The Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren - Prague 10 Strašnice
One of the phenomena of our times is never-ending TV series. These series often have thousands of episodes and last for years. They are called soap operas. This name does not refer to any purifying function, but only to their original sponsors, producers of cosmetics. Another sign of our times is also the fact that these series are watched by a substantial part of the population, but when you ask around, nobody is willing to admit it.
No one expects any special quality from this fast consumer entertainment. On the contrary, soap operas can become an addiction. People get interested in the story, they want to know how it is going to end, and this binds them to the TV screen. The series starts to influence their schedule; when to go shopping or when to invite a visitor around. Another unpleasant thing is that these series seem to be never-ending. They seem to proceed from nowhere to nowhere. Nothing ever really gets solved, and tomorrow a different subplot appears.
In this respect soap operas resemble real life. This is how we often experience life—as more or less without a meaning and a goal, ending in nonexistence. What is the purpose? we ask ourselves. At the end of the day, life seems to be mainly about making things more agreeable to oneself, about giving it some sort of meaning, at least a partial one, for oneself and one’s family, at most for some subset of humankind.
One of the main messages of the New Testament is the good news that this is not true and that the world, as well as life, has a meaning and a goal. Things do not proceed from nowhere to nowhere. The world does not spin in a spiral of eternal repetition. It was the Creator’s good hand that imprinted the world with a purpose and meaning. Therefore, the direction as well as the goal of life is good. Things and events have their final evaluation, which is incorporated in the Creator’s will. It is only not yet known so that humankind can look for it, keep finding it, and, in this way, exercise its own freedom.
This is our faith, our elementary life orientation. Physics, mathematics and biology do not reveal the cosmic goal, nor do they prove it. I do not know whether they are going to show and prove that the world has no goal and never has had, but I think that this is not within science’s power. Science will only continue to show that it will never be able to reach these hidden chambers of creation.
I was inspired to this reflection by a biblical verse that appeared during this week in the Moravian Daily Texts. It had a surprising content: “We who are strong in faith should help the weak with their weaknesses, and not please only ourselves.” What does it mean? Should I have patience with all kinds of blunders of the weak? Should I tolerate everything? What if the weak in their weakness come up with a stupid thing, such as claiming it is not right to exercise in the morning? We have seen this before, also in church. Christians were not allowed to play cards, they were not allowed to dance in some places at some point, some women were not allowed to go to the hairdresser, not to mention make up their eyelashes or lips. And in some places it is not allowed to drink even a little wine or to eat this or that. American Amish people are not allowed to use cars or electricity. There was always a reason and justification for these rules. Many of them were products of their time. Should the strong tolerate such rules? What if somebody makes a norm out of these rules and succeeds in enforcing them as a norm?
All this is true if I am the strong one. Am I? The Apostle Paul draws a firm line between strong and weak brethren and obviously he counts himself as the strong one. However, I do not dare to make such a clear distinction between these two groups of people. Who are the strong and who are the weak? At first glance, “the strong in faith” are people firmly embedded in Christian tradition—active people who reflect on and live out matters of their faith. They go to church regularly, and introduce their children to the Scripture, prayer and church. The strong also live according to their faith in their roles as students, employees, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers or church members and elders. Maybe they are good at singing and can be heard a lot during the service. They may be able to pray aloud with others. They care about the life of the congregation or parish. They are considerate to others. They are generous with their money, and, with time, they start to devote their skills as well. I could go on like this for a long time.
But I must say that I am not like this. I may have one or two of these features of the strong, but I have many more debts and deficiencies. It is rather the brother here or the sister over there that could be counted among the strong… but I know that they carry their debts too. I often talk to them about it. And I have known many who seemed strong from the outside, but they quivered with uncertainty. Who are the strong, then? Is it perhaps our synodal senior or brother bishop?
And who are the weak? Those that go to church only occasionally or rarely? Those that go often, but are not members of the church “de iure” and are not planning to get baptized or they are only considering it? Those that go regularly, but went through a family crisis and their marriage did not last for some reason? Those that are from an old protestant family, but have forgotten what a prayer is, not to mention praying together at home and thus teaching prayer to their children? Those that, coming from a different culture and upbringing, come to church dressed as if they were going to a football pitch or with no shoes on? Or those who have a problem with the Apostles’ Creed because their scientific brain cannot work with paradoxes such as “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost” or “I believe in the resurrection of the body”?
Suddenly, we see that we are all strong and weak at the same time. Some people have things more worked out and can better put their life orientation into practice; some people can be an example in some respects, while they fail in some other equally Christian respect. Suddenly, we can see the strong and the weak on both sides of the dividing line. This line does not go through human society, but through each person. That is the way it is in a congregation, in a church, in all churches, in monastic communities, as well as among church leaders. The image of the TV series comes back here. Nothing is ever complete in them because the story runs in circles. One character does something well, then he fails again, then another character makes a blunder and it seems that is never going to end.
Is it so that we Christians are the strong? Are those who say that “there must be something”, but “I don’t know what” and “I am not really into church” and “I believe in God but I don’t need a church for that” the weak? It is true that they are usually weak in their reasoning. Should we also tolerate their weaknesses? Where would our missionary efforts end?
Yes, we should tolerate also their weaknesses. That is what Paul writes, clearly. But he has a good and convincing reason for that: so that it benefits the common growth. In a situation when it is possible to experience Christian life orientation in a variety of forms, shades, cultures, who wants to be the judge of what it means to be strong and weak in faith? Those whom faith led to vegetarianism? Those who are forbidden by their faith to smoke? Those who received Christ but have not made any adjustments to their lifestyle, but whose faith takes place deep in their hearts, and leads them to helping others, for example? Is it a little or a lot? Are such Christians weak or strong?
There is a long and seemingly never-ending journey in front of us, similar to a TV series. Each of us continues to be both strong and weak, we continue to try to grow, and perhaps we do, but our story does not end.
The example of Jesus can be of help. Paul writes “Even Christ did not live to please himself “. In this way he drew attention to one of the elementary human needs—the need of self-realisation and self-esteem. People need to take a firm stand and be proud of themselves at least a little bit. This creates motivation for further growth and development, also in matters of faith, of reflection on questions such as what it means if I confess ”I believe”, who is God, what is freedom, what the most important driving force of my life is, what my (only) pleasure in life and death is and how I understand the Bible as a Christian. We should also grow in this knowledge and we should become stronger in our faith.
All this happens inside. What comes to the surface is not self-satisfaction from one’s own growth, that “taking pleasure in oneself”. On the contrary, growth gives strength to tolerance and patience, i.e. to expressions of the love that is the basic value of Christianity. Maybe Christ himself grew in this knowledge; maybe he himself was sometimes pleased with himself. (This is covered very powerfully in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ. We know it from Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation.) What came to the surface was love.
However, this is a life-long process that we cannot be ever done with, as is the case of those TV series. I should strive again and again for my own growth, by which I could contribute to the growth of others. And I will find again and again my weakness. Even Jesus showed his weakness in his role and skin of man… Some things are certain in the seemingly never-ending series called life. The first is the certainty of a good ending towards which everything is headed, no matter what. The second is the awareness that there is the strong one and the weak in all of us. If we are to tolerate the weakness of the weak, it also means to tolerate our own weakness.
Above all, humankind can be and should be united by the awareness of common growth, whatever culture or religion we are. The fact that this is a long process, almost as never-ending as a soap opera, is evinced by new religious terrorism and continually emerging religious conflicts and wars.
We have a good teacher and a good textbook for our common growth. The rest is up to us.
The story is very well-known. It is also very topical. It does not contain any miracle that we could have our doubts about as to whether it really happened or not. It is exactly stories like these that show us how irrelevant it is to ask “how it happened exactly “. Even if the story “really once happened” and it was captured, narrated or even filmed, it would not carry such a strong message as when we realise that it is a symbolic story, a model story, an “archetypal” story.
There are three characters in this story. The first is a woman. It is not important that it is adultery that she committed. She is here to sum up everything that is inherent in all people: a tendency to misdemeanour, weakness, sin. The woman may have succumbed to desire, lust, maybe the necessity to make some money, to ingratiate herself with somebody or to thank somebody, to repay somebody, or possibly to assert her own importance and herself. Perhaps she fell prey to the misconception that she can treat her body and her feelings as she pleases and that it is no one else’s business. Perhaps she felt the need to support her children and found herself in a situation when she could not find a more socially acceptable manner of earning money.
In the eyes of her fellow citizens, the woman is an embodiment of unacceptability both according to the law and common moral standards. She is breaking the Decalogue in several ways (you shall not commit adultery, you shall not covet, possibly you shall not steal, most definitely “you shall have no other gods before me”). She gives offence by her unscrupulousness, for how can she do anything like that? And maybe the woman also, as in a mirror, reflects others’ desires, of all who have not had the chance or have not found the strength to satisfy their own offensive, and therefore, hidden desires. According to depth psychology, the woman is also a projection of hidden, unfulfilled desires of those who now want to cast stones… Karl Gustav Jung would tell us that what the stone throwers hate in that woman is also part of themselves.
At the moment when the woman is escorted to the court and her sentence, she embodies the situation of a person who has reached the end of her journey. There is no other way it could end. She has broken the law, given offense to her moral neighbours, and therefore she will be stoned to death. Her life will end, and with it all her desires and obligations, her life’s objective and meaning. She has sinned, succumbed, blundered: in short, made the biggest mistake of her life. Now she is paying for it, as in a classic detective novel.
The second group of characters in the story are her judges. The text says “experts in the law and the Pharisees”, in one place even “the elders”. They are not hypocrites, moralists, or shady characters, but responsible public figures, councilmen, leading authorities. They obtained their positions not by corruption, cheap tricks or pre-election promises, but because they were wise and led exemplary lives. Even at this moment they are not doing something to please their whim, but what the law orders them to do, as they themselves are truthfully saying. They are responsible for the community, and they want to take that responsibility. Maybe they know that human justice is always short-sighted. But in this case it is based on God’s justice because the Decalogue is God’s law. Who would want to assert anything else?
The judges differ from the rest of the society by their ”official” responsibility, but that is the only difference. Even if the representatives of local and religious administration were not present, nothing would change. Everybody would be offended by the woman’s behaviour and would know that the law, especially God’s law, has to be respected and that adultery is a threat to relationships, family and society as a whole. If one day, two millennia later, a different society thinks that this is no longer valid and that an intimate life is a private matter, they will be wrong, even though the act itself may not be exposed.
Maybe the guardians of morality represented to the woman a reflection of what she wanted, but for which she did not find the strength or opportunity. They are a reflection of unfulfilled desires too. These desires are hidden in the same way as the lustful thinking of the woman’s moral accusers.
The third role here is played by Jesus. He is also wise, also righteous, also well-versed in (and observant of) the law. He has just been preaching in the synagogue. They call him “Master” and “Teacher”. “All the people” gathered around him. It is obvious that he has things to say. He stands a little apart because everybody feels that he is not an ordinary man.
In bringing the woman to him they may want to test him and to see him fail. Maybe they want their own standpoint confirmed. Maybe they sense that Jesus’ standpoint will differ from that of the Law. That could be another reason for forbidding Jesus from preaching. “In the law Moses commanded us to stone to death such women. What then do you say?”
