The book of Wisdom is a late addition to the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, it was later excised from traditional Judaism, then centuries later, removed during the Reformation.
Wisdom 4 suggests the human struggle with an early, and perhaps unjust death:
But the just man, though he die early, shall be at rest.
For the age that is honorable
comes not with the passing of time,
nor can it be measured in terms of years.
Rather, understanding is the hoary crown for men,
and an unsullied life, the attainment of old age.
He who pleased God was loved;
he who lived among sinners was transported–
Snatched away, lest wickedness pervert his mind
or deceit beguile his soul;
For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right
and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind.
Having become perfect in a short while,
he reached the fullness of a long career;
for his soul was pleasing to the Lord,
therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness.
But the people saw and did not understand,
nor did they take this into account.
Because grace and mercy are with God’s holy ones,
and God’s care is with the elect.
Judaism struggled deeply with this notion. In the early days of Moses, Judges, and the Psalms, it was thought that one’s station in life reflected God’s approval or disapproval. The rich were blessed by God; the poor cursed. The healthy blessed; the sick cursed. And of course, the long-lived were in God’s favor, and those who died young were certainly not good (no matter what the future Billy Joel might sing).
By the time of the book of Wisdom, about the first or second centuries before Christ, the problem of an early death confronted those of faith and philosophy. In the passage above, quality of life is more important than the quantity of years. The writer pursues the thought that God has taken the just early as a reward, a relief from the sinful aspects of life. Not all of this will be understood, of course. Especially not the mourners. We who remain have only the virtue of hope: that God’s grace and love will lift up those who have died. And us too, someday.
The funeral of a young person is always difficult. It might take courage to confront that early death in a reading like this one. My own sense is that some people would prefer to avoid the thought. And as a pastoral minister I would respect that. And yet, there may be some gem of comfort in the proclamation of that age-old sense of unfairness–that someone has died before their proper time. Two millennia after Wisdom, we still struggle with it. And that is a good thing. As long as death shadows and corrupts us, we should struggle with, and even against it, always with God’s grace and mercy.