Our plan this year is to take a certain amount of passages in the Gospel and to give a commentary that will have two aims: the one is that they should be brought out in common and discussed, and the other one is that this thing being done, the passages together with what have been gathered through the discussion should been taken home and made an object of reflection and for life in the course of the intervening month. I do not think there is any point in having an academic discussion on passages of the Gospel; the only point is that it should be used in order to live and to understand life deeper and more creatively. So today, I would like to make an introduction to a certain approach to the Gospel, which I think will be mine in the course of the coming year. Many of the things which I intend to say to-night most of you have already heard and have probably known long before I have mentioned them. But I would like to collect them together as a starting point for our common work.
One may say that the characteristic of the Gospel can be defined by the word “encounter” ; the Gospel, the events which the Gospel reveals to us is a continuous encounter, first of all an encounter between God and man in a quite new way and on new terms. Secondly it is an encounter of men who meet in the light of the New Revelation of God. I would like to say a few things about these two points, and then to see whether there are conditions for an encounter to be possible, to be real and fruitful in our life, in the life of the Gospel.
First of all, the encounter between God and man: the major event, the decisive and central event in this encounter is the Incarnation. God and man meet face to face in an absolutely new way, in a way that was unheard of and in a way that was unthinkable. The revelation of God in Christ is totally new and creates a situation that had never been there before. Man had formed images of their God, whether these images belonged to the Old Testament, that is to the people of Israel or to the surrounding Nations, the Pagans, in these images God was vested in everything which man hoped for, desired, admired on earth. The gods of the Nations and also the God of the Old Testament, is a God of power, is a revelation of all that is great and valued by men.
In Christ, the revelation of God is profoundly different, and I think this makes Christianity unique of its kind; one could invent gods which were a sort of summing up of all human ideals, but God as He reveals Himself in Christ would not have been either invented or chosen if people had had a choice, because in Christ God appears helpless, vulnerable, defeated, and therefore, from the point of view of the nations, but also of Israel in his time, contemptible. This God man would not have invented himself, and this is the absolutely new way in which the encounter between God and man takes place. This corresponds at the same time to a new evaluation of things; on the one hand God appears to us in the form of a servant, with all the frailty of a defeated man, and at the same time God vindicates the greatness of man; to this we will come eventually. I wish only to underline that the revelation of God in humility and of Christ in humiliation is correlative with God’s assertion of man’s greatness.
To take an example to which I want to come back later, remember the confession of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son was prepared to confess his indignity, his unworthiness and to accept from God new terms of relationship, he was prepared to come back to the Father’s house as a hireling; having failed to be a son, he was prepared to become a manservant. If you read the parable, you cannot help being struck by the fact that the Father allows him to make almost all the confession he had prepared, but when it comes to this last thought “let me be like one of the hired servants” the Father stops him, because he is not prepared to have any other relationship with his son except that of son and father: there is no way in which an unworthy son can become a worthy hireling or a worthy slave. We can become unworthy sons, we cannot become worthy servants. This is one of the many examples which we will find probably in the course of our discussions and talks, and it is important for us to see that God values man and gives him an ultimate and very high significance.
If we wish to measure the value of man we may mark perhaps three points: God creates man to be his friend, to be his companion of eternity, indeed to be his image, in other words his revelation, this is a first point. When man falls, turns away from God, we find another point of evaluation, the value that God assigns to man is the Incarnation together with all its consequences, in other words all the life and the death upon the Cross of the only begotten Son, God made Son of man. We are bought at a high price by the blood of the Son of man, the Man of sorrows, the Lamb of God. And thirdly, and to this we will have occasion to come back, if we think more attentively of the death upon the Cross of the Son of God become man, we see [hear] at the threshold of his death the words of Christ “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me ?” In his love of man the Son of God accepts the only thing which is the real and unbearable tragedy of mankind: the loss of God, Godlessness in the etymological sense of this word, He accepts to be deprived of God and this is why He can die and this is also what is signified in what is called the Apostolic Creed when we read in it: “He descended into Hell”. Hell in Hebrew Tradition was the place where God was not. It was not simply a place of punishment, it was a place of total final dereliction. This is the measure of the divine love, but also the measure of the value which God attaches to man. So that in the revelation of God in Christ we have also a revelation of man with all his significance and all his value as God sees him.
