True Wisdom

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Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C—4 August 2019
The Reverend Canon Professor Scott Cowdell, Hon. Associate Priest

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2: 18-23; Psalm 49: 1-12; Colossians 3: 1-11; Luke 12: 13-21

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

There’s an old Chinese saying: “when a wise man points to the moon, the fool looks at his finger.” This is what we see happening in today’s Gospel, when Jesus’ great public address revealing God’s ultimate purposes is met by someone expecting him to adjudicate an acrimonious dispute about property. Jesus’ response, which we see refracted in all our readings this morning, and rendered dramatically in our Eucharist, is to confront the whole competitive logic of acquisition. It represents the illusion of control, Jesus tells us, when in fact we have very little control over how our life will play out, and how it will end. Our other readings this morning explore the smug worldly wisdom of striving and attaining and acquiring, and show up its weakness, and remind us of what true wisdom looks like.

But first let’s be clear. Jesus doesn’t condemn being resourceful and ensuring that the practical necessities of life are taken proper care of. And while the logic of discipleship that our Colossians reading sets out does come with a warning, it’s not a warning about God’s violent judgement that we’ll want to avoid. That sort of religious fearfulness actually spawns obsessions about our standing with God, which in turn can drive us into rivalry with others over who’s the most favoured by God—this is what we see in the Christian prosperity thinking that looms large for Calvinists and for Pentecostals. No, Jesus is doing the equivalent of pointing earthbound imaginations to the moon. And as for God’s judgement for those who don’t listen, it’ll come in having to live with the miserable consequences of unwise choices, without needing to invoke any direct punishment from God.

Friends, what we have from Jesus here today reminds me of what it says on my drivers’ licence: that corrective lenses have to be worn while driving. We’re reminded today that negotiating life as Christians requires our vision to be enhanced, that we have to start looking at life through the lens of the Gospel—that we have to develop what James Alison calls Easter eyes. That’s what we’re invited to do in our readings today, as ever in our Eucharist.

The problem with the pursuit of wealth is that it’s actually the pursuit of advantage, nourished by a scarcity mentality that breeds envy, resentment, rivalry and in some cases violence. And if not always the violence typical of personal animus and corporate malfeasance, then certainly the structural violence that has repressed colonial populations, exploited slaves, cursed indigenous peoples, and these days continues to nurse a fear of disadvantage by turning against asylum seekers and punishing them for fear of what we might lose.

Even the climate crisis and other apparently high-falutin concerns of the so-called inner-urban elites must be set aside so that the established pecking order can be maintained. And you don’t even have to be wealthy to think this way. Being modestly comfortably off will do, like the Prime Minister’s “Quiet Australians”, who’ll apparently be better off if they just content themselves with looking out for number one and concentrating on enjoying their well-deserved reward in a comfortable, docile retirement, leaving the big issues for the Government to get around to when higher priorities allow.

But, friends, we see the outcome of all such thinking in our Ecclesiastes passage today, and in Psalm 49. The philosopher king in Ecclesiastes paints a bleak picture, worthy of a Sartre or a Camus, of what normal bourgeois life so often amounts to, as meaning slips through our fingers and the whole grind of getting and spending finally reveals its hollowness. And, by the way, this bit of frank realism in the middle of the Old Testament is a good foil to the atheists, who think that the Bible is all fantasy stories and immature wish fulfillment. And then Psalm 49 adds God explicitly to the mix, calling all the supposed wisdom of a godless, self-satisfied world into question.

It’s on this basis that we should read today’s wonderful and wonderfully thought-provoking, wonderfully reassuring passage from our epistle, from Colossians. Here we see the wisdom, the logic of the Gospel set out. It’s a superior wisdom from God that declares us to be new creatures in Jesus Christ, equipped with new corrective lenses so that we can see clearly and can steer properly along the journey of life. Here we’re offered a whole new life narrative called the gospel, which points us beyond self-justification and its zero-sum game, which is all about seeking advantage over others to still a deep sense of existential threat. Take that threat away, however, which Jesus achieved by undergoing the cross for us, disempowering every culture that bullies and shames … take that threat away, and we’ll no longer find ourselves caught up in fear for ourselves and hence in tit for tat bullying and shaming of others. Instead, in Jesus Christ, into whose life you and I are taken-up week by week in the Eucharist, the promise of our baptism is fulfilled. We discover that there’s nothing to prove and no-one to beat. This is why the writer to the Colossians can be so provocative at the end of today’s epistle, declaring that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free”, cutting through a range of distinctions that would have meant a lot to his hearers in terms of pegging themselves on the social and moral leader board. As I used to say in sermons at St Paul’s, Manuka, and not always to universal acclaim, Jesus doesn’t care if you’re on the A list, the B list, or the wanted list. All the usual self-justifying, big-noting that’s so typical of worldly wisdom goes out the window. Instead, Christ is in all and, like a strong magnet, he upsets all the usual sensitive measurements.

At a convent shop in Germany last week I bought myself a souvenir of my visit, an artful stylised cross to go by our front door. At the centre is a little spherical mirror and when you look into it you can see your whole face, but turned upside down. Friends, this is what the cross does: it turns our normal perception of ourselves, of life and of life’s priorities upside down. It’s a disturbing prospect, too disturbing even for many Christians, but the alternative to this gospel perspective is dog eat dog.

The Lord be with you ...