Truth and Understanding
Truth and Understanding
September 13, 2015
Proverbs 1:20-33; Mark 8:27-38
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.
The Book of Proverbs is just that, a collection of sayings that are intended to help the reader acquire wisdom. This collection was made over time, over many years. It was meant to help those who listened to learn. But the authors were not always the most kindly of teachers.
Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity…
No spoon fed learning here. No extra credit or “A” for effort. This is not a patient teacher.
I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.
Actually, this sounds like a pretty mean teacher. One who might yell for the slightest reason and keep you after school for any reason.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Now this seems downright unfair. Here is the student calling out but getting no answer. Searching and trying with great effort, but the teacher is not to be found. Why would this be? What is wrong with the teacher? Well, nothing is wrong with the teacher. There is a different problem.
Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.
They hated knowledge. They would not listen to the counsel of their teacher, the counsel of wisdom. They chose not to pay attention and now expect to be bailed out. They shall eat the fruit of their way, or, they have made their own bed.
This is not about a teacher and a student. Wisdom is not a lesson plan, carefully followed or not. Wisdom is not a person, with our best interests in mind. Wisdom is the product of experience, our own experiences and, if we are so fortunate, the experiences of others. Wisdom can be made – day by day, year by year. Wisdom can be made. But that does not mean that it will be made.
For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.
There was a phrase earlier from this reading that I glossed over during my explanation. A phrase I struggle with every time I come across it. Recall the reasons our proverbial students were to be left out in the cold. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD…
The “fear of the Lord” is a common theme in the Bible. In the Book of Proverbs, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge – the beginning of knowledge, or perhaps the prerequisite. Fear might be translated as respect, even a sense of awe. But in this case, I think the word “fear” is the best choice. In fact, fear truly is the beginning of knowledge.
I realize this may sound odd, even a bit outlandish. We have an understanding of knowledge based upon our experiences, from school, from work, from life. What are the lessons that you remember most clearly? Why are they clear?
There are many ways to learn. But fear is the best teacher – fear and pain. Not because either fear or pain are good, but because fear and pain are memorable. They are so memorable that human beings remember negative associations far better than positive ones. This makes sense evolutionarily. It is good to avoid that which causes pain or which presents a threat. Pain and fear help us live longer, even if we are not overly happy with the experiences. The hot stove teaches more quickly and effectively than the calmly worded reminder.
Studies show that negative experiences are more enduring, more lasting in their effects. We remember the boss yelling, the teacher scolding, even the parent shouting. Fair or unfair, balanced or imbalanced, negative experiences persist while positive lessons can be fleeting. Moreover, one negative event may take many, many positive words to overcome. And conversely, one negative event can undo many positive experiences leading up to it. I do not mention this because I am happy with the phenomenon. I mention it because it is true.
“It is true”— now there is a grand statement. Here I am hauling off making declarations about the truth. I suppose it is a hazard of the job, really, preaching and all. Delusions of grandeur, perhaps, and a preposterous notion that I may have some inkling of what is true.
In my defense, seeking out what is true is at the heart of religion. And this sense of truth is not merely an accumulation of knowledge. It is an effort to find what is ultimately true, what is really real. When I suggest that religion is about seeking the truth, I do not mean an accumulation of experiences and perspectives. The truth is what stands above and beneath everything, the very nature of being.
As I have said, one of the fundamental aspects of religion is seeking out that deeper or higher sense of the truth. And when there is a glimpse of that truth, a hint of what lies beyond the ordinary realm of human perception and experience, it is known as revelation. Something is revealed, the clouds lifting, the veil parting for a time. There is an insight worth remembering and worth building upon. For if one piece of truth has been found, it is a pathway toward even more of the truth. Revelation suggests where one ought to go, or where one should never go.
Just as the Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings and lessons, the Bible is a collection of revelations. These revealed ideas and lessons push and pull, lead and caution. They try to drag us along a pathway, a way toward what is true or, at least, more true than we might stumble along on our own. And those lessons are not always gentle. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them… If I may put it bluntly, the Bible sometimes tries to scare the hell out of us, or more accurately, us out of the way of hell.
In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus is speaking to his followers, asking what people have been saying about him; who they think Jesus is. “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
He also asks the disciples who they think Jesus is. Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And what does Jesus do? He basically yells at them. He orders them not to saying anything about the Messiah to anyone. Why not say this if it is the truth? Then Jesus teaches that the Son of Man, meaning him, would undergo great suffering. He would be rejected by the elders and priests. He would be killed and then would rise from the dead.
Peter cannot take this. He leads Jesus away from the others. He rebukes Jesus. Don’t say that to these people, your followers. What is wrong with you? You are their teacher – you are not supposed to scare them.
What does Jesus do in response? [Turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter did not want to hear what Jesus had to say. He did not want to hear it, even if it were true. The truth is sought after, but not always welcome. And the truth is not always what it appears to be at first glance.
