The old proverb, ‘Manners maketh man’ has an interesting history and meaning. It may well have been the personal motto of William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester in the 14th century. It is the motto of New College Oxford and Winchester (School) that Wykeham founded.
We also find it amongst the many proverbs included in William Horman’s Latin textbook, Vulgaria. Horman was headmaster successively of Winchester and Eton in early Tudor times. In his approach to teaching Latin, he drew from English ‘everyday sayings’ (Vulgaria) which he translated into Latin. The ‘sayings’ included a range of subjects – religion, manners, life and nature.
I introduce this proverb, not simply as a (northern) summer curiosity, but to introduce Jesus’ concluding words to his Sermon on the Plain: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?…” (Luke 6:46).
The title Lord (6:46) was often used as a term of respect for a rabbi or teacher; the twofold, Lord, Lord, is simply a Semitic emphasis. In the context of his developing narrative, Luke wants us to feel the impact of Jesus’ question. Jesus was well known and highly respected as an authoritative teacher. Lip-service is a totally inappropriate response to him.
MANNERS MAKETH MAN
Which brings me back to the proverb, Manners maketh man.
Commenting on the words as the motto of New College, Oxford, Mark Griffith (a Fellow of New College) makes the interesting distinction between the motto as a reference simply to outward behavior, good manners, and as a reference to a deep-seated inner moral change, arising from God’s grace, evidenced in Godly behavior.
Griffith makes the nice point that the founder of New College, ‘a bishop and, by all early accounts, a pious Christian, is unlikely to have selected a motto without strong moral import, still less would he have given such a one to an institution for the education of clerics.’
Certainly, Jesus, in his concluding words to his sermon, has every expectation that his followers will not only be hearers of his teaching but also doers.
He uses two dramatic metaphors to illustrate his point.
Anyone who comes to him and truly hears and obeys his words is like the person who built their house on a foundation of rock. Just as a house constructed on a rock is able to withstand the power of floodwaters lashing it, so too Jesus’ followers will remain firm, living as he has taught and withstanding the difficulties and challenges of life (Luke 6:48).
By contrast, anyone who hears and does not act on Jesus’ teaching is like the person who built a house on the ground without a foundation (6:49). In contrast to the first builder, the second is built on soft soils. As parts of coastal Sydney recently experienced, with powerful winds and seas, houses without a secure foundation get washed away.
FIRM FOUNDATION FOR LIFE
Jesus’ reference here is not primarily to the Day of Judgment, though the idea is present. Rather, he is talking about life now. How we handle challenges and difficulties in relationships, at work and even at church, the opposition and injustices we face, is dependent on the foundation on which we build our life – on Jesus as our Lord and Savior, or on an outward form of a Churchianity that has no substance.
The true follower of Jesus is someone who comes to him as Lord and whose life is transformed, who has a changed inward nature, through obedience to his word. As James puts it in his Letter, Faith without works is dead (James 2:17).
Throughout his Sermon on the Plain Jesus has insisted that anyone who follows him must not simply be a hearer of his teaching merely giving lip-service to their profession of faith. He calls us to be hearers and doers of his word.
Manners (morals) maketh man / woman. Rightly understood and applied this is not salvation by works, but about a life transformed from within by the grace a God – a life which reveals in attitudes and priorities, behavior and relationships what it means to know and love, trust and serve Jesus Christ as Lord of our life.
How different our world would be if everyone who professed to follow Jesus (including leaders) heeded his words. The starting point of course, is with you and me.
Daily we need to pray that by God’s grace we will grow to love the Lord Jesus Christ more and more, growing in his likeness so that we might be found his faithful and loyal servants in the midst of a troubled world.
How often do we ask at the beginning of each day, ‘Lord, what good things have you prepared for me to do today?’
© John G. Mason
Note 1: During June and July, my Word on Wednesday is adapted from my commentary, Reading Luke Today: An Unexpected God (Aquila: 2012), pp.80-96