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Wisdom, Daily Prayer and Good Works

by Brant Pitre January 08, 2021 0 Comments

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In this case, if we go back to the Old Testament reading for today, the first reading is another one of these examples of a book of the Catholic Old Testament.  It is not in the Protestant Bible.  This is called the book of Wisdom or the Wisdom of Solomon.  The reading for today, the first reading is from Wisdom 6:12-16, and I have to confess that when I first read this, this is one of those times where it's really not clear right off the bat how the Old Testament reading goes with the New Testament reading.  But I will read it to you and then I'll try to show you what I think is the connection, why the Church linked these two readings together.  So it says this in Wisdom 6:12-16:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,

and she is easily discerned by those who love her,

and is found by those who seek her.

She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.

He who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,

for he will find her sitting at his gates.

To fix one's thought on her is perfect understanding,

and he who is vigilant on her account will

soon be free from care,

because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,

and she graciously appears to them in their paths,

and meets them in every thought.

Okay, what is that about?  In the Old Testament you frequently have a personification of Wisdom as a lady.  The Greek word here is actually Sophia.  We get the word philosophy from that, the love of wisdom.  We also get the female name Sophia from that Greek word.  So if you meet a woman or a young girl with the name Sophia, her name means wisdom, lady wisdom to be precise.  So what the Wisdom of Solomon is basically describing is it is personifying Wisdom as a woman and is saying that if you want to find her you have to seek her, you have to pursue her, using two images here.  He who rises early to seek her is not going to have any difficulty.  So that's talking about getting up early to do what?  To pray.  To meditate on the word.  To seek after the truth.  This is something that should be part of every Christian's life.  We should daily be seeking after wisdom.  I know it might sound silly, but we should all be philosophers.  In other words, we should be lovers of wisdom, because wisdom is nothing other than the truth of God himself, and we need to seek that truth as part of our lives.  The other thing it talks about here is contemplation, in other words, meditating on wisdom.  To fix one's thoughts on her gives us understanding, it gives us knowledge.  So what I think the link here is, between the old and new, is that this passage is describing someone who is vigilant and awake at night in pursuing the truth.  You’ll see this in the Catholic tradition with the monastic life, where the monks will rise in the middle of the night, they will get up in the middle of the night at a fixed hour in order to read the Psalms and to pray, to contemplate, to meditate.  So they're kind of living out that idea of a vigilant search for wisdom.  Well just like in the Old Testament, whoever is seeking wisdom gets up in the middle of the night or gets up very early to pursue her, so too the five wise virgins here are ready, they are prepared for the coming of the bridegroom.  That's what I think the parallel is there.

And it's kind of buttressed by the Psalm for today.  So the Psalm is Psalm 63, with the refrain being “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.”  This is a psalm about longing for the Lord.  This is a Psalm about meditating on the truth, about contemplation, about desiring to encounter God in prayer.  And so it says this:

O God, thou art my God, I seek thee,

my soul thirsts for thee;

my flesh faints for thee,

as in a dry and weary land where no water is.

If you skip down to verse 5-6:

My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat,

and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips,

when I think of thee upon my bed,

and meditate on thee in the watches of the night;

So pause there.  Notice what the psalmist is saying here.  He meditates, he prays to God not just every now and then when he feels like it, he prays to God in the middle of the night.  He rises to perform what tradition has called a vigil, a prayer vigil.  You get up in the middle of the night to pray.  It is kind of like fasting from food, but you are fasting from sleep in order to focus your mind and your heart on God when it is quiet and still.  So when he says “I meditate…in the watches of the night”, that is the link with the parable, because one of the watches, one of the hours of watching was midnight.  So the virgins in the parable encounter the bridegroom at midnight.  He comes at one of the watches of the night and those who have the oil in their lamps are prepared.  They are ready to meet him and go into the feast.  So it is a little more of a difficult connection between the old and the new.  It is not obvious, but I think you can see the thread there of prayerful vigilance and being ready to meet the Lord in the middle of the night, which is when the bridegroom comes in the parable.

I'll close my explanation here of this particular parable with a quote from St. Augustine.  One of the things you will notice if you look at the ancient Church Fathers and Christian writers on the parable of the ten foolish virgins, one of the questions that they always had was what does the oil symbolize?  Because that's really the critical element, the critical difference between the foolish virgins and the wise virgins.  The wise ones have oil and the foolish ones don’t.  So if you look at the Church Fathers, all of the Church Fathers that I read at least, they are pretty unanimous on interpreting the oil as a symbol for good works.  This is what Augustine has to say about that.  You can listen to this quote.  He says:

They are both virgins, and yet half are rejected. It is not enough that they are virgins but that they also have lamps. They are virgins by reason of abstinence from unlawful indulgence of the senses. But they have lamps by reason of good works. Of these good works the Lord says, “Let your works shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Again he said to his disciples, “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning” (Luke 12:35). In the “girded loins” is virginity. In the “burning lamps” is good works.

I think it's a really brilliant insight on Augustine's part.  What he's doing is he's interpreting the image of a lamp in the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 in light of the image of a lamp in Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount.  So if you go back to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:16, sure enough, this is the passage when Jesus says “you are the light of the world.”  And he says “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  So if the lamp is a symbol for good works in the Sermon on the Mount, the same thing is true about the lamp of the five wise virgins in the parable in Matthew 25.  The reason they're able to light their lamps and let their light shine before men is because they have good works, because they've done good deeds, because they're actually living in accordance with the Gospel.  They are following the will of the Father in heaven.  So this is just one more example — and I hope you seen this over the course of our study of Matthew's Gospel — of why the Catholic Church does not accept the doctrine of sola fide.  In other words, that we are saved by faith alone and that our works don't matter, that they don't play any role in our sanctification or in our final judgment; because over and over and over again in the Gospel Matthew, Jesus keeps driving the point home, time after time, that yes, faith is important; yes, believing him is essential; yes, having a relationship with him is essential; but we express that faith and we express that relationship through what he explicitly calls in Matthew 5, good works.  That's our lamp that we shine before men.

And so what Augustine is saying here is that the five foolish virgins who didn't have the oil to light their lamps were effectively Christians who may have even had the virtue of virginity.  In other words, they might be celibate.  They might have given up a family or spouse for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven, but if they don't unite that sexual abstinence, that state of celibacy to a life of virtue, then they risk being excluded from the kingdom of Heaven too.  It is not enough to simply give things up.  We also have to perform good works.  Of course we do that always through God's grace, it is his grace working in us.  Nevertheless, it is an essential part of the Christian life.  So what Jesus is saying to the apostles then is that if you want to be ready for the final judgment, you need to be like the wise virgins.  You need to not only have a lamp, but you need to let it shine.  You need to have oil to light that lamp with your good deeds, so that your light might shine before your Father who is in heaven, and so that you might be ready to meet the bridegroom who comes at an hour that we do not expect.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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