Tuesday, September 8, 2015


Titian's 'Wisdom' (1560)
This week’s readings are linked by an unmistakable purpose; they all issue stern warnings. The Gospel even expressly describes Jesus as ‘sternly’ ordering  his disciples not to tell people that he is the Messiah. This is somewhat strange, though. Has he not just invited them to name him in precisely this way? And aren’t they supposed to be spreading the Good News of his Messiahship?  So why the stern warning? The answer becomes almost immediately apparent. Jesus does not want the disciples proclaiming him to be the Messiah until they themselves fully understand what that means. Peter’s response to the prospect of Christ’s sufferings and death shows very clearly that they do NOT yet understand. 
The famous instruction about Christian discipleship that follows -- ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ -- is given partly to correct this deep misunderstanding. It is of course a paradox, but it is one that lies at the very center of the Gospel. No saying of Jesus warrants closer attention. Setting it in the context of this week’s other warnings, however, draws our attention to a more general lesson. The Old Testament lessons from Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon warn us about the importance of thinking and acting wisely, and the risk of being 'wise after the event' when our own foolishness has already led us into disaster. The Epistle of James, in a complementary spirit, warns us about the special danger attached to setting ourselves up as those who can teach others-- that we 'will be judged with greater strictness'. The point is that the talents most effective in imparting wisdom and teaching the truth are the very same talents by which we need convince ourselves, as well as others, that some attractive, even admirable, things are in fact false and foolish.
Rubens St James the Apostle (1612)

In other words, be sure you really know what the Christian Gospel truly teaches, especially if you set yourself up to teach it. Being sincere and well intentioned in what you believe and what you tell others is not enough. Sincerity and error often go together. This important message runs strongly counter to much  contemporary opinion. Nowadays the ideas of truth and wisdom are often given second place to personal sincerity and good intentions -- a belief that contemporary Christians sign up to no less readily than non-Christians. But this Sunday's lessons say very clearly: Be warned! Wisdom and truth have key roles to play in Christian faith and conduct. Sincerity and commitment, however deep, are not enough.

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