Quidquid Recipitur ad Modum Recipientis Recipitur.

Lessons from cycle II of the feria, according to the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite:

Proverbs 30: 5-9.
Psalm 119: 29, 72, 89, 101, 104, 163.
Luke 9: 1-6.

The Twenty-Fifth Wednesday of Ordinary Time.

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1:34 PM 9/24/2014 — One of the reasons I've been focusing on the first lessons of the Mass during this part of Ordinary Time—or what we used to call the season “after Pentecost”—is that the Gospel lessons for this time of year are pretty familiar and standard; and, since they're repeated every year regardless of the cycle, there's only so much one can say about them. I've been landing on the first lessons because they are so often neglected. It's easy to understand why: what's most important in the Scriptures are the sayings of our Lord; and, while much of the Old Testament anticipates and, in fact, points to the Gospel, it is also superseded by it. Next week, the Missal presents to us lessons from one of the most important books of the Old Testament, though we don't often think of it as such: the Book of the Prophet Job. This week, of course, we're reading from Proverbs, which is not one of the most important.
     It comes from a section of the Bible known collectively as the “Wisdom Literature”; and, as you can hear for yourself, it's just that: a lot of home-spun wisdom, which may cause us to wonder what it's doing in the Bible. And that's not an easy question to answer. A lot of scholars have spent time trying to answer that question, but the bottom line is that St. Jerome included it, so here it is. It's difficult to set a date for its composition, since different parts of it were composed at different times. Two parts of it are often attributed to Solomon, and are sometimes called “The Proverbs of Solomon”, but the rest of it seems to have been composed in a scattered way by a variety of rabbinic sages, two of which have been identified: two rabbis named Agur and Lemuel. Most of the book seems to have been written before the Babylonian Exile, but the prolog to the book was clearly written after it, since reference is made to it; so, it seems that, at some point, someone—we don't know who—took it upon himself to collect all these sayings together and give them a final form, and that this happened sometime around fifth century before Christ.
     The old Roman Missal, before the post-conciliar reforms, completely ignored this book, and that's understandable: there are parts of it which directly contradict the Gospel. For example: if you have been with us here on Sundays, you may remember I focused a couple of times on Our Lord's point, brought forth in not a few of his parables, that divine retribution, reward and punishment, are left for the life to come; in Proverbs, they are clearly part of this life; the human author of Proverbs, consistent with the Jewish theology of his day, had no concept of an afterlife. That point will be important to us next week when we look at the Prophet Job.
     So, how do we relate to Proverbs as part of the Holy Word of God? The answer is: we can't, if we take a Protestant view and attempt to see some statement of dogmatic truth in every individual verse of Holy Writ, but as Catholics we don't do that, as you know. Had you the ability to read Hebrew, it would become clear to you immediately that this entire book is one massive poem, and a poem is not meant to be taken literally; a poem is meant to evoke emotions and feelings and moods of a highly symbolic nature. You've heard the saying: “Poetry is what is lost in translation”; well, Proverbs is the perfect example of that. We have to read it in English because that's the language we know, but the sense of it is completely lost.
     Of course, none of the verses used by the Church at Holy Mass are in direct contradiction to the Gospel, but neither are they particularly profound; they speak of the need to be honest and prudent and reasonable, the necessity of treating others the way we would like to be treated ourselves, how important it is to marry wisely and act justly and not waste our money and guard our tongue, all of which is very good advice but which hardly rises to the level of Mystical Theology. But, they are sayings which reflect a genuine piety, and they are quoted in the New Testament no less than fourteen times, and alluded to many more times.
     But there is a useful lesson for our interior life that we can take away from this book, a point of both theology and spirituality that was specifically expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.* It's exact translation is: “Whatever is received is received according to the condition of the recipient.” St. Thomas coined this phrase to help us understand how many of the figures of the Old Testament did not conform to the Judeo-Christian ethic as we understand it: how the children of our First Parents could have relations with blood relatives; how Abraham and the other patriarchs could have more than one wife; how the Jews of old, before the advent of the Pharisees, did not believe in an afterlife, as expressed often in this Book of Proverbs. They were not expected to conform to Commandments that had not yet been given to Moses; their culture and life up to that point would not have allowed them to comprehend such truths; so, God reveals Himself to them according to their ability to accept Him. It doesn't make what they were doing right; it does make what they were doing free from sin because of where they were at that time in their lives.
     And this principle carries through to us in our own day and in our own lives: God reveals Himself to us based on who we are and where we're at. As a priest hearing confessions you learn this lesson very quickly: some people you can require to examine themselves severely and admonish them to practice a virtue that they've inexcusably ignored, but others require you to go no further than just calling them to simply adhere to the fundamentals of the Commandments. We've discussed this before: we're all at different places in our quest to walk in the footsteps of Christ. And that's OK. That's one of the reasons why the homilies that I try to preach to you here on weekdays are very different from those I preach upstairs on Sunday: when you're dealing with that lost generation of Catholics which has had absolutely no training in the basics of the catechism, you have to start from the beginning.
     And I would recommend to you that this might be an interesting way to approach that elusive “spirit of reparation” in which Our Lady asks us to make our First Five Saturday exercises: not just reparation for offenses committed, but also reparation for that lack of Christian formation from which so many today suffer. I'll never forget, as a young priest, an experience I had preparing a couple for marriage: they were good kids, and one of them even had a Catholic school education, but they were living together, and claimed that they had never heard before that this was wrong. And, naturally, I thought to myself, “Oh, that's a likely story”; but, as I continued to work with them, and became aware of their sincerity, I realized that they had actually told me the truth.
     The moral of the story is: If God was willing, throughout the whole of salvation history, to work with his chosen people based on where they were at the time, then he's clearly willing to do so for us, and so we should be when dealing with one another.

* Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 75, a. 5; 3a, q. 5.