The Problem With Knowledge
By Beth Demme
The last sigh of the Christmas season has evaporated. Have you put away all of your Christmas decorations? Is the tree un-decorated and hauled to the street (or put in storage)? Have the Christmas lights been removed and the Christmas blow-ups deflated? What about your Nativity? Have you wrapped each piece carefully and stowed it away?
Mine is all safely re-packaged and returned to the attic, already awaiting its next limited run.
Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. In the church, this is when we celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men. You know, the three fellas in the Nativity who are wearing funny hats and holding little boxes?
The story of the Wise Men comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Here’s a quick run-down of what happens:
The Wise Men are astrologers from somewhere East of Israel. They see a special star rise in the sky and when they consult their charts they realize that it means the king of the Jews, the Messiah, has been born. They set out to find that king of the Jews to pay him homage. They go to the place that makes sense, Jerusalem—the capital city and the location of the Temple. They fail at first.
They meet with Herod, Rome’s puppet ruler over the region, but they know he’s not the one they’re looking for (and so does he). Herod calls together “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” to ask them where the Messiah is supposed to be born. The religious leaders say (more or less), “oh, yeah, we know all about that. Supposedly he’s going to be born in Bethlehem.”
The crazy thing is, the religious leaders don’t run around jumping for joy, they don’t take off for Bethlehem, they don’t do … anything.
It’s hard to admit, but I have a lot in common with the religious leaders Herod consulted.
SØren Kirkegaard, a Danish philosopher from the 19th century, wrote some about the Wise Men. Kirkegaard was deeply troubled by the fact that Herod asked the religious leaders for information on prophecies about the Messiah and yet they remained unmoved. Kirkegaard wrote:
Who had more truth? The 3 kings who followed a rumor, or the scribes who remained sitting [in Jerusalem] with all their knowledge? … [W]hat an atrocious self-contradiction that the scribes should have the knowledge and yet remain still. This is as bad as if a person knows all about Christ and his teachings, and his own life expresses the opposite. We are tempted to suppose that such a person wishes to fool us, unless we admit that he is only fooling himself.
I love to pursue knowledge. I love to read and study the Bible. I love reading about church history and religious philosophy. I’m like a sponge, absorbing information about theology everywhere I can. That’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to pursue my M.Div. I like to know stuff.
Knowledge is good, but, as the chief priests and scribes demonstrate, it only gets us so far.
John Wesley, the father of our Methodist movement, used to say “an ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.”
Kirkegaard asks who had more truth. Wesley might put it differently – who had more love? The religious leaders with all their knowledge who sat with Herod and did not seek the Messiah or the foreigners tracking down a baby on an astrological hunch?
When I think about the Wise Men in contrast to the Chief Priests and Scribes, I know who I want to be. I want to put everything I have, and everything I am, into searching for Jesus. Not because He’s lost, but because I am. I need the love of God, not because I’m worthless, but because He tells us me I’m valuable.
Knowledge says look for Jesus in the palace. Love says look for Jesus in the manger.
The Wise Men looked for Jesus in the palace because that made sense. They were looking for the King of the Jews and where would a king be, but in the palace?
Finding Jesus at the manger is significant because the manger itself is such a powerful reminder of how God prizes humility. It reminds me of how unexpected the incarnation was. It reminds me that no one made room for Mary because they didn’t think she was special or that her baby was special. She seemed like a regular poor traveler without any place to stay.
In spite of these beautiful reminders, I wonder if I, like the Wise Men, still look for God in the palace. In power? In prestige? In the four walls of my beautiful church, or in the bounds of my denomination, or between the two covers of my Bible, or inside my own individual prayer time?
Or, am I WISE enough to see how the Kingdom of God is all around me in acts of kindness and selflessness? Do I see the face of God in every person I meet, no matter who they are or how they look? Do I have the wisdom to distinguish between what the world says is worthy and what God says is worthy?
I like to know stuff and there isn’t anything wrong with that. But all the knowledge in the world won’t bring my faith alive like the manger does.
What do you think? Do you tend to immerse yourself in either head knowledge or heart knowledge? Do you look for Jesus in the palace or the manger? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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