No sooner have we heard the Book of Proverbs tell us come, eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed, than we hear Saint Paul warning the Ephesians, do not get drunk on wine!
The Book of Proverbs is an ancient Israelite compilation of wisdom sayings, some of which were once widely familiar, for example, Proverbs 13:1 A wise son loves correction. but the senseless one heeds no rebuke - or 16:9 In his mind a man plans his course but the Lord directs his steps. Sadly the wisdom of human experience is no longer typically transmitted in that way. Whatever wisdom people learn nowadays, our modern attitudes are much less impressed with the wisdom inherent in inherited experience.
Proverbs and the other four biblical books we commonly call “wisdom literature” are very different from the rest of scripture. At the beginning of the biblical story, God was very much front and center – personally creating the world, personally revealing himself to Abraham and his descendants, personally liberating Israel from Egypt, and personally leading Israel into the promised land, where he remained accessible through observance of his law and worship at his Temple and then through oracles and prophets appointed to speak on God’s behalf. Proverbs and the other “wisdom books” are different. God’s word is filtered, so to speak, through the lessons of common human experience. And that is their enduring appeal – so much so that the famous 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton proposed in 1949 that the test of a religious rule might be how “it reflects the calm and the measure” of the biblical wisdom books” [August 8, 1949].
Inspired obviously by today’s Gospel account continuing the story of Jesus’ invitation to enter into eternal life in the Eucharistic banquet, today’s passage from Proverbs invites any and all – everyone in the city, that is, all of society – to partake of the banquet of divine wisdom revealing itself in our experience, enabling us to forsake foolishness and so live and advance in the way of understanding.
Watching how to live, not foolishly but wisely, was likewise Saint Paul’s preoccupation, because as he reminded the Ephesians the days are evil. So we must be filled with the Spirit to detoxify our hearts from the un-wisdom that so surrounds us. For, not unlike the Roman world in Paul’s time, today’s world can easily seem to be totally unmoored from any kind of wisdom – not just the political world or the economic world or the social world but even (and especially) the life of the Church, whose failings we have seen exposed again and again with no solution in sight.
Certainly we need wisdom – lest, as Saint Paul warns, we continue in ignorance. We need to free ourselves from the frenzy all around us, from the toxicity of our political, religious, and cultural conflicts. We need to free ourselves from the defensiveness that makes everything worse, whether in politics or society or in the Church, where our temptation to defensiveness may be especially strong.
Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 19, 2018.