But there is also a change in values that we must be sensitive to: we cannot see Christ nowadays in the way in which his contemporaries saw Him. St. Paul said, “We do not know Him according to the flesh, we know Him in the Spirit.” However we try to imagine Him in the days of his flesh, however we try to imagine what his death was for his Disciples, we do this with the already possessed knowledge that Christ is risen and we see always the Cross of Calvary against the splendour of the Resurrection. But this is not the way in which He was seen, and I would like to give you two examples, two images to make you perceive it and not only to perceive what happened then, but also to give you a warning of what may happen to each of us to-day with regard to Christ and with regard to men whom we judge as mistakenly, as wrongly as people judged Christ when He was condemned and brought to the punitive crucifixion.
The first image that comes to my mind is an event of little importance perhaps, it occurred soon after the Liberation of Paris; I was coming out of our house, and ran into a crowd. At the centre of the crowd there was a man, he was in a shocking state, his clothes were torn, his head had been half shaved, his face was covered with bruises; people had been throwing at him stones and refuses, and he was being dragged along the streets for him to see those places in which he had been a traitor to his own, the streets in which he had betrayed people to concentration camps. The crowd was full of hatred, the man was, I think, beyond even despair. He was objectively in the wrong.
When the crowd passed, I went down into the Underground, but the image of this man would not leave me in peace and as I was waiting for the train to come it struck me that this must have been exactly what people saw when Christ was taken to the Crucifixion. He was a criminal who deserved his punishment. I know that there were those who wept over Him, those who knew Him, but the crowd was against Him. Had we been then in Jerusalem, what guarantee have we got that we not would have seen this man with the eye of the crowd? And what is more important perhaps, is that Christ, when He became man, did not established solidarity between Him and the righteous, between Him and the people who were on the safe side of morals, of behaviour, of salvation. He established Himself, He established a solidarity between Himself and all those who were in the wrong. When He says “I was in prison, and you did not visit me” He does not speak of those who were in prison for the wrong reason, that is who had been unjustly put into prison; He thinks of those people who deserved the punishment and He identifies Himself with them. We see Christ who in an act of love, of respect for man identifies Himself, not with the right ones, but with the wrong ones. And not only superficially, not only in an act of pity or of mercy, but in an earnest act of identification: whatever you shall do to one of these, you shall do to me.
Sin is separation from God, death in sin is separation from God, and here we see Christ on the Cross, saying “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” The loss of God which makes Him akin to the worst, not only to those who had lost the company and the fellowship of men, but to those who somehow had lost the company and the fellowship of God. This makes it imperative for us to reassess our values. It does not mean that things wrong are right, it does not mean that we can be easy going, but it does mean that we have an approach to evil and to its victims, which is unparalleled in any other religion, or in any other context.
I would like to give you another example, that of the Crucifixion. We find on Calvary three men crucified; to the crowd these three men were equally guilty and were undergoing the same punishment. They were all seen in the way in which the crowd saw the man I spoke about a few minutes ago. Now what happens there to the two thieves who are at the right and at the left of Christ? Basically this: at a certain moment they are confronted with the fact that two of them are guilty and the third of them is dying without guilt. What is their reaction? This again is important for us. The one who is on the left side sees that the same judges, who have convicted and condemned him for his crimes, have convicted and condemned Christ unjustly. And thence he draws a straight and reasonable conclusion: if these judges can act like this, their judgement is iniquitous and I reject it. If human justice can condemn indifferently the guilty and the non guilty, then human justice is not worthy to be respected, to be accepted, it is to be rejected totally, and the final result is rebellion against the iniquitous judges, indignation against the just one who can accept with serenity this injustice and rebellion against God who allows it.
On the right side of Christ there is another man, this man also recognises that he dies justly and that Christ dies without guilt; but because he sees the one who is without guilt dying at the hand of iniquitous men, he can accept without hesitation his own death; and he finds peace because beyond the judgement and the actions of men, he has finally found the judgement of God. This is something which applies to us continuously and much more that we imagine, almost all the time, in an inner dialogue that goes on in us, or at decisive moments of crisis, and crisis means judgement: we turn to God and say: Put things right, save me. And at more tragic moments, we add: At any cost. And if at that moment God Himself acted, if He sent an Angel, if He sent a man whose righteousness and purity and holiness is known to us to punish us, or to put us right, we would accept it, but what we cannot possibly accept is that God chooses people who are unworthy of respect, of consideration, to act for Him. He uses dirty hands to slap our face and we cannot believe that these hands act for God. And yet, it is so.