Why did the narrative capture the strange detail that “Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger”? What was happening at the moment? There are various poetic explanations: that by doing so he was quoting prophet Jeremiah (17:13); or that he did not want to say aloud the right answer and therefore he wrote it; or that he began meditation using a graphic mantra… What in fact was Jesus doing?
I am offering another poetic answer: Jesus was giving everybody around some time to stop, calm down and reflect; to cut themselves off momentarily from customs, social expectations, and speedy solutions; to come up with an answer that he himself would say in a moment because conclusions drawn on one’s own are better than many authorities’ exhortations.
When Jesus starts speaking at last, he does not really offer an answer. What he does is to transfer the inquirers’ attention from the woman that broke the law to the inquirers themselves. Yes, Jesus says, there is a law that says “you shall not commit adultery”, yes, she is an adulteress; but what about you and the law, you and adultery, you and weakness, you and sin? Do not say that you will never commit adultery because many times your were close to it yourself. And the law is not comprised only of the “you shall not commit adultery” commandment. See how many other trespasses you have done. Do not say that they are not so great, because who can measure the size of individual sins?
In some versions of the Bible we can read the following in the place where the plaintiffs start drifting away one at a time, first the elders. It says here: “being convicted by their own conscience”, they went out one by one. Conscience turns a person inside himself. It is intimate. We talk of the autonomy of conscience. Now, let us follow the etymology of the word. The Latin con-scientia means common knowledge.
We are beginning to understand what Jesus is doing here: he connects the judges’ perception of themselves to their perception of the woman. He connects what has been separated: people’s perception of themselves, private perception, and their perception of other people. By his challenge, Jesus made the woman part of the judges’ life. On the other hand, when he asks the woman in a moment, “Where are your accusers?”, he makes the judges (that is, the public) part of the woman’s perception. This is the real conscience, conscientia. Conscience extended, maybe globalized in the best possible way. No more separation into “we” and “they”, no more different standards applied to ourselves and to the others. In order to understand our own impulses, context, mitigating circumstances, our own “I did not mean it that way”, we need to understand the impulses, context, and mitigating circumstances of those around us.
The public drift away. There is nobody to judge and no one to be judged. Jesus does not ask the woman whether the law based on which they have been condemning her ceases to be valid. He asks only: “Where are the accusers? Is there no one left to condemn you?”
Jesus does not ask the woman whether she will stop sinning. He tells her: “Go, and sin no more.” Go and build your life on different foundations. If before you have lacked the strength to overcome temptation, I am offering you a new source, because who has had the strength to protect you from death, will protect you from temptation too. If you have sinned because of ignorance or foolishness, you have seen where it has led you to. You could have died because of it. But I am offering you a new chance, as if fallen from heaven. Go and use it. If you have sinned to ingratiate yourself with someone, now you have a new object of gratitude, me. Think now how you might ingratiate yourself with God. If you have not known before that you have been committing a sin, I have connected your conscience with the perception of others, of the moral ones. Your conscience is now expanded by their morality.
This is not a story of sin. It is definitely not a story of adultery. It is a story of judgment and condemning, of the fact that separating good and evil is not the same as separating good people and evil people. There is something good and evil in all of us. We need to separate evil from good, but not “evil” people from “good” people.
The story shows that we are all children of one father, regardless of ethical differences. Even Cain was God’s child. It does not mean that good and evil are inseparably mixed together. We need to say no to evil as well as to sin.
Only the Lord can judge and condemn. Our human justice is only highly imperfect, although necessary, tool for society protection. Human punishment is a very imperfect, though necessary, tool used to discourage people from committing crimes.
This all has been summed up by a thinker, who when passing a drunkard lying in a ditch said: Oh, Lord, forgive me his drunkenness… Amen.
The close of 2011 was marked by the death of the first post-revolution president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, thinker and dramatist Václav Havel. Perhaps the most powerful symbol of this departure was his play Leaving.
Who is leaving? Not only its indisputably autobiographical main character. Both in the film and in reality it is not only Václav Havel who is leaving. A whole generation is passing, as is a whole era. The new era is an era of rapid change; many old values have disappeared and others are appearing. Old technologies are passing, being pushed out by others. Ways of spending free time are passing, a kind of humour is passing, some creative processes are passing. We are used to this, but partly it seems that this process is becoming faster and faster, and partly it seems that changes are happening at more and more fundamental levels. In short, things are changing.
But isn’t that normal? Even “leaving” is, in fact, subject to irregular accelerations and decelerations, as is human perception. Nothing last forever. Nothing in this world bears the seal of essential permanence.
Eccl 1:2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
Sad? Why? Transience needn’t automatically imply meaninglessness. Even things which are not permanent can have meaning and purpose which are lasting, wonderful and beautiful! Even the book of Ecclesiastes, the great Old Testament declaration of transience, acknowledges this truth which constitutes the second most important message of the entire book. Everything is transient, but also a gift from God which should be treated well, with thankfulness and responsibility. Even time, the most transient of things which runs out most quickly of all.
Eccl 5:13 I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners,
14 or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when they have children there is nothing left for them to inherit.
15 Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.
16 This too is a grievous evil: As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind?
17 All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.
18 This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot.
19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.
It seems that all humanity is becoming more and more aware of transience. But even humanity is becoming wiser in some way, Lord willing! For centuries human awareness of the transience of the world found expression in fear of the end of the world, in apocalyptic images of horrors from which people either would not be saved, or perhaps could be saved… The end of the world came as judgement, as the termination of the failed “experiment of creation”. As one book relates, “…old man God comes down and rattles his keys at the door to the world, saying ‘Closing time, gentlemen.’”
At the end of the 20th century, the end of the world as the only context in which awareness of mortality penetrated human consciousness was replaced by indifference. “It’s all the same to us. Let’s enjoy life here. And if the end comes, which it will, let’s at least have fun and make it worthwhile.” The end of the world, ok, but we don’t care because we can’t do anything about it anyway. We can’t fight destiny or the powers of nature, or global economic powers pillaging the environment and our wallets as well. For that matter, we aren’t even able to fight our own greed, our own fear that we won’t be able to enjoy life, that we won’t be able to afford it.
All through the 20th century the idea of the end of the world was announced by various people, not only the Jehovah’s Witnesses or thte Sibyl or old Nostradamus.
But even this post-modern “Eat-drink-and-be-merryism” and its concomitant consumerism and hedonism is fading and leaving. Recently readers of the ancient Mayan calendar have come forward with the year 2012, which is this year. And lo and behold, a new conception! No more talk of catastrophes and endings and destructions, no more talk of “eat, drink and be merry”, for a new idea is approaching: it not the end of the world, but the end of one epoch and the beginning of a new, spiritual one, a transition bringing something from without, from the depths of cosmic energy, but only a part of the process. The rest must be supplied by people and the whole human race. This is — after talk of the end of the world, first greeted with anxiety and later handled with operetta optimism — great progress, and surely not in exactly the wrong direction!
When the disciples, the first church, had to part with their beloved Lord, with their idol and example, the intersection of all the physical and philosophical hopes of their lives, their prospect of something beyond their everyday lives, they received instructions and a new promise — the promise of the Holy Spirit and the Second Coming of Christ. After grief, pain and fear came hope: something would come “from without”. Of course, the New Testament doesn’t say “from the depths of cosmic energy”, but “from the gift of the Father Creator”:
Ac 1:6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.
11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
The main element of change will come a) unexpectedly, unpredictably, thus we are not to make predictions. Not by the Mayan calendar, nor by any other calendar, equation or phenomenon. It is not our business. The main element of change will also, however, come b) from without, as a gift, regardless of human merit or faults, without direct cause. God alone knows — and our job is only to trust. But we do it gladly, because we believe God, the Lord of the universe and of this planet. For he is love itself! Love without smothering, forgiveness without spinelessness, the kind of love that has human good as its highest goal.
Certainly, even in this kind of love many things must pass away, be destroyed! Even here inside me, all lack of faith, all stubbornness, all emancipation that my ego longed to achieve, all these things must be burned away.
2 Pe 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives
12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.
13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.
Although the main element of change will come from without, each of us is to help a little, to help ourselves, and thus to help the Saviour himself as well. How? That was the subject of Ben Roll’s sermon yesterday, and it was clear that it’s a lifelong task. The main thing is not to miss the transient opportunity to seek out what “life in Christ” means!
“Since you are looking forward to this”? But of course we are looking forward to it! We just weren’t sure what it would look like, although we aren’t sure now either. We also didn’t know when it would come, but we don’t know that now either. We also admit that we weren’t sure whether that end or transition would really come as a gift of God, or as a punishment, or merely as the result of mankind’s behaviour towards creation. Well, we aren’t sure now either, but we suspect that our earth and everything done in it will stand before judgement. This is the most serious and the most believable thing. It’s even logical, almost self-evident — in spite of which fact it is the most important part of the whole message!
Do you hear what I’m saying? We are not precisely sure that “the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire”, but we can’t do anything about that. But that “earth and everything done in it will be laid bare,” — well, we can’t do anything about that either. And yet: “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him”.
But this is not at all a about frightening us, nor of mere ethics! Because the “spotlessness and blamelessness” is not a question only of our hands, nor only of our lips, but — perhaps most of all — of our minds, because they are the source of our words and deeds.
Ro 13:11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.
13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
The old year is passing, as are many values and events, as well as much of what we have valued and highly respected. Much of what we have feared is also passing. And what exactly is coming? Much that we do not suspect. But that day is coming “like a thief in the night”, or actually, the possibility of full awareness of that fact is coming. Not as something which inspires horror, but as a gift of God, so that we can manage to do the things that we are to do.
Eccl 5:18–19 This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot.
19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.
So let us eat and drink in the new year, taking joy and treasures from the gifts of God, all with gusto and pleasure, as well as with all humility and responsibility. And above all, with the realisation that we eat, drink, rejoice, rest, have fun and enjoy ourselves only that we might have strength and time to discover what “life in Christ” is, what being “spotless and blameless” is, what the “works of darkness” and “armour of light” are. Because nothing else will matter in the new year, nor anytime else. All that matters is to discover what life in Christ is, what the works of darkness are, and what the armour of the light is.
If we ask our friends who are not members of the church about their faith, they mostly answer that they also believe in something. Everybody believes something. If we continue our queries asking in what in their lives they believe, they answer mostly in two ways: in some force majeure, further undetermined – or in themselves. The first answer, that of "a force majeure," is not far from the Christian response, because the asked person expresses in this way the same incomprehensibility of the faith "object," which the Christian also knows and adheres to. The problem is elsewhere: the force majeure, in which such a person believes, has mostly little in common with this world and our lives.
The second answer, faith in myself, often even knowingly, a last resort. Nothing is certain, only the closest. "Near is my shirt but nearer is my skin ", actually "the only sure is my skin." But beware - the belief in myself is not the same as self-confidence! That would put Christianity into opposition to self-confidence and this would be very dangerous thinking. Because: either one has self-confidence, or is "forced" to believe God. As if Christianity and self-confidence did not go well together. This is an outsider's point of view and it is not correct, yet it is useful to take it seriously and to check how things are with our self-confidence, with the self-confidence of Christians, the followers of the Bible.
