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Victor Cancino, S.J.February 08, 2023
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This Sunday, the readings highlight the Judeo-Christian wisdom tradition found in Scripture. 

He has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand? (Sir 15:16)

Liturgical day
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Sir 15:15-20, Ps 119, 1 Cor 2:6-10, Mt 5:17-37

Is your definition of wisdom different from biblical wisdom?

What first step do you need to take in order to choose the path of wisdom?

Recall a time when wisdom was passed down to you? Did this teaching stick?


Wisdom literature takes many forms in the Bible. One form is as a set of "sayings," aphorisms and proverbs, that helped people navigate life. Aside from the biblical Book of Proverbs, such wisdom sayings appear throughout the Scriptures. They are the largest part of Israel's wisdom tradition.

The word wisdom has many meanings. In our culture today, we tend to think of it as an understanding, built from life experience, that allows us to glean meaning from a given situation. In the Old Testament, by contrast, the word “wisdom” indicated a practical skill that might be acquired, as by a stonemason or merchant. Like an apprentice in a trade, individuals chose to learn the skills that allowed them to follow God. Biblical wisdom consisted first of all in a choice, as this Sunday’s first reading states, “He has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand” (Sir 15:16-17). 

There were at least three teaching roles in biblical Israel, and it is helpful to reflect on the distinctions among them. A priest in the Old Testament taught from the Law (Torah) and attended to cultic duties. A prophet dealt primarily with the interpretation of revelation, the word of God as it was received and transmitted. A wise scribe, by contrast, gave counsel about life, drawing from the entire tradition of Israel’s sacred writings  (see The Wisdom of Ben Sira [Anchor Yale Bible 39, 2008] 31). The role of the wise scribe is distinct in its focus on pedagogy, helping people gain wisdom by becoming “students of life.”  

The first reading, from Sirach, portrays the wise scribe at work. The author is ‘teaching’ or providing counsel to anyone who will heed the advice. This is the task of Israel’s wisdom tradition, to impart counsel in ways that will stick with the student. Using clever proverbs and witty sayings, the author of Sirach found effective ways to impart knowledge to the next generation. In this task, the author embodies the scribal commitment to pass on Israel’s ancient wisdom.

The first reading, for example, draws a sharp distinction between those who live justly (and practice fear of the Lord) and those who do not (and are fools), and challenges the reader to choose a path. This is about more than a pattern of moral living. According to Sirach and the scribal tradition, to follow the commandments gleaned from Scripture places one in a state of mystical relationship to God. Sirach symbolizes this with the language of God ‘looking’ at those who act justly, “The eyes of God are on those who fear him; …no one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin” (Sir 15:19-20). This will color Matthew’s understanding of Gospel precepts. 

The juxtaposition of Sirach and Matthew’s Gospel in this Sunday’s readings highlights Jesus’ role within the Judeo-Christian wisdom tradition. Jesus is the teacher-rabbi, the wise person who masters the skill to impart counsel to those student-followers who are open to the difficult task of living out God’s wisdom. Jesus, as the one who imparts counsel, clarifies the commandments found in Torah and digs into the roots of the moral life. The formula he uses to do this, you have heard such-and-such, but I say even more so, remains a useful teaching aid today. The Law says it is possible to divorce, but I say stick to lifelong commitment when possible. The Law says do not kill, but I say do not even harbor anger. The Law says do not commit adultery, but I say do not even look with lustful eyes.

Just as Israel’s Law governed both individual behavior and national policy, so Jesus’ teaching instructs his disciples as individuals and as a community. Jesus teaches to a mixed crowd. He repeats traditional sayings and adapts them to the present circumstances. Those who surround him bring different agendas and hold divergent hopes. Some are the people described in the Beatitudes: the meek, the mourning, the poor in spirit. Others are religious leaders from the different sects of first-century Judaism. Some are just individuals who are learning what it means to be a student-follower of Jesus. He is forming a community and his synthesis of the Judeo-Christian wisdom tradition is meant for everyone in this community. The moral teachings introduced this Sunday are meant to build this community as a whole, and cannot be reduced to personal piety or sanctification. 

There are many models of such applied wisdom on the Flathead Indian Reservation where I live. A tradition of respect for our community’s elders remains strong. To become an elder is not so much age, but the capacity to impart wisdom, especially wisdom of the old ways and life skills that the next generation can use effectively. The goal of such wisdom from the elders is the material and spiritual health of the whole tribe. In the mind of the elders, to focus on the individual exclusively is a failure for the whole. Though he lived over 2000 years before, Sirach shares this insight. In a similar awareness, the author of Sirach writes, “Take notice that not for myself only have I toiled, but for every seeker after guidance” (Sir 33:18). 

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