I have shared before that one of my favourite books is a little book of Chinese wisdom called the Tao Te Ching. I first came across it when my father bought me a cheap paper back copy in 2000 the year that I was in seminary. It is hard to think that it was almost 20 years ago.
The Tao Te Ching is a little book with only 81 very short little chapters that are no more than a few short paragraphs each. The title of the book Tao Te Ching simply means ‘The Way and it’s power’. Interestingly, the Tao Te Ching is the most translated book in the world after the Bible.
What intrigued me about the title is that the earliest Christians were originally called followers of the Way.
In Mark’s Gospel, one section of the Gospel Mark 8:22-10:52 is often referred to as ‘the Way’. ‘The Way’ section in Mark is where Jesus teaches his disciples that if they want to be great in the Kingdom of God, they need to be willing to become the least of all. That if they wish to enter the Kingdom of God, they need to become like little children. And that in his own life, he is heading to Jerusalem where he will be put to death, and somehow that death paradoxically will bring life to others. It will be like a ransom that will set other people free. The Way of Jesus... the Way of the cross.
Getting back to the Way of the Tao Te Ching, in the Tao Te Ching, the Tao, or ‘The Way’ is a difficult concept to pin down. The opening chapter of the Tao Te Ching suggests that the Tao is unnamable. If you try to name the Tao you have already lost sight of it. And yet, the booklet tells us that the Tao has been around from all eternity. In one place, it says that the Tao is older than God... in other words, it is older than any human conception of God. It is a clue that the Tao is in fact the very mystery of God, but a mystery that is beyond thinking.
Even C.S. Lewis once wrote that every persons attempt to define and name and describe God is ultimately a blaspheme, because God, being infinite cannot be defined, or named, or described.
And so, the Tao is eternal and yet unnamable, and indescribable. When the booklet begins to describe the working of the Tao, it tells us that the Tao is the source and the origin of all things. And as you read through the little booklet you get the sense that the Tao is something like an Infinite and inconceivable Wisdom that is woven through all created things and which can be discerned by anyone who takes the time to watch and to contemplate deeply on the world around us.
Now when you read through the book of Proverbs, interestingly, you get a similar image of the wisdom of God in Jewish thinking where it is personified as a woman, Sophia in Greek, meaning wisdom, who was present with God at the beginning of time and which is woven through the whole of the created order. The book of proverbs, like the Tao Te Ching, also suggests that carefully observing the natural world will put one in touch with this eternal Wisdom.
One of the reasons I think that the Tao Te Ching really gripped my attention when I first read it is that on almost every page I was seeing something of the way and the wisdom of Jesus that turns upside down our conventional wisdom of living in this world.
The wisdom of the world tells us that if you want to get ahead in life you need power and strength. If you want to overcome your enemies, you need to show them that you are stronger than them, you need to dominate them and bring them into submission with brute force and power. If you want to rise to the top, you need to do so by pushing and forcing your way ahead. If faced with opposition, don’t show your vulnerability, but stand straight and firm and do not give in or give way.
But the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching suggests a different way...
It is the kind of wisdom you see at work in the BBC mini-series called Victoria where Queen Victoria is struggling with her sister who has come to live with her from Prussia. Out of jealousy the sister begins to undermine not just her authority, but also her relationship with her husband Prince Albert. When Queen Victoria asks Lord Palmerston for advice on how to deal with her sister, who had become her enemy, he suggests that the best way to do so would be to make this enemy into a friend.
I dont remember the details of how she does it, but Queen Victoria acts on this word of advice and ends up neutralising the undermining effect of her sister, not by force or power, as she was first tempted to do, but rather by acting in a way that would turn her into a friend.
This is the kind of Wisdom that is put forward in the Tao Te Ching. It is the kind of Wisdom that I believe we see in Jesus...
Probably the favourite image that is used in the Tao Te Ching is the image of water. There is nothing softer and more gentle than water and yet under the right circumstances it can also be one of the most powerful things in the world. Given time, water can cut a path through some of the hardest rock. Anyone who has been to the grand canyon can attest to the power of water to cut through a mountain. And so the Tao Te Ching tells us that the gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
The Tao Te Ching tells us that water is malleable. It can take the shape of any container. And in the same way a person who is in tune with the Tao can adjust themselves to what is appropriate for each situation in life.
Water is life-giving. It brings nourishment to all of life. Without it, nothing would exist. And yet it gathers in the lowest and most humble of places. In the same way, a person who lives in tune with the Tao gives life and nourishment to everyone they meet, and yet is not afraid of occupying the lowest place in life.
This unconventional wisdom, the unconventional Way I believe is expressed in the teachings of Jesus in our passage in Luke’s Gospel today where Jesus tells a parable.
Jesus finds himself invited to a meal at an important Pharisees house. In verse 7 we read that Jesus noticed how the guests were carefully trying to pick the places of honour at the table. All wanting an important place. And in response Jesus tells this parable:
When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may be invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come over and say to you, “please could you give up your seat for this important person”. Then humiliated or disgraced, you will have to take the least important place. But instead, when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you “Friend, move up to a better place”. Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. And Jesus ends the parable with that famous one-liner: For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
For those who were at last weeks sermon (see last weeks blog), it is a little like the holy man in the sufi wisdom story that I told. Thinking of himself as superior to the poor misguided hermit who couldn't even say his prayers properly and who he felt he needed to offer a word of correction, it turned out that the hermit who humbly accepted his counsel and correction actually turned out to be the real holy man as he walked back unself-consciously across the waves back to his little cave.
The Way of Jesus, like the Way of the Tao Te Ching is unconventional. One has the sense that whoever the wise sage was who wrote the Tao Te Ching had somehow tapped into the same Spirit and Wisdom which Jesus lived in and expressed when he said things like:
- If you want to be great in the Kingdom of God, you need to become the servant of all.
- If you want to be first, you must allow yourself to be the last.
- If you wish to save your life you need to be willing to lose it.
- For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.