On these two examples I wanted to underline that we have got to rethink all our values, to reassess all our judgements if it is true that God has encountered man the way He has encountered him in the Incarnation together with all that follows upon it. And against this background, you will understand what I meant when I said that in the light of this new revelation both of man, of God, of values, meetings between men become quite new and different. Take the Gospel, how men met around Christ. First of all how they met Him. The one saw in Him what He was, the other one did not see what He was, rejected Him and hated Him. People met around Him and again He came as a sword; He came as a stumbling block; there were people who discovered one another and people who rejected one another irremediably. It is not only that people who became disciples of Christ discovered each other at a new depth, it is the way in which they accepted each other in spite of the fact that some were unacceptable according to moral standards. The tax-gatherer and the harlots precede you in the Kingdom of God, said Christ.
And this again raises a problem for us because, do we accept one another at all, can we, are we capable of it? Are we strong enough, have we rethought our values so as to accept one another as Christ has received us? Or as those who surrounded Christ received each other with all their past, with all their present, also with all their future, with their eternal value, together with the life at times shocking which they had led before? This is absolutely central to the Gospel, because if you read the Gospel, you will see that there is not one Gospel story which is expressed otherwise than in the meeting of someone with someone; encounter is the central event, encounter with God, encounter with man, complex encounter between God, man and man.
Now, in the following talks I will try to take a certain number of passages and not any more show how the word encounter applies, but try to make it a place of encounter for us with our own conscience, with the Lord and possibly also with each other.
Answer to a question
Q: …about evil and the various covenants of God with men, about Cain:
God puts his seal on the forehead of Cain, so that he should not be killed. I do not mean to say that God comes to terms with evil; I do mean that there is here a situation in which God instead of blotting out evil, of doing something to evil, respects the man, in spite of the evil… There is in our salvation a relatedness between good and evil which I think can be perhaps termed in the words a little bit amplified of Danielou, when he says that suffering is the meeting place between good and evil and it is the only hope of redemption, of the one who is in the grip of evil because evil always cuts into the spiritual or the physical substance of man, and only because they meet can the one who is the victim of it grow into to the stature of Christ and acquire and use properly divine power to forgive. So in that respect the meeting of the two is or can be unto salvation or at least can open a door which otherwise would be closed…
Now as to the contribution — if one may use this word — which evil does to salvation once it is moving freely in the world, I think that it is obvious, I think that there is no life of saints, no biography of man of any greatness who have not contented with evil and overcome it… I wonder if there are not two different things to be envisaged with regard to justice and evil and so forth. On the one hand we must aim at justice and when we have achieved justice at more than justice. On the other hand it does not take away the fact that we cannot simply protest against every act of injustice when it befalls us or I would say even when it befalls other, ignoring that it has got other significances; I think there is a passage in St. Peter in which he says: if you are punished unjustly, rejoice, if you punished justly, repent. This is quite a definite standard and as far as the becoming of the person who accepts suffering or punishment in those terms, is concerned, it is a creative and positive thing, provided it is received and accepted, not simply passively born. Passivity is always wrong: whether you take things or reject them, it must be a creative act. On the other hand you may, when it affects others, particularly aim at a more just justice or at a milder or more refined approach to people; there is this well known saying of Berdiaev: “If I am hungry, if I have no bread, it is a physical problem, if my neighbour has no bread, it is a moral problem”….
Take for instance the Crucifixion, if you do not take the painting, but the text: what you find is Jesus crucified and the Mother of God is not fainting, is not lamenting. She is standing in silent and not saying a word of protest, because She is at one with the will of the One who is being crucified and if She protested against, however right She would be from the point of view of the Law, She would divorced her will from the will of her Son. At times defending someone, when he is not defending himself is an act of justice and at the same time a breach of communion, and a breach of communion with the one with whom it matters to be in communion, the act of injustice is infinitely less important than this act of communion.