A recent TV documentary reported the tortuous lengths many inmates of the island penitentiary of Alcatraz took to flee this inescapable fortress in the early 20th century. None escaped alive. That’s life. Many of us lifers on earth spend our sentence planning escapes from the prison of their bodies. But like the legendary Birdman of Alcatraz, using his gift of wisdom, we can find escape looking for ways to make our sentence more meaningful, instead. A little wisdom goes a long way. And the older we get, the better we get at appealing to our Judge for more of it. Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom (Wis 9:13-18b) better explains our situation on this Island Earth:
For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns. And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty; but when things are in heaven, who can search them out? Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?
Eventually we get wise enough to escape solitary confinement and forge bonds of brotherhood with fellow prisoners. That’s Jesus-level wisdom—the kind that blesses peacemakers. Like the Birdman, the man we now know as St. Paul, who started his life sentence persecuting others, became a model prisoner after Christ captivated him on the Road to Damascus. From that point Paul grew older and wiser—dedicating his time to spreading the wisdom of God’s truth. Sunday’s second reading from his letter to Philemon (Phmn 9-10, 12-17) introduces a Paul living out the last days of his sentence, spending the freedom of being Christ’s prisoner by bequeathing his vast accumulation of wisdom to his fellow prisoners in Christ. He uses a special courier to deliver his bequest.
I, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus, urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment; I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary. Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother.
The vast wisdom Paul left us through his writings comes from a life given to his Master’s campaign for peace. He was a willing prisoner of that war, and Paul’s sending Onesimus back to his master was the culmination of a wisely-planned peace offering on behalf of his King. The Gospel reading from Luke (Lk 14:25-33) shows Jesus to be a demanding Master who recruits disciples wise enough to plan-out life’s priorities and discard distractions before their life sentence ends.
What king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.
Wisdom is a two-part gift. The first part, as Christ instructed us above, is vision. It’s what guides us away from a life spent looking for freedom inside earthly prison walls.