetness of the Lord (prayer), who is wisdom itself.

How has worldliness infected your spiritual life?

eric.m.johnston

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