Friday, August 27, 2010

God's Foolishness Is Wiser Than Human Wisdom; God's Weakness, Stronger Than Human Strength.

Memorial of Saint Monica
Reading I
1 Corinthians 1:17-25
Brothers and sisters:
Christ did not send me to baptize
but to preach the Gospel,
and not with the wisdom of human eloquence,
so that the cross of Christ
might not be emptied of its meaning.

The message of the cross is foolishness
to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved
it is the power of God.
For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the learning of the learned I will set aside.

Where is the wise one?
Where is the scribe?
Where is the debater of this age?
Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish?
For since in the wisdom of God
the world did not come to know God through wisdom,
it was the will of God
through the foolishness of the proclamation
to save those who have faith.
For Jews demand signs
and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called,
Jews and Greeks alike,
Christ the power of God
and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God
is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God
is stronger than human strength.
The distinction between true and false wisdom.

In this reading Paul presents us with one of the most central concepts of his teaching and indeed of our Christian faith. He begins by saying that Christ had not sent him to baptise. In so speaking, he is not in any way minimising baptism. What he is asserting that his special calling was to proclaim the Gospel. It was for others to establish Christian communities after he had gone to preach the Message in another mission field. Peter, too, asked others to baptise the Gentile Cornelius and his household after they were received into the community (Acts 10:48).

Today’s passage focuses on the essence of our faith, which transcends all human divisions - a message just as relevant now as it was then. What he says arises out his displeasure with factions which were forming in the Corinthian communities. Some saying they were for Paul, others for Apollos, or Cephas (Peter), or even Christ. Paul emphasises that they are all, whoever baptised them, one in Christ. It was Christ and Christ alone who died for them and saved them. Paul’s particular role or charism was to proclaim the Gospel mainly to new communities; he was a founder of churches and communities and so he kept moving from place to place. The other church ministries were left to others to carry out. It is a good example of the diversity of gifts which he will speak about later on.

Further, his role was to preach the Cross of Christ but not with an orator’s eloquence which might rob the Cross of its real power. Oratory was a highly esteemed talent in those days, especially among the Greeks and Romans, but Paul makes no claim to it and for that he is glad. Paul’s mission was not to couch the Gospel in the language of the trained orator, who had studied the techniques of influencing people by persuasive arguments. What Paul shares is not human wisdom but the wisdom of God. The strength of the message is not in how it is delivered but in its content.

The Cross will speak for itself and does not need the persuasive language of the orator. The message of the Cross is unique. It requires a special kind of insight to see its meaning and its wisdom, which is itself a gift from God.

For those who are not on God’s wavelength, it makes no sense but for those who are it speaks of God’s power, above all, the power of love.

Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah (29:14) in which God says he will bring the wisdom of the wise to nothing. This was originally said in the context of the people of Judah and Jerusalem who thought it was an astute thing to do to make an alliance with Egypt and thus turn away the threats of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king. God had other plans to deal with him, plans which the “wise” never dreamt of. In fact, Sennacherib was forced to withdraw from the gates of the city when his army was unexpectedly decimated by a kind of plague.

And where are the wise men now - all those pagan philosophers, including those Paul met in Athens and who laughed at his message? asks Paul. Perhaps Paul knew of the remark of Aristides who said that on every street in Corinth one met a so-called wise man, who had his own solutions to all the world’s problems. (We still have them in our newspapers every day!) Where, asks Paul, are the experts in the Mosaic Law? Where are the “debaters of this age”, those Greek sophists who loved to engage in long and subtle disputes?

Has not God - in Christ - made the wisdom of the world look foolish? Faced with the mystery of the Cross such people have nothing to say.

In a beautifully paradoxical statement (worthy of an orator!) he says: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

Not, of course, that their preaching is foolish but the message of Christ crucified is viewed by the world as foolish. Jesus said something similar: “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike” (Luke 10:21).

And so, the Jews are demanding miracles and signs as proofs of God’s saving power among them. Several times in the Gospel Jesus was asked for a ‘sign’ to prove his credentials, even though his whole public life was a succession of signs which the ordinary people frequently recognised. The Greeks, on the other hand, indulged in endless philosophising about ‘truth‘ and ‘wisdom’ without ever coming to grips with the realities of life.

The Cross is on a completely different level. It does not require great intelligence and learning to be understood. It can be grasped by the totally illiterate person. It is not a message of intellectual depth but a witness to immeasurable love. It can only be accessed by faith and trust.

Paul and his companions are proclaiming a crucified Lord, a message of power shining through total impotence and apparent failure. On the face of it, it is a total contradiction, except to those who can see its inner meaning.

