17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Reflection: The gift of wisdom


One of the divisions of the Hebrew Bible is the Ketuvim, the Writings, or otherwise called Wisdom literature. The wisdom tradition is an ancient one, originating in Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt. Ancient Egyptian wisdom consisted of formal instructions and lessons taught by parents and elders to children in their communities and societies. 

In the ancient cultures, of which Israel is a part, wisdom was oftentimes understood as either practical or speculative. Practical wisdom dealt with everyday attitudes, beliefs, customs, manners, forms of behavior, and economic, social, and ethical issues. This kind of wisdom was passed down from generation to generation through families, clans and tribes.

Speculative wisdom was more philosophical as people tried to make sense of natural disasters, untimely deaths, the dilemma of innocent suffering, and the irony of why injustice continued to prosper. The biblical cultures maintained that wisdom could be found in daily life, in the community, in the “marketplace,” in all creation.

The Hebrew word for wisdom is chokmah, a feminine noun, and sophia in Greek. The question for 21st-century readers is this: Do ancient stories and poems have any wisdom for us today, or are they merely dusty relics of past times that need to be buried? This Sunday’s readings from the book of Kings and the Gospel of Matthew offers some perspectives on this question.

In 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12, the contents of a dream unfolds. Significant here is the role that dreams can play in the communication between humans and the divine. In the Bible, dreams may be symbolic, associated with invitations as in the call narratives, or serve as guidance from the divine to the human. Oftentimes, intuition, the highest form of intelligence, comes into play. In today’s story from the Book of Kings, God and Solomon dialogue in a dream. The all-wise one extends an invitation: “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” The self-aware, reflective young leader, realizing his own inadequacies and sensing the gifts needed for leadership, asks for an understanding heart.

In a time of political strife, with empires jockeying for positions in the global arena, Solomon asks not for an increase of power, prestige, wealth or longevity. He asks instead for an understanding heart so that he can exercise proper judgment. This deed would likely include justice tempered with compassion and empathy, three virtues essential for good governance. 

In essence, Solomon is asking for wisdom, and the all-wise one bestows the gift fully and deeply. This young leader, with a lot of self-knowledge, possesses the humility to ask for the gift most needed to be of service to the people without ruling “over” them. This dialogue that we readers are privileged to share showcases the internal character of Solomon. Some today might see him as an “old soul.”

Unfortunately, this self-aware, reflective person who desires to do right by others cannot lead with his heart because the political structures of his day, together with the patriarchal and hierarchical cultures in place, would annihilate him. Hence, he falls prey to the cultural attitudes and leadership models of his day. For Solomon and the people to maintain their autonomy and independence among empires, he has to embrace hegemonic power, and thus Israel’s power-driven monarchical leadership model persists until destroyed by the Babylonian empire that, in turn, continued to fuel hegemonic leadership. This leadership model continues because the wisdom inscribed in the dream story of Solomon has yet to be re-inscribed fully into the lives of leaders today, both young and old.

The story in Matthew’s Gospel describes two people searching, one for a treasure buried in a field, and the other, a merchant, looking for fine pearls. The search is cast in a parable, a type of story found in Wisdom literature. The desired treasure is identified with the kingdom of heaven, better understood as the realm of the divine. “Kingdom” language reflects imperialism embedded in both the Old and New Testaments. What the three people are searching for is wisdom, the all-wise one, within us and all around us. The only requirement needed to discover wisdom is to be a seeker, like Solomon and the two Gospel characters.

In sum, today’s readings offer the following wise lessons. Wisdom is a divine gift already given that can be deepened. Wisdom is a virtue necessary for astute governance and leadership. Models of leadership that do not function wisely, justly and compassionately to serve both human and non-human life need to be deconstructed and either transformed or dismantled altogether. Finally, are we seeking the pearl of great price or have we settled for “all that glitters”?

First Reading

(1 Kings 3:5, 7-12)

The LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night.
God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”
Solomon answered:
“O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king
to succeed my father David;
but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act.
I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen,
a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.
Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart
to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.
For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”

The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request.
So God said to him:
“Because you have asked for this —
not for a long life for yourself,
nor for riches,
nor for the life of your enemies,
but for understanding so that you may know what is right —
I do as you requested.
I give you a heart so wise and understanding
that there has never been anyone like you up to now,
and after you there will come no one to equal you.”

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalms 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130)

R. I love your commands.

I have said, O LORD, that my part
is to keep your words.
The law of your mouth is to me more precious
than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
R. Lord, I love your commands.

Let your kindness comfort me
according to your promise to your servants.
Let your compassion come to me that I may live,
for your law is my delight.
R. Lord, I love your commands.

For I love your command
more than gold, however fine.
For in all your precepts I go forward;
every false way I hate.
R. Lord, I love your commands.

Wonderful are your decrees;
therefore I observe them.
The revelation of your words sheds light,
giving understanding to the simple.
R. Lord, I love your commands.

Second Reading

(Romans 8:28-30)

Brothers and sisters:
We know that all things work for good for those who love God,
who are called according to his purpose.
For those he foreknew he also predestined
to be conformed to the image of his Son,
so that he might be the firstborn
among many brothers and sisters.
And those he predestined he also called;
and those he called he also justified;
and those he justified he also glorified.


(Matthew 13:44-52)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field,
which a person finds and hides again,
and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant
searching for fine pearls.
When he finds a pearl of great price,
he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea,
which collects fish of every kind.
When it is full they haul it ashore
and sit down to put what is good into buckets.
What is bad they throw away.
Thus it will be at the end of the age.
The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous
and throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

“Do you understand all these things?”
They answered, “Yes.”
And he replied,
“Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven
is like the head of a household
who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”