(Homily for Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B)

Bottom line: Jesus teaches the deeper meaning of prudence: not just being cautious to avoid dangers, but being ready to sacrifice everything to gain eternal life.

In the first reading King Solomon says, "I prayed and prudence was given me." I want to focus on the virtue of prudence this Sunday. The dictionary defines prudence as being cautious or discreet in ones conduct. Prudence is necessary to avoid harm. It is easy for us to harm ourselves or others by acting without discretion. A common example of imprudence is self-medication; taking the wrong medicines or following a fad diet can ruin a person's health. Another example of prudence is the use of credit cards. Many people live in a nightmare created by imprudent credit card purchases. Prudence, a certain caution, can help us avoid physical and financial ruin. But Solomon emphasizes that prudence involves much more than maintaining health and economic well-being. In fact, he says that he prefers prudence to gold or silver - and that she is better than health and good looks. Prudence then means more than just being cautious. Here is what Solomon says:

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.

Solomon parallels prudence with "the spirit of wisdom." Prudence means to have a spirit of wisdom. Wisdom - I think you all realize - is different from knowing a lot of things or being clever. A person can pass the SAT test with flying colors and still not be wise. Wisdom means right judgment, the ability to recognize what is good and what is harmful.* Great teachers like Socrates and Confucius tried to help people gain wisdom - the prudence to follow the right path.

You can view Jesus as a teacher of wisdom - like Solomon, Socrates, Buddha and so on - but with a difference. He not only taught the right path; he saw clearly where the path was leading. We see that in today's Gospel. A man comes up to Jesus with this question, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Now, there's a prudent question. It makes a huge difference where one spends eternity. When you think about, it is the only question that really matters. The disproportion between this life and eternity in unimaginable. It's like comparing the change in my pocket to Bill Gate's fortune. It seems ridiculously small by comparison. The great question is where will you or I spend eternity. Will I spend it vibrantly alive - or in terrible torment? Jesus lists five things necessary for true life. I will give them to you now in a bit different words. Here are the five things you must do if you want eternal happiness: 1) Respect the gift of life. 2) Respect marriage. 3) Respect the property of others. 4) Tell the truth. And 5) Honor your parents. Do those things and your will have life.

The man had heard the list before. You can find the same list in the teachings of Moses, Confucius and many others. Because the instructions were so ordinary, the man evidently thought they were no big deal. "Oh, I have kept them since I was little." He seems defensive and, to be honest, I don't think he was telling the truth. Those commandments are not so easy to follow for even one day, let alone an entire life. I do not want to judge the man, but it is interesting that Jesus gave him a challenge related to the commandment about property. "Go, sell what you have," Jesus tells him, "and give to the poor." What you call your property does not belong to you. It belongs to God and to the poor. Return that property to its rightful owners.

At that the man went away sad. He lacked prudence. The wisest, most prudent thing he could have done at that moment was to say, "Lord, I place it all in your hands. It was never really mine anyway. Help me to take what you have given me and to direct it where it is most needed." That might seem like an enormous risk, but Jesus was guaranteeing the bet. The man would have lacked nothing that really matters. Instead, he went away sad, empty - a tragic case of imprudence.

By a nice coincidence today is the feast day of saint who did place everything in Jesus' hands. In doing that, she showed the greatest prudence. Her name was Teresa of Avila. When she was young, she became aware of the meaning of mortal sin - that by her own freedom, she could separate herself eternally from God. Teresa realized that to avoid hell, she had to submit totally to God. As in today's Gospel, that submission involved selling all that she had and following Christ. Now, you and I may not be called to the same kind of poverty as St. Teresa of Avila. Still, we are called to place everything in Jesus' hands by following his commandments. It is a question of prudence.

There is a beautiful representation of prudence here in Holy Family Church. In the arch leading into the sanctuary, you can see symbols of the seven virtues. The very first is prudence. It is depicted as a lamp with a small flame. The lamp has a shape similar to a teapot, but you can see a flame coming from its stem. The oil lamp is not like a flashlight you can turn on and off. You have to protect an oil lamp so it won't go out. If you are going to find your way through the darkness, the lamp of prudence has to burn constantly. Like Solomon we need to pray for the gift of prudence. With that virtue we can have a good life here on earth - and gain eternal life.

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.


*Billy Graham's life offers an example of prudence. When he began his ministry, he studied the careers of other evangelists. He took particular note of the things which led some of them to ruin or disgrace. Noticing how easily they got involved in romantic entanglements, he made a decision to never be alone with a woman, apart from his wife. While this might appear over-cautious, it turned out to be a wise and prudent rule. I want to emphasize in this homily, however, that prudence means much more than caution. When we stand before Jesus, prudence means to risk everything, to place all of ones chips on the table. (Billy Graham of course called people to do precisely that.)

Spanish Version

From Archives (Homilies for 28th Sunday, Year B):

2003: You Know the Commandments
2000: What Must I Do to Have Everlasting Life?

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Death of Vicente, Annual Report, Sirach on Presumption)



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