It is the today's psalm that brings our attention to it. It is called "didactic", although it is a prayer. So the psalm teaches through its own example, what a prayer is. It's not good to say that I already can pray. In this field, it is always possible and necessary to grow. In addition, many admit that they cannot pray. I hear it from young and elderly - but usually we do not say it out loud and often. Somehow one assumes automatically that a Christian, a member of a church, can pray and this inadequacy could stand too far out of the "religious majority". When a girl told me recently that she, though she is not a member of a church and not a traditional Christian, prays, and when she prays, sometimes the tears flow, I understood her as I understand hardly anybody.
In that psalm "the subject and the object" of the prayer swaps several times, that is who is speaking and to whom. In the first three verses, the psalmist speaks as if to the reader, perhaps maybe just to himself, and he speaks about God "only" in the third person. Then he turns directly to the Lord, up to the verse seven, and then from the eighth verse - suddenly the Lord himself speaks. In the last verse he is again talking about God in third person.
This is a prayer: for a while, the praying person is thinking, for a while, he or she is speaking to oneself, for a while, he or she is speaking directly to the Lord and, for a while,... the Lord is (surprisingly!) speaking to the praying person. (Let us add that also - and that is the biggest mystery, for a while no one speaks, the silence reigns. Maybe, at that moment, a prayer is to its fullest.) In any case, a prayer is not a solid and uniform verbal or literary form. In a prayer one is just focussedly "living" before God. (We could easily add "as if" before God, because it is an action hidden and inconclusive.) At this point, the psalmist is not only just with himself, and only in the present moment , but he or she is capturing, as if in a single moment, all his life, past, present and future, its context and circumstances.
We can even say that every psalmist's serious thinking about life leads inevitably to a prayer, because in the efforts of the breadth and the depth of his thinking, he must simply "bump" into Lord.
The psalmist, however, begins with an experience he had previously. The experience was not pleasant at first, it was even dreadful. It started with some "wrongdoing". We do not know what it was, it is only possible to say that some of his acts, thoughts or decisions returned to him as a boomerang. Maybe, it returned to his conscience, maybe to the outside going, into relationships. The psalmist discovered that his ways were wrong.
And he wanted to believe in himself. He wanted to have the right faith in himself, "Yet I'm gonna do it. I'll manage." He kept silent, he wanted to manage it like a man, to let his "guilt" go, after all, whom should he tell about it, tell me about communication! "I have to manage it myself," That's why this psalm is "didactic". "When I kept silent, my bones grew old Through my groaning all the day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer." (verses 3-4). Who would have said that the unacknowledged guilt can wreck a man like that. Who would expect that guilt and guilty conscience is capable of distorting ones balance so much? We know that the human conscience is able to give one a "twinge", but so much?
Maybe the psalmist realized his troubled conscience only after that turnover. Perhaps even when "For day and night Lord's hand was heavy upon him; His vitality was turned into the drought of summer.", he felt that it was normal, that such was the life! Perhaps one must pass the turning point, so that he might know what is the right, "lightweight" life!
The turning point came. When the psalmist says "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered" (verse 1), he has already understood, he already knows. At that time, however, at that turning point, he had to be very surprised. It really is a very strange experience, that to the man who "confesses his transgressions to the LORD, Lord forgives the iniquity of his sin." (verse 5).
Psychologists would confirm many of psalmist's experiences. They know that a man cannot be alone with his problems for long. They know that even the human conscience can become a rod, which the body attempts to push into the unconscious, so that it would not beat him. The rod whips the man's inside, in the most sensitive places. Psychotherapists know that even conscience cannot remain alone. It cannot manage by itself. Conscience requires language, words, speech, and - someone who will listen. A proverb says "speech is silver – silence is golden" but here the opposite is valid. Blessed speech, if the aim is to share the guilt.
Here our desire stops. Who will share our guilts? For this purpose, Catholicism created the role of a confessor, protected by the confessional secret. An evangelical minister is protected by the confessional secret, too. But no one is protected from the anxiety of the heart by such a sharing. It is not easy. Moreover, one cannot be sure in advance of the result of this effort! That's why the psalm is "didactive".
But who should be our confessing sharing partner? The Psalmist leaves the question unanswered. Whether he was using another person, we do not know. It is good to look for a confessor, a man who will help us over the gap, it is good to find him. The man needs an accompaniment for a difficult journey .
Sometimes, however, such a confessor is not by. Sometimes even cannot be. The human ways are so complicated that one cannot simply find a confessor. A man doesn't find anybody who he could confess to. He then faces God all alone. It's easier and at the same time more difficult.
Just then a man understands the Christmas and Easter Gospel of God who came into the world to offer freedom. About the God who became a man in order to be with people. If we say "Lord Jesus intercedes for us with his Father", it sounds mythological and as from a textbook. So let's say it otherwise: God is on the both sides of the confessional. On the side of the confessor as the confessor and on the side of the guilty conscience as a kind accompaniment.
When did the turning point come? At the time when "Lord forgave the iniquity of his sin" how the psalmist wrote? It has, however, the entry condition "I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I have not hidden" (verse 5). It is the Lord who takes the man's quilt away. But the man must take a step forward. Useless is the question who made the first step, whether the man or the Lord. Answering it is impossible. But whoever experienced it can confirm that it is the man who must find the courage first. Only later will he know that the Lord went ahead to meet him.
So how is it with the self-confidence? When did the psalmist show more courage and more self-confidence? At the time when he "bravely" bore the guilt all alone and confined to nobody, or at the time when he spoke in prayer? As a response, God makes himself heard in the ninth verse: "Do not be like the horse or like the mule, Which have no understanding, Which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, Else they will not come near you." A horse and a mule are strong animals, they can carry a lot, but without a halter and a bridle their strength remains unused and dangerous. Confidence is also a power, like intelligence, an ability or education. Each power can be used in different ways, can go adrift and also cause harm. Also, self-confidence, self-trust, and the power of inferiority feelings (by the way, they walk together).
Biblical faith is thus not the opposite, or an antithesis of self-confidence. Its relationship to self-confidence is not "either - or". Biblical faith is the source and the direction of self-confidence. It originates from repentance – from the humility of a man before the Lord of the world, when the man is aware of all his faults and guilts - and all that quite concretely. And the biblical faith gives self-confidence a new direction: let the force be used for good. This is - quite simply said - in the direction of the Decalogue, in the direction of love, human mutual responsibility and unselfishness.
A moments ago the psalmist remembered how "his bones grew old Through his groaning all the day long." Now he can sing: "Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous; And shout for joy, all you upright in heart!" (verse 11) This turn is neither easy nor self-evident. However, it is possible to try the psalmist's path. And who has tried it, does he tell?
Amen. Psalm 32, 1-5 + 10-11 (Bible quotations - the New King James version)
We usually know the story of The Healing of a Boy with an Evil Spirit from Mark ´s Gospel. The plot is longer there and the focus is on the father ´s faith, as he pleads Jesus:” if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” The famous “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” represents the climax there. Jesus answers this most sincere confession not only with healing but also with a very hopeful tight word “everything is possible for him who believes”.
The statement is encouraging, puzzling and perhaps shame-making for the reader. To no one everything is possible. If we admitted cheap moralizing of the Gospel, we would come to the conclusion that a man believes little. We know it – sometimes our faith does not help us in small troubles, let alone in grand nervousness, fear or depression, let alone it could heal a person. Then we are facing a grand question mark: what is the functionality and attraction of our faith? If it is so weak and little, if it cannot be stronger strictly speaking, “I do believe, help me overcome my (present existing constant) unbelief”, what value does it have facing today ´s questions and problems?
Luke ´s version is shorter. As if only an outline/main idea remained. And surprisingly this outline misses the great idea about faith. The father only declares his love in his son – his only child. He literally clings to him like every father to his child and the son ´s illness gives him pain. The story shows his human side but it does not mention faith.
Concern about others is very familiar to us. We can compare: in the Gospel according to Mark the man has such great faith that everything is possible for him. On the contrary in the Gospel according to Luke there is a man to whom almost nothing is possible. He is just worried about the other. “Mark ´s” man is an unachievable character from mythology for us, while “Luke ´s” father, tormented with worries about his son, is very familiar to us. The sight of a close person in pain is worse than our own suffering. The sight of anyone in pain makes us uneasy and we prefer not to watch and switch the TV off. It is not only a general aversion that turns our backs but also a great deal of love towards suffering people, hungry children, abused women or oppressed nations.
To us, natural human relationship and experience is more familiar than abstract faith. Is it a sin? On one side, a concrete human relationship with the other, on the other side a relation to invisible untouchable God the Lord and the Son and the Holy Ghost.
We understand well the father of the ill boy not only in his fear. We also understand the fact that, in contrast with “Mark ´s” father, he does not talk about his faith. Nobody asks him, fortunately. He would have to stutter and say something about how personal and intimate faith is and how difficult it is to express. That in fact he does not think about it so much and he goes through his faith in some way. Shortly, he would have to get away somehow.
The father does not say anything about his faith. He just begs and pleads imploringly. He sticks to Jesus. We also understand this point where reflected faith gives way to human concernment of the others. We are also ready to stick to someone – anyone who can help. When we are in dire straits, our faith is the strongest. And thirdly we understand that the disciples could not drive the bad spirit out of the boy. It did not work. They were not able to and they did not have proper skills. In Mark ´s Gospel there is an extra explanation: “This kind can come out only by prayer.“ (in some manuscripts also “by fast“) That is an important answer, nevertheless incomplete and not the sole one. The disciples could not help not only because they prayed or fasted little. They just could not and nowadays it is unnecessary to ask why. We know this too. We know well our own limits not only when reflecting our faith. We just can ´t solve everything we would like to. If we were able to drive out all evil spirits in ourselves and our neighborhood, we would have a lot of work. Some people are trying: they have evil spirits diagnosed in all sort of ways and they work with them like doctors with diagnosis.
So far we have understood and agreed with much. With the feelings of the father and the disciples. Luke ´s version of the story of The Healing of a Boy with an Evil Spirit is more familiar, more comprehensible. But at this point our comprehension crashes into a precipice. Jesus turns to everyone with a fierce reproach: “O unbelieving and perverse generation, Jesus replied, how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” We can ´t say precisely whom Jesus addresses so passionately. The disciples, the father or everyone together? Actually, it does not matter. They are all alike. Everyone would like to see the boy healthy and no one can do it. We too would prefer to see our world without the poor, the fools, the ill, the drug addicted, the underfed and the violence victims. But it is impossible.
Then, what should we think about Jesus ´ anger at that moment? “O unbelieving and perverse generation, Jesus replied, how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” Let ´s try to answer!
“Jesus Christ Our Lord, we are really an unbelieving and perhaps perverse generation. We may be blamed for many things but who wants to judge? And we would not call so unambiguously many of our shadows perverse. We are also ruined by different traumas of centuries. We are unbelieving, little or ill-believing. We are skeptics like the father who is more interested in his son ´s health than in his own faith. If you want to be angry, nothing can be done, but we do not understand it.”
We replied. The significance of our answer is almost zero. Do we want to add anything? Do we want to seize something, theologically or psychologically, from our human certainty in the image of Jesus in the story? To talk about the image of Jesus - God the Lord to whom a human must reluct if he wants to accomplish something? It is better to be silent, so that the story would not conclude.
