Wisdom 9.13-18

Undoubtedly most homilies yesterday focused more on the Gospel reading (Luke 14.25-33), in which Jesus tells large crowds that they must hate their families, "and even life itself," if they wish to be his disciple. It's an interesting passage to be sure, but the first reading was, for me, maybe a little more interesting. In this post I'm going to try clarify some of the words used in the text, and in my next post I'll reflect on the meaning of the passage in a broader context. Here is the NRSV text, which is used in the Canadian lectionary:
For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For the reasoning of mortals is worthless,
and our designs are likely to fail;
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
We can hardly guess at what is on earth,
and what is at hand we find with labor;
but who has traced out what is in the heavens?
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus the paths of those on earth were set right,
and people were taught what pleases you,
and were saved by wisdom.” (Wis 9.13-18)
It's a quite a good translation of the original Greek, but there are some words that I think require clarification.
...the reasoning of mortals is worthless...
Here "reasoning" translates the plural noun logismoi, the singular of which is logismos. This word appears elsewhere in the Wisdom of Solomon. The word is not negative in itself, but in this book logismos is always modified by a negative adjective or otherwise disparaged.1

Here the reasoning of mortals is "worthless" (deilos).2 We cannot come to know the will of God with our limited reasoning.

The next part attempts to explain why:
...a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
Here the NRSV's "thoughtful" is somewhat problematic. It translates the unusual term polyphrontida, which appears nowhere else in the Bible. The problem is that "thoughtful" has a rather different meaning than "full of thoughts," which is what is called for here. The NAB, which is used in the American lectionary, provides a more adequate translation of this particular phrase: "the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns."

Some commentators detect the influence of Platonic dualism in this verse, but I don't think this is necessarily the best way to interpret it. The mind weighed down by "many concerns" reflects a life oriented toward merely human problems. There is an analogy here, I think, with Paul's distinction between living "according to the flesh" and living "according to the spirit." It's not that flesh is bad and spirit good. It has to do with how we orient our lives.3

The answer to the question at the beginning of the passage comes toward the end, in the form of another question:
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
It is not, then, by our limited reasoning that we can learn God's "counsel," but only when God has "given wisdom." Such wisdom is not taken, but received, as a gift.

This speaks to something I've been giving a lot of thought to lately. On the one hand, it's clear enough that we cannot reason our way into enlightenment. Were this the case, enlightenment could be attained through a process similar to following a philosophical argument in a book. It just doesn't happen like that.

So the higher states of consciousness that we associate with wisdom or enlightenment (words I use interchangeably) are often called "transrational," and this is appropriate as far as the attainment of the experience is concerned.

And yet, "transrational" is different from "irrational." Reason cannot be discarded entirely. So what role does reason play? I think the confusion over this stems from the word "reason" being used to denote too many things.

I'll explain why I think that in my next post.


It says near the beginning, "For perverse thoughts (skolioi gar logismoi) separate people from God" (1.3). A couple of verses later it says "a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts (logismōn asynetōn) behind" (1.5). Later we find reference to "foolish and wicked thoughts" (logismōn asynetōn adikias; 11.15). It says that the "way of thinking" (ho logismos) of the ungodly "will never change" (12.10). Later, "fear is nothing but a giving up of the helps that come from reason" (logismou; 17.10). Finally, it speaks of a "foolish decision" (logismon anoias; 19.3).

For deilos the NAB has "timid," the Jerusalem Bible "unsure," and the NJB "inadequate." To use "timid" or "unsure" is defensible, but this meaning would normally obtain when deilos is used to describe a person. In this instance I think "worthless" or "inadequate" are superior, as they more closely parallel "likely to fail" (episphaleis, lit. "dangerous" or "unsafe").

[3] I've written about Paul's distinction between living "according to the flesh" vs. "according to the spirit" here.


Anonymous Tim said...

Despite being yanks, our Communion uses the Canadian lectionary, so this was our reading on Sunday as well. It is both heartening and interesting to see that we are in nigh-total agreement.

Reason is of value and should not be discarded entirely, but there is also a point where we need to acknowledge the limits of our own capabilities and recognize the capacity of the Divine to provide insight and guidance.

There's a strong tie-in here with aspects of Zen and Taoism which I could tease out here, but will probably try and write about it on my own wall.

As always, you're causing me to think and reflect upon matters of import. Thank you.

11:53 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I've heard that some American parishes use the Canadian lectionary. I find the NRSV is generally quite a bit better than the NAB, so I can understand that.

I'm writing a bit about Buddhism in my next post, which is almost done.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

I wasn't aware that some Roman churches did that. As our church is 'Catholic, not Roman', there are a lot of differences which trip up someone like myself who wasn't raised in a catholic tradition.

I look forward to reading your thoughts about Buddhism and reason.

2:20 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Yes, I don't know where I read that, but read it somewhere. It is somewhat surprising that Roman Catholic parishes in the US would do that, given that the NRSV was dis-approved by the Vatican for liturgical use, and the only reason the Canadian churches were allowed to use it is because their lectionaries had already been printed.

2:23 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

My church used the NAB, or at least that's the bible given me in RCIA class. It's also what they use at Creighton U's daily refelction page's readings.

In Buddhism, does enlightenment come from effort or is it like a gift? I seem to remember it being something that you kind of had to work toward but at the same time not aim for - cconfusing :)

12:25 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


The NAB, the copyright of which is owned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, is used in the American lectionary, so virtually all American parishes use it. I've read that some don't, apparently because the pastors of those churches prefer the NRSV, which uses inclusive language in some instances. This is, not surprisingly, the main reason why the Vatican doesn't allow it's use in the liturgy, except in Canada for the reason I mentioned above.

Buddhism generally understands enlightenment as resulting from effort. I'm going to address that in either my next post or the one after that.

1:21 PM  

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