I read about a husband who said to his wife, “when I die, I want you to put all my money in my casket. I'm taking it with me.” The wife surprisingly said she would. Soon after, the husband died. And the wife, just as the casket was about to close, placed a strongbox in it. Her friend gasped, “I hope you weren't crazy enough to put all his money in the casket.” “Yes, I first put all his money into my account and then put a $750,000 check in the box.” Now that's what I would call one-up-man-ship!
The word of God carries us back in our imaginations to the wisdom literature of Ancient Israel, the Book of Sirach, a collection of advice about how to live well. This book may even have inspired William Bennett's “The Book of Virtues” because the biblical author describes the good life in terms of virtue: a simple lifestyle, self-discipline, responsibility, honesty, forgiveness, courage, compassion, persistence and faith in God.
In this passage, the author notes we have to choose between life and death, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. These choices will be a pathway either to salvation or damnation. But no matter how we choose, God ultimately is in control.
The author asks us to pray for God's grace to try to do the right thing every day.
Paul, in his letter to the Christian community in Corinth, Greece, writes about true wisdom, that is, Jesus Christ. The risen Christ is THE revelation of God to us: everything God ever want to do for us or say to us, God did and said in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Paul invites us to look always to Jesus as our true wisdom and let His life and ministry be a guide for ours.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus describes what it means to be a disciple. Jesus employs four antitheses or opposites (“you have heard... but I say”) to emphasize the importance of attitude over legality. Jesus here uses a bit of middle eastern hyperbole to make his point. Our attitudes create our behaviors. And if we have bad attitudes, we surely will behave badly.
Jesus then gives four examples. One instance: “you have heard that it was said, you shall not murder; but I say to you: you shall not be angry.” Why? Because a bad attitude, anger or resentment, can seethe into bad behavior, verbal or even worse, physical abuse. Discipleship with Jesus calls for a change of heart, a change of attitude, thinking and feeling positively, not negatively.
I would like to my cue from Paul's letter and focus on Jesus as our true wisdom. He is our exemplar, our guide, our leader about how to live well. And Jesus challenges us also to be an exemplar, a guide, a leader for others.
But first, who is Jesus? He is one with God, a God-man, completely divine and completely human. God became one of us so that we could become like God. Jesus experienced, as we do, hunger, joy, friendship, disappointment, loneliness and death. He was a rabbi, a teacher, a prophet, a wonder worker, eventually crucified but then raised up and transfigured into a new kind of spiritual embodiment. And this risen Christ is alive in our midst, especially in the sacramental signs of our Catholic community. And because He is alive, we too are alive with God's life and favor.
Jesus is indeed our wisdom, our guide, our leader. For me, a leader has a sense of purpose, generates trust, communicates hope and translates vision into results. Jesus communicated purpose through words, signs and wonders in a way that galvanized, energized and excited people. He generated trust among his disciples which was the glue that bound them together in their commitments. He inspired hope in the crowds, with a clear vision of the future, life in relationship with God forever. Finally, Jesus converted vision into action through his death and resurrection.
Matthew 23:10 advises, in so many words that there is only one master, one messiah, one life-leader, one-life coach: Jesus Christ. This Jesus calls each one of us to be guides and leaders in our own situations. Yes, to be called by God to influence others, that's leadership, is an enormous privilege, but it carries with it great responsibility.
We have to possess two things: confidence and character. Jesus possessed these in full.
Not only confidence in ourselves but first and foremost confidence in God. The psalmists had that kind of confidence. God was their shield, their strength and their guide.
Second, we have to be men and women of character.
If you look at the leadership failures in this country in the last 100 years, I will guess you'll find 99 percent were not failures in competence; they were failures in character. Greed, lying, intolerance, immorality, amorality – all character failures. Leadership involves ethics, right and wrong, a sense of responsibility, a value system, integrity. And that's why character counts.
The quality of our life and our soul’s destiny will be measured by our character: going the extra mile; helping a fellow human being; being faithful in our relationships and responsibilities; working for the common good; trusting in a good and compassionate God who is ever near to us and who will guide us safely to our heavenly dwelling.
More precisely, we might ask ourselves whether we strive to reflect these attributes of character in our everyday lives. Let me highlight four:
Practicing what we preach and making sure that we lift people up, not pull them down. A humorous example is the famous Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates in 1858. Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Lincoln replied calmly, “I leave it to my audience: If I had two faces, do you think I would be wearing this one?” Integrity is the opposite of being two-faced. Shakespeare put it well: to thine own self be true.
Hypocrites do everything so that others can see them. But what really matters is who we are when nobody is looking. Think about it: doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.
Jesus warns us not to be bewitched by titles and prominent positions and public flattery. Don’t let people put us up on a pedestal. We are all flawed human beings. Jesus says, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Getting our priorities straight: faithful and responsible in our relationships with God and one another; grateful to God that we are; standing up for what's right; being generous with what we have; and always ready to lend a helping hand to everyone.
These, for me, are four key attributes of character.
Our prayer might be this in light of Paul's focus on Jesus as our true wisdom: Lord, help me to live a life of integrity, authenticity, humility and focus. Help me to have a similar concern for others as Jesus had for us. Give me compassion towards those who are struggling with life's problems. Help me to fix my eyes on our true wisdom, Jesus Christ, and to become like Him for others, men and women of confidence and character.