Let ´s try to go on reading in spite of misunderstanding Jesus ´ irritation. Angry Jesus does not sweep his hand or say “everything that should have been said have been said, well, that ´s the end, I ´m leaving.” “Bring your son here.” An action. The first to realize the importance of the moment is the demon. Whoever or whatever it is, it wants to cause some more harm to show that neither the father nor the disciples much less the boy can overcome it. It knocks the boy down and throws him into convulsions. The end. Jesus rebukes it, he heals the boy and returns him to his father. The end of the story.
That is to say: Jesus ´ anger was an episode, a stop, an admonishment. If nothing more had come, Jesus would have remained an unreachable idol from “once upon a time”, perhaps an unpleasant accusation that does not solve the problems of today.
But having stopped his anger not refusing the father Jesus changes the situation. That is a testimony of God – of His relationship towards a man. The testimony of faith above all: Jesus healed the boy. As if he had not been angry before, as if there had not been for human infidelity, unfaith, weakness and inability that a man cannot get rid of. As if there had not been for materiality and soberness to which a man does not want and cannot surrender. As if the disciples were perfect witnesses, unwavering masters of faith. As if they could confess: Lord, we believe without reservations. As if!
But in such case, Jesus would not have had to be there. In such case, the father, the son and the disciples could have helped themselves. Then faith that moves mountains would have been enough. But it would not. “To believe by one ´s own faith” is one of the most hidden false imitations of Christianity. Faith heals, it is said, but it is necessary to ask “What kind of faith, in what, in whom?”
“And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.” Nobody was surprised that the disciples had not been able to heal the boy. Nobody was surprised that the father had thought more of his son ´s illness than of his own parental pain. Quite a number were astonished by Jesus ´ anger. But everyone was amazed by great God ´s might. Let us add – by an unexpected God ´s might, especially after Jesus ´anger. That was something to be amazed.
And it will be! That ´s what the story is about! Not only about a two-thousand-year-old happy-end but about the fact that in spite of all our little belief, unbelief, skepticism and lack of interest, still there is something going on between “the Heaven and the Earth”. Still there is something more than our faith, either moving mountains or not carrying even molehills. Something or someone. This “someone” turns our skepticism into hope, our simple human inclination into effective help – through faith and prayer (“Teacher, I beg you to look at my son.”), and with our own hands (i.e. purely practical help, into which human love and faith in God can lead). And this “Someone” then “by the way”, merely as a “side product”, turns our little belief and unbelief into faith proper and live.
Everything is possible!
We go to church service to expect quietening apart from other things. Quietening is a sufficiently used and comprehensible expression of what a human is missing in the noisy world. Today we will discuss another expression of what we need and what regular worship offers (as we hope): “slowing down“.
Contemporary times are quick and they are speeding up. Time is being compressed. Nobody has got time, no matter if they are ten or eighty, let alone thirty or fifty; we all have too many tasks, worries, opportunities, needs and desires. The result? We don ´t keep up. From time to time we ask for the reason and we come up with different explanations. Sometimes we can see the cause in ourselves: we cannot sequence values and set priorities, we let ourselves being dragged by duties, we are not assertive enough, we cannot say “no”, we are not able to relax. Sometimes it is our surroundings´ fault: the way of life is speeding up, people walk faster, drive faster, computers compute faster, medicaments are effective more quickly, film editors edit faster, presenters present more quickly. Progress is becoming lope and afterwards stampede. We may like it or not but it is the only thing we can do about it. If we want to stand up, retain our job and not to be overtaken in the most varied queues not only in shops, we have no other choice but to be faster than the others.
So, when we go to church service, we expect slowing down too. Nobody is rushing here and there is no danger of being overtaken. We are well aware of it and that ´s what we like about worship. It is often the only time when we are not in rush – until the end of the last song. Then we make for the bustling world again. We are not able to stop for a long time.
Life places the current situation in front of our eyes with outstanding urgency. The situation is important and that is the question. In Czech we say “useless as yesterday news”, but on the contrary “current news, current situation and up-to-date prices” are the advantage of all those who are dealing with them. “Current” means “active in contemporary time”. Since time runs, “current” also mostly means “momentary, temporary and short-term”. When something is not current, we call it “passé”, i.e. past, postponed. Perhaps we could talk about a certain “cult of currentness”, because this adjective has always got, with no exceptions, positive coloration. “Current” equals good and useful, while “passé” is for nothing.
There is one part of hustling and speeding up – so called “clip existence”. A clip is a short film shot or a video sequence about some topic/motive. A clip can be musical, political or promotional. It is reality pulled off context, with an advertising, ideological or otherwise manipulating aim. Shots in clips take turn so quickly that a viewer is not able to realize clearly what he/she has just seen. He or she only briefly notices a shot and there are still more and more, new and new ones without an opportunity to memorise, let alone think things out to the end.
That is not a critique. Clip existence accompanies our every step and TV production just illustrates and completes our current life. How many things must a human manage during a day! How many times must he/she switch from a topic to a topic, from information to information, from a meeting to a meeting! E-mails, phone calls, newspapers, radio and TV news. What is going on in politics, in the world, in economy, at work, with my bank accounts, insurance, health. And in between, often on the second place, what is going on with my children, parents, friends and finally my husband or wife. We sometimes grumble about such a situation, but in fact we like it, because it is varied and it “lives”. We are “in”. The older among us are not perhaps so much “in” and they may be sorry about that, but usually they do not desire it. It is all well arranged; a human normally does not long for what he/she would hardly manage. And many young are looking forward to the day when they will not have to be so much “in”.
It is the increasing age that is creeping up on the situation. Slowly but conclusively, bringing new experience. Time runs faster to older people. You, young people, have something to look forward to. It is going to be even worse. Old people turn back to the past to their memories, and so their natural life rhythm is slowing down.
And suddenly…a human starts to ask questions that he/she had not asked before. What had been worthy, what had not, what he/she had truly experienced and what he/she had just run through, what he/she had really accepted and what had just passed away. Suddenly, “current” is not currently the most important.
Sometimes we have a feeling that perception of the accelerating time is our contemporary times ´ destiny. To be honest, when did the feeling start? Ten, twenty, fifty years ago? When we immerse into memoirs of older times, we will find a very similar life feeling there. Before the Second World War, in the twenties and thirties of the last century, in the nineteenth century and even earlier. Perhaps, we, with our experience of the twenty-first century, would have gone through their period as through an oasis of peace, slow movement and transparent changes. But both Franz Kafka and Jakub Arbes would not agree.
Then we look much further in time and space. The biblical psalmist writes in times whose atmosphere we can hardly imagine. In biblical antiquity nobody was in a hurry!, we think. But when we hear the first verse line “The world is firmly established and it cannot be moved”, we come up to an idea that the psalmist ´s certainty not only reveals greater quantity of peace, but also shows that the world is being shaken. And poetry of the third verse ”the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves” throws us as if to the middle of our times and shows that the psalmist went through much of our furious movement. “Pounding waves of the seas”, that is an unbound, hurtling element which moves certainties. A human must run away from the pounding waves. That is psalmist ´s news, here, he is “in”.
We are glad to hear that the biblical follower ´s situation was not any better. Then we haven ´t got the unpleasant feeling of too-late Adam ´s sons, God ´s children too young to be able to perceive forefather the Lord and Him to perceive us. Our experience tells that God is not “current” and faith in Him is not “in”.
This Sunday, the second fast Sunday, is called ”Reminiscere” according to church traditions. It is translated as “remember”. Psalms are cited in which psalmists remind the Lord to remember a human, His Mercy and the fact that this perhaps goes hand in hand. “Reminiscere” involves an appeal to God ´s memory, memory of God ´s mercy. And so a human, according to the Bible, calls upon God and reminds Him who He is and who a human, His creature, is: “Remember, O LORD, your great mercy and love” (Psalm 25,6). And so, we can, and we should, call the Lord according to the Scripture. And we believe the Scripture.
Now, let us try maybe a bold transposition of the biblical “Reminiscere”: is it necessary to remind the Lord who He is, what He is like, what He should be like and what His mercy is? Is it not rather a “poem in a poem” in which the psalmist reminds himself who God is, what He is like and what His mercy is like? Is it not actually the psalmist ´s self-assurance that the Lord is, in every moment and despite all the pounding waves, “current”?
As if, with the psalm, graveness of eternity started to rise again in contrast to the ephemerality of a moment. As if everyday clips, which interested us a lot, started to fade out. As if we started to realize that our worries and many things that fill our life and interest us are temporary and ephemeral. In a fortnight it won ´t matter how this or that news came out. In a two-year ´s time no one will remember it, let alone in ten, twenty years. What are twenty years compared to fifty years that are perhaps behind us and maybe ahead of us? And how about what had been before and will follow? Do trends, styles and fashion matter in comparison with the fact that “The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and is armed with strength” ? What can great waters, breakers of the sea and devastating floods do against the fortress of the world which God had established?
And so the psalmist has brought a real slow down. With no forced time stop but with the information that God is always “current” and that the greatest news is - eternity. After all “holiness adorns your house for endless days, O LORD.”
If anyone had a feeling that the Lord upon the height is something very static, hence inactive and incurrent, there comes assurance in the last verse: “Your statutes stand firm.” It says neither “Your existence”, nor ethereal, esoteric, unmoved and inactive, but “Your statuses” – Your word, will, strength, dynamics, time interference, Your might, Your love, mercy, Your good, magnificence, beauty of forgiveness, Your hope and Your peace.
So, we are allowed to know that our clip existence has got its dome which unifies the clips. Time is accelerating, at least from our point of view, and we are to manage much but we cannot. And in the end, the most important thing is not how much work we make and cope with, but that the Lord ´s throne stands still from time immemorial for ever and that the world was established firm. Firm, no matter how fragile, short-term and endangered (for what Adam ´s late son should be blamed) it is. And everything in it.
The most “passé” affair is the one that has not been yet, is going to be in a minute and will not be any more in a couple of moments. The latest news is God ´s eternity. And love is the most up-to-date affair. Yesterday, thousands years ago, tomorrow, as well as on the last day.
On Monday 21st June our organist Josef Bíca died. He passed away advanced in age (79) but unexpectedly and unnecessarily. He died in a car crash. He was truly significant for us and we liked him a lot. Many people considered him a talented musician. We will miss him. Why did the Lord let it happen?
On Tuesday 16th August brother Roger Schütz the founder of the community in Taizé in France was assassinated. Former Swiss protestant vicar settled down in a village in Burgundy near the famous cloister Cluny during the Second World War. There he was thinking over the life, the world and his own role in it and gradually others joined him. It the end, a grand community arose and nowadays more than 100 monks (including two Czechs) have taken care of thousands of visitors for more than half a century already. Brother Roger provided us with such space for Christian ecumenism that former cardinal Ratzinger served sacrament to him – to an evangelic. Brother Roger created a completely new type of spirituality, alleviation and meditation comprehensible for present people. His texts have been translated into dozens languages. We could read his first (and for a longer period of time least) book in 1970. Now, three months after his 90th birthday he was murdered by an insane foreigner, perhaps a Christian, in front of 2500 participants at an evening worship in Taizé. He was significant for many people. He saved belief of many Christians and helped others to find out lively Christianity – not a religion to which they belong but a personal meeting with the Lord of life, which is nearly a miracle in the times of false abused attempts on the same thing. We will miss him. Why did God let it happen?
