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By Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm.

The Bible: Light to My Path

In 2001, St. Anthony Messenger invited several biblical experts to contribute to this year's column. Father Roland Murphy responded with enthusiasm and completed his three contributions within a month. "I couldn't resist," he wrote, with a zest that belied his years.

Father Roland died July 20, 2002, one day after his 85th birthday. He was a leading Catholic authority on the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and author of more than 230 books and articles. In this final column, he describes the eternal life he so richly deserves.

Father Roland was a member of the Carmelite Order. You can learn more about Wisdom from his book, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, issued in a second edition by Wm. B. Eerdmans in 1996.

 

Q U I C K S C A N

More Than Forever
What's Forever For?
Biblical Background


For justice is undying.

Wisdom 1:15

 

Can you imagine what it would be like to live without the knowledge of the existence of heaven or hell? The Israelites did—for centuries. The only real life they knew was in the here and now. Asked about immortality, they would answer no with resignation and finality.

How do you answer the question, “Are you immortal?” You might answer yes, but let it go at that. But suppose I press you and ask, “What do you mean?”

Were you to say that you will live forever, is that a real answer? Who wants to live forever? Immortality should not be reduced to time; doesn’t it mean more than that?

More Than Forever

Ah, then you recall the doctrine of the resurrection of the body from the New Testament and say that you believe that you will eventually rise from the dead. Or you could also say: Although my body will corrupt in the grave, my soul will not.

So far, you have told me only the manner of being immortal: by resurrection, or because of the nature of a soul that will never die. Is that all you mean by immortality?

The author of Wisdom didn’t bother with the manner. He leads his audience to consider the question of God’s presence (justice) as central to the afterlife. He breaks the grip of death by offering a deeper vision—a new and powerful vision—of the life that wisdom promises. This vigorous claim was never before pressed to its ultimate conclusion.

In Chapter One, taken as a whole, spirit and wisdom do not seem to be distinct from the divinity. All three express the way in which God is pres-ent to the world and to humans. In the second-last verse of that chapter, verse 15, the author does not conclude to immortality because of the nature of the soul, but rather because of personal justice or righteousness.

This means our right relationship to God—here in this life—is of itself undying or immortal. It is another way of describing what Jesus calls eternal life in the Gospel of John (e.g., 4:14; 6:47; 12:25; 17:3).

What's Forever For?

Yes, you are already immortal, if you remain in union with the source of life, drinking the water that Jesus gives: “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Our immortality comes from our relationship with God. We can destroy that relationship, but God will not. God is faithful to us.

My immortality is being formed in the here and now with God. As one of the Prefaces for the Requiem Mass puts it, “Life is changed, not ended” by death.

Wisdom has other references to the style of our afterlife. In Wisdom 5:5, we are to be “accounted among the sons of God,” to have our lot “with the saints.”

In the Preface for the Feast of All Saints, the Church prays, “Around your throne, the saints, our brothers and sisters, sing your praise for ever....We praise your glory and we cry out with one voice.” We are only beginning to enjoy this precious gift of union.



Biblical Background

The Wisdom of Solomon is not by Solomon. The author, however, sometimes places his words on the lips of Solomon, the wise king, to emphasize their value. It is written not in Hebrew but in Greek, the language of the Good News in the Egyptian diaspora in Alexandria around the time of Our Lord. The author is extremely Jewish, yet in this book he exhibits a universalism that goes beyond that of his predecessors in the Bible.

This book is a clever response to the Greek culture of the day that had attracted some Jews, because it treats of immortality as the reward of wisdom (Chapters 1—6), the wonder of Israel’s wisdom (7—10) and a series of meditations or homilies on the Egyptian plagues (11—19).

Throughout earlier centuries, the Israelites were unaware of the true afterlife. The breakthrough comes in this book, especially in Chapter One, verse 15. The sages had always taught that wisdom secured life. Now this point is pressed to the full—to life that is undying, incorruptible and eternal (Wisdom 1:15 and also 2:23; 5:15).

 


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