September 20, 2015

Late on Thursday nights, I join a group of students at the campus ministry of the University of Arkansas for late-night prayer. We lay to rest most of the stress of a busy week with quiet contemplation and gentle chanting by candlelight. To get to the chapel from my house, I drive down Dickson Street in Fayetteville with its many bars and restaurants. It turns out that Thursday night is not only prayer night, but also the start of the weekend festivities—led mostly by the Greek organizations, or so the students tell me. If I’m not careful, it’s really easy to start feeling a little superior on my drive down Dickson, because while those people are getting ready to party, I’m on my way to pray.

            But at least this experience gives me a little taste for how the audience for today’s first reading might have felt in their own situation as God’s faithful people living among debaucherous Greeks. This reading comes from a book called the Wisdom of Solomon, which isn’t found in most Bibles. It’s from the books known as the Apocrypha—books written in Greek for Greek-speaking Jews. Their ancestors had long-since been scattered from Israel, but these Jewish communities were trying to be faithful to the worship and ethics of their God while living in a new, multicultural environment a long way from the Temple. This was no easy task. But this text did help them—and it can help us—to stay faithful in two important ways.

First: Today’s passage from the “Wisdom of Solomon” encouraged people to live from a radically different perspective than the people around them. According to this passage, some people have “reasoned unsoundly” about life. These people say, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.” Life is short, and life is sorrowful. End of story.

According to the portion of the passage left out of our reading today, there’s nothing to do with such a life but drink expensive wine, pick flowers, not miss a single party—doesn’t sound too bad so far!—and also oppress the righteous poor, not spare the widow, and follow the maxim that “might makes right.” When life is short and sorrowful, we seek out pleasures and use all our power over others.

But the author of our Scripture today affirms another understanding of life. Life is not short and sorrowful. Life is eternal, and joyful. Yes, our bodies don’t last for long, and the memory of our names may fade. There’s a certain humility in knowing we’ll return to ash and dust. But life also has an eternal dimension. Our choices, our actions, our relationships, our self-giving to justice and love can have an eternal impact on the kingdom that people taste in this world, and on the kingdom we belong to forever. And yes, we may know sorrows in our lives—many having to do with the mortality of those we love. But we may also find that there are created joys and celebrations for us to join during this life, and that these are signs and foretastes of the deep joy that fills our lives when we know God and live rightly toward our neighbors, and when we enter into God’s loving embrace at the end of our lives.

Life is eternal, and joyful. Living a life that flows from this perspective can help God’s people to remain faithful to God among people who lived otherwise.

There’s also a second way that the author of the Wisdom of Solomon helped Jews remain faithful in a Greco-Roman, multicultural, cosmopolitan context: By allowing their faith to be changed and shaped by the ideas they encountered in their new environments.

The Wisdom of Solomon as a whole includes two recent developments—almost novelties—in its expression of Jewish faith. The first of these is the focus on “wisdom” herself. Of course there’s a long Jewish history of valuing wisdom, but personified Wisdom—that is, wisdom personified as a feminine emanation of God—seems to have developed in response to Jewish encounters with the prominent goddesses of other religions. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon in particular may have written in Alexandria, where there was a missionary effort to expand devotion to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The older Biblical tradition of wisdom literature, and of personifying Wisdom as a feminine projection of the divine, dates from after the Jewish people were first exiled to Babylon. In their encounters with a wider world, they re-imagined their God’s connection to all the world’s wisdom, and to the diverse ways that people around them envisioned the divine.

An even newer development in this text is the concept of immortality. Most Jews didn’t hold a belief in an everlasting form of human life. But the Greek-speaking philosophical schools had a concept that the author of the Wisdom of Solomon quickly absorbed: the immortality of the soul. Later Jews and Christians would envision the destination for human beings as the resurrection of the body rather than the immortality of the soul. But for now, we have one Jewish author, influenced by Greek philosophy, extending the horizon of human life in ways that his community might not have considered before. In this passage, the author promises eternal life with God as “the wages of holiness,” “the prize for blameless souls.” Human life had a significance, an endurance, a destiny that our author may not have thought to imagine if the people around him hadn’t opened his mind.

Although he is firm in his commitment to living justly and to being connected to the God of his ancestors, the author of today’s Scripture builds a community of faith that is open to new insights and willing to be in dialogue with the cultural and religious influences around them.

We don’t know exactly when and where the author of the Wisdom of Solomon wrote, but most likely it was the late first century BC or the early first century AD, around the time that Christ himself was born within the Roman Empire. How does this wisdom from a Greek-speaking Jewish writer, who lived close to the time of Jesus himself, speak to us today?

Perhaps we too may need to engage more fully with the wisdom of the world in which we find ourselves . . . and let that wisdom influence our faith. And we too can strive to live in ways that proclaim that life is not short and sorrowful, but eternally consequential and full of joy. It’s not easy to be faithful in a world gone Greek. But even if we end up speaking Greek ourselves, we can still be faithful to Jesus, the Christ, the source of a life that is good, and joyful, and everlasting.