Do you ever wish that you were done learning? That instead of being tested, life was easy, leisurely? Years ago, when still a teenager, I wanted to start a religion called “Incidental Meditation” or “I.M.” for short. At the heart of the religion was that the teachings would change by a poll of the adherents on a monthly basis, though if you disagreed with the poll you could do what you wanted. Easy. Nothing was demanded of you, so who could not meet that goal? Everyone's a winner; everyone's an A student. What I hoped was that I would attract enough adherents who appreciated the wisdom of a religion that allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it. This was long before I knew of the term “moral relativism,” though I am pretty certain I had heard of Tom Wolfe’s “Me” generation. One thing bothered me – even though I meant it as a joke – and that was that it was not true and I did not believe it to be true. The truth does that to you: it makes demands.
It is hard to shake the truth of God, and because of that, we cannot shake the demands of God, though it is tempting. And, it is true, at some of these points of temptation, many of us do succumb, which is why the second reading for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13, speaks of the necessity of continuing education in the moral life or, we might alternatively call it, our life in the family of God. Continuing Education? The word that is translated as “discipline” in most translations is paideia, the Greek word from which we get “pedagogy.” At the root of the word is pais, or “child,” and another acceptable translation of paideia is “education.” This is not to say that in the ancient context “discipline” is not a part of paideia. It is simply assumed that this is a part of ancient education, but the English translations of Hebrews suggest that a kind of disciplinary harshness is at the heart of following God. This is not the case, but all you have to do is think back to your own childhood in school, or your child’s current travails in school, to recognize how bitter even the best intentioned and kindest education can seem when you are experiencing it.
God’s continuing education demands much from us, and often feels like harsh discipline, as Hebrews says, but God’s paideia is to teach us and form us to be who we are intended to be. In “Let the Little Children Come to Me”: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity, Cornelia Horn and I wrote, “Early Christianity gave rise to a pervasive and an evasive notion of education. The Christian idea of paideia envisioned the formation of the human person as a process that is directed towards the ultimate goal of human life, the state of being in a right relationship with God through Christ, a goal defined by the tension between the “fear of God” and the hope of theopoiesis or theosis, that is, divinization. Early Christian writers in the Greek language from Origen to the Cappadocian Fathers characterized this goal as the reestablishment of familiarity, kinship, or more literally, “household relationship” with God (ten pros theon oikeosin). To reach that ultimate goal, early Christians, in unison with the Jewish tradition, emphasized the religious and moral formation and transformation of the human person" (142-43).
The true purpose of discipline/education (paideia) is eternity with God, which is why the author of Hebrews encourages us with these words: “now, paideia always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:11-13). It is also why Jesus urges us to “train” for salvation in the Gospel reading, Luke 13:22-30. Notice the teacher’s answer when he is asked, “Will only a few be saved?” Instead of answering directly, Jesus puts the onus back on the student: “strive to enter through the narrow door.” The question is not “what will the teacher do,” but “what will you do”? The verb which Jesus uses in Greek is agonizomai, from which we get the word “agony,” but which also lies behind the athletic contests of the ancient Greek world: to contend in an athletic contest, to fight, to struggle, to strive to gain something. To “how do I get an A”? Jesus responds, “Struggle, fight. Contend.” This is the continuing education of the children of God, that we strive for a life of eternal rest in God’s household. Not only is it almost time to go back to school, it's always time to stay in school.
John W. Martens
Cross-posted with "The Good Word"