WISDOM VERSUS KNOWLEDGE
A sermon for Year C Lent 3
Readings: Exodus 3:1-8,13-15; I Cor 10:1-6,10-12; Luke 3:1-9
"All this happened [to our ancestors] as a warning and it was written down to be a lesson for us who are living at the end of the age... The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall.
There are some people who will tell you that the age in which we are living is quite different from any that has gone before it.
They are partly right, but mostly wrong.
We know, for instance, a good deal more than our fathers and grandfathers, and more still than St Paul or St Luke or Moses did, about how things work, how plants grow, about machines, about the planets and the stars, and how the human body and mind work.
In other words, the store of man's knowledge has increased spectacularly over the years.
But there are other matters about which we know no more and perhaps know even less than Moses and Luke and Paul did.
Let us call this second category of things "wisdom". It includes such things as how to please God, how to live in love and peace with our neighbours, how to be happily married, and how to bring up our children to know and love God, and how to seek above all else the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
To imagine that we know better than our ancestors on these matters is a mistake which every generation makes. The mistake lies in supposing that because our stock of Knowledge has grown from one generation to another that we are correspondingly Wiser as a result.
In the words of St Paul: "[Our generation] thinks it is safe; it should be careful that it does not fall".
Needless to say, every generation is careless, so fall it does.
Why are people so careless about their behaviour, and particularly about their relationship with God?
Jesus give us two hints in today's gospel.
He reminds his followers about two recent tragedies which had happened in Jerusalem.
One was the case of some Galileans "whose blood Pontius Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices"
We don't know exactly what Jesus was referring to. We do know of course that this same Pontius Pilate was the person who would allow Jesus to be condemned to death a few months later; that he was a rather bad governor who wa apt to over-react to anything he saw as challenging his authority; that he was someone who was "all in favour of teaching those Jews a damned good lesson"; that two or three times during his governorship of Judaea there had been incidents where lives had been lost as a result of his decisions; and that a year or two after the crucifixion another such incident led to him being recalled to Rome by his employers and given the sack.
But whatever happened in the present case it seems as though Pilate decided to make an example of somebody by slaughtering a number of quite harmless Galileans who had come up from the country to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices.
The second tragedy, the tower in Siloam which collapsed and killed eighteen people we know even less about, other than to say that accidents like that are almost as common today as they have ever been. Open any newspaper and you're almost certain to find an example of people being killed by faulty buildings, by errors of human judgement, or simply in some natural disaster which strikes their community.
Now Jesus draws our attention to two very common mistakes which unwise people, that is to say people who lack wisdom, make when they hear about such events.
The first mistake is to say "Those victims must have deserved what they got. They must have been particularly displeasing to God for that to happen to them."
The second mistake is to say, "because it didn't happen to me it must show and prove that I am righteous in God's sight"
The first of these mistakes will tend to make us judges and condemners of our fellow men with no more evidence to go on than that they have suffered a misfortune.
That's bad enough. But far worse is to imagine that because these things haven't happened to us it somehow proves that we are enjoying God's favour and approval.
The second mistake is the more serious of the two because it means we are blind to the truth about ourselves. The first mistake will merely make us rather unpleasant towards our fellow men; the second will, if not corrected, lead to our final damnation and separation from God.
For the man who closes his eyes to his sins is, by definition the man who cannot repent. And repentance is something which becomes harder and harder the less we practise it. People's repentance muscles stiffen and atrophy with disuse until they can't turn around even if they's like to.
We see many examples today of people living in sin and appearing to "get away with it". We see dishonesty, immorality, vandalism, drug trafficking and addiction and unfaithfulness going on all around us.
Because the people who commit these things (and that may well included ourselves) see nothing apparently going wrong for them, we conclude, quite mistakenly, that there can't be anything so very wrong after all with what we are doing.
This is the oldest and most tragic mistake under the sun.
It is mistaken for three reasons.
Firstly it takes no account of the living God with whom we have to deal and to whom "all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden"
Secondly, it fails to understand that God's timescale is his own affair. If he chooses to wait till the Day of Judgement before bringing our sins to remembrance that is his choice. Let us recognize that those who are chastised and warned by him in this life are the lucky ones. At least they are given the opportunity to repent.
Thirdly, this blindness towards our sins means that we are also blind to the enormous amount of evidence which exists to the effect that in the long or short run, our sins will catch up with us in this life. Unfaithful couples land up in the divorce court; single parents end up in poverty; fraudsters and embezzlers end up in jail; drunkards and drug-takers become addicts.
None of which, let me repeat, happens at once. And even when it does happen relatively quickly after the sin is committed people seldom draw the right conclusion. They say to themselves "Next time I'll be more careful" or "This time I'll get it right". Which is the reason why remorse, or feeling sorry for the mess one has got oneself into is something quite different from repentance, or turning away from sin and towards God.
Although remorse may indeed be followed by repentance, it's by no means certain that it will. Think of the case of Judas Iscariot. He was sorry enough for the damage he'd done, but he preferred suicide to turning back to the friend whom he had betrayed.
No. The only certain way of making sure that one is "right with God"! is to turn and turn and return and return towards him. Repent! Repent! Keep your repentance muscles exercised and supple.
As Jesus said of the Jerusalem tragedies "Unless you repent you will all perish as they did". And St Paul echoes this when he reminded the Church in Corinth, who were themselves far from being morally perfect, "These things happened as warnings for us who are living at the end of the age".
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