Sermon on Matthew 13: 24-30, Colossians 3.12-17, St Matthew's, Oxford, 6th February 2011The other day I got caught out by a friend. I was saying how much I liked a swingeinglly critical review of a new book – it doesn’t really matter what the book was. The reviewer had laid into the book and skilfully ‘demolished’ it and I was expounding on how much I agreed with the reviewer. ‘But have you read the book?’ my friend asked me. Err no I hadn’t. I had just assumed what the reviewer said about the book was true. I was basing this assumption on what I knew about the reviewer – who I respect – and the writer of the book – who I don’t actually know much about. Basically I was being uncharitable to the writer – making assumptions about his intentions – which I really had no business doing without, at least, reading the book, and even then…
The first verse of our Epistle reading was: ‘Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long suffering; forbearing one another and forgiving one another’. And today I would like to say something about ‘humbleness of mind’– something I was patently not demonstrating in the conversation with my friend. I have been thinking about humbleness of mind because I have reached Karen Armstrong’s seventh step of her ‘Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’ which I mentioned I was reading in my last sermon here. Karen’ Armstrong’s seventh step is ‘Recognise how little we know’ which seems to me a pre-requisite or perhaps a consequence of humbleness of mind.
I find that I presided at the 8 o’clock Communion on the 5th Sunday of Epiphany last year -although I am not entirely sure whether this is the 5th Sunday of Epiphany or the 3rd Sunday before Lent – and that I therefore preached on these two readings we heard just now a year ago. Last time my main message – based on my reading of the parable of the wheat and weeds – was that we shouldn’t try to distinguish and root out the weeds amongst us: ‘lest’ – as the farmer says to his servants ’in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them’. This is because cannot tell very easily what is wheat and what is weeds: they appear to be very similar.
Note too that there is no indication within the parable itself that the two different types of plant are supposed to represent two different types of people. If you read the parable in the context of the parable immediately before it – the parable of the Sower – and the parable immediately after it – the parable of the Mustard Seed – both parables about seeds - you come away not nearly as certain that the wheat represents good people – the saved - and the weeds bad people – the damned - but more like different types of knowledge or wisdom. Wisdom that is nourishing and productive in the case of the seeds sown by the Sower, the mustard seed or the wheat, knowledge that is the converse – distracting and unproductive in the case of the weeds (in both the parable of the Sower and today’s parable).
But back to humbleness of mind: in the Greek ταπεινοφροσύνην.
In the first verse of our Epistle reading Paul links humbleness of mind with bowels of mercies. He uses the expression bowels of mercies - σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ - because the Greeks thought that the bowels were the site of the emotions rather the brain (and we of course still associate the heart with our emotions – at least with love – a little higher up our body but still rather anatomically incorrect). ταπεινοφροσύνην is a composite word with ταπεινο meaning something like lowly and φροσύνην meaning mind or the faculty of perceiving and judging. By putting together σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ with απεινοφροσύνην Paul is reminding the Colossians that compassion is not just a matter of the emotions it is a matter of the mind. Not only of having loving feelings towards one another but about being humble about one’s own opinions and respectful of others. He urges them to be forbearing one to another – and this forebearance surely encompasses one another’s opinions as much as feelings.
This is why Karen Armstrong includes her seventh step in her ‘Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’. Only by ‘recognising how little we know’ can we be truly forbearing to one another.
Karen Armstrong argues that the point of recognising that we know so little is 1) ‘to recognise and appreciate the unknown and uknowable’ 2) ‘to become sensitive to over-confident assertions of certainty in ourselves and other people ‘and 3) ‘to make ourselves aware of the numinous mystery of each human being we encounter during the day’.
She shows that many of the greatest philosophers and religious thinkers have come to the idea that we know very little but often think we know a lot. Isn’t it true that as we grow older and wiser we become increasingly uncertain of the strongly held opinions that we formerly held and also increasingly clear that there is little that can be said with any certainty? By saying this I do not what to say that we know nothing but rather that we should err on the side of being uncertain in how much and also what we know.
Karen Armstrong notes how disturbing it is to hear someone talk dogmatically about something you think you know about. This happens to me all the time. I consider myself an expert on food but because eating is something we all do, most people have opinions about food – quite strong opinions sometimes – and will often tell me things about food – which in my view are patently wrong, or which I know already, or which I feel I know more about than them. This can make me unreasonably irritated at times. I complain that if I were an expert on say nuclear particles, or the history of the Second World War, or even car maintenance, this wouldn’t happen to me but I am not so sure. It also makes me think I must do the very same to other people at times: when I expostulate on books I haven’t read, for example.
Socrates insisted that the only reason he could be considered wise was that he knew that he knew nothing at all. Wittgenstein famously finishes his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicushis with the words ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Christians on the other hand have often been held to be quite certain about a lot of things – but yet the unknowability of things is perhaps a bigger theme in the Bible than one might assume.
In particular there is clear idea that God is mysterious. OK the Christian and Jewish tradition is that God has revealed himself and Christians believe that God has, in the particular person of Jesus, provided a clear revelation of himself, but still that revelations is partial and incomplete. The resurrected Christ is not instantly recognisable – even to his closest friends. He cannot be held (or completely grasped) because he has not yet ascended to his father. Paul writes to the Corinthians: ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully.’
Karen Armstrong suggests that – as a sort of spiritual exercise - we should spend time in trying to define exactly what distinguishes us from everybody else, noting that who we are constantly eludes us. We should also note how often we contradict ourselves and act or speak in ways that we are surprised by. In conversing with my atheist friend Ron recently I have begun to realise that I am very uncertain about who exactly I am. And I note that describing to others who I am has become increasingly difficult – even in a sort of way painful. I wonder whether you experience this difficulty on those occasions when, in a gathering, everyone is asked to share their news in turn or worse still (to my mind) to say something about who they are.
If it is so difficult to describe who we think we are I wonder how we think we can possibly talk so knowingly as we often do about other people. And how then can we presume to know whether other people are good or bad, right or wrong, saved or unsaved? And to pursue this line of thought further: if it is so difficult to sum up other people how much harder it is to sum up God, what he/she is or is not.
This recognition that we and others (including God) are essentially mysterious and that we should be humble of mind about this is an essential part of the compassionate life. In our Epistle reading Paul goes on to say ‘And above all put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’. Love without self knowledge is, as I explained, in my last sermon, extremely difficult if not impossible. But love without recognising that one knows so little – not only about oneself but per se – is I think also impossible. I, with Paul, commend to you ταπεινοφροσύνην: humbleness of mind.