Like many of his generation my father did his National Service (as it was called) in the Royal Air Force. He used to tell the story of how one day someone stole his towel. When he complained to the officer in charge he was told, “Well go and steal someone else`s then”. I suppose we`ve all come across examples of home-spun wisdom like that. Maybe like me you`ll recall hearing parents say to their crying children… “Well if he hit you… go and hit Him back” and so on….
It`s interesting that after a while we come to make a bit of a virtue out of this kind of thing by referring to it as the `University of life`; we wear the badge of experience and endurance with a certain amount of pride because after all we`ve learned the tricks of how to negotiate life`s challenges.
And attitudes like this are reinforced somewhat by the culture we live in. What I mean is that we learn to relate to one another by following the collective cultural wisdom. One example is the way in which, back in the 1980`s the mechanism that was called the free Market became so prominent.
Ever since then it seems that our attitudes and the way we relate to one another have to a large extent been formed by what are `market values`. There`s hardly any sphere of life that hasn`t been touched by this ideology. We`re now all referred to as `customers` aren`t we… A word which implies that some kind of `transaction` has taken place even when money isn`t involved. Again, measurement and cost-effectiveness are the kind of things we nowadays take for granted and we have begun to use them as moral benchmarks.
Even in our own primary school (a primary school no less!) one of the desired outcomes of education is that a child should be on the way to `Economic Well-being`; we`re told that we should be able to detect the `Value added` to the pupil as a consequence of their attending the school. Again, the point is that these words, these `monetary` words are in subtle ways forming our understanding of education.
A similar phenomenon is the way we have somewhat uncritically and unthinkingly adopted `business models` of relating to one another… Its language is everywhere isn`t it? Personnel (which used to mean `people`) has morphed into `human resources` This change of words is descriptive of how human beings are to be thought of; as serving some bigger mechanism. And the word `management` appears in every other sentence.
So it`s no surprise then that the great heroes of the day; (at least that`s how many like to think of themselves) are the so-called `captains` of industry. I don`t for a moment decry the abilities of many and the wealth they have created. I`m pointing to the cultural position they hold; and the mores they live by…. which in many subtle and not so subtle ways have come to provide the cultural lens through which we so easily observe the world and map out our part in it. This is especially true of our young people. I mean, if I hear one more child tell me that they are keen to achieve their `goals` I think I`m going to weep.
But this particular lens, this way of seeing the world is of course entirely false. These mantras drawn from the university of hard knocks or adapted from a market driven view of the world might help us cope but they won`t lead to human flourishing…. On the contrary, this is what St. Paul has in mind when he tells us this morning of `human wisdom`.
And his big alternative is also there in that letter to the Church in Corinth. Paul says “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”. (1 Cor. 2.2) Elsewhere he refers to Christ as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor.1.24) and he`s essentially telling us that Christ has become for him the only true lens through which to view the world and map his part in it.
You see Christ and his cross is a wisdom that also has the capacity to form and shape our ways of relating to one another and our behaviour. It forms and shapes us in ways that demonstrate that we as Christian people have a different centre… and a different allegiance.
And Paul is quite clear that such a different way of living in the world, such an alternative; putting on what he refers to as `the mind of Christ` (1 Cor. 2.16) (and let`s not beat around the bush) is entirely stupid in the eyes of anyone who cares to watch what we get up to. But he stands his ground and says: “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God”. (1 Cor.2.12) So, how does this come about?
I mean, if we`re going to leave behind pragmatic responses such as “You hit me, I hit you”; “You scratch my back, I`ll scratch yours”… And if we`re not to be sucked into a money driven culture which to coin the phrase knows `the cost of everything and the value of nothing`.. then what does this alternative look like? Well let me make two observations;
Firstly, notice again that Paul says: “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God”. My point is that we can`t get away from the conclusion that we are talking here about the transforming work of God. You can try paddling your own canoe through life if you want; but that is in itself (as Paul put it) to receive the `spirit of the world`…… it`s an attempt live by worldly wisdom (“I did it my way`).
But Jesus offers a very different challenge in this morning`s Gospel reading. He sets the bar very high….. He says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.20) Jesus knows that the biggest problem with worldly wisdom is that it always has its limits. Such is it`s confusion we might note that person who is lauded as someone who would `do anything for anyone` is at one and the same time quite content to steal someone else`s towel when theirs had gone missing.
You see worldly wisdom is a short cut. The one thing it can`t deal with is what motivates and drives us; it can`t change how we think. The world doesn`t understand all that peculiar stuff about turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, going the extra mile, forgiving seventy-times-seven and all the rest. But living out these challenging teachings IS part of what Christ has in mind for his people…. These are not nice sentiments or vague ideals and what`s needed is a work of God… It`s what a colleague of mine called `Heart surgery`.
Or to put it another way, some years ago, I remember a Bishop speaking with some children about the difference Jesus makes and he told them simply… “It`s about being made clean on the inside”. This is both the challenge and the gift of Christ.
Secondly, as I say, Paul seems to be pointing us to the cross. He says: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2.2). He seems to be saying that something begins to happen when you refuse to look at the world and your place in it through the lens of either home-spun wisdom or market ideology… and instead look at the cross. So, what pointers for living do we find there?
Well Paul provides a purple passage in his letter to the Philippians. He wants to change their behaviour towards one another… And he says: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”. That`s all fair and reasonable you might think: But it`s not about being nice to one another- so much as extraordinarily nice to one another! `Christ-like` to one another.
No, their model should be Christ and his cross…. He says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.4-8)
My annual invitation to think very seriously about sitting in front of the cross particularly on Good Friday, seems to get earlier every year. But the point is that something happens when you gaze on the cross. You begin to see your life; you begin to have your life re-shaped when you see all things through the lens of the cross.
We will reflect on the cross quite a lot during Lent. You`ll be signed with it on Ash Wednesday… You`ll receive your Palm Cross some weeks later. We`ll set up a cross here on Good Friday….
Why? Because these things remind us that what distinguishes the Christian, what distinguishes the Church is living a life that is cross-shaped. We live a life that is formed, not by pragmatism; by whatever I need to get by or so as to get ahead of the next person. We live a life that is formed not by home-spun wisdom or the prevailing culture but by Christ and his way of reflecting the life of God.
You are a Christian… you are HIS…“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2.5)