by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
July 3, 2005
Scripture: Romans 7:15-25; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-35
“I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to babes.” –Matthew 11:25
We need to know certain fundamental things if we are to live successfully. In order to find these fundamental things we resort to teachers whom we believe have this knowledge and are able to pass it on to us efficiently and effectively. We here in this chapel believe that Jesus is such a teacher and so we listen to him on the subject of the important things. We are surprised to hear him say that God has hidden these things from the wise and disclosed them to the simple. What could this mean?
Simply it means that when Jesus says, “Come to me…” we listen, believe what we hear, and go to him, and in that moment we are smarter than a genius and cleverer than that well-known rocket scientist. Children know directly what is going on when their mothers or fathers say, “Come here!” They do not always obey the command but they know they are refusing a direct command and do not confuse the issue. Sophisticated adults, on the other hand, suspend reaction and insert critical filters between the speaker and themselves, and if they have been the beneficiaries of an expensive education, are able to obfuscate so effectively that they can appear – to themselves and others – to be obeying, while in fact they are disobeying. This is the essential skill of the politician in a democracy, and thus the slithery back and forth way through the portals of power. Harry Truman, whom I quoted last time, is good for another pearl of wisdom this time. He used to advise, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
In the biblical tradition true teaching about the way to live is called Wisdom. Many took Jesus to be such a teacher of wisdom. I guess in our context he would have been called a professor or a rabbi (as he was in his own time), essentially a teacher of the truth about nature and human life, about morality and aesthetics. He knows what is truly good, truly beautiful and truly authentic, and he passes this knowledge on to others.
It is very difficult to find such a teacher. Today we are flooded with wisdom that is not wise, truth that is not true and beauty that is plain ugly. We are mummified in a bandage wrap of lies. If I knew where a true teacher of the truth was to be found I would go there in haste, I would revere the ground he/she stood upon, and I would sit at his/her feet listening humbly. But where shall wisdom be found?
That is an old question from the biblical tradition. The great poem of Job includes a particularly dramatic passage in chapter 28:12-28 that begins, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” ( and continues) “… Man does not know the way to it and it is not found in the land of the living…It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed for its price…Whence then comes wisdom? And where is the place of understanding? God understands the way to it, and he knows its place…and He said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” ‘Fear of the Lord’ here means acknowledgement of the absolute priority of God in our lives, and it is appropriately linked with repentance, the turning away from evil. When we turn to God and away from evil we make the wisest move we can possibly make, and that move potentially begins a life of wisdom, which is the only satisfying life for a human being.
With this in mind let us look again at our passage for today. In the first part (vs.16-19) Jesus compares us to sulky children who cannot be persuaded to join in the game. “We piped and you would not dance, we mourned and you would not weep (17-18).” Happy games or sad, you simply would not play with us. John the Baptist was sad and stern, Jesus is mild and joyful, but neither is good enough for you.
Who are John and Jesus in this context? They are manifestations of the divine wisdom, and whether sad or glad that wisdom is always in the right, always the one thing needful for human life. So we are not surprised when Jesus adopts the rhetoric of biblical wisdom and calls, “Come to me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am meek and lowly of heart and you shall find rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light (vs.28-29).” Compare this with Proverbs 8:1; 4-5, “Does not wisdom call, does not understanding raise her voice?’ To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the sons of men. O simple ones learn prudence; O foolish men, pay attention. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right.” In this context John the Baptist is the last prophet of the wise word, and Jesus is that word itself. His call to us is the call of the divine wisdom itself, and when we heed his call we enter into a world of profound simplicity where the yoke of God’s demands is easy and the burden of sharing God’s work is light.
Why are the yoke of truth easy and the burden of truth light? Because it is the innermost reality of our own being, that is, under this yoke we bear not somebody else’s needs and wants but our very own, we serve not an alien command but the natural imperative of our own true self. We turn away from evil, which is all those things, people, ideas and attitudes that drag us hither and yon, and fracture the wholeness of the heart, and we turn to God, who holds the secret of who we really are. This relentless regard for the living God, absolute and exclusive in its form and dynamics, is the first principle of wisdom, and once we know that and act on it, the profoundest truth becomes for us as simple as a baby’s sucking at the mother’s breast. “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to babies!”
I am reading a marvelous book this week called “Transformation in Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, orig. 1948, this edition 2001).” The author, Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote these luminous chapters in 1936-37 for a home based seminar organized by his friends and held at his sister’s home in Florence. He was by then a fugitive from the Nazis whom he had opposed publicly, to the extent of editing an anti-Nazi newspaper in Vienna until his friend and patron Chancellor Dolfuss was murdered by the Nazis. It is marvelous that such luminous spiritual wisdom flowed from this exhausted and persecuted man. He made it to the US eventually and became a professor of philosophy at Fordham University in NYC where he had a long and fruitful career.
One of the most helpful chapters in the book is titled ‘True Simplicity’ and I want to share some of its subheadings with you: “Simplicity contrasts with disunity; Simplicity contrasts with psychological convolutedness; Simplicity does not mistake complexity for profundity; Stupidity is not spiritual simplicity; True Simplicity comes only from single-hearted devotion to God; Christ is the principle of true simplicity; Plain honesty contributes to true simplicity; God alone must have primacy; We must offer everything to God; We must thank God for all things; We must view all things with the eyes of faith; Faith enables us to see the hierarchy of values more clearly; We must conform our life to that hierarchy.” These are some of the topics dealt with under the heading, “True Simplicity.”
I said earlier that if I found a true teacher I would go far to sit at his feet. Von Hildebrand is a true teacher, so rush all the way to you laptop and order the book from Amazon or wherever. Read, mark and inwardly digest it, and be transformed in Christ. That’s my current gift to you, and I think, unworthy and inadequate as I am, I am one of your spiritual teachers. The best I can do is point beyond myself, as I hope I always do, to the wisdom of this wonderful book, and to Jesus who is the wisdom of God incarnate.
True simplicity is to pay attention, hear Christ’s call, and go to him.