Jesus says in our gospel reading: “I thank you father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
This saying is also found in Luke – so we can assume it formed part of Jesus’ teaching, repeated to the crowds in different places, then retold by his followers and later compiled into the gospel accounts.
It is one of many “reversal statements” he uses, where the order of things in the world is turned upside down. The powerful will become powerless, the poor will become rich, the last will be first.
So the truth of the gospel will be hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to little children. In the words chosen, the contrast is between the natural simplicity of childhood and a cultivated cleverness, astute and knowledgeable.
We can see here echoes of another theme in Jesus’ teaching, his railing against the religious teachers of his day: those who have learned the Hebrew scriptures by heart, who can compare at length the opinions of rabbis on points of law, and yet who, when the kingdom of heaven is revealed to them, don’t recognise its beauty and react with hostility.
But it feels too easy to put away this saying as directed only to people of Jesus’ own day.
For how would we react, if a new spiritual teacher arrived among us, not accredited by any church or university, keeping strange company? Would we not be sceptical? Would we not deploy our intelligence, our cleverness, our knowledge, in picking through their sayings, looking for things to reject? Would we also run the risk of not seeing the surprising truth?
When I reflect on this saying, and how it applies to me, I see it as a challenge to what we might call the vanity of intelligence, which is for me a particular struggle.
I have an early family memory of a tape recording of us three children, made I think on my father’s reel-to-reel machine, where he asks us questions, to get us to talk. We must have been 4, 6 and 8? And he asks, “what are you going to do when you grow up?” And when it comes to my turn to answer, a little voice pipes up: “I’m going to Cambridge!” My indoctrination, the shaping of my desires, started early. And the goal to which I was directed was the acquisition and display of a particular kind of intelligence.
But I have found as I have grown older that the pursuit and exercise of that intelligence, while good in many ways, is ultimately sterile. Like many good things in creation, it can point to God, but it is not the way, or the truth, or the life. And at times it can get in the way, hide the presence of God, or distract from it.
A surer path for those who wish to see God, as Jesus points out, is the simple, open heart of a child.
Paul warns of the vanity of intelligence in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I thank God that I also received through my parents that simple, vulnerable gift of love.
So this morning I pray that, in the quiet of this service, in the receiving of the simple gift of bread, our minds may be stilled and we may receive God’s love, as naturally as a child, and offer it back in return.
Richard Young (Rector)