Similar questions occur to us when something difficult to be dealt with appears. Christians imprisoned in communist concentration camps tell that imprisonment strengthened their belief but on the other hand it took others´ belief away for some time too. Human mind always resists pain but for Christians this fact is even worse because their belief is based on the acceptance of loving almighty God. Almighty God full of love + unnecessary pain and tragedy do not go together. And far from everything can be explained by human sin.
Christian, evangelic especially, then falls back on the Bible – the wisest book. He/she finds the book of Job and comes across similar questions. I must admit that the Book of Job has never given me a complete answer. Today I know why: some questions do not have any answers. But before one finds out, it takes time.
First two chapters take you aback the most. Satan collaborates with God and God accepts that - He allows the dialogue. Is Satan a partner to God?! God agrees with the Evil´s provocations and He hands a holy man Job over to him. Take him, doggie, tear! Don´t kill him, nevertheless you are allowed to murder all his family.
A reader is not calmed down by the fact that Satan can only do what God permits. God should not allow the least evil (at minimum evil which is not a result of a sin) The Bible clearly says that “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil.“ (Jb 1,1) Neither he nor anyone else caused his suffering. He suffered innocently. Why did God let it happen?
The less comprehensible such pain is from the Christian point of view, the more we understand it from our experience. Deaths of brother Bíca and brother Roger are just other fragments of which almost the whole life consists. Illnesses and deaths, incomprehensible disappointments and life misfortune fill in diaries of the majority of people. Christians either do not think it over or they struggle with it all their lives. But many Christians are distanced from the live Lord and quite a number of Non-Christians use it as an excuse. It is difficult to look for counter-arguments for such an excuse. And first two chapters of the Book of Job more-less support opponents of faith rather than defenders. Not even this beautiful verse, comprising all human humility, breaks through it: “And he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD."” (Jb 1,21) The happy end - the same number of sons and daughters, properties, good luck, happiness and longevity - does not help either. Those who passed away will not come back.
And a man turns away from the Book of Job – what the Bible wants to delude? The Lord who can allow such things is almighty and loving? Or is He not? Or is it a human fault?
A good question: what does the Bible want to say? The rule of negative theology (=asking what the Bible does not want to say) can be applied to all the questions about faith, God and the Bible. As well as the whole Bible, the Book of Job especially does not intend to open the door to God´s kitchen or mind, to explain what the Lord God is like or even what he is like in the dialogue with Satan. The Bible is Holy Scripture in a different sense: it truly shows what a man is like in front of God and what the Lord is like in the eyes of a man and how He treats him.
So, what is a man like in front of God? First of all, he is sinful. A man does not like hearing this, especially nowadays when we know so much about heredity, cultural, economic and psychological interrelation. What do we always want to blame ourselves or the others for? Let´s take ourselves as we are without making hypocritical reproachful wrinkles. Brother Roger´s essential attitude towards the world was not criticism but understanding: “let´s take people as they are” (Schütz, Roger; Žít dnešek s Bohem, Vyšehrad 1970, p. 34). But there is a difference between taking ourselves as we are (which includes reconciliation, effort for a change, reformation and repentance) and considering our state as definitive and unchangeable.
Job is an example of a fair man, and so he is both a mirror and a pattern. Can I say “I am blameless and upright, one who fears God, and turns away from evil.“ ? Was it no use at all for Job? But I say that Job is my pattern in his righteousness and I have a place to head for: towards Job´s ideal.
What else is a man in front of God like? Frequently unhappy, struck with blows and misfortune. A man does not understand, like Job, his wife and his friends did not. Job bears one blow, two, three and then it is too much. So is a man like in front of God too – painfully uncomprehending.
A man also looks for the answer. He comes upon many ideas: some are useless, some last for a while. Blessed with intellect and creativity a man is able to make up whatever philosophical, religious and artistic constructs – but in the end he gets stuck with his mouth wide open. If he takes to some of his constructs, people will make fun of him or they will be sorry for him most of the time. Since, to the question how God can let it happen, there is no answer.
So is the man in Job´s story like in front of the Lord. And what is God like face to face a man? The Lord in the eyes of a man?
First of all, God´s omnipotence and love is being shown from a different point of view. It is unlike we know it. A man, thinking about God, simply takes some good human virtue, multiplies it and assigns it to the Lord. As if the Lord was a many-times-multiplied man, as if God´s love was many-times-multiplied human love, as well as his power, abilities, feelings…But the Lord is not like that.
The Book of Job sees the Lord who lets Satan provoke Him. Thus a man sees God because he cannot explain it differently. Job and his friends make a mistake in their attempt to explain things. As if they spoke against the sense of the whole book: they show there is no answer.
The Lord is basically hidden for the eyes of a man. Let´s not help it with New Testament complement! For many Jesus´ contemporaries the Lord remained hidden and for many inhabitants of the Earth God remained invisible even after Christ! Job learns God´s hiddenness not earlier than in the last chapter and he hands it in his prayer almost like his greatest discovery.
Hidden, different, differently almighty and loving Lord – that is the main message of the Book of Job. Well, one more discovery of Job remains – a very surprising and rather intuitively perceived one. The Bible reports on it quite clearly though just in one verse. Job finishes his prayer like this: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You.” (Jb 42,5).
In the horror of the first two chapters and mainly during his terrible fight for understanding, during his search with his wife and friends “Job saw God with his own eyes”. He caught sight of differently loving, differently almighty God dissimilar to what he had expected all his life, different from what theology and other human attempts had described. He saw right true God and was happy about it. He was so happy that he wanted to “live today with the Lord” – this is the title of one of Roger´s books. For that reason Job says in the end: “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.” (Jb 42, 3-4)
The happy-end of the Book of Job is more than an end of a story. It is an illustration of the fact that even the man after whom Job´s news were named discovered evangel – the good news about truly loving, really almighty and good Lord of the world. Though it does not always seem like that.
"There is a limit to everything" our grandmothers used to say citing unawares the ancient philosopher. "Nothing too much" says the Bible, and we shake our head incredulously. We call to mind old philosophers, stoics, Seneca, Democritos, and see how close to them the Holy Script is. At the same moment there falls to pieces our hard-earned image about the uniqueness and exclusiveness of the Bible among all the books and literatures. Its Book Ecclesiastes at least seems to be a very fair and at the same time very humane evidence of Man's abysmal scepsis, of the heights of his hope and of the clash between both of them. Anyhow the saying "There is a limit to everything" is based on the many years' experience that "nothing succeeds less than excess".
Does this apply to the case of excess of faith too? Should we beware of too much prayer, too much reading the Bible, or too much love for God? Christians would certainly hesitate to answer "yes", in particular if speaking from the reacher's pulpit. One can say with full seriousness that faith, love for God, our prayers and reading the Bible are never excessive. Nevertheless we are aware of the fact that there exist also an unsound withdrawal to praying, a pathological love for God, an unwholesome reading the Bible. The increase in quantity affects the change of quality, and vice versa. Likewise it can be said with full seriousness that too much prayer might mean a chaotic escape from everyday life, too much reading the Bible might make more difficult our understanding it, and love for God might imply a substitute for the missing or lost love of our fellow man.
Don't be over-wise! In fact, is it possible? Who would not like to be wise enough as to surmount cursory ingenuity and wittycism, as not to become stifled with the weight of one's own experience, without changing into a crusty sceptic only. Who would not like to be so wise as to find remedy for one's own rationality which brings him down to his knees? When talking with next of left kin before a funeral nearly everybody whom we take leave with, liked people, nature and were keen readers. I noticed it incredulously before coming to realize that me too like people, me too need nature very badly, and relish reading as much as I can to improve my knowledge and wisdom. Unless all of us are such, I am from the opposite riverside. But in fact, we all want to be wise and knowing.
Who would not long for being just? Although everybody interprets justice in his own way, nobody admits that he does not care to be just - neither in one's own eyes nor in the eyes of others. Some translations into foreign languages try to blunt the edge of the statement and translate possibly "Don't stick too strictly to the rules of law", but thaťs not its proper sense. The Book Ecclesiastes gives quite an apparent interpretation: "Don't be over-righteous!".
An engaging argumentation: The preacher warns first against over-wisdom and over-justice, and only then against their opposites, wilfulness and derangement. Over-wisdom brings about annihilation of man. Wilfulness and derangement cause premature death when alive, I dare say.
Annihilation means over-wearing out, a self-sacrifice. To sum up, it is something uneffective though perhaps eventually worthy of honour, admiration and imitation. "Premature death" is a dishonest suicide, a death when alive, resignation from the task, clearance of the talented and of professions. Worse is the second, as "death when alive" means corruption of sense, task, life mission - before one's own destruction.
The warning given by Ecclesiastes is directed at both of the sides. Even those who "ruin" themselves through over-wisdom and over-justice receive the warning "You don't behave well !". But how to make it out?
A few years ago some Czech and world ecologists started to coin the term "perenially maintainable progress". Among the Czech pioneers of this concept were Josef Vavroušek, ecologist and Minister of Environment, and Erazim Kohák, philosopher. Perenially maintainable progress means a way of life enabling to fulfill natural desire of men for life improvement, without jeopardizing neither the mankind nor the rest of the world - both at present and in the time to come. Their term is sometimes understood still more explicitly as perenially maintainable life. It means more than modesty and elimination of consumers' mentality, i.e. producing, shopping, consuming and wasting. Still deeper context can be understood by it.
Man wants to posess more and more, of everything. Not of food only, or of drinks, clothing, size of flat, number of cars and PC. More days and years, more enjoyment, more knowledge. He longs for more education, reading, seeing, hearing, mastering more languages, having more friends. Is it wrong? Man wants also more understanding the Bible, faith, to be nearer to God. Man needs to know more about self, to have more understanding for his or her fellow-creature, to be better versed in History and Future. Is it wrong?
Man wants to have higher degree of contemplation, to comprehend more religious world and psychology of faith. Is it wrong? Perenially maintainable life means prudence in routing progress and regulating its speed. Does our happiness consist in posessing more and more, not only more things but also more spiritual and intellectual qualities? Isn't it possible to speak also about the perenially maintainable advancement of faith too?
Don't be over-wise! First of all, man, don't have higher opinion of yourself than you actually deserve. Don't expect your maxim "more and more" brings you automatically more happiness, euphoria, more inspiration. If coming, they can't be the fruit of your "more". Your capability is always donation only and you can accept it merely when being wise, not over-wise.
Another Czech philosopher speaks about adequacy. Scientific methods must be adequate to the object of research. Happiness too can be obtained by adequate means only. Faith needs to be reached by adequate prayer, by adequate reading the Bible, by adequate love of God. No matter how scandalous these words may sound. How broad-minded for some, how godless!
"Adequacy" involves not only quantity but also quality. The Holy Script does not strive after our drowning in its depths, but is targeted at our lucky emerging from it with deeper wisdom. Our Lorďs claim to us is of course not to love Him patologically, inadequately. We have to look for the proper, adequate trend and quality of our love for God, of the Bible, of our fellow creatures. It means to find the essence of our faith, the actual advancement in the proper sense of the word.
