Knowledge and arrogance

I confess: I’m one of those “academic” types. I value careful study and thought, research and scholarship. And I tend to give more complicated answers to simple questions than some people would prefer. That’s just the way I think.

But I also know that with knowledge comes the temptation of arrogance. And sometimes, when knowledgeable people feel cornered, they get on their academic high horse and resort to verbal abuse. You may have seen it, across different arenas — not just in the academy, but in politics, and even the church. It’s nothing new. We can see it in the Bible.

Jesus was turning heads in Jerusalem, and the ruling council wanted him out of the way. The temple police were sent to arrest him. Presumably, they weren’t expected to do a snatch-and-grab, but were to wait for the most opportune moment.

The police, however, returned empty-handed. What excuse did they give? They could have said, “We tried. We waited. But the crowds were hanging on his every word.” The council might have grumbled and cursed, but they would have understood.

But that’s not what they said. In fact, their “excuse,” if you could call it that, was, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” (John 7:46, NRSV). In other words, “We were hanging on his every word.”

Exasperated, the Pharisees responded not with reasoned argument, but with derision:

Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed. (vss. 47-49)

Oh, for pity’s sake. Are you that naive? Has this charlatan taken you in too? Look at us here on the council. You don’t see any of us being fooled, do you? Or are you as stupid as that cursed crowd you’re afraid of, who know nothing about the Law, unlike us? 

The Pharisees who said this were smug in their supposedly superior knowledge. They probably didn’t expect to have one of their own members turn on them.

Earlier, Nicodemus had gone to visit Jesus in private — and the Pharisees’ attitude here suggests why he had gone under cover of darkness. In good rabbinic fashion, he carefully couches his challenge as a rhetorical question: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (vs. 51).

It’s a fair question. But they don’t like what they’re hearing, and spit back: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (vs. 52).

Their comment begins with something like an ethnic slur: What? Are you some kind of… Galilean? Like the rest of that ignorant rabble following him? And it ends with another arrogant show of superiority: Obviously, you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you look into it, you’ll find that no prophet comes from Galilee!

Nicodemus, of course, had said nothing of the kind. He had made no claims about Jesus, but instead had called into question the legality of their behavior. And in self-defense, they retreated into territory where they felt they could maintain the upper hand.

Problem is, they were flat-out wrong. Jonah was from Galilee; possibly Nahum and Micah were as well. I have to wonder if Nicodemus knew that. And if he did, what went through his mind at that moment? We’ll never know.

But point taken: by God’s mercy, may I never let learning become arrogance.