The creature that cannot be helped – that is what the philosopher Volker Gerhardt calls the human being in his new book. Humans constantly become their own problem and fail themselves. Can they ask for help? Whom?
The biblical experiences point to one direction: not gods, not stars, not nature, but God. But how does help come? One person is not enough to pass it on. Humans are able to cooperate and also challenged to do so. Through cooperation, including necessary tools, even if it is a heavy block of stone to sit on, He can act of whom the psalm says: Our help is in his name. hak
Then Amalek came and waged war against Israel in Rephidim.So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle while Moses, Aaron, and Hur climbed to the top of the hill. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight. Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they took a rock and put it under him and he sat on it. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady until sunset. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.
The salutary plunge
Imagine a Syrian general today would say “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel”, out loud. He would risk his neck for that.
It cannot have been much different during biblical times. The Syrian general is sick. Because of a short comment by his Jewish maid he travels a long way that takes him to the Jordan. In spite of disappointed expectations he trusts the prophet and plunges into this river – and with that far into the history of Israel. It is exactly this trust that puts him on firm ground. That is what the earth he takes home with him stands for. Plunging into the history of Israel is salutary. ruk
Naaman, the army commander of the king of Aram, was highly esteemed and respected by his master, for through him the LORD had brought victory to Aram. But valiant as he was, the man was a leper. Now the Arameans had captured from the land of Israel in a raid a little girl, who became the servant of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would present himself to the prophet in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Naaman went and told his master, “This is what the girl from the land of Israel said.” The king of Aram said, “Go. I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman set out, taking along ten silver talents, six thousand gold pieces, and ten festal garments.
He brought the king of Israel the letter, which read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed: “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy? Take note! You can see he is only looking for a quarrel with me!” When Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his garments, he sent word to the king: “Why have you torn your garments? Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman came with his horses and chariot and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent him the message: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.” But Naaman went away angry, saying, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand there to call on the name of the LORD his God, and would move his hand over the place, and thus cure the leprous spot. Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?” With this, he turned about in anger and left.
But his servants came up and reasoned with him: “My father, if the prophet told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more since he told you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times, according to the word of the man of God. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
A vague term
Belief can mean all sorts of things: conjecturing, assuming something to be true, a vague opinion, and so forth. The gospel doesn’t give a definition either, but only examples..
When the disciples question whether their faith is enough, Jesus first answers them with a puzzling comparison of faith and a mustard seed; and then he provides a very expressive metaphor from the world of that time. It’s about just doing something, not about thinking or musing. Because you can understand nothing about faith through theory alone. bek
And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
The prophet Amos’ threat “woe to those who are complacent” fits well into the apocalyptic gut feeling of our time. But Amos does not denounce Israel’s systemic flaws and he does not call for an anticapitalist climate-revolution.
He announces the exile of the people of God because in front of the prophet’s eyes the downfall is already happening: Israel descends into the mass of the people. It is solely thanks to the grace of God and the repentance of the few that exile does not mean the end of Israel after all. tac
Woe to those who are complacent in Zion,
secure on the mount of Samaria,
Those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge upon their couches;
Eating lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
Who improvise to the music of the harp,
composing on musical instruments like David,
Who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the best oils,
but are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph;
Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile,
and the carousing of those who lounged shall cease.
Learn from whom?
The almost two years that Jesus travelled around Israel with the twelve disciples were a kind of wandering house of learning; he tried to impart to them what the closeness of God’s basileia means, for them and in general.