No wonder it is a 'scandal', an insuperable obstacle for those Jews who were waiting for an altogether different Messiah. They expected a triumphant, political Messiah, not a crucified one.

Even Jesus’ disciples had this expectation. On the day of the Ascension, they asked him: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The answer, of course, was “Yes” but not in the way they were thinking. Similarly, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus said to the stranger who walked along with them: “We were hoping he [Jesus] would be the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). It was only after Jesus had explained the Scriptures to them that they realised the real truth behind their question.

And to the Gentiles it made no sense whatever. How could a crucified criminal be proclaimed as the world’s Saviour? Greeks and Romans were sure no reputable person would ever be crucified, so it was unthinkable that a crucified criminal could be the Saviour.

However, for those who have received the call, be they Jews or Greeks, Jesus on the cross speaks eloquently of the power and wisdom of God. The crucified Christ is the power that saves and the wisdom that transforms apparent folly into ultimate and highest discernment.

And Paul finishes with a memorable and much-quoted statement: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Today the Cross is still seen as a stumbling block and as nonsense by those who only see the external image. In a world dedicated to acquisition, power and success, it gives a totally unacceptable message. Jesus is seen as a soppy wimp.

The power of the Cross, the power of active non-violence is not understood and the followers of Jesus are ridiculed and deemed irrelevant. As Christians living in this world, we are probably often caught in the middle. We are carried along by the power-success dream and at the same time would like to be able to make the weakness-failure Way of Christ ours too.

What we need is to be able to see clearly that the real power and wisdom is with Jesus’ way and that the way of the world ultimately leads only to nothingness.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 33
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
Exult, you just, in the LORD;
praise from the upright is fitting.
Give thanks to the LORD on the harp;
with the ten-stringed lyre chant his praises.
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
For upright is the word of the LORD,
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
The LORD brings to nought the plans of nations;
he foils the designs of peoples.
But the plan of the LORD stands forever;
the design of his heart, through all generations.
The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 25:1-13
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The Kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps
and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight, there was a cry,
‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise,
‘Give us some of your oil,
for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied,
‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came
and those who were ready
went into the wedding feast with him.
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’
But he said in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Eschatological discourse (continued)

The second chapter of this discourse consists of three long parables, with all of which we are familiar. They all have the common theme of preparation for the final coming of the Lord whenever that will be.

Today’s reading is the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids, literally, ‘virgins’. The story reflects common wedding customs of the time. The bridesmaids who attend on the bride are waiting for the bridegroom to come. The time of his arrival is not known. Perhaps it is his way of asserting his male authority from the very beginning of their marriage! (Just as today it is the bride who asserts her last moments of freedom by coming late!)

In the story there are 10 bridesmaids altogether. Of these we are told five were “sensible” and the others were “foolish”. The sensible girls all brought an extra supply of oil with them while the foolish ones only had their lamps. The lamps consisted of oil-soaked rags at the top of a pole and needed to have oil added every 15 minutes or so.

The bridegroom was long in coming. The implication is that he was taking much longer than expected. In fact, he was so long in coming that the girls all fell asleep. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the call went up: “The bridegroom is on his way! Go out to meet him!”

Immediately the girls got ready and trimmed their torches. The charred edges had to be cut away and the rags soaked in more oil. The foolish ones immediately realised they were running out of oil; quite a lot was needed for this kind of torch. They ask their companions to share some of their oil. These refused on the grounds that there was not enough to go round and none of them would have enough. The foolish ones were told to go off and buy some more for themselves.

However, while they were still away, the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went into the marriage celebration with him and the doors were shut. When the foolish girls finally arrived with their new supply of oil, they found the doors closed in their face. They cried out: “Lord, Lord, open to us!” But the bridegroom answered: “I do not know you.”

Again this is a parable warning us all to be ready when the Lord comes. In the early Church, he had at first been expected to come in the very lifetime of the early Christians. This belief is reflected in the First Letter to the Thessalonians (which is read at this time in Year I) and which is the earliest writing of the New Testament.

But Jesus did not come and, by the time Matthew’s gospel appeared, people were beginning to realise that his coming could be in a more distant future. It is in this context that today’s parable gives a warning. If the Lord was not going to come soon, then some people might begin to take things easy and become lax in their living of the Gospel. Today’s passage suggests that that is not a very wise way of behaving.

The bridegroom may not have come when expected but he did come. And, when he came, half of the group were not ready. In other places, Jesus has warned that we do not know the day or the hour, for he will come like a thief in the night. The only policy is constant readiness. If we are not ready and he does come, then we may find the doors closed and hear what are perhaps the most chilling words in the whole Gospel: “I do not know you.”

