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Parish life blog: Brevity is the soul of Christ

Peter Fleming  |  23 April 2018

A recent government document from the NSW Education Standards Authority, mailed out in beautiful folded and full-colour cardboard satchels to thousands of teachers, introducing new teacher regulations, declares, ‘Teacher accreditation safeguards the quality of the teaching profession and recognises each individual teacher’s commitment to quality and continuous improvement.’ It’s nonsense of course. More paperwork means less time to prepare lessons and less energy actually to engage with students.

We live in an age of near-absolute double-talk. Those having to wade through the swamps of bureaucratic red tape and its attendant waffle may be comforted by returning to the simplicity of the words of Christ.

Jesus was the artist of the aphorism. He was not verbose. He might have liked Twitter and, if he had used it, he’d have made it worth reading.

His ‘Our Father’ was designed to expunge the habit of mistaking verbosity for sincerity. ‘Do not keep babbling like the pagans’, as the New international Version of the Bible translates his comment, ‘because they think they will be heard because of their many words,’ (Matthew 6:7).

Our modern society is awash with the kind of Latinate circumlocution made famous by the fictional character Sir Humphrey Appleby in the BBC series Yes Prime Minister:

Prime Minister, I must protest in the strongest possible terms my profound opposition to the newly instituted practice which imposes severe and intolerable restrictions upon the ingress and egress of senior members of the hierarchy and will, in all probability, should the current deplorable innovation be perpetuated, precipitate a constriction of the channels of communication, and culminate in a condition of organisational atrophy and administrative paralysis, which will render effectively impossible the coherent and co-ordinated discharge of the function of government within Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland!’ To which the PM replies, ‘You mean you've lost your key?’

Our society has lost a great deal of the succinctness of honesty.

Jesus stands out as the religious leader who worked best with few words. Like scientific equations, a little captures a lot. The most famous is his response to the storm of words by the hypocrites about to stone a sinful woman, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ (John 8:7).

Similarly, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ (Matthew 7:12). ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s,’ (Matthew 22:21).

This terseness, which is repeated in the Sermon on the Mount – a lengthy but nonetheless taut summation of the Christian moral code – is like that of a mathematician or scientist, a knower of the universe who nonetheless has done all the working-out in his head, and can present to simpler minds the kernel of divine thought. God, even to the length of the Bible, uses few words in comparison to his infinite understanding.

It is the brevity of the country-raised fellow. So often those who must deal directly with existential buffeting by the forces of Nature, process much inwardly, but speak to the point. Unlike St Paul, Jesus does not tend to argue a case; he states with a clarity that requires little argument:’Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ (Matthew 5: 8), ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned,’ (Luke 6:37). Jesus did not write to explain; he spoke to the issue. He did not over-simplify; his was not the path of the political slogan; his comments cut to the core.

There is nothing new in the modern love of many words when few will do. It is the tradition of the Gnostics. Gnosticism, or esotericism, is the ancient art of claiming elite knowledge and speaking in coded language to exclude anyone you wish to treat as inferior. It is the club-mentality, the sensibility of the in-crowd. It can have no business in Christian catholicity.

Christ’s directness was the soul of holiness; it was not about seeing things as they are, for ‘how things are’ is infinitely complex; but it was how to cope with things as they are; Christ was ever realistic. He was concerned to unburden, not oppress. He said, ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light,’ (Matthew 11: 30), and there’s that country imagery again, mingled with the joyful simplicity of hope.

What the world needs is the honesty of authentic communication. What it’s getting is newer and newer forms of the same old obfuscation.

Peter Fleming is the author of “The Unexpected Light: Reflections from a Year of Mercy” from Morning Star Publishing. 

Image: Bible drawings by Otto Semler and others, many based on the engravings by Carolsfeld, all in the public domain.




Topic tags: valuesandmoraldecision-making, scriptureandjesus

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