Exceeding the Limits of Foolishness

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

A wise man once said, “All of us are foolish five times a day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.”  This statement, if at all true, still offers little consolation since it appears, and I find this most disconcerting, that most everyone is made painfully aware when I’ve exceeded my limit, everyone but me.  Is it me, or does this happen to you as well?  [None of the women seem familiar with this experience.  Maybe it’s a guy thing.]  Have you ever seen Judge Judy on TV?  Here is one judge I would never in my right mind choose to have try my case, even when I know I’ve done nothing wrong.  She probably has never reached her limit on any given day all her life, although she seems to know when most human beings have reached theirs, especially the ones who come before her bench.  I’m not saying she isn’t right most of the time.  I just find it extremely annoying that she can be so convincing and smug about it.

What does it mean to be truly wise?  A little boy once asked his dad why the hair on his head was slowly disappearing.  The boy’s father stopped to consider the question for a moment, then said, “It is evidence of wisdom.  When my hair goes away, wisdom takes its place.”  The little boy thought about this for a while, then exclaimed, “So why does mommy have lots of hair?”  But there are passages in the Old Testament that confirm the idea of gray hair being a sure sign of wisdom.  That’s why I never tire of showing off my few gray hairs whenever I’m told I’m not old enough or experienced enough.  But is gray hair a sure indicator of wisdom?  I know some people who have gray hair and grandchildren, but they don’t seem anywhere close to being wise.

What does it mean then to be truly wise?  Is it the possession of specific truths?

SOME GREAT TRUTHS ABOUT LIFE THAT CHILDREN SOON LEARN:

  1. No matter how hard you try, you can’t baptize a cat.
  2. When your Mom is mad at your Dad, don’t let her brush your hair.
  3. If your sister hits you, don’t hit her back.  They always catch the second person.
  4. You can’t trust the dog to watch your food.
  5. You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.

SOME GREAT TRUTHS ABOUT LIFE THAT ADULTS SOON LEARN:

  1. The best way to keep kids at home is to make the home a pleasant atmosphere … and let the air out of their tires.
  2. Families are like fudge … mostly sweet with a few nuts.
  3. The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.
  4. Swallow a live toad first thing in the morning, and nothing worse can happen to you the rest of the day.
  5. You know you’re getting old when you stoop to tie your shoes and wonder what else you can do while you’re down there.

It seems people who brag about being wise often truly aren’t, and those who are truly wise won’t ever admit it.  Is it likely that those who are truly wise are unaware of it?  Today’s first reading describes wisdom as a person, a feminine attribute of God.  In the thinking of the ancient Greeks, wisdom is gained by much study and human effort.  On the other hand, scripture tells us that wisdom is a free gift of God.  It need only be received with open hands and open minds.

The parable of the ten bridesmaids we read in the gospel of Matthew gives us some things to ponder.  Although we are told five of the bridesmaids were foolish and five were wise, they all made an effort to meet the wedding couple who were returning to the banquet, although I can’t figure out where they could be coming from to arrive at such an ungodly hour.  They were all dressed up appropriately for the occasion.  They all brought lamps aware that they would have to wait long hours and burn a lot of midnight oil.  Yet despite all the best intentions and efforts, they still got tired and drowsy and eventually started to drop like flies.  We can conclude, therefore, that despite all our good intentions and sincere efforts, possessing wisdom does not of itself protect anyone from the consequences of being human, especially when no conscious choice is involved.  Sometimes I think that if I set out early on a long trip I could avoid the rush hour.  But despite any good intention and effort on my part, I can still get caught in traffic because everybody else decided to do just as I did.

Instead, being truly wise means being able to look ahead, being prepared when it matters, being willing to take risks, being able to recognize opportunity when it comes knocking.  Wisdom comes as a natural consequence of life experience and the capacity to reflect on that experience.  It is a natural by-product of the learning process.  I suppose this is why few young people can be truly wise because most have not yet had the experience from which to learn life’s important lessons.

Perhaps the most widely-known prayer for wisdom is the Serenity Prayer, made famous by popular 12-Step Programs like AA.  “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”  Wisdom is about knowing the difference, about the ability to judge rightly.  It is about the ability to distinguish between what is worth my attention and energy, and what is not.  It is about possessing a deeper vision into the reality of persons and things – a vision that can only come as a free gift from God.  This is why we are invited to seek wisdom as we would seek the Holy Spirit, by asking God to grant us right judgment with confidence and trust.  When we seek wisdom, we acknowledge that we are willing to listen and follow wherever she leads.  Scripture tells us that whoever seeks wisdom will never be disappointed, because “she is readily perceived by those who love her.”  True wisdom is attained through prayer, a willingness to listen to God’s voice, and a heart open to fulfill God’s will.

As we draw near the end of this liturgical year, we are encouraged to intensify our preparation for the Lord’s return, not simply that we will get on it the next chance we get, but that we should be prepared at every moment.  “You know neither the day nor the hour,”  Jesus reminds us.  If we are always prepared, we wouldn’t need to know the day nor the hour.  Wisdom is having useful knowledge for whatever comes.  And when knowledge is uncertain, wisdom is confidence in God who is trustworthy … not just simply that I have not exceeded my limit of foolishness for the day.