Wisdom or Royalty: How Do You Decide?

Reflection for the 28th Sunday. Year B. 2018
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London 


In the James Hadley Chase novel the Paw in the Bottle, a young girl Julie Holland was found guilty of stealing, but a lenient judge wanted to set her free because she was under aged. But first, the judge cautioned Julie with the following memorable words: “Have you ever heard how they catch monkeys in Brazil …? Let me tell you.

They put a nut in a bottle, and tie the bottle to a tree. The monkey dips his hand into the bottle and grabs the nut, but the neck of the bottle is now too narrow for the monkey to withdraw its clenched fist. You would think the monkey would let go of the nut and free himself but it never does. It is so greedy. It never releases the nut even as it frantically struggles to escape from the advancing hunters. He holds on till he is eventually captured…. Remember that story Julie. Greed is a dangerous thing. If you give way to it, sooner or later you will be caught.”

We have what could pass for natural spiritual laws in our readings this Sunday. In the First Reading, Solomon, the model wise man declares: “I pleaded and a spirit of wisdom came to me, I prefer her to royalty. Riches are nothing in comparison to her. No gem is her match because compared to her all gold is a pinch of sand and all silver mud…”

Wisdom here is not mere academic or intellectual knowledge but godliness – the clarity of mind and heart that comes from a deep friendship with God. Interestingly, Solomon concludes that with this wisdom comes all the goods of the world; wealth, power, fame, health, beauty!

In other words, it is with this wisdom or godliness that we have a deep insight into the really important values in life. To have such wisdom is real wealth because it opens the key to happiness and security.

Moreover, with it also comes the capacity to use the goods of this world resourcefully to enhance our lives and those of others otherwise the goods of the world could even turn on us. Only with God at the centre can the goods of this world be employed meaningfully. When they take the central position, there is chaos.

But we fail to realise this as was evident in the reaction of the rich young man who approached Jesus in the Gospel asking what he could do to gain eternal life. The young man certainly sensed that there is more to life than material riches which come and go while the heart still longs for something that endures. The irony is that he feels this incompleteness even as he has kept all the commandments.

But this is hardly surprising especially as we tend to keep the commandments more for our self image than a call to love. This is evident in the way we speak at confession: “I missed Mass on Sunday…, I disobeyed my parents…, I stole…, I had lustful thoughts…, I gossiped…, I was jealous…” It is a litany of personal failures without any thought for how these imply a failure to love. Even the way the young man phrased his question demonstrates this self-centredness: “What must I do to gain eternal life?” It is all about “his” salvation.

Jesus called the young man to a more intimate relationship beyond the superficiality of keeping the Law. It is an invitation to that wisdom (godliness) that enables a resourceful employment of the goods of the world.

Hence, it came with the demand that he shares his riches with the poor as the investment that would safeguard his capital and yield him the most return – treasure in heaven. St. Augustine notably remarked that many labour to bury their money under earth, depriving themselves of the pleasure of seeing it, at times all their life, just to be sure it is safe.

Sadly, like the monkey, the young man couldn’t let go. He couldn’t take the leap from the material to the godly. Animal lovers seeing the monkey hooked to the nut while hunters advanced would shout at him to abandon the damned nut and run for his dear life.

This is exactly what Jesus does to the young man. He sees him in danger of losing his bid for eternal life on account of his attachment to wealth. So he calls on him to let go and save his life. The Gospel notes that Jesus made this call because he loved the young man. This shows that what Jesus demands from us may often seem difficult but in the end they are meant for our own good.

Though he was devout, the young man found this teaching hard to accept because religious Jews at the time believed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing while poverty was a curse. That is why the disciples were exceedingly astonished when Jesus implied that it would be hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. If the rich cannot be saved, then who can, they wondered.

The mindset that riches are sign of God’s blessing while poverty is a curse forms the beginnings of the “prosperity gospel” preached by many Pentecostal pastors today.

Disturbingly, it is creeping into the Catholic Churches especially in the developing world. The ultimate poverty is not material lack but lacking quality friendship with God. With such poverty, one can be materially rich but still not be contented like the rich young man.

Many like St. Francis of Assisi had to give up material riches for this intimate relationship with God which comes with all the good things that endure.

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