In John’s gospel Jesus says that, as the Shepherd, he knows his sheep and they know him. Not to be known by Jesus means to have broken our relationship with him through sinful and loveless behaviour. To be in that state when he comes is truly tragic. The choice is ours; we have been given adequate warning.

While the Gospel is speaking about the final or eschatological coming of Jesus as King and Lord, it would be very complacent of us to think that there are no signs of it happening in the near future. That would put us in the same category as the foolish bridesmaids! While the final coming may still be far off, our own rendezvous with the Lord can be at any time. For all practical purposes, that is the time we have to prepare for.

Just yesterday our newspapers in the city where I am writing this reported an unmarked police car going out of control in a crowded downtown area, killing two people and seriously injuring others. You or I could have been one of those victims, young and in perfect health with a whole life before us. But the Lord called.

If it had been me, would I have had “oil in my lamp”? That is, what would I be able to show the Lord in terms of Gospel-centred living? Maybe we think the “sensible” girls in the story were selfish not to have shared their oil, but there are some things which we have to bring to the Lord on our own. We cannot borrow the good life that someone else has led. It is has to be totally ours.

Clearly, the best way to prepare is not to think anxiously of the future but to concentrate on the here and now. Let us learn to live totally in the present, to seek and find God there. If we can do that, then all the rest will take care of itself. And, whether the Groom arrives early or late, it will not matter. Because he has been constantly part of my everyday life. And, apart from the insurance that it gives, is it not by far the best way to spend our days?*
Saint Monica

Monica was of Berber descent. She was born in 332 at Tagaste (located in modern-day Souk Ahras, Algeria). Her parents brought her up as Christian and married her to an older, pagan man named Patricius. He was a man of great energy but also had a violent temper and sexually promiscuous. However, their son Augustine reports that, although domestic abuse was common at the time, because of Monica’s submission to her husband, he never beat her. Her almsgiving and habit of prayer irritated him yet led him to respect her. It was said that by her sweetness and patience, she was able to exercise a good influence among other abused wives and mothers. They knew she suffered as they did and so were moved by her example.

Monica was very devout and attended church daily which helped her cultivate the virtue of patience. She would say to other women who had difficult marriages, “If you can master your tongue, not only do you run less risk of being beaten, but perhaps you may even, one day, make your husband better." And, in fact, she won over her mother-in-law in a short time. She also converted her pagan husband to Christianity and calmed his violent tendencies.

Monica and Patritius bore three children: Augustine the eldest, Navigius the second, and a daughter, Perpetua. Augustine made her happy because of his successes as a scholar and teacher but she was also ashamed of his debauched lifestyle. Augustine lived for 10 years with his mistress and also became a Manichaean. Although Monica asked a bishop to convince Augustine of his errors, he was not able to change the young man. He told the mother to keep praying for her son. He told her, “It is impossible that the son of so many tears should perish.”

When Patricius died, Monica went to Italy to join her son. He had been in Rome but when she arrived he had already gone to Milan so she followed him there. Through St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, she had the joy of seeing Augustine aged 28 converted after 17 years of her prayers. Mother and son spent six months at Cassiacum, after which Augustine was baptised in the church of St John the Baptist in Milan. They then decided to return to Africa, stopping at Civita Vecchia and Ostia. It was here that Monica died. The year was 387 and she was 56 years old. Her last words to her son were: “There was indeed one thing for which I wished to tarry a little in this life and that was that I might see you a Christian before I died. My God hath answered this more than abundantly, so that I see you now his servant spurning all earthly happiness. What more have I to do here?” 

After her death, her son wrote extensively of her virtues and his life with her in his Confessions.

Her relics were later removed from Ostia to the Church of Sant’Agostino in Rome.

As part of the 1969 revision of the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, Monica’s feast was moved to August 27, the day before the feast of her son Saint Augustine.

Saint Monica is the Patron Saint of patience, wives, mothers, and victims of abuse.*

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

Today's Gospel reading, like yesterday's, also reminds me of Our Lord's passion. The long night watch of the virgins that ends in a confused encounter has parallels with the events in Gethsemane. Also the words 'Behold, the bridegroom' remind me of Pilate's 'Ecce homo', as he presents Christ the King crowned with thorns.

I found an interesting Israeli website offering to arrange biblical Jewish weddings for people. Apparently, both bride and groom used to be crowned (as in the Greek Orthodox tradition of 'stefana'), but these days Jews will only crown the bride. This is because ...
'Halachah (Jewish Law) requires that we wait for the rebuilding of the Temple to crown the grooms.'