He tells them: do not worry – look at the birds. Do not think that what I am initiating in Israel now is a glamorous success story: look at the woman, who mixes a bit of sourdough in with a lot of flour, it takes time to turn into bread dough. The grain of the mustard seed is tiny, but a tree will grow from it. In today’s gospel there is another lesson: Learn from the gamblers. In his pretty precarious situation – embezzlement, the imminent loss of his job and with the prospect of a shaky pension plan, a steward seeks to break free. He is praised for it. Maybe the twelve looked surprised and suspected: in Jesus’ situation of hardship, later their own situation, audaciously intelligent people are a grace that one can only ask for. ars
Then he also said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently. “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Finding simplifies the search
We are expected to put up with a lot. This Sunday’s gospel is one of the longest readings of the entire Church year. The reader will need at least seven minutes if he does not rather resort to a short form. All three of Jesus’ short stories take up the issue of “searching and finding”.
It is presented in three approaches. That is how important the theme was to him. It was an experience of his people. What was won or realized once can also be lost again: the land, a sensible way of life, justice, freedom. The search Jesus describes should not be mistaken with a being-on-the-road that is supposed to already be the goal. The shepherd, the woman, the son can search because they know: The flock exists, the treasure exists, the father to whom he can return exists. The searchers of our time also have it easier if something already exists for them to find. It is the job of the listeners of these stories to not let their search come to nothing. acb
The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable. “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
“Or what woman having ten coins* and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
What direction can we take? Who can lead us? All societies ask similar questions about the requirements for reigning, leading, judging.
Israel’s Book of Kings frames a surprising answer in Salomon’s prayer for wisdom. The pivotal point is understanding “what the Lord intends”. But the paradox of the biblical answer is also the concession that principally, in the intricacies of life, in their structural limitation, people are unable to understand – and in spite of that they keep aspiring to understand, they learn and are prepared to receive God’s wisdom and spirit as a gift. Through these they can learn reason: what pleases God. This qualifies for the mandate. That, which is no more and no less than the emergency route kept clear through the paradox, was discovered, tested out and experienced throughout Israel’s history. hak
For who knows God’s counsel,
or who can conceive what the Lord intends?
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and uncertain our plans.
For the corruptible body burdens the soul
and the earthly tent weighs down the mind with its many concerns.
Scarcely can we guess the things on earth,
and only with difficulty grasp what is at hand;
but things in heaven, who can search them out?
Or who can know your counsel, unless you give Wisdom
and send your holy spirit from on high?
Thus were the paths of those on earth made straight,
and people learned what pleases you,
and were saved by Wisdom.
The lust to experience the unusual already existed in ancient times. It was connected with the hope that if they trembled people would get yanked out of everyday life and feel closer to the gods. The first communities of Christians also had to deal with this expectation.
Experiencing people, who are trying to shape the world together according to God’s teaching, is comparatively unspectacular. But it is significantly more lasting. And everyone can participate at any time. Suggestions on how to succeed do not just drop from the sky in darkness and storm, but have been tried out and collected for centuries. The Letter to the Hebrews ties the wisdom of those suggestions to a place: Zion. Whoever takes part in that, week for week at a “festal gathering”, can consider themselves lucky. ruk
You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them. No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.
United in a single purpose
Mass, like a piece of music, always starts with an overture: What is it about? What is the topic? Who comes together?
That is exactly how it is on this Sunday in the beginning verses of psalm 86. The entire history of the people of God is summarized there. It is not two partners who are eye to eye with one another. It is one in need of help asking the stronger one to lend an ear: To You I call all day. Whoever misses this basic proportion, misses the God of the Jews and Christians and also his creations. Only where this is taken into consideration does that which saves us appear: “O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose”. This precisely describes the irrepressible power with which all Christian communities have put their mark on the world – and especially Europe. bek
Incline your ear, Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and oppressed.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, Lord;
to you I call all the day.
O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose, grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found.
Expanding the cloud
The cloud of witnesses the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of are not the numerous followers of Christ of Church history,
but the numerous forerunners of Christ of Israel’s history, of which some are listed before our reading. They provide sufficient outlook and motivation, that also the weary Christians can plunge themselves into the battle of faith. The goal they keep in mind is not their triumph on the world stage, but the expansion of the cloud of witnesses. tac
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.