The pitfalls of the student

The pitfalls of the student

Jesus rebukes the lawyers for taking away the ‘key of knowledge’. How might this rebuke help students, particularly Dominican ones, overcome any possible pitfalls?

Readings: Romans 3:21-30; Luke 11:47-54

The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:

Our Lord’s words in the Gospel this evening are harsh. Ordinarily when we open the pages of Scripture we expect words of kindness and comfort, encouragement and love. But not today, and certainly not for the lawyers who are the specific object of Jesus’ ire. Jesus sounds almost angry by the end of the Gospel, passionate about their failings.

It reminds me of a line of Flannery O’Connor: “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” What have the lawyers so dismally failed to hear? What is it that is so obvious that they cannot see?

Amidst the various charges we have heard one jumped out at me which is especially relevant for students: “You have taken away the key of knowledge”.

Six years in the Dominican Studium in Oxford entails a lot of learning, a lot of knowledge gained. The number of books we read over this time, the number of essays that are written, is considerable. Not that I am counting or anything, but I have another 46 essays to go until ordination.

There are I think two opposing pitfalls that lie before those who spend all their time learning. Either there is pride, or there is sloth. The first is the problem that St Paul identifies in the Corithian community: “we know that all of us possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up.” (1 Cor 8:1). It is easy to be pleased with one’s learning, to become arrogant perhaps, conscious of how much you know and keen to show others.

The opposite pitfall faced with such a volume of learning is laziness. It can be wearying to churn out so many essays and attend so many lectures. It is easy to get by with the bare minimum, and be satisified that that is enough. St Paul had words for this too: “do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thess 3:15).

There is something of these two charges, for the proud and for the lazy, in Jesus’ passionate rebuke of the lawyers in our Gospel. What exactly have they done wrong? The lawyers are by definition supposed to be learned. They have studied the law, and it is their task to interpret it. Jesus tells them that they have “taken away the key of knowledge“. He is not referring merely to a factual knowledge of articles of the law. They have a knowledge that unlocks, that reveals, that opens the door into a new world. It is this that they have failed to use.

Their failure is not solely with regard to themselves, but it is also for others. Jesus goes on to say: “you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” Their knowledge was supposed to be a key for others. This is why they are both proud and lazy: proud of what they know, not how it can be used, and lazy in putting that knowledge to good use.

The Irish Dominican Paul Murray reflected very beautifully on this passage in a recent retreat for Dominicans studying in Rome. He said that to seize hold of the ‘key of knowledge’ is to realise that your knowledge, your learning, is “for others”. It is, he said, “a living knowledge of God and of the Gospel which will help open doors into a new freedom of spirit, a new depth of understanding, a new fullness of life.”

It is no wonder that Jesus’ tone is so strong, because wasting a knowledge that is for others is a serious matter. So, this is Jesus’ warning for us, a reminder that our study is for others. What is the antidote to the pitfalls?

The sharpness of the Lord’s tone, and seriousness of the work, is perhaps enough to overcome any sloth. What about the pride?

Here I think St Paul has a helpful word. In the first reading today he talks about boasting, and he says that it is excluded. The reason is because the glory belongs to God alone. Earlier in the same passage, in words just as passionate as those of our Lord in the Gospel, St Paul wrote: “they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that in is Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” This is the Gospel, the good news. By a sheer gift of love, God has offered us life in the passion and death of Christ Jesus. This is a work of God alone.

But this lies behind another kind of boasting that St Paul does encourage. He wrote to the Galatians: “may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!” (Gal 6:14).

The key of knowledge ought not to lead to pride. But it can lead to a certain kind of boasting. Our study fills us with the things of God. We draw ever closer to the divine mysteries, and are gifted the key to unlock its riches for others. This is to see the Lord’s grace at work, to be a co-operator in the work of the kingdom. And the work of the kingdom is always worth boasting about.

The prophet Jeremiah understood this well: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches; but let those who boast boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord: I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jer 9:23).

So then: our study is the Lord’s work. Let us delight in the Lord.

Br John Bernard, raised a Catholic by an English father and Dutch mother, first encountered the Dominicans at Blackfriars while studying Classics at the University of Oxford, and entered the noviciate in 2018. An attraction to religious life initially grew out of time spent working with the Missionaries of Charity, which then crystallised into a Dominican vocation through a desire to integrate the contemplative life with preaching and study. Based on his recent reading, he looks forward to delving further into St John of the Cross and the Carmelite mystics, as well as combining his preaching vocation with a love of the outdoors.

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