I listened to Dr. George Parsenios of Princeton Theological Seminary yesterday. In a brief presentation to about fifteen of us, he raised something of ancient significance and contemporary relevance.
People in the ancient Greco-Roman world were well-familiar with two competing groups. Rhetoricians—eloquent, stylish, flamboyant speakers—would sweep into town, attract a lot of attention, and win over the affections of many people; then move on. They collected good sums of money for their efforts. Traveling talkers. Professional and polished presenters.
Philosophers, on the other hand, typically gave deeper thought to the realities of life, grappling with the meaning of life and the best ways to live life. They probed beneath the surface and tried to provide a cohesive model for life at its best.
For the most part, philosophers saw society as sick and themselves as physicians to heal the people. They accused rhetoricians of being cooks; serving a tasty dish but without healing power. Rhetoricians had the ability to make people feel better (for a short while); philosophers tried to make people better.
Perhaps this was all in the back of the apostle Paul’s mind when he wrote to the Corinthians that “my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom.” (1 Cor 2:4)
I couldn’t help but make the obvious parallel to our day.
We don’t have the same category headings—philosophers, rhetoricians—but we certainly have similar experiences. There are those who sweep into town and wow the crowd with their story-telling, their humor, and their well-rehearsed one-liners. They impress us and entertain us. We laugh with them and cry with them. They sell their books, collect their checks, and head to the next venue.
But our pastors are the ancient philosophers of our culture. Their task is to bring thoughtfulness, hope, and healing to our lives. It may be less showy; it is usually more significant. The show comes to town and leaves town just as quickly. But the work of healing a community requires daily engagement over a long period. It needs stability not itinerancy.
Perhaps this post is simply to honor those pastors and leaders who work tirelessly and faithfully (and too often thanklessly) in our communities. They are the ancient philosophers among us. We too quickly underestimate the worth of their gift.