Don’t Think. Do!

Pent. 4
Lk. 4:21-32

Often as you and I go about our daily lives, it seems as though reason and revelation are polar opposites. But if we are to look to Christ as the model for our lives, we see that reason and revelation are complimentary to one another. Christ embraces both and His own life lifts them up and gives new meaning both to revelation and to reason.

Last week my brother, a good Presbyterian, called me from San Diego and said, “Bart, what’s going on with you Episcopalians? Your bishop, John Spong is all over the front page of our paper out here saying that Jesus was only a man, that the virgin birth is a myth and that eternal life is a pipe dream.” I gave my brother “Uncle Bart’s four minute course in dogmatic theology and said that Spong was l) retired, 2) was trying to shake the church up by raising issues of current “scientific thinking,” 3) had made some logical fallacies in regard to philosophic thinking, the nature of language and Christian theology, and 4) the Episcopal Church prides itself on tolerating a wide range of thought. I also added that he should talk to Leander, our rector, who understands these things far better than I. “It does seem to me like a rehash of Bishop James Pike of fifty years ago,” I added. “These criticisms are not new. What we need to be careful of is being caught up in rigid boxes of our own thinking. We need to be open to the insights of both reason and revelation.” My brother and I then talked about other matters.

When I read today’s lesson from the Gospel of St. Luke and its phrase, “A prophet is without honor in his own country,” I thought both about my conversation with my brother and of a conversation I had when I was in college with my friend John. John was a football player from Minneapolis. He was also a physicist, went on to earn a PhD from Yale and now works for the Smithsonian in D.C. John had taken a summer job in construction in order to build himself up physically. He spent his summer digging ditches with a pick and shovel. His boss was obdurate (hard headed) and had little use for smart college kids. One day John was digging away and stopped. He examined the sides of the ditch and realized that the ground had been excavated before. He was probing the ground when the boss said, “Get to work, kid.” John said, “I think there may be a gas pipe down here. This ground is soft.” “There’s no gas pipe. Don’t think. Do!” “Okay, boss,” John said, and swung his pick into the soft ground. Sure enough, the pick went through a gas pipe The whole block was shut down for four days. John was fired. “How could that guy have been so stupid?” John said. “I guess a prophet is without honor in his own country.” For the next couple of years whenever John and I got together we used the phrase, “Don’t think. Do!” to refer to closed minded thinking.

Now it turns out that the saying, “A prophet is without honor, etc.” in the time of Jesus was a proverb. In fact it appears in extra canonical writings, namely the Oxyrychus Papyrus, found in Egypt. In His teachings, as illustrated in today’s lesson, Jesus drew upon proverbs. Why did he do this? Well, the proverbs were part of the daily culture and they had an especial meaning for the Jews. Proverbs were part of Wisdom Literature. The Jews believed that God was known not only through revelation, such as Moses and the tablets and the words of the prophets, but also through rational observations on life. It was believed that the hand of God could be seen in the workings of daily life. Hence proverbs were collected in the Jewish sacred writings, such as the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Proverbs. These stood in the Jewish canon along with the historical and revelatory works.

In his narrative of Jesus teaching, Luke tells us that Jesus attracted quite a following. He was praised for His wise words. Jesus preached about a time of decision and a new manifestation of God’s purpose. He told the crowds that they were missing this message. They were closed minded. To prove his point Jesus cited both the episode where Elijah preached to the people but no one would listen to him but a woman who was not even a Jew. A Gentile was more receptive to the Word of God than the present Jews. Likewise Elisha was not able to heal lepers who came to him because of their unbelief. But Naaman, the Leper, did believe and was healed. Naaman was also a Gentile, and “unclean.” The crowd was outraged. They did not want to hear the Word of God when it refuted their closed mindedness. Like the construction boss, they did not want their closed mindedness challenged. Hence they tried to stone Jesus and toss him off a cliff. Rather than continuing to confront them, Jesus passed through the angry crowd and went elsewhere.

Now two things are happening here. First of all Jesus places Himself in the tradition of the prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha. Jesus picks up that tradition and says that it is fulfilled in His own person. Secondly He incorporates the tradition of Wisdom Literature by employing the proverb about a prophet without honor. In effect both reason and revelation are caught up in the words and work of Jesus and transformed. Jesus thereby becomes an essential factor in understanding the use of both reason and revelation. This on the one hand reinforces the message that Jesus is human AND the message that Jesus is divine. God is seen as revealing himself both in the world and in revelation. The Jews know that. But the message of Jesus, according to Luke, is that Jesus is the new standard from now on for understanding God’s presence in the world.

Jesus message is not a philosophical one. He calls for repentance (for obdurate closed mindedness among other things) and promises release and salvation for sinners - Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus preaches a gospel of release, of new sight and of true healing - of the spirit as well as of the body.

Now where is the relevance of this Gospel passage for you and for me? It is not an overt teaching passage. But it does do a couple of things. On the one hand it encourages us to take seriously the prophetic tradition and our own creedal tradition. Jesus was scrupulous about attending worship and maintaining the traditions of the Law and the prophets. The passage also encourages us to pay attention to God’s presence as revealed in creation. But both reason and revelation are to be handmaidens to the essential manifestation of God’s will and purpose in Jesus the Son of God.

You and I feel a natural empathy with the proverb that “a prophet is without honor, etc.” when our voice is not heard whether in the workplace, in society or at home. Parents are forever warning their kids to beware this or that. We feel like a voice crying in the wilderness. We know that we are not “holy prophets” with divine inspiration. But we try to assert the importance of the prophetic values of justice, mercy and steadfastness.

Jesus affirms that desire. But He also illustrates that oft times the prophetic voice will not be heard (if it were heard all the time it would not be prophetic). Jesus also urges us to use the power of reason as well and to discern the signs of the times, the appropriateness of what needs to be said and done. Even so, we will often meet irrational resistance and foolishness. People will often say to us, “Don’t think. Do!”

Your and my task as Christians is to hold both reason and revelation in a secure embrace, taking our clues from the essential message of Jesus. And that is a message not of the sole merit of reason or revelation. Rather, His message is of the creating and recreating mysterious power of God as it is found in a nearly incomprehensible love and grace which is seen most clearly in Jesus the Christ. You and I are called to make that message our main priority, a priority which guides our personal lives, our public lives and our lives as a parish. We have with us through baptism, through the sacraments and through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit the power to use both reason and revelation, both the profane and the sacred, to change lives, to bring salvation to souls, and to continue to work to build the kingdom of God in a truculent world. That is both Christ’s promise and His challenge to you and to me. Amen.