In memory of The Revd Walter D. Clark, Jr.
When I was in college I majored in philosophy and religion. It might surprise you to learn that I was more interested in philosophy. The word philosophy is made up of two Greek words, philos meaning love, and sophia meaning wisdom. Philosophy is the love of wisdom—and wisdom is, to my record, a very precious commodity.
We live in an age that is very much dominated by data. We have access through the internet to unprecedented amounts of information. If you want to learn how to do something, there is likely a video on YouTube that will teach you. You might see an actor on television and wonder who it is, and within a couple keystrokes you can look up their name and see everything they've ever done. It's amazing.
Wisdom is not as plentiful, because whereas information is cold, hard, and immediate—it is simply true or untrue—wisdom is the product of observation, reflection, and experience. It is the act of seeking as much information as you can about a particular matter, and then sitting down to weigh the facts, deliberate and determine what is most essential, and then come to a point of clarity about what this means—what might be changed, or what might be safely ignored. This is discernment. Discernment is active wisdom.
Now, you can just sort of loblolly along without being a person of reflection. You can just cut the grass and wash the dishes and go the store and you don't really need to engage much to do that. And depending on your temperament, you might not really like to be reflective. I have a good friend from college who used to say, "I don't ask the big questions." I said, "Why not?" He said, "I don't know…That's a big question."
I would say that most of us switch into a discernment mode when we are trying to do the right thing, and the right thing is not obvious. Usually it is an interpersonal relationship. We want to say something, but we don't want to hurt the person's feelings, and so we do a little cost/benefit analysis. Is it more worth it to us to tell them and have their feelings get hurt than to not tell them and put up with the situation? Or, it may be that telling them will hazard the possibility that they will become so upset that they lash out and hurt us, or leave us, or do something we don't want them to do. Worst of all, they would become so hostile as to make the situation even worse.
My perception is that generous, loving people—who come to church and support and encourage—are people who are pretty much always trying to do what is right. I really don't know anyone who doesn't fall into that category. Even people who aren't religious tend to be socialized to behave well, and are trying to do the right thing. But I think this is especially true for devout Christians, because for us, God is always part of the equation.
Part of the discernment, for devout people, is always—along with all the facts and experience and so forth—what might God have to say about this? Not that we know, just by asking the question, that we already know the answer.
I remember years ago, at the height of the WWJD fad—you remember the bracelets and the t-shirts that said "What would Jesus do?" And the heart of that was, I think, in the right place: simply to ask that question. To encourage people to take a little pause in their life here and there to ask a question that hopefully would prompt reflection.
I remember years ago hearing just one sentence in a sermon that was the product of wisdom that made a lasting impact on me and I will never forget it. In fact, they are some of the very few teachings that I wish, dearly, to pass along to my children. The preacher said, "Do not sacrifice the future on the altar of the present." I heard those words when I was about sixteen, and they have saved me from more regret than I can tell you.
WWJD. The bracelets where everywhere, t-shirts, coffee mugs. But the only problem is that we can never really know what Jesus would do. Sometimes he went off to pray. Sometimes he overturned the tables in the Temple. Sometimes he was downright rude to people who perhaps should have been given some respect. So if you ask the question, it would be easy to cherry-pick an answer that best suits your own wishes. And then we're back to plain old, flat-footed reaction.
So how do you bring God into the equation in a way that lets God be God, and doesn't reduce the thought of God to either a crushing feeling of guilt and shame or a benign sort of benediction over whatever you want to do? Well, that's why widsom and discernment are so very precious and important. Because the question isn't really "What would Jesus do?" The question is "What would Jesus have us do?"
Today we read a story from Luke about a woman who has come to the synagogue where Jesus was teaching who was unable to stand up straight. They're in the synagogue and it's the sabbath. Jesus heals the woman, and the leader of the synagogue is indignant. The Bible says what the Bible says. Six days you shall labor, and on the seventh day you shall rest, for this is the sabbath of the Lord. Did not God himself rest from creating the worlds on the seventh day?
And Jesus says, "Look. You say that, but you and I both know that if you've got a thirsty animal, you will untie it to help it find water. You can't judge me for placing compassion over the letter of the law, because you do it yourself."
So the plain message is this: compassion trumps the rules. Let me ask you something, though. Does compassion always trump the rules?
Compassion has a sister whose name is Grace. Grace is given by God and by others. I love grace. She's a beautiful word. But people make the assumption that grace doesn't really care about anything but feeling good. Or that compassion, similarly, has no real sense of right and wrong.
Well, not really. Both grace and compassion are given freely and lovingly, but to my understanding, they are mostly given to people who at a heart level want to do what is just. Otherwise, both words disintegrate into the word "licentious." Most people think of the connotation of licentious, being sexually promiscuous, but the word comes from the Latin licentia, which is "unrestrained liberty." Anything goes.
What Jesus does in this scenario, and in many scenarios in the Gospels, is to give grace and compassion to people who are either unable to follow the rules, or who have been made victims by the rules. Jesus does not pass out easy compassion or cheap grace. And he is not saying that the Sabbath should be violated or done away with, rather that humanity should be given some slack when the rules that normatively govern us become harsh or burdensome.
The widsom of God is to look upon the heart, and to treasure the noble impulse over the rule. So when we're trying to figure out the right thing to do or say—to ourselves or to others—perhaps we can first look at the heart, as Jesus did, and let that guide our compassion.
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