Two Great Treasures
High in a picturesque mountain range, with a commanding view of a beautiful valley, we see a man huffing and puffing as he climbs up, up a winding road into the thin air of the heights, all to make his way to a beautiful columned building. The man makes a payment at the doorway, steps into the shadowy interior, and before him, shrouded in mist rising from a crack in the floor, is a woman seated on a tall chair. And he asks the woman: “Who is the wisest person in the world?” And the woman replies: “Why, you know him. He is your friend, Socrates.” And as the man leaves the Oracle, he looks up above the doorway and sees there the Ancient Greek words: γνῶθι σεαυτόν, “Know thyself.” The man climbs down, down the mountain and returns to his home, Athens, and to his friend, a stocky, rather ugly friend, and says, “Socrates, you won’t believe what the Oracle at Delphi told me.” And he tells Socrates his tale and the answer, and Socrates is shocked. “Really? How is it possible that I could be the wisest, when I know for certain that I am not wise?” And you know the rest of the tale: Socrates spends the rest of his days seeking wisdom, and to his surprise discovers that no one has wisdom about the deepest questions in life, like what is justice, but yet everyone thinks he’s wise about these deep questions, everyone except Socrates. As it turns out, Socrates does know himself: he knows his limits and limitations.
Graduating St. Timothy’s is something like coming down, down the mountain from that Oracle at Delphi, like being a Socrates. Everyone will look at the excellent education you received here, they will marvel at your mastery of certain skills, they will say behind your back, “These St. Tim's students know so much, have so much wisdom!” But your years of training here have prepared you to embrace a truth: You know just how little you know. That is in part the purpose of a classical education: γνῶθι σεαυτόν: To teach you to know yourself, especially your limitations. You have scratched the surface of Great Ideas, and you realize the infinite depth to these Great Ideas, and how little you know compared to the Great Minds of our world: from the complications of politics you glimpsed in George Orwell, to the complexities of the tragic hero you glimpsed in Shakespeare; from the hope of spiritual rebirth you glimpsed in George Eliot, to the heroic journey underlying all life you glimpsed in Homer. γνῶθι σεαυτόν. You know how much there is to know. You know you are not wise. The journey has just begun.
At the same time, you have been given a gift, a great insight that Socrates never had. Because St. Timothy's is not just a classical academy, but a Christian, classical academy. You are first and foremost students of what the Apostle Paul calls the Foolishness of the Cross. Your greatest intellectual treasures cannot be found in the science classroom, among the Latin declensions scrawled on the blackboard, or hidden somewhere in the monologue scripts you have memorized. Your greatest intellectual treasures do not look like intellectual treasures at all to the rest of the world. Instead of putting all your hope in your own reason and work, you have put it all on Christ. Because the deepest truth we can know about ourselves is not our lack of wisdom, but our lack of righteousness. You know there is a God behind the truth, goodness, and beauty of this world, a God of infinite truth, goodness, and beauty. And γνῶθι σεαυτόν. You know yourself. And you know you do not measure up to him. You know your sins ought to separate you forever from this ultimate source of truth, goodness, and beauty. But you know what God has done about this: He has entered into this world to live for you, die for you, and rise for you, so that you might not just scratch the surface of truth, goodness, and beauty, and then be separated from it forever. No, he did everything necessary to purchase you and wash you clean of your sins so that an eternity of truth, goodness, and beauty waits for you.
Many in the world will see this Great Truth as the most worthless thing you’ve learned here. They might praise you for everything else you learned. But the cross, they’ll say: “That was foolish to spend time on that.” But γνῶθι σεαυτόν. You know yourself. You know your need for a Saviour, how all your hope rests on this Great Truth of the cross, that when you pray, “Et dimitte nobis debita nostra,” your Heavenly Father answers your prayer, “Yes, the debt of your sins is forgiven.” And the doors of heaven are open wide for you. And this Great Truth is infinitely more valuable than any dialogue of Plato or play of Shakespeare.
And so my prayer for you this day is simple. As you enter your next chapter in life, the world we live in will tempt you to leave two great treasures behind: Don’t do it. Do not give into tentationem. Do not leave behind the classics, and do not leave behind Christ. Because γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Because you know you are not wise yet. There is so much left. You still have to crawl through the sewers beside Jean Valjean many more times to truly understand him. You still have to charge windmills transformed into giants beside Don Quixote. You still have to stand beside Father Zosimo and give an answer to the Grand Inquisitor. You still have to pursue the Great White Whale beside the psychotic Ahab. You still have to gaze into the void, as Clytemnestra takes her revenge on Agamemnon. But once you have gazed into the void, you will return with hope. Because you know how your God has delivered you from the void, from despair, and chaos. Because every year you will continue to walk with Christ down the hill of his Transfiguration, through the Valley of his Passion, to mount that Hill of Calvary, be taken into his Tomb of victory, and end your journey with him on that Mount of Olives as you see him taken into Heaven, triumphant. Every year you will take this journey with your Saviour, because γνῶθι σεαυτόν. You know yourself. You know your need for a Saviour. And even more importantly: ἔγνων Ἰησοῦν. You know Christ. And you can say: Ἰησοῦς οἶδεν με. Christ knows me.
And so allow me, a pastor (that’s Latin for shepherd), to end with words from another pastor, words he was leaving with a young church. Paul puts things like this: “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ.” (Philippians 3:8-10a)
Congratulations, class of 2021.
Commencement Address to Graduates 2021 given by Pastor Luke Thompson, Pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Ottawa and St Timothy's parent.