Don't be over-wise ! Better to say, don't attempt to be wise for the sake of your wisdom only. In fact what to be? We are at the start again: What is the problem of our faith, what deals our life with? The first step to wisdom is the fear of the Lord /Proverbs 9,10/. This fear certainly does not imply terror, but humbleness, respect, encounter with power and love, in the end a joyous reception of both of them. Certainly it is possible without any expansion of knowledge, experience or consumption of goods. But when already living in the world where "more and more" is nearly a "law of nature", we can put "more fear of the Lord" on the first place, emphasizing adequate, properly aimed, high-quality humbleness, respect and encounter with Goďs power and love.
Don't be over-wise ! You should know true wisdom is mystery, since it is an attribute of God. One can grow up in knowledge and experience, or in research of chemistry, electronics and genetics, but with that elementary humbleness towards the ultimate unfathomed mystery. Even philosophers can and must grow up to look for new depths and continuities, if they in their conceit do not exclude themselves into privacy and if they do not give up to envisage the mystery both fathomed and unfathomable. So do theologians and everybody following in faith God our Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We don't approach wisdom, anyhow.
Don't be over-just ! Truly to say to attempt at justice is possible and necessary. Justice belongs to the perenially maintainable life quite badly. If justice is running short, in world-wide scope, no life can be preserved on this planet. Yet true justice is mystery again because true justice evaluates all the continuities, all the "starts" and consequences. True justice does not balance our sin and punishment on the scales only, perhaps extenuating at most the circumstances. True justice knows what leads to improvement, and is able to reach reform. True justice means simply to be able to pardon.
Is all this an over-abstract theory? True wisdom and true justice are truly too "abstract", thaťs genuine, imaginary and inaccesible, as they are Goďs virtues and belong to God. Man is surely not relieved of his responsibility for his own wisdom and justice. The Book Ecclesiastes was not written by any sceptical agnostic:
So the Speaker, in his wisdom, continued to teach the people what he knew. He turned over many maxims in his mind and sought how best to set them out. He chose his words to give pleasure, but what he wrote was the honest truth. The sayings of the wise are sharp as goads, like nails driven home; they lead the assembled people, for they come from one shepherd. One further warning, my son: the use of books is endless, and much study is wearisome.
This is the end of the matter: you have heard it all. Fear God and obey His commands; there is no more to man than this. For God brings everything we do to judgement, and every secret, whether good or bad. /Eccl 12-15/.
That is the end of the Book Ecclesiastes, and its final advice is the following: Be fearful of God. Here results the mentioned "be neither over-wise nor over-just" and "observe His commandments".
Thaťs the point if we are looking for joy, happiness, fullness of life - all this is a perenially maintainable progress of life and faith.
´Grace and peace to you from God the Father´ is said at the beginning of every service. We understand this wish. Although we say “Happy birthday to you, I wish you ´good health´”, we actually, more or less, mean “I wish you peace”. Health seems to be the major source of peace or rather an illness seems to be the cause of restlessness.
On the other hand, restlessness and unease seem to be the major “engines” of our lives and of progress (in its best sense of the word) while peace brings motionlessness and rigidity. Especially in our younger days restlessness had driven and pushed us towards activity, work, meeting, discovery and exploration. Remember jazz poet Václav Hrabě hearing “a drum which beats praise of eternal search in irregular hoarse knocking”. We can also recall Waldemar Matuška and his famous saying “I don´t know where the restlessness which drags people from one place to another never leaving them happy with themselves comes from…”
Nowadays peace seems to have no importance. Peace means serenity and quietness but a modern man makes a lot of noise and moves faster and faster. It is thought that time acceleration is a good thing. And acceleration of development? It prolongs life, shortens distances and enables things impossible before. Otta ´s encyclopaedia with appendices fits in a little plastic stuff. It takes just a few hours to get from Europe to America. It is possible to peep the guts through a keyhole - a laparoscope - and to examine the human body in great details tomographically from inside. We have artificial joints and they carry us quite briskly. An email to antipodes takes a fraction of a second. Long performances do not take place any more and an eight-hour original version of Wagner ´s “Master Singers of Norimberg” is not borne even in Bayruth. Film editors make sequences of fractions of seconds. Where are former several-minute shots?! Life is a set of very short video-clips. People long for silence only from time to time, usually when they are over fifty. Going to a beach, young people must take high-volume tape-recorders with them. The waves of the sea? Boring, boring, dull, dull. Why peace?
Has everything changed so much since the biblical times? In the Bible peace is surely one of the principle topics: human plea and God ´s offer. But not only time has become shortened and accelerated. The human being has forgotten what peace is and what it is here for. A man thinks “leave me in peace” when someone bothers him/her. “I want to be alone,” the Prince in ´Rusalka´ sings because he has lost his fairy. We understand him. “Get out of my life,” Pilate shouts at Jesus in ´Jesus Christ Superstar´ not knowing what to do as Jesus makes him restless. In most cases this is the only peace we can think of. Therefore when we ask whether we need some peace at all, it is necessary to begin the question with “What kind of peace….”. Only then can we decide if that is what we really long for.
In the Bible peace is special. Hebrew ~Alv (shalom) and Greek eivrh,nh, (eiréné) signify everything but “leave me in peace“. ”Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,“ says Jesus in the Gospel according to John adding immediately “not as the world gives do I give to you.“ Apostle Paul talks about ”the peace of God, which passes all understanding”. Shalom and eiréné signify different peace.
The text which is the basis for our sermon has a special position in Isaiah ´s prophecy. Dozens previous chapters bring unease to their readers. They tell us about miseries of the time (we are in 6th c. BC) that is wars and hunger, injustice in lower classes and corruption in higher classes, judges who try according to connections instead of the laws, poverty and wealth, monument destruction and damaging old good things because of new ones (we are in 6th c. BC). Isaiah doesn´t conceal anything and he doesn´t spare his readers either. He brings topics we do not fancy reading. Isaiah disturbs peace.
In spite of that, he still speaks about peace. He talks about it as if it was something sought-after, needed and available. Restless words of the prophet bring people to peace like an operation brings recovery. Refusing these words and not hearing the prophet, who cancels false peace in the name of the true one, is not worth the trouble. It is uncomfortable and painful. Isaiah ´s words seem to take everything while not giving anything but only for the first sight.
The prophet introduces peace in sense which has already been forgotten (we are in 6th c. BC): ”…your peace would have been like a river.” A river is wide and it flows. Israel had a lack of water, so it did not remind them of what we experienced in 1997 and 2002. A river gives life, moisture and living. This is peace. It also offers entertainment: dance on a steam boat is great fun, both adults and children can confirm. A river flows. It is impossible to walk in there twice. It changes: rough, wild, dancing in spring; in summer calm, serene, reflecting Sun and laughter of children who splash each other by its banks; quiet with frost, waiting for ice debacle in winter. A river mirrors all the things around it as if it was saying: ”Everything grows thanks to me.” This is peace. A river has a finish: it flows from a source to a mouth and nothing can stop it. Something may slow the river down but finally it finds it way otherwise. This is peace.
Peace like neither serenity nor rigidity. Peace like meandering motion from one place to another (remember: a river is not a straight water pipe). Peace like a life-giving strength. Peace like security in rough times.
Righteousness goes hand in hand with peace in the text. It is a very instable changeable motion for the humans too. Righteousness is compared to the waves of the sea, which is surprising! Sea waves are so grand they can not be resisted for a long time. They gain our respect and they remind us, by their endlessness, of durability of this world. This is righteousness.
Peace and righteousness concern both an individual and the whole human society. There is no righteousness without peace and there is no peace without righteousness. Peace is worth it. True peace is blessed, not suppressing good progress and development. And righteousness is necessary for peace. If peace and righteousness are missing, human life is incomplete then. Our doubts of their importance vanish. Where can we get them without stealing? Isaiah would not be a true prophet if he owed us an explanation. He doesn ´t offer any simple instructions though. He outlines the essential direction towards peace which is obvious but surprising.
Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: "I am the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go. O that you had hearkened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea.”
This is what people do not take into account any more (we are in 6th c. BC). Is God teaching us? God has always been a great celebrity on which we have more-less counted but which we have considered motionless. God cannot be really interested in our lives, can he?! Would he really teach us like a teacher his/her first-class pupils or grammar school students with great patience? Are we not thrown into our lives with any help? Are we not self-taught persons as far as peace and equity are concerned? This is hard to believe. History has persuaded us many times that a human being does not get any help but himself/herself. The Old Testament people of God had even thought so in 6th c. BC - previous chapters confirm it – let alone us having experienced both world wars, being aware of psychoanalysis and knowing ourselves.
Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: "…I teach you to profit.” We wish to shout: how do you? And where? What should we do to find peace and righteousness for us and the others?
What are we to do? Firstly, to give serious thought to the fact that He is teaching us Himself. Nothing works without His Word, His law and the coordinates of life as they are. We must search and ask. We can start, for example, with the Ten Commandments – that will be enough for the right direction. It will bring us various application and consequences.
How does the Lord God teach? This question is a bit pointless. Perhaps he teaches us through conscience, perhaps through hope that not everything has to be done due to old proven rules, perhaps through help of others. Maybe in prayers, in a quiet while in the middle of restlessness. Maybe something will firm up our joints and muscles when we decide to accept peace and righteousness in our decision-making.
We may be surprised how God really teaches and how vital peace and righteousness are. And how everything works!
The narration of a poor man who is more selfless than others is well-known in many cultures and religions. Sometimes it is a historic story, a parable, or a legend, other times it is a myth or a fairy-tale. The motive is always the same: praise of selflessness in contrast with the absolute worth of sacrifice. In short: a poor woman, with her two coppers, sacrifices more than a rich man with a thousand note (taken out of a pile of others); poor Jack shares his last piece of Mum ´s cake with an old man.
If such a story appears in gospels in the Bible, even in Jesus ´ words, we can assume it is not a sheer repetition of old wisdom. The Bible is somehow specific: it is a part of literary treasures and it is the most powerful spiritual source for European and Oriental culture. Does it summarize ancient truth and wisdom from other sources? No, it does not. The Bible concentrates on the basis, so that everything else results from it or is taken for granted. Perhaps, Proverbs summarize, apart from Salomon ´s wisdom, centennial human experience. Nevertheless, if we read an old proverb “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” in the Mountain sermon, the context gives the old wisdom a very new biblical link.
The parable of the old woman is an example of that. In fact, the story is not presented as a parable but as an authentic experience of Jesus and his disciples. They could have experienced it more than once and, thanks to God, such an event is not a miracle nowadays either. The fact that a less rich person is more unselfish than a prosperous man counts almost for a rule.
Let´s talk about the architecture of the Jerusalem temple, where the event took place, first, so that we could understand the meaning of the story better. A courtyard covered most of the place and it was as large as a square. Everyone (this is important): men, women and pagans were allowed. It certainly was a magnificent sight: a multifarious stage of trade, religious and cultural life. It simply became, like every square, the centre of life.
