By Sarah Cornwell
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark 11:27-33
27 Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him 28 and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” 31 They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?” — they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
There’s a common misconception about saying, “We don’t know,” which is that it’s neutral, inoffensive, and safe. An admission of ignorance or uncertainty, however, can be a very dangerous thing indeed, for one of two reasons. First, if taken in the spirit of humility, it is the first step to a deeper understanding of the faith — which is not safe in the least! It is the equivalent of walking into the shallow end of the pool and admitting that we don’t know how to swim. We can see Jesus beckoning us out to the deeps where we can neither touch nor see the bottom, but we don’t know how to follow him there.
The second kind of “We don’t know” is opposed to the first. Rather than humbly, it is spoken cynically. This is what the religious leaders did in today’s text. Jesus beckons, and we say, “We don’t know how to swim!” and then turn our backs, confining our life to splashing around in the shallows. Now maybe we really do know how to swim — perhaps we went to Sunday School when we were little — or we truly don’t. What matters with the cynical “We don’t know” is that it implies that it makes no difference. Worse, this may be exactly what we tell others who take those first steps into the water: Don’t bother learning how to swim. Don’t seek for more. Ignore the crazy man calling to you from the deep end. The shallows are just as good, they’re safe, and you don’t even need to get your head wet.
When we give the cynical version of “We don’t know,” we lie to ourselves and to others. Even shallow water is dangerous if one doesn’t know how to swim. People can drown in an inch of water. People’s faith can also drown in a watered-down creed. “We don’t know,” should be the first step we take toward Jesus. It shouldn’t be the last.
Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have six children and they live in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.
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Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Kumasi – The Church of the Province of West Africa
Academy of Classical Christian Studies, Oklahoma City, Okla.