Surrendering our need to know

                                                                                           Pentecost 8 – 2016

                                                                                                 Luke 10:25-37

                                                                                                                                                                                             Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches, challenges and inspires. Amen.

There is a wonderful movie out of Kenya called ‘The First Grader’. It recounts the true story of an old man who, on learning that the government is offering ‘free education for all’ presents himself at the local school. The first day he is refused admission by one of the teachers on the basis of his age. Undeterred, he returns the next day, only to be told that he requires a uniform. On the third day he arrives in cut off trousers, long socks and sandals only to be told that there are simply not enough desks and that he must go home. However, his determination pays off when the head teacher allows him to join the class. Conditions are basic. The classes are large and at least one child has to sit on the floor to accommodate Maruge. The teacher is enthusiastic and passionate which is some compensation for the lack of space and equipment.

Two scenes stand out. One is that of a small boy who is asked to come to the front of the class and draw the number five on the blackboard. He does so, but writes it backwards and the other children laugh at him. The other is that of Maruge who, refusing to believe that the boy is stupid, makes a ‘story’ about the number five having a fat belly and a hat. Because the information was presented to the child in a different way by someone whose starting point was that he could learn, the boy was able to imprint the information on his memory.

All of us learn in different ways and have different ways of receiving and processing information. At its best education harnesses those abilities, develops and enhances inquisitiveness and creates a desire to continue to learn. At their best our educational institutions create not individuals who know everything but people who realise how much there is still to know. At their worst they create individuals who are locked into only one way of knowing and who believe that what they have been taught is not only all that they need to know, but that what they know remains true forever.

 A similar argument could be made for spiritual education – that is, ideally it creates an openness, an humility, a sense of awe and above all the realisation that there is so much more to know. Sadly this is not the reality for many. Instead of having their minds and spirits expanded through a growing awareness of the utterly other, they are taught rules and regulations, ‘facts’ about God. They are given the impression that faith is about what God expects of us and what we can expect of God. In those instances becomes a closed and limited phenomenon rather than an experience that is unbounded and endlessly open.

It is this latter form of spiritual education that results in fundamentalism and in the sort of arrogance that asserts that there is only way of believing and living and that this way should be imposed on both the willing and unwilling alike. It leads to judgementalism and narrowness and a belief that it is possible to determine who is good and who is bad by the degree to which people conform to established modes of conduct. The end result of such an approach is the opposite of its intent – it leads not to a healthy relationship with the divine, but to a life in which God is no longer required to provide direction or guidance. 

Over and over again the Christian scriptures challenge the view that it is possible to know everything there is to know and certainly that it is impossible to know even a fraction of all a there is to know about God. Perhaps the finest example of this is God’s response in the Book of Job. God is taunting Job, challenging him to prove his wisdom and understanding in comparison with that of God. Paul confronts the arrogance of the Roman community when he reminds them that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of humans and Jesus consistently points out the limited understanding of those who would challenge him in debate.

Today’s gospel is one such example. The lawyer asks a question, not because he wants to know the answer, but because a he wants to test Jesus. Jesus turns the question back on the enquirer, who responds with another question. Jesus’ response is to tell a parable which, with its shock conclusion, exposes the self-satisfaction of the lawyer and his narrow view of God. The lawyer, like so many of those who opposed Jesus, appears to have a fixed and legalistic view of God and of faith. They seem to believe that they know exactly what is expected of them and of others. As a result they believe that they are in a position to judge and that they can determine who is in and who is out. Their faith has been reduced to a number of pre-determined precepts and they do not have the flexibility to see beyond what they believe they know to understand what it is that they do not know.

Today’s parable is one that many of us have learned in Sunday School. It is so familiar to us that we no longer appreciate the challenge it presents and are happy to accept the conventional view that it is about doing good deeds or helping others. If we listen/read carefully, we will see that Jesus does not answer the lawyer’s question. Instead of describing a person to whom one should be neighbour, Jesus challenges the lawyer to consider neighbourliness from a surprising and unexpected quarter – the reviled and despised Samaritan. Being a neighbour, accepting neighbourliness is not something that can be confined to definition, but is a concept that continually expands as we learn more about the world and about God’s inclusive love.

In this and other ways, Jesus was constantly stretching and expanding the established view, pushing people beyond conventional ways of understanding and insisting that they rely on God and the movement of the Spirit and not on their own limited understanding.

Contrary to popular understanding, faith is not something that is fixed and delimited for all time. It is a journey from certainty to uncertainty, from independence to dependence and from self-confidence to confidence in God. It is not a matter of having or needing to have all the answers but of surrendering ourselves to the infinite wisdom of God and of finding peace in not knowing and not needing to know.

The lawyer wanted to secure faith and knowledge in a concise, limited and defined format. Jesus challenges him, and therefore us, to understand that it is only possible to be truly secure when we throw ourselves on the mercy of God and trust in God to reveal all that we need to know.

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