In the middle of the courtyard there was an elevated temple. The gate signalized that the faithless were not permitted any further. Only people not indifferent to Israeli God ´s call for life within His closeness (i.e. God ´s people) could enter. People who were just hanging about, killing away time or simply trading were not allowed. Not closer than that stood the temple ´s treasury. Some claim there were more, perhaps thirteen treasuries. Everybody, once again God ´s people only, could give as much money as they were willing to. Temple service and other church activities were financed from it. So, the church was supported by those who gained something out of it and it was the reason why the temple was so precious for them, why they liked it so much. Of course, we could say that people who came to sightsee got something too, and therefore should pay. A visit to the cinema costs 100 CZK at least and it is an hour-and-a-half entertainment “with a question mark”, while a visit to the church is not usually entertaining at all but we can gain something there too – something much more precious. Nevertheless, we will leave that aside for now, as Jesus brings the story to a level deeper than a mere call for selflessness.
Emplacement of the treasury helps us to understand the gift. The gift is not a symbol of its donor ´s “absolute” sacrifice. It is an implication of the relationship which a donor has with a donee. The value of the gift reflects the importance of the temple. The donor expresses how much he/she appreciates that he/she belongs to the God ´s people and that he/she knows about God and vice versa. In the temple he/she gets a great impulse. He/she is to look for answers to questions like “Why do you live?, How do you live? and How should you live?” Through the gift/sacrifice, people reveal how important and valuable things they get in the church are for them. Mark Twain was said to have made a decision to give two dollars at the beginning of a service. In the middle of the sermon he decreased the amount to one dollar. At the end of that long speech he thought he would not donate anything. At the end of the service, like an expression of usefulness he gained, he stole two dollars. He was willing to donate as much as he gained. The negative value of the gift revealed that his profit was not big, no matter whose fault it was.
On the contrary, the old woman demonstrated a lot by her gift: the temple was valuable for her. The temple was an expression of God ´s love and closeness. The woman was happy to have her spot there and she knew that she was receiving something very important within God ´ closeness.
Jesus comments on her act to his disciples. His short explanation reminds us of two important facts. The first one is “visible dimension of the woman ´s inner feeling”. We said that the lady was obviously happy in the church and the cathedral counted for a lot to her. She might have experienced gratitude for the ability to live, walk and breathe. She could have been thankful not only for food, drinks, meeting nice neighbours, life in relative peace, but also for trust in God, His love and mercy. Despite her harsh fate the woman knew there were many things to be grateful for.
This is inner feeling. The experience is good and blessed. People should know why they are here and they should seek for their place in the Sun. This applies to everyone, no matter how difficult his/her life is. Many sick, disabled or fate-sought people confirm it. They are able to realise that they also receive good things apart from the bad ones. They do not swear, complain about bad times or spoilt life and do not say “life is not worth its salt”. Their inner feeling is, despite all difficulties, good and perhaps nice. That is great. It should be like this.
But when Jesus comments on this event, he says the woman ´s inner feeling is visible. You can see it on her. The woman feels the duty of expressing her experience, no matter how many people will notice. She donates two pennies, as she has no more. Despite her poverty, her inner feeling moves her hands and she wants to do it. She does not want to hide her gratitude inside. She wishes to turn it into an act or into a relationship with her neighbours.
Someone may object that it is normal. But, someone else (in around religion and faith quite often) may think: such an experience belongs exclusively to an intimate sphere where nobody is allowed and from where it is not necessary to go out; if faith brings a person to moral philosophy, well done then, but faith like reliance/trust in God is a completely private matter and does not have to/should not be seen.
But Jesus reminds that faith is visible. It is no private matter. Faith should be seen, somehow or somewhere. It is up to everyone. Fruit of our faith is to be seen, as it helps the others. The woman served as a good example, encouragement and inspiration. She brought to light the good in her heart. For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. (Mt 12, 34-35)
Secondly, Jesus reminds that the woman donated all the money she had for living. That is exactly what makes an ordinary literature become a gospel. The lady gave everything she had but did not lose anything. She left everything within God ´s presence. As if a person took all his/her bankbooks, securities, real estates and properties, brought them – not to the temple – right in front of God and said:
“Everything is yours anyway, so please, lead my hands, my mouth and my mind, so that I knew what to do with them. Tell me how to express gratitude for the gift of life, air, water, food and drinks, friends and neighbours. Especially, teach me gratitude for your presence and the fact that I know about all this. Here I am, not only with my real estate but also with all I have for living: my abilities, education, experience, memories, faculties, my name and my reputation. I am bringing all this, though I should earn my living from it. You, Lord God, are able to evaluate everything well.
This is the end of the story. I believe the woman, having given everything, did not die of hunger, while fat clergymen were having one more glass of wine after dinner. I believe the episode contains a great symbol: to give everything means to gain it all back in quality and quantity of interest.
Hopefully, it is obvious now that the story is not only about making anyone more selfless. Two aspects are important here: 1. inner life of faith has its visible aspect, 2. “The earth is the LORD 's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24,1) And therefore a person may happily give everything he/she owns into God ´s treasury, even if it seems that he/she has two pennies only.
This is faith – no spiritual extension on the basis of food, drink, money, houses or chequebooks, but clear consciousness that nothing is mine but given. Such gratitude and resignation (in the best sense) should be seen. How and where – that is up to us.
Some translations bear as the heading of this pericope the title “Calling to Repentance”. The Czech ecumenical translation calls it “About the God’s punishments“. But Jesus is not the one, who is talking here about punishments, but rather those, who are asking him such a question. Jesus leads them further. From thinking on punishments (for others) to repentance (for themselves).
We don´t know what happened to those Galileans. Perhaps some crime was committed and it ended bloodily. We don´t know what happened in Siloe. It is only our text we learn from that the Jerusalem tower fell down and killed 18 people. We don´t know any particularities, we don´t know the culprit. There is something else what is important for this part of Scripture: The difference between people´s response and Jesus´ response.
People responded as we can assume from Jesus´ answer. They all thought the Galileans had to commit something really wrong. Some of them may have thought it “served them right”. People like this may think you are always to be blamed for something wrong happening to you. But the initial cause was somewhere else. Those, who survived, were asking in shock “why?” Why did it happen? Where did it come from? Is there a reason in human behaviour for it, or what? “The Lord God punished them”, “the Lord God tempts us”, “the Lord God does not exist, since if he existed, he could not have seen all that evil happening on the earth…”.
But notice that Jesus doesn´t deal with the victims of the tragedy. He doesn´t evaluate either the first or the second, He doesn´t blame them or defend them. They are simply not a subject of a reflection of the faith. If someone is to be helped, Jesus will help, but this is not at this point the situation for the victims. We are here to consider the situation of the surrounding people who are taking certain views on this tragedy. Jesus turns their attention to themselves! Now he deals with those standing around.
Last week I was going down the Vinohradska avenue and looking at the big hotel Do Giovanni. From the other side I could see the ugly skyscraper of the Strojimport company. And between these two buildings I could see a silhouette of the Zizkov Television tower. I remembered the amateur photo of a pedestrian walking by the Twins Tower in New York just at the moment of the airplane crashing into the building. I imagined a situation of an airplane crashing into one of the Prague´s towers… I would run away, I thought, but then I realised this could never happen here. We are a small country, completely out of any terrorist attention. But the New Yorkers had had the same feeling before September the 11th.
And then I realised I am not at home in Bohemia, in Prague, or in Europe. I am at home on this planet. And this happened on this planet. I am involved in this much more I was willing to admit before. I have to think about it. But who and what am I to think about?
And I remembered again Jesus´ talk with his fellow citizens of Galilea. Something similar was also spoken by the American president F.D. Roosevelt, already in October 1938 in Chicago: “Let nobody thinks America can escape!… If there is an epidemic, those inflicted are asked to be put into isolation to avoid further disease spreading. A war is contagious even though you are not directly involved in it. It can touch nations which are very far from the heart of the epicenter”. He was repeating similar ideas until December the 7th. Before that date he was said by some to be a warmonger. And then Pearl Harbour came.
In the same way Professor Erazim Kohak talked last week on TV. The Twins were popular with many people. They were symbols of architecture, civilisation, culture and and a certain lifestyle. They were symbols of a certain power. But they could be a different symbol with a different meaning to someone else. This has to be taken into serious consideration. We must think of the symbolism for other cultures. We must think of the Pentagon symbol. Ondrej Neff, an important and respected Czech journalist, didn´t understand this perspective: “What do we want to understand? There was a crime committed and we are to find and punish the culprit. There is no room for understanding the culprit´s motivation… The general morality was trespassed and therefore it is necessary to keep general moral rules and not talk around them! What does Professor Kohak want to explain or understand?”
Professor Kohak, if I understood him, had seen our world with a different morality. What I call immoral, other person might not view it the same way. It is necessary to see circumstances and context. Of course, the context and circumstances don´t excuse any crime, not at all, but they can help us to understand the cause, so that the cause can be sorted out. The circumstances are without a question related to the economical standards and situation of the particular person. When talking about a culture clash, one party wins and the other loses. Usama Bin Laden has not been created by Islam, but rather by some ideology coming from a certain background. The Roosevelt enemy – Hitler, also wasn´t a product of Germanism itself. Ondrej Neff is right, in accord with the whole world, in terms of the fact that a terrible crime has been committed and that the culprit must be found and punished. But Erazim Kohak didn´t question this. But when going further, when thinking more about all the complexity of that matter, if we try to trace some personal message and not only what the U.S.A. and NATO are going to do, what they should do and shouldn´t do, if we thought about the impact of this horrible act on any of us, we couldn´t avoid Jesus´ word about the tower ruins in Siloe: “If you don´t repent, you will all die similarly.” The sign of the time is repentance.
There is no talk here about any collective guilt. And there is not even the slightest mention of political or military reactions to Islamic terrorism. It is not threatening us with war or other conflicts. And again, it is not a word removing guilt for the terrorist attack of those participants. It´s only about contemplating the tragedy in depth and not without any bias (because it is not possible). It is about contemplating ourselves.
And we will not think about ourselves only as potential victims of the survivors or an avenger. We will have to think about ourselves as about those who sin. We sin by being unsympathetic and holier than Thou and by being lazy “short-cut” thinkers, having no interest in prayer. We bear greater or smaller sins of hatred, racism, intolerance, large or small scale cheating. Also acting cowardly when it is necessary to stand against evil or violence. This sin doesn´t necessarily relate directly with the New York tragedy or the tragedy in Siloe. As the sin of those who surrounded Jesus didn´t relate much to the fall of the tower there. The one who dares to speak out this personal link might be suspect of befogging what has happened and what needs to be done. But this link was spoken explicitely by Jesus. I don´t remember which of the Russian thinkers (I guess it could be either Dostojevkij or Tolstoj), when seeing a drunken beggar lying in a ditch, said this simple prayer: “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” This is not a challenge to become strongly self accusing or becoming falsely humble. But the attack doesn´t tell us only something about Islam or terrorism. It tells us something about us. If you don´t repent…
This repentance will not end in contrite prayers. Because we are Christians, those of Christ! And our essential confession is: Jesus is Christ, the God with us! God not only observing us, but descending! Forgiving and empowering! God strengthening our shivering kneels and weak hearts, God who is calming stress and passions, God not longing for a revenge, but for rightousness. God granting the courage to act, to accept responsibility, giving strenth to make decisions. God teaching us to be bold and rightous, but not self-rightous. God who is not leading us to a revenge, but to hinder evil.
