The Book of Wisdom, also called the Wisdom of Solomon in the Protestant traditions, is another one of the lesser known books of the Old Testament which does not get much air-time in the Church’s liturgy. Considering the readings at Sunday mass we only hear from Wisdom eight times in the entire three-year cycle of the Lectionary.
In spite of this sparse treatment Wisdom contains much edifying material; its first half consists of reflections on the nature of divine and human wisdom, as well as practical advice about how to deal with some of the most difficult realities of life, such as childlessness, the suffering of the innocent, and the early death of a loved one. You may have heard a passage from the Book of Wisdom at a funeral mass: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them” (Wis 3:1). In ancient times as now the death of the young is one of the greatest hardships we can ever deal with, and Wisdom is there to help us negotiate our way.
With this in mind, the respect and joy that should fill our hearts when we reflect on human wisdom are the subject of the Old Testament reading this Sunday: “I prayed, and prudence was given me…” (Wis 7:7). Prudence is one of the so-called “cardinal virtues,” which are given that name since they are the qualities around which all other virtues revolve—the Latin word cardo, cardinis means “hinge.” The cardinal virtues were a staple of Catholic teaching on moral conduct for generations; you might try to remember them from your Baltimore Catechism days: they are temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude—they are actually mentioned in that order in the Book of Wisdom (Wis 8:7).
The cardinal virtues were also recognized by pagan Greek and Roman philosophers before the time of Christ. Plato described them as essential for good citizens in his classic work The Republic, and Cicero extolled them in a famous essay called De Officiis which he wrote for his son near the end of Cicero’s life. The fact that writers from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition deeply valued the cardinal virtues signals their importance for all people regardless of religious belief or lack thereof.
The New Testament reading today teaches us that the scriptures are a sure source of the wisdom that leads to virtue, and not only the “wisdom books” of the Old Testament but the entire Bible. We read in Hebrews: “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). The language about the word being “sharper than any two-edged sword” reminds us that the same scriptures that inspire us to virtue and wisdom also challenge us and clearly present the sacrifices we must make if we are to be faithful to God. This is what sent the young man of the gospel away in sadness, for he couldn’t bring himself to part with his possessions.
To this end Jesus himself says: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24-25). Strengthened by the wisdom of our elders, seen in the Book of Wisdom and throughout the Bible, may we always exercise prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude as we seek to be true disciples of Jesus, attaining that salvation which is impossible for human beings, but which is a free gift from our God who is the perfection of all wisdom and virtue.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Solomon at his throne, painting by Andreas Brugger, 1777