Today's Office of Readings contained a lengthy and beautiful passage (6:1-25) from the Book of Wisdom, which is retained by Catholic Bibles but not by Protestant ones. As I read the opening passages, my first thought was of the old-fashioned idea of the "divine right of kings," the concept that a monarch's right to rule comes from God or is delegated by God, so to speak. Most of the writing that I remember about this idea disdained it as a Christianized excuse for tyranny. But this passage contains some hefty warnings:
Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth's expanse!
Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples!
Because authority was given you by the LORD and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!
Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom, you judged not rightly, and did not keep the law, nor walk according to the will of God,
Terribly and swiftly shall he come against you, because judgment is stern for the exalted--
For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test.
For the Lord of all shows no partiality, nor does he fear greatness, Because he himself made the great as well as the small, and he provides for all alike; but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends.
Even though my first thoughts were about kings and other powerful political leaders, which is the plain meaning of the text, as I read on I started to consider that really, nearly all of us who reach adulthood become magistrates of some expanse (even if it be only a patch of garden), receive power over some multitude (even if it be only a couple of entry-level employees, a queue of customers to be served, or a houseful of children). Judgment may be sternest for the exalted, but surely all of us shall be put to the test -- tested on the material at our hands, no?
And really, it's not such a lowly thing to oversee even one other person's experience earning his family's livelihood; it's not such a lowly thing to have the power that a service-industry employee has over the pleasantness of people's lunch hours and afternoons, dozens daily; it's certainly not a lowly thing to have the power of a mother over her children.
(You will be tested on this material.)
It's a good thing we have some help, as the passage continues. Read all talk about "princes" and such to apply to every person in the measure of power that he or she possesses:
- To you, therefore, O princes, are my words addressed that you may learn wisdom and that you may not sin.
- For those who keep the holy precepts hallowed shall be found holy, and those learned in them will have ready a response.
- Desire therefore my words; long for them and you shall be instructed.
- Resplendent and unfading is Wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.
- She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of men's desire;
- he who watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her sitting by his gate.
- For taking thought of her is the perfection of prudence, and he who for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care;
- Because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her, and graciously appears to them in the ways, and meets them with all solicitude.
- For the first step toward discipline is a very earnest desire for her; then, care for discipline is love of her;
- love means the keeping of her laws; To observe her laws is the basis for incorruptibility;
- and incorruptibility makes one close to God;
- thus the desire for Wisdom leads up to a kingdom.
- If, then, you find pleasure in throne and scepter, you princes of the peoples, honor Wisdom, that you may reign as kings forever.
The nature of Wisdom in Scripture is elusive. I read the device of personification, which reads here almost to recommend goddess-worship (Sophia, natch), as foreshadowing of the other Persons of the Trinity. But the plain meaning of Wisdom here seems only the natural knowledge, habits, and attitudes that are essential for correct, just judgments and for carrying out of duties. In other words, the natural understanding that's available to anyone who loves truth; no special grace, no special supernatural gift. The "laws" are the natural laws, of physics and of biology and of human nature.
For the first step toward discipline is a very earnest desire for her; then, care for discipline is love of her; love means the keeping of her laws...
A more concise meaning of "love" -- natural love, that is -- is hard to find.
The passage seems to say that anyone who loves Wisdom and seeks Wisdom, who strives to understand nature (including humanity) and observes the laws of nature, is exercising love, real love, and can make a very good start. I like it because it holds humanity to a high natural standard, and at the same time encourages us that we are capable of stepping up to it. The grace and sacrament, the other Wisdom, that comes later, holds us to a higher standard at the same time as it lifts us up; but the natural standard is still there underneath, an absolute good, one accessible to all.