[WISDOM 18:20-25]


The role of a priest in a society has become a debatable topic today. In a country like India, where everybody has a religious mind, the priest influences the life of an individual in his day to day affairs. Whatever may be the religious affiliation the priests have some general characteristics. In addition to this the Christians claim a qualitative difference. Some denominations avoid the title “priest” and call their leaders “pastors” because the former word carries more negatives than positives.

“The most anti-revolutionary element of a society is a priest. Priest promises, but he never delivers or solves the problems…The man who lives with fixed ideas lives a dead life. He is never spontaneous and he is never in a right relationship with the situation that exists. He is never responsible; he functions out of his old conclusions which are no longer relevant, he does not look at the situation itself.” You may think that this is the position of a progressive thinker who wants to uproot the institutionalized churches as well as the “false gurus” and “semi-gods”. No, this was said by Osho Rajneesh, himself a cultic leader and a semi-god once, who preferred the title “Bhagvan”. He continues in his book Priests and Politicians-The Mafia of the Soul: “Priests give you crutches; but they don’t make you stand on your feet. Priests dominate poor people. In a society where the poor, who make the majority, are afraid of hell and always greedy of heaven, the priests can dominate”.

Many would say yes to the above comments about the priests, from whom they expect a change of role. This is true of not only the people who see priests as exploiters of the society but also those who respect priesthood and who visualize something remarkable through their service. Even the priests who are aware of their “call” as the conscience keeper of the society maintain a deafening silence when they are expected to give leadership. It is surprising to see priests, who were vibrant fire brands in their youth, say nothing against the wrong doings of their own community as well as the society. Either, they are disabled by the “structure” of their community, which is controlled by giants, who exploit the commons continuously. Or, they have lost the sharpness of their teeth; the pleasures they have acquired through the profession compel them to be spokes-persons of a “status quo”. The latter has a pathetic situation; their fall is complete; they form the most dangerous threat for priesthood.

A priest is standing among the dead and the living:
This is the picture of a priest in the Book of Wisdom in chapter 18:20-25. A priest is standing in the middle of a society, which has the bodies of the dead on one side and the living who are afraid of their imminent death on the other.

Death is an unavoidable truth in our life. Everybody knows that death will come at any point of his life; but when it comes, it makes him melancholic; it brings him to a philosophical mood. Death is a necessary evil; if it does not happen, it will be great problem. There is a beautiful novel written by Jose Saramago, the Latin American novelist, called Death at Intervals. On a December 31 everybody is awaiting the news about the Queen mother and the director of the television makes a sensation: “Death has disappeared from our country”. Nobody could understand the gravity of the situation immediately. But gradually the whole country is in confusion: hospitals are full of terminally ill patients; old people suffer for a long time; coffin merchants and wake houses starve. The cardinal spoke to the prime minister and declares that the foundation of the Church is at stake. The Church can not exist without death and resurrection. Surprisingly the next news comes suddenly; “Death has come again in the country”. That made a new havoc. Number of burials increase and the priests are busy. There are not enough coffins. It continues for some time and then comes a new development: Death writes letters to people who are going to die within a week. What an imagination!

The Book of Wisdom is the latest among the Old Testament of the Septuagint Bible. It was written during 80-30 BCE and it is considered as one among the seven Sapiential literature of the Bible; Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Sirach are the other books of this genre. These books give us a clear picture about the belief of the People of God in the inter-testamental period. As per Wis 9:7-8 Solomon should be the author of the Book of Wisdom and Wis 8:9-19:22 is a long prayer of the king. Wis 18:20-25 is a good text for the priests and pastors who lead the Church.

Wis 18:20-25 reminds us of the killing of about 14,700 people described in Num 16:41-50. This incident happened after the rebellion of Korah along with the Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On. The rebellion was against Moses and Aaron. It was a crucial situation in the early history of the People of God. Because Yahweh instituted priesthood as a new development in its leadership and it was unlike the people around. Their vocation, selection and appointment were not political as in the case of other religions. This put hurdle in their acceptance also. The rebels asked: Is Moses the only leader of Israelites? Is Aaron, the only priest? 250 people joined hands with the rebels and the issue became acute. Then Yahweh intervened with his anger and killed the 250 at once and later the multitude. Aaron took his incense and stood among the Israelites. It was the only remedy for stopping God’s anger.

