The Wisdom of Innocence
Rev. Lee Woofenden
Massachusetts, June 7, 1998
11:6-9 The peaceable kingdom
will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the
calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will
lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down
together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play
near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the
viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy
mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the
waters cover the sea.
18:1-5 Becoming like children
disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the
kingdom of heaven?"
called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I
tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles
himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And
whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me."
Love #413 Innocence & wisdom
heaven, the Lord sees to it that the innocence of childhood becomes the
innocence of wisdom, and that in this way children become angels.
people say that children remain children and become angels immediately
after death. But intelligence and wisdom make an angel, so as long as
children do not have these, they are among angels, but are not angels
themselves. However, they become angels as soon as they become
intelligent and wise. So children are led forward from the innocence of
childhood to the innocence that comes with wisdom--that is, from outward
innocence to inward innocence. This innocence is the purpose of their
learning and their growth. When they achieve the innocence that comes
with wisdom, the innocence of childhood that has served them as a basis
continues to be a part of them.
you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you
will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
It is not a highly prized attribute in our society. Very few adults want
to appear innocent--unless they happen to have found themselves on the
wrong side of the law. We tend to equate innocence with naivete, and no
one wants to appear naive. People who are naive get taken advantage
of; they get hurt; and worst of all, they get laughed at behind their
back! This is something we simply can't stand.
in our society we value an image of being in the know, in control, able
to cope with any person or situation that comes our way. Historically,
the pressure to maintain this image of being casually in control has
been especially heavy on boys and men. For teenage boys, appearing
innocent and naive can be a social death sentence. And men are supposed
to project an air of confidence, competence, and power. We see these
images of superficially strong men everywhere in the media, from sports
figures to movie stars.
women are not immune from the pressure to project an image of competence
and control either--especially in recent decades when women have pushed
for equality with men in the workplace. Being perceived as a "nice
girl" is not as important for a girl or woman these days as being
able to handle herself well in both work and social situations.
which confirms the thought we started with: that innocence is far down
the list of sought-after qualities for people in our society.
though we may admire people who have that air of being in
control, we are not touched by them. Perhaps Sylvester Stallone
and Arnold Schwarzenegger make a smash at the box office. But if,
instead of cheap thrills, we want something that will warm our hearts,
we are much more likely to turn to Tom Hanks in movies like
"Forrest Gump" and "Big." In both of these movies,
it is not being in control, but being innocent and vulnerable that makes
the hero of the story great, and at the same time lovable. With Forrest
Gump, everything is right there to be seen--stupidity, naivete, and all.
And we love him for it.
movie "Big," a ten or twelve year old boy is suddenly
transformed physically into an adult, while he remains a child in mind
and heart. As he makes his way into the adult world, his innocence at
first remains intact. But soon the lure of money--and a beautiful
woman--begins to take its toll. Our heart sinks as he turns his back on
his best friend (who remains "small"). Then, at the end of the
movie, our faith is restored as he becomes his old, innocent,
preadolescent self again.
our culture is discovering innocence again. If so, it is a good sign.
For the Lord tells us in our Gospel reading that if we do not change and
become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
for greatness in other people's eyes is nothing new. In the Gospel
story, the disciples themselves were wondering about who would be the
greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In the versions of this story found
in Mark and Luke, they were actually arguing about which one of
them was the greatest. In response to this dispute, Jesus turned the
whole idea of greatness on its head, confounding both his disciples and
our modern norms and notions about who and what we should strive to be.
When the disciples asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,
Jesus held up a little child--the embodiment of innocence and
dependency--as an example for us to follow.
we make of this? Are we all to throw aside our responsibilities and
revert to the carefree days and ways of our childhood? Surely not. Jesus
himself took on the greatest burden anyone ever has, confronting the
accumulated evil of the entire human race. And yet, there was a
quality of innocence about him. He did not look out for his own
advantage, or take advantage of others. Though he had an extraordinarily
keen mind that penetrated deep into the hearts of those around him, he
never used that knowledge to harm another. Instead, he always used it as
a tool to help bring people closer to God and to each other.
relations with others, Jesus was both vulnerable and powerful at the
same time. He was not careful about the company he kept; he was
unconcerned about the impression he would make if he were seen with the
"wrong crowd." He (naively?) treated everyone with the same
directness and simplicity, whether it was a helpless child he held in
his arms or the Roman governor Pilate, who appeared to hold Jesus' life
in his hands. Jesus was not careful to protect himself from trouble or
pain, but allowed these things to touch him and move him, and responded
with tenderness and compassion to people who were experiencing them.
are not literally called to a childish innocence. Instead we are called
to a childlike innocence--but an innocence that has wisdom in it.
As Swedenborg explains it, the innocence of children is only an outward
form of innocence because it comes from not knowing any better. Little
Caleb, for example, (who is being baptized today) is anything but
innocent when it comes to his ability to rip things apart and make a
complete mess of any place he is in or any delicate thing he gets his
hands on. Yet there is no malice in his destructiveness. He is simply
curious about everything around him . . . and one way to find out what
something is made of is to tear it apart.
adult were to act the same way, we would consider that person anything
but innocent. In fact, adults who do things such as destroying other
people's property and hitting other people when they get mad at them are
likely to end up behind bars. The worst a child usually gets (we hope)
is a good scolding, and perhaps a trip to his or her room.
innocence of childhood is not the only kind of innocence. Swedenborg
refers to "the innocence of wisdom." This, he says, is true
innocence, only attained after a life full of effort and struggle in
this world, and in our own soul. We gain the innocence of wisdom when we
have seen both the best and the worst that the world has to offer, and
have, of our own free will, chosen to turn our hearts, minds, and lives
toward the best. True innocence does not come from ignorance and naivete,
but from knowing the end results of both love and hate, both
destructiveness and useful service, and consciously choosing what is
is the kind of innocence toward which we can all aspire as our highest
ideal. It is not just a human ideal, but the ideal that the Lord our
Creator sets before us. For when we have achieved this kind of
innocence--this devotion to not harming others, but to serving their
needs and making them happy--we will have achieved the heavenly kingdom,
both within ourselves and in our society here on earth. And then, in the
words of the prophet Isaiah, "They will neither harm nor destroy in
all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the
Lord as the waters cover the sea." Amen.
Painting entitled "Partners in
Crime" is ©Tom Sierak
and used with his
permission by Moon And Back Graphics to construct this set
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer