SJF • Epiphany 4b 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by him.+
Alexander Pope, the English poet of the eighteenth century, wrote that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Sometimes, Saint Paul assures us, too much knowledge — or rather thinking you know more than you do — can be dangerous as well. Ignorance can get you into trouble, but so can thinking that you know something about which you are mistaken.
This is where we get into the world of known unknowns — things you know that you do not know, and unknown unknowns — things you don’t even know that you don’t know. For instance, I know that I don’t know how much the moon weighs — though I could find out by looking it up. That’s a known unknown. But in the days before Galileo discovered them, no one would have wondered how much the moons of Jupiter weighed, because no one even imagined that Jupiter had any moons. That was, at that time, an unknown unknown.
But what is even more dangerous is to have in your head something you think is a known known — something you are sure you know — but about which you are mistaken. Someone who thinks the moon is made of green cheese, for example, may also know that the moon exists and how much it weighs, but be entirely mistaken about the material from which it is made. And dare I remind us that the man who brought up all these distinctions in recent years, between known unknowns and unknown unknowns, Donald Rumsfeld, was himself a victim of his own partial and incorrect knowledge — his belief in the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — when there weren’t any there. When a little knowledge, partial knowledge, puffs you up to the point where you think you know more than you actually do, trouble is sure to happen.
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One day a rushed businessman had a few moments between connecting flights at an airport, and he decided to go to the crowded café for a snack. He bought a newspaper at the newsstand, then got a paper cup of coffee at the counter, along with a very tempting bag of Famous Amos cookies. Juggling his shoulderbag and his newspaper, his coffee and cookies, his hat, coat and gloves, he found his way to the tables in the food court. In the midst of the crowd he was pleased to find an empty table, where he settled all his belongings, sat down and began reading the paper. A few moments later, a stranger’s voice attracted his attention, and peering over the top of his paper asked if he might share the table. The man gave a curt and businesslike nod and went back to reading.
Another few moments passed as he perused the news on the latest declines and crises, when he heard, coming from the other side of the newspaper wall he had erected, the distinct crinkle of a Famous Amos cookie bag being opened. Lowering the paper, he saw that the man sitting opposite him had opened his bag of cookies, which he’d left lying on the table between them, and smiling at him all the while with a look of guilty pleasure, the stranger took one out and ate it. Well, the man was speechless; but he reached over, took a cookie out of the bag, and with a somewhat defiant crunch ate it. The stranger smiled again, and took another cookie from the bag, after which the man, glaring at him, also took another himself and munched it even more defiantly. This went on for a bit, until the stranger reached into the bag and came up with the last cookie. Smiling, he broke it in half, popped half in his mouth and handed the other half to the still-astonished businessman. Shaking his head in disbelief at this audacity, he nonetheless took the half-cookie and ate it even more aggressively, as if by crunching fiercely he might finally convict his opponent of his incredible presumption.
Just as he had worked himself up to the point of saying what he thought of this unbelievable behavior, a voice came over the PA system to announce his connecting flight was boarding. He hastily gathered up his shoulderbag, coat and gloves and newspaper, and made his way through the bustling crowds to the gate. As he approached the desk, he reached into the side-flap of his shoulder-bag to get the ticket for the connecting flight, and there, next to the ticket, neatly nestled, his fingers encountered his unopened bag of Famous Amos cookies.
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Knowledge puffs up, especially too little knowledge, while love, even a little bit of love, can build up. The Corinthians, about whom we heard last week, and about whom we will hear more as we move towards Lent, the Corinthians thought of themselves as particularly knowledgeable and sophisticated. Corinth was, after all, a cultural center of ancient Greece, a cosmopolitan city. What Paul was attempting to teach them, in an unusually gentle way for him, was that maybe they didn’t know quite as much as they thought, or know about what really mattered. The Corinthians’ knowledge told them that as there is only one true God, that idols are mere nothings, and not worth worrying about, so eating food offered to them was permissible, since in their sophistication they knew that such an offering was meaningless. But like the man who thought the stranger was taking his cookies, they were only seeing things from their side, from their perspective.
Paul tried to show them the other side, what their knowledge might do, what results it might have, if some Christian believer less sophisticated than they were to see them eating food in a pagan temple. “Take care,” Paul said, “that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” So Paul urged them to temper their knowledge with love and consideration for their weaker brothers and sisters, who might take offense at their sophisticated liberty. He urged them to be more like the stranger in our airport story, who though he could have been indignant with this man for taking half of what really were his cookies, smiled tolerantly and even shared the last half-cookie with him. His knowledge, the generous man’s, while complete, was tempered with charity. He would not, as Paul said, allow food to become a cause of someone’s fall.
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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And much knowledge, untempered by love, can be a very dangerous thing. For knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Knowledge in itself is morally neutral, like a shovel. Use a shovel to dig a ditch, or plant a garden, and you accomplish something useful. But use a shovel to whack someone over the head and you have turned it into a weapon.
Knowledge, by itself, does not always lead to virtue, and knowledge without love can be cold, empty and vicious. As we see from our Gospel this morning, the demon recognized Jesus immediately, before many of the disciples, even, and said, “I know who you are.” You’d better believe the demons know who Jesus is, and as Saint James famously said, they tremble in that knowledge. Their knowledge does them no good, because they rejected God at the very beginning, choosing to take their own course rather than rejoicing in the one God had intended for them.
So Jesus doesn’t engage the demon in a debate concerning the facts. The facts are as the demon states them. No, Jesus simply orders the demon to shut up and get out, to leave God’s human creature, God’s human child, alone! As the old Appalachian folk song says, “Get your finger out of it, it don’t belong to you!”
Yes, knowledge in itself, without love, is worthless, even dangerous; it puffs up; it gives those who possess it an inflated estimation of themselves; while love, which is so often expressed in humility and charity, is blessed, and it builds up.
The Corinthians didn’t heed Paul’s warning, and continued bickering for decades more before their church finally fell apart. That is a warning to us all not to place our trust in our knowledge, however extensive we may think it is, but to put our trust in God’s love. Knowledge always has limits, and can never be perfect until that final day when all is revealed. In the meantime, let us take care with one another, loving first rather than leaping to judgment on the basis of uncertain knowledge. For in all that we do with each other, can we really be sure we know whose cookies we’re eating?
Let us pray, as we do in the final blessing, for the peace of God that passes all understanding, that we may be kept safe and secure in the knowledge, but more importantly, in the love, of Jesus Christ our Lord.+