A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
December 4, 2005
Advent 2 Matthew 24:14-30
I don't think books contain wisdom. At best they are spurs, reminders, and prods. Wisdom, as distinct from knowledge, is found when words strike against experience, creating a spark of life.
The Commander of the Occupation troops said to the Mayor of the mountain village: “We are certain you are hiding a traitor in your village. Unless you give her up to us, we shall harass you and your people by every means in our power.”
The village was indeed hiding a woman who seemed good and innocent and was loved by all. But what could the Mayor do now that the welfare of the whole village was threatened. Days of discussion in the Village Council led to no conclusion. So the Mayor took the matter up with the village priest. They spent the whole night searching the Scriptures and finally found a text that said, “It is better that one die and the nation be saved.”
So the Mayor handed the woman over. She was tortured and killed.
Twenty years later a prophet passed by that village, went up to the Mayor and said, “Why did you do it? That woman was appointed by God to be the saviour of this country.”
“What could I do?” pleaded the Mayor. “The priest and I looked at the Scriptures and acted accordingly.”
“That was your mistake,” said the prophet. “You looked at the Scriptures. You should have looked into her eyes.” [i]
Wisdom isn't contained in holy books. A wise person looks into the eyes of the other, and into their own heart. Then on the basis of compassion they act. There is also usually a cost involved.
I experience old libraries as comforting places. They surround the pilgrim with the mystique of the past and the illusion of wisdom. With a hospitable Chesterfield they invite one to pause, read a little, and remember all who have wandered these shelves before. They are similar in this respect to many churches. Majestic old buildings, decorations and ideas, dressed in the grandeur of the past, yet now collecting dust, the habitation of a faithful remnant, valued by society more for their cover than their substance.
Churches have long pretended to be repositories of wisdom. They have pretended to be dispensers of the truth, when really they have been concerned to control. They have tried to contain God, restrain their parishioners, and to train outsiders. I don't think it was dissimilar in Jesus' day. He once told a story about how the treasure called wisdom increases when it is opened and used, rather than protected and hoarded.
The story began with a ruler giving one servant five chests of booty, another two chests, and another one. Those who received five chests and two chests opened them, used the treasure, but remarkably it did not vanish but grew. However, the servant with one chest was afraid of opening it. He decided to bury it, and its contents never saw the light of day.
Despite what the proponents of capitalism might surmise, this story is about the treasure of the Torah, the holy book of wisdom. It was the task of Israel to protect and preserve the Torah and its commandments. By burying the treasure the servant denied wisdom a future. By burying the treasure the servant gave in to his fear.
The servant's actions were not unlike the Mayor's. Both were afraid, both wanted certainty, and both failed to understand the nature of wisdom. The holy words of the past, enshrined in volumes gold embossed on the spine, can be largely ornamental. These holy words are ancient holders of wisdom, but not wisdom itself. If the holy words of old fail to have any connection with the gutsy issues that gnaw at people's lives then they are simply dusty old books, the food of silverfish.
Wisdom invites us to look into the eyes of strangers, and into our own. Wisdom invites us to open ourselves and our treasure to others. It invites us to learn from the past but be courageous with the future.