Homily on Proverbs 1:1-7

A Homily on the First Chapter of the Book of Proverbs.

1 The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel: 2 That people may know wisdom and discipline, may understand intelligent sayings; 3 May receive instruction in wise conduct, in what is right, just and fair; 4 That resourcefulness may be imparted to the naive, knowledge and discretion to the young. 5 The wise by hearing them will advance in learning, the intelligent will gain sound guidance, 6 To comprehend proverb and byword, the words of the wise and their riddles. 7 Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.

– Proverbs 1: 1-7 (NAB)

I can still see it clearly on the crest of my Alma-Mater as if it were yesterday, “Timor Jehovae initium sapientiae.” (‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’) I thought that I knew what it meant when I was a teenager all those years ago, seeing it daily as we passed its 10-ft. likeness in the hallways of our school. But, while my limited education in Latin had prepared me to translate the phrase, it would be my education in life that would prepare me to understand what it truly meant. This one verse holds a truth that is profound to anyone who seeks Wisdom in life - True wisdom coming from the Father, the source and summit of all truth. The introductory paragraph to the proverbs tells us that this is why they exist in the first place: to give the wisdom, counsel, truth, to the reader, no matter the age or intellect. Everyone can gain knowledge from the wisdom of the Jewish sages such as Solomon. But it is especially important to our work as parents and educators that we take note of this 7th verse, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (wisdom).” This is our call to action in our duties to the children we guide, to first impart the fear of the Lord, the acknowledgement of his place in the Universe and ours also, and then to impart, from the Lord, knowledge.

We are truly blessed to be able to inspire young minds in our Catholic Schools. We are truly blessed to be able to teach not only math, science, reading, etc., but also to teach, first and foremost, a knowledge and respect of God. I recently spoke with a friend whose children attend public schools. He was absolutely enthralled with our ability to and our action in teaching the children in our school about God. He had visited the school on the day of a soccer game, between my child’s team and a rival Catholic school. Before the players took to the field, they gathered in the center of the field where a student led them in prayer. They reached out and held hands in a circle with the opposing team. This set the stage for what my friend noticed throughout the game (and we took for granted), that the players were athletic and aggressive, but civil all the while. After taking a player out, the opposing team helped him up. There were no yelling and angry parents on the sidelines, where in the city league they would have been jumping up and down yelling at the players and coaches. After the game ended, the players from both teams met up again and prayed as a group, thanking God for their good fortune, and their enjoyed time together. Once again, my friend was in awe. “This is how it should be,” he said. “This is how to raise children up right.”

Of course, all parents and teachers (presumably) want to raise their children this way (save maybe the religious aspect) to teach them good will, manners, brotherhood and camaraderie amongst even their rivals. That is the purpose of the proverbs, according to the author in line 3, that the reader “May receive instruction in wise conduct, in what is right, just and fair.” But as we see in verse 7, and as we know from our own experience in Catholic education, this knowledge is imparted upon us (and so to our children), because we were first taught the fear of the Lord.

If I had understood as a child the way I understand it as an adult, I would have been wise beyond my own years. As a teenager, reading my school’s motto, I thought that it meant raw fear of the Lord. The kind of thing that terrifies you, makes you afraid to step out of line. How does the act of contrition say it, “for the loss of heaven and pain of hell”?… yes, that kind of fear. But the people in that school taught me differently. The teachers, the student body (having learned by example), the administration, even the parents taught us to fear God in a bigger way than merely that of anguish and tribulation. They taught us respect for the Lord, reverence for his power and awesomeness, and fear not only of the loss of His grace in our eternal lives, but in the loss of the blessings he bestows upon us daily. It is a “thankful fear, and awe-inspired respect” much more than just the raw emotional fear that I first read from that phrase.

The Jewish philosopher Rabbi Abraham Ibn Daud makes a distinction between the two forms of the Hebrew word Yirah יִרְאַ֣ת (fear): “fear of harm” and Yirat Elohim יִרְאַ֣ת יְ֭הוָה: “awe of greatness [of God]”. This Yirat Elohim, that we hear of in the Proverbs, this “Fear of the Lord”, encompasses both. While it is “fear” in the sense that we often see it, as Rabbi Daud notes, it is also a positive commandment. The “Awe of Greatness” is certainly just as important, if not more so in raising our children, in educating our children, than the “fear of harm” that the word also implies. Certainly, the people of Israel understood both sentiments. We see the fear of harm, from the earliest stages of the relationship between man and God: Adam and Eve hiding in their nakedness; Israel trembling at the sound of the voice of God only to ask him to limit it to Moses; even in the words of the prophets warning Israel of its impending exile, and separation from the covenant if they do not repent. And certainly, we too teach this healthy fear of the Lord to our own children, for we want to protect them from earthly and spiritual harms. But we also teach them to have a healthy awe in the majesty of a God who is so powerful that not only can he take things away, but that he can also give them to us. Think for a moment on the basic Jewish model of prayer, the blessing. How do they all begin: “Baruch ata Adonai, Elohenu Molech Ha’olam…”, “Blessed are you Lord God, Creator of the Universe”. This is not a call out in “fear of harm” to God, this is a cry of joy, to the author of every good and perfect gift. This is the same call out to the God of Creation, to the giver of all life and its blessings, that you are empowered and called to teach to our children.

Pope Francis, during an address to a general audience in June 2014 said, “The fear of the Lord, the gift of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t mean being afraid of God, since we know that God is our Father that [He}always loves and forgives us.” It “is no servile fear, but rather a joyful awareness of God’s grandeur and a grateful realization that only in him do our hearts find true peace…” . Here again mirroring the “awe of God” as understood by the Jewish readers of the passage, Pope Francis call us to embrace the awesomeness of the Father’s creation and to acknowledge (again in a positive light) his power. He goes a step further than the Rabbi did, of course, go and equates the “fear of the Lord” to one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This education in the “awe of God” begins at the earliest of ages. Our kindergarten classes sing “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do”. The beauty of a Catholic/Christian education, is that the words of this song are then exemplified in the science lesson where those same kindergartners get to learn how nature and its wonders take their place in the divine plan for creation, in the sustaining of life, our lives, their own lives- how this ultimately comes from the same God. As they grow further in age and in the faith, the teachers in religion class prepare them for the sacraments. They teach them how our God, who is all-powerful is able take the bread and wine of the Eucharist and make it become the Body and Blood of the Lord, and how the same God who is to be feared because of the “loss of heaven and the fear of hell” is also a God that is so much bigger than us that he can forgive us our sins and win back for us eternal life in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. With this newly formed wisdom of the workings of God, and their “age of reason” at 7 or 8, the child is also learning discipline in school. They learn and begin to understand good and bad choices. They are introduced to morality. How often are the proverbs used in this instruction?? “Pride goes before a fall”[16:18], “the quick tempered do foolish things.” [14:17], “he who trusts the Lord will be exalted” [29:25].

So here we stand today, with these children, these students entrusted to our care as educators and parents. It is our duty to enlighten them, first of the awesomeness of God, then once they have (and while they are obtaining) a positive “fear of the Lord” we can then also teach them the wisdom of God, the good counsel that he has shared with his people, through those like King Solomon, so that together we can form them into God-fearing young men and women, full of grace and wise in spirit.

Works Cited

Harris, E. (2014, June 11). Pope: Fear of the Lord an Alarm Reminding Us of What's Right. Catholic News Agency.

Mendes-Flohr, E. A. (1987). 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought. Philedephia : Charles Scribner's Sons/Jewish Publication Society.