Has someone ever told you something you did not want to know? Something unexpected, something upsetting or even painful? Something that did not fit into your way of looking at the world? A few months ago, I received a call. It was from my former sister-in-law. The fact that she was calling me was unexpected – we are friendly enough but speak perhaps once or twice a year at holidays. She called to tell me that my mother-in-law had a stroke. Actually, she was having a stroke at the same moment of that conversation and was being rushed to the hospital as we spoke. I was on that particular day the only person in the extended family who was not out of state. So I became a focal point of terrible information. I had to assess who needed to be told.
It was true that she was having a stroke. Would that truth be helpful for others to know or would it be painful? Recall that most of the family was out of state, thousands of miles away on various vacations. There was nothing they could do to help. So I did not call anyone right away, not until they landed back in town.
But it was the truth. How could the truth ever be wrong or misguided? How could the truth ever hurt? The truth is never wrong, but it often hurts. The truth is what is – what happened and what has happened. But the truth is never exactly what we know, and is rarely what we convey to others. The truth is interpreted. It is shaped according to our experiences and expectations, our biases and our prejudices.
Think about Jesus yelling at the disciples. Do not tell anyone that I am the Messiah. Why? Because the Messiah was not a prophet, like Elijah or John the Baptist. Prophets can be trouble makers, but a Messiah is far more. The Messiah would free the people from their predicament, their oppression. So the elders and the priests would not be happy at the coming of the Messiah. Because most likely the Messiah would also be overthrowing those who had not been able to overcome the people’s predicament or, worse, who had contributed to their oppression. It is one thing to pray for the Messiah to come. It is quite another to consider what it might mean when the Messiah comes.
Jesus anticipated this when he spoke to the disciples. He told them the harsh truth and Peter was not happy with it. Peter rebuked Jesus, but we do not know if that was because Peter thought Jesus was wrong or if he just did not want to hear about such terrible news. The truth was the truth, but Peter’s ability to understand the truth in light of his own life was something else entirely.
The revelations set out in the Bible have to be considered in the same manner. The truth which underlies those revelations has to be understood. When someone has a glimpse of a higher level of truth, it is a wondrous moment. And then that wonder has to be related to someone else. In that next step, it stops being the original revelation, the original and perhaps purer perception of what is true.
When I see a beautiful sunset, I can attempt to describe it, but it is not the same as the experience. In the same way, the length and breadth of what is true will be altered by it being told. The person who experienced it can only describe it to others in terms of what he or she has already experienced. Truth becomes domesticated, funneled through one viewpoint at one time in one place. That is not the truth but a shadow of truth.
The Apostle Paul understood this difficulty when he said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” The truth does not stop being true, but that does not mean what I am reading or what I have heard equals what is true. Truth is not the same as knowledge – I can know something and it might not be true. Truth is not the same as wisdom – such insight may be closer to the truth but it is still a part rather than the whole. These limitations do not render knowledge and wisdom useless. It is however important to understand those limits.
Those borders of the truth are important because they highlight the risk of thinking that we already know what is true – all that is true, all that needs to be known. Peter rebuked Jesus, not necessarily because what was being said was untrue but because it was uncomfortable to hear. It was unwanted knowledge, even if it was true.
What did we hear in the Book of Proverbs? Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. Knowledge is not always welcome. It can disturb an otherwise calm and pleasant outlook on life.
The fear of the Lord is an unpleasant sounding phrase, but let us consider such fear as a prudent sense of caution about the nature of the world. That does not mean that we should jump at every noise but it also does not mean that we should close ourselves off from new information even if it is discomforting. I realize that we live in a world of information that often seems designed to terrify us. That is not what I mean. In fact, if you never listened to another television news broadcast in your life, you would probably be better off for it.
Instead, I would suggest opening up to the possibility that the truth is not entirely on anyone’s side. Those same anxiety inducing news programs are often presented from a perspective of overriding certainty and an unwavering sense of being right. Liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, there is not an issue under the sun that is not worth careful consideration and an appreciation of all sides of the question. The moment someone thinks, well that is all I need to know, that is almost certainly the moment he or she needs to keep looking.
And that is also true in religion, even the Bible itself. The fear of the Lord does not require rote memorization and slavish obedience to unquestioned rules. The lessons of the Bible have no meaning unless they are considered in light of our lives and experiences as well as the lives and experiences of the men and women in the Bible. Knowledge and wisdom guide us generally toward truth, but they are not truth. Faith is not the same as certainty and certainty is wholly inconsistent with the notion of faith. Final, eternal truth will always remain beyond our reach. But we must reach for truth all the same even as we must never become complacent with what we have been told or especially with what we think.
The fear of the Lord is a sense of respect. Respect for what has been revealed to us and also for what is surely beyond what we currently know. In this sense it is like humility. Humility is a virtue not because it looks good in public. Humility is the wise notion that we are not and cannot be perfect in action or perfect in knowledge.
Understanding and wisdom are earned, not given. We seek out truth and discover it to the limited degree open to any one mind in any one life. We look through a glass darkly and see some but not all. We see only in part, only part of what is true.
And knowing only part, we should be patient. Patient with others who may see another part. Together we see more and more, and might know more and more. That joining together takes patience. It takes humility. And, perhaps hardest of all, it takes a willingness to listen even to the hardest of truths.
Especially to the hardest of truths.