The leaders of Israel interceded whenever the people were punished by God. We know the bargaining of Abraham for the Sodomites (Gen 18:16-33). Phinehas, son of Eleasar, and grandson of Aaron stopped the killing of about 24,000 in Num 25:1-18 (23,000 as in 1Cor. 10:8) people who were sexually immoral. Even today the priests stand among the living and the dead. On the one side there are people who want to live according to the commandments of the Lord; but on the other side there are many who accept the path of death and decay. The influence of the latter is unimaginable; slowly it creeps in to the world of the living like cancer and it kills the living also. The powers of globalization and market economy pull even the upright and they fall into modern traps. In this situation we have to think about the role of a real priest. History knows a lot of saintly priests as well as just prophets.

The Equipments of a Priest:
What equips a priest to overcome the powers of death? The author of Wisdom sees four important ingredients for the ministry of a priest.

  1. Prayer and Incense (Wis 18:21):
    What differentiates a priest from a layman is his thirst for prayer. Most of the priests have chosen priesthood as their vocation because of this fascination. But what happens usually is the deviation of their attention from prayer to power and money. Some priests recite the age old prayers melodiously, but they do not understand the challenges of an average citizen. Some others have become political activists instead of being a priest in the real sense. So we should be clear about the functioning of a priest. And there prayer has the central position. Social intervention of a priest should have its starting point in a prayerful life. In the case of Aaron incense goes along with prayer. It intensifies the meaning of prayer as it is told in the Book of Revelation (Rev 8:4). If Aaron could save his people with his incense, modern priests have to utilize sacramental moments meaningfully. They should bring people in to a repentive mood and these should be motivated to act according to the Will of God.

  2. Word of God with the Tradition of their fore-fathers (Wis 18:22):
    What guides a priest is always the Word of God. It inspires him, empowers him and gives shape to his personality as a priest. The priest of Wisdom likes to understand the Word of God with the tradition of the fore-fathers. There are some people who consider the tradition as something negative. But learned people will not do that. There will be negatives in history and traditions. But the interpretations of the Scripture made by the Holy Fathers and the lessons taught by people of spiritual experience help modern leaders a lot.

  3. A long robe with the picture of the universe (Wis 18: 24a):
    A priest is not simply representing his own folk. Rather his responsibilities should cover the whole universe. Jesus said once “There are other sheep which belong to me that are not in this sheep fold (Jn 10:16). This was a great blow for the Jews who were exclusive. God’s plan of salvation is made for all humanity and even for the whole universe. We believe in a God who “gives rain not only to those who do good, but also to those who do evil” (Matt 5:45). So the social commitment of a priest should be the other side of spirituality. Saints were like that. On the one side they were praying, fasting etc. But on the other side they stood for justice and peace.

  4. Four stones on his chest, an ornament on his turban (Wis 18:24b):
    The Israelite priests had an ornamented vestment (Sir 45:10-14). There was an Ephod with a breast plate (Ex 28:6ff.); four rows of precious stones reminded them of the promises made to the twelve patriarchs; they used stones of Urim and Thummim to make judgements; their turban had an inscription: “Dedicated to the Lord”. All these were made to remind the priest of his responsibilities. The people considered the priests with these as a symbol of God’s presence.

Do we, the modern priests, realize that people expect something “holy” from our ministry? Do we have the armour of the above four elements? Can we make any imprint in the life a person who approaches us? Or are we presenting ourselves as show pieces and as instruments of exploitation? Is there anything “spiritual” in our life as well as our ministry? Let each one of you make a judgement of your own.

[Bible study made at the Triennial Priests’ Conference held at Parumala on May 14th.]


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