A preacher cannot say what this implies to U.S.A. The answer is very difficult. But we can be certain the answer will not contain a lead to revenge or a retreat from a battle. The answer will begin with repentance. And it will be followed with hope that the LORD will equip our hearts and brains with needed boldness and wisdom.
In the Gospel Jesus repeats the warning: “If you don´t repent, you will die similarly.” Does it seem to be tactless and rude to repeat just this at this point? We shouldn´t understand is as threatening. It is just a challenge. In Bible we hear this also vice versa: The one who repents will live. To be alive not only in a sense of surving a terrorist attack, but the person gains his/her live, finds it. President Roosevelt said in his speech: “Every man has now a lot in what is going to happen… In these troubled hours and bad days ahead of us, we know that the majority of humankind is with us. Many fight next to us. All pray for us. Since fighting on our behalf, we also fight on their behalf, and for their hope and freedom of God.”
I believe that this combat for freedom and rightousness is not happening only on the real battlefields. Even our repentance and prayers are fighting for the same with a strong efficiency. Because a prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5,16).
The church calendar brings us today to the first Sunday in Lent. Before us is opening this unique period, perhaps the most unique period of the church year. Six weeks until Easter; six weeks most famous for the traditional limiting of food and gaiety. What a holiday, or not a holiday, you don't know if you should laugh or cry. So a kind of holiday is here, but how is it manifested? Who of us remembered the beginning of Lent? Even the ministers overlooked the beginning of Lent and forgot to announce it in the service last week. And what will happen during the next few days? Will some of us stop eating certain foods? Did we remember that Wednesday was Ash Wednesday? Only when we heard it on the news that it was a Catholic holiday. So why is it listed on the Evangelical Church's calendar? Tradition?
It almost forces the scandalous idea that the whole period of Lent is only a piece left of an old tradition that is dying out; when our children become adults they wont know about it! So what to do with it? There is no celebration, at least in the Evangelical tradition. What message does it bring? It not necessary to speak too much of limiting food. Either we are so reasonable that we always eat in moderation, or we just don't have enough money to do otherwise. After all, compared to the well-off in the world we hold a kind of fast our whole lives. We also think of the hungry year round if we are at least a little charitable or shamed into contributing to charities which we support each year along with other churches. So why Lent?
But let's allow at the beginning, that it is good to have a time of year when we remember serious things, turn into ourselves in solitute, ask what we are doing badly, where we are at faults and what we should do about them. In the end this serious time leads us to gratefulness for everything we have and to the Provider of it all. That is what Lent is about.
The special atmosphere around Lent is because of Easter. There is tension: the loss of Good Friday and the victory of Sunday. The weakness of Man crucified and the strength of the crucified Victor over death. This tension is most strongly seen in the experience of the Disciples' fear and loss of hope which gives rise to a strong, joyous faith, certainty, hope and courage. All of that later leads to the founding of the Church which survives centuries of persecution, temptation, and even self-destructive endeavors - when it gains power, it joins with political power and desires world domination.
Are the Easter holidays happy or sad? Is it really joyous? And what about the period of Lent - confessing sins, thinking about ourselves - does that make us happy? Christmas is completely different. It is full of joy.
Luke places Jesus' speech to all who knew him right at the beginning of Easter and after the Last Supper. He begins, "Simon, Simon," speaking to Christians, to us, the church. Because Simon is a real Christian - steeled, traditional, experienced. The first Apostle, a real VIP in the church.
But actually after Jesus gives him a new name. Peter means "rock." He has faith like granite. He already got the bread and the wine of the last supper and he was just waiting to see what would come next. Just like us when we were christened, confirmed and had a good number of church services behind us. Then comes the break. Suddenly Peter becomes the old Simon, weak, unsure, vulnerable. Why? By addressing him as Simon, Jesus reminds us of the old person who didn't know Jesus, was not a Christian, not baptized, not confirmed. Just like us, when we pray for someone in a crisis with strong and honest belief, we pray very hard and long and . . . nothing. Why?
Because Satan wanted it! What a strange answer! First, we don't believe in Satan very much, and no wonder. He has been defeated, hasn't he? That is the basis of Christianity. Evil has been defeated, death has no hold over you. And look at it now. Evil is suddenly at the helm. Is it possible that Satan can ask for something? Easter is coming, the victory of the Lord. Hasn't evil been swept away already?
No, it has not. Evil has one right: to exist. It struggles for power and affection. Maybe so that Man may remain free. To be able to decide freely. To let Man choose who he will give his life to. That's how humanity is separated. So choose today who you will serve.
How a person would like to choose correctly! Only a few people consciously choose evil. Everyone wants to help himself, the world and life. How much more do we - who know more about the Lord of Life - want to choose good. We know of love, unselfishness. We also know that the bible is a good source of wisdom and strength. Despite that we sometimes can't succeed and feel that Evil is almost winning. In the world, nature, politics, economics and ecology. Who can look at the world today and honestly say that everything will turn out all right? It can be pretty sad with ourselves personally, too. Evil in all its forms wears us down, doesn't it? In the form of fear, apathy, refusal to take personal responsibility, laziness, moralism, being lukewarm or full of feverish zeal, illness, and finally death, which we will never be able to accept. We Peters are always Simons. This is the true fast, to realize this and be sad about it, not to let it continue; don't shrug it off and say it has always been this way and what can you do?
"But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strenghten your brothers."
So this should be the entrance into our sober fast. Someone interceded for us. He interceded for us. What is there to add? He interceded for us and He has power. Even Evil is under Him and only asked Him for power. And, sadly he got it. But the more powerful One interceded for us as a man so sacrificially that he sweat blood. He pleaded that our trust and hope would not fail us, the weak Simons, so we could once again be Peters. So that everyone would be as solid as a rock.
What confirmation, what proof is there for our experienced and therefore skeptical heart and mind? None. And still worse, just after that, as to confirm the contrary, poor Peter embarrassed himself by saying, "I am ready to follow you to jail or death."
That's how it is with a person. After all the strength and assurance that we are in good hands because He interceded for us, this Simon - Peter reaches for his own strength and that is his downfall. Just words, passionate oaths, pathos, resolutions, all talk and no action. No wonder no action when Simon Peter is only a man, like all others.
But the Victor over death, the Lord of Lords, Lord Jesus, Christ, doesn't return to Peter's words. Only He returns us weak and vulnerable Simons to reality. He puts us back on track. Even before the cock crows three times and the morning breaks you will have three denials behind you. He is just Simon and we are all just Simons even though we are strong Evangelical Protestants.
But the Lord interceded for us. So that our faith would not fail, even face to face with Satan's evil, face to face with illness, or even face to face with death. The Lord interceded for us and when we claim his intercession then we will have strength for ourselves and our brothers.
Turn to Him, Peter! Not only once, but every time Satan asks, when you fall into Simon's ways, remember the Lenten message that your faith doesn't have to fail because Someone with power interceded for you. If you believe the prayers of the righteous have power, then Jesus' prayer isn't anything esoteric, but concrete, clear and real help. Do you believe?
The Lord interceded for us weak and vulnerable Simons. Do we believe?
Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and have not found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?" 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I will dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'"
It looks like the parable is not completed - that we have listened to only the middle of the story. A usual beginning might be… "The kingdom of heaven is like," or, “ to what do I compare mankind?" Here there is nothing said that tells us what the parable should explain or illustrate. It is as if the end of the parable is missing something as well. We wonder how the story ended? What happened to the fig tree that was in danger? Did it survive or not? All these questions lead us to the one and only basic question. What should we do with the parable? What does this have to do with us, and what is the text trying to tell us?
It looks like a warning. A great existential fatal warning. Just one more year. It seems that the right explanation to this parable is that we are the barren fig tree. Then let us remember that our time is shortened. Only one more year. For us, it coincided with the last year of the millennium, but it is not about the exact quantities - merely a short time.
At the beginning of the year, after wild celebrations all over the world, the warning sounds dramatic. And one has a chance to either succumb to fear, nervousness, melancholy and low spirit, or toss one's head back and say, "So what! Somehow we got by, somehow we will go on - it’s not a big deal!" And one more glass to raise and pluck up our courage! Upward to new adventures! The first possibility pertains mostly to elderly people who are more sober and reasonable. The other one pertains to young people full of strength. Let us say straight away that there is this warning in the scripture, and we should listen to it. Time, it seems, leads from infinity to infinity and our time as a small part of infinity influences infinity. So, we have a tendency to care neither about our own finite state nor the things around us. We act as though infinite time gives man the right not to care about the meaning of things - not to search for deeper and broader connections because infinite time will take care of itself.
This "sliding" on the surface of life is sometimes interrupted by a disaster like an earthquake or a hurricane. Then we ask about deeper connectionsas they asked in Luke's gospel about the Galilean victims. The answer for them was to repent. A man simply must reach the end of his ways, must find his borders and understand his mortality in order to be able to touch the immortal or the real depth of life. A man must get to know his limits and his sin in order not to lose his life and not to live untimely inner death.
Only this is not the whole message of our parable about the fig tree. There is also the message of the text we read as our first biblical reading, which closely precedes our parable. "But unless you repent, you too will all perish." Repentance must be true, deep, sad, yet full of hope as we see ourselves reflected in God's face. That is the only foundation from which we can move.
But then here comes a new motif - the symbol of the fig tree. A fig tree in the New Testament bears a special symbolism. It is a shrub bringing fruits and shade. It is needed, demanded and pleasant. Growing a long time, it takes years before it gives fruit, but then they are so good - tasty, juicy and sweet. So then a fig tree is a symbol of pleasant and nice gifts. At the same time it shows up in the bible, concerning a most serious and most important matter - the last judgement and the end of the age. It is like a reminder that things are connected, and nothing will save a man from the last judgement. On the contrary, the last judgement is not the horrible classification of people according to status such as first class, recycled or hopeless waste. These are our words, our values. God does not sort this way.
The fig tree in our parable is found empty. What it was supposed to do, it did not do. What it was supposed to give, it did not give. A fig tree that does not produce figs loses its purpose as a fig tree because it loses its "figability." In this state it can be cut down. A fig tree without figs is not a fig tree anymore, only a former fig tree. Everyone should give of their fruits: apple trees - apples, sheep - wool, forest - moisture. Each man has his task, his purpose and his fruits. A young man, an old man, a child or those who have a job as well as those who are unemployed or retired, rich, poor, healthy or ill, black or white. If they do not accept their task and do not fulfill it, they will be as disappointing as the fig tree. They stopped being themselves and became something they did not have to be and should not be or became "used to be ones."
However, the parable is bringing a new motive into this kind of gloomy spirit. "Sir, leave it alone for one more year!" Suddenly compassion enters the plot and adds forgiveness, an extension of the deadline, a new chance. The owner of the vineyard and the caretaker - the two characters in the dialogue - show their mercy to the fig tree. They let it continue living, and the fig tree gets a new chance.
The main message of this parable is not warning, as we thought at the beginning of our sermon, but a new chance. Look, the new year ahead is not supposed to be taken for granted. It is extra time that was added to us in addition to everything that already was here. And this time has its purpose. The fig tree did not get a second chance for no reason. But, "Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down…." Time for the fig tree to find itself, its tasks, its fruits.