People who use sacred texts have often found ways of selecting passages appropriate to their needs. Disciples of Confucius used a complex system of hexagrams, chosen by lot, to find images and comments suitable to their time, place and situation. In classical and medieval times, the writings of Virgil and Homer were used in a similar way. Sometimes the Bible was accessed by lot or dice or random procedures. The Church responded to the need to select appropriate wisdom from the Bible, by the daily lectionary, a selection of readings for every day in the year, which was originally used in monasteries, but has for some time been used in daily mass in the Catholic Church, and for private devotion in others. Obviously the choice of passages reflects a theology and the Christian calendar, but it also has an arbitrary element. It asks the reader, “Can this wisdom be applied to your soul, your community, your place, today?” This blog follows the daily readings and hopes to uncover some wisdom.
Esther 4: 17 (as in Greek version)
(Esther, a Jewish slave-girl who has been made a queen in the harim of the Persian king, is about to stand up for her compatriots who are under threat of persecution by the state; and begins with this prayer)
“My Lord, our King, the only One, come to my help, for I am alone, and I have no other helper but you. I am about to take my life in my hands. You have knowledge of all things, and you know that I hate the honours of the godless, and loathe the bed of the uncircumcised. You know that I am under constraint, and loathe the symbols of my high position. O God, whose strength is over all, listen to the voice of the desperate, and free me from my fear.”
Gospel, Matthew 7:7-11
7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.
8 Everyone who asks receives; everyone who searches finds; everyone who knocks will have the door opened.
9 Is there anyone among you who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread?
10 Or would hand him a snake when he asked for a fish?
11 If you, then, evil as you are, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
The author of the story of Esther needs to get her into the King’s intimate circle so that she can bend him to her will; but he also needs to maintain her perfect faith and purity. This is a difficult trick to bring off, and he doesn’t quite manage it. If Esther hates the bed of the uncircumcised so much, why hasn’t she refused it rather than using it as a way to power? Still the picture of the enslaved woman who uses her femininity for the triumph of her faith and the rescue of her people, remains influential in Judaism today. Her prayer is, perhaps, a little self-regarding, as if God should be moved by her loyalty, but it has the virtue of courage.
Jesus’ teaching about prayer rejects any notions of bargaining with God, who is pure goodness, loves us as a father, and will give us every good gift. If human fathers can be good to their children, how much more will the heavenly father give! This sounds wonderful, but Luke, writing his gospel, had already noted the problems with it. How about those who die of painful illness, those who suffer daily torment of abuse, those who are subjected to torture by tyrants? Why doesn’t the heavenly father answer their prayers? So Luke changes the promise to “how much more will the heavenly father give the holy spirit to those who ask.” My guess is that Matthew’s version, with all its problems, is the more original.
We should see that Jesus gives human beings an active part in the relationship with God: we are to “ask, seek and knock.” These are not just aspects of prayer, but aspects of life: we ask for our mother’s milk before we can speak; we seek the good things God intends for our development; we knock at doors of opportunity that may seem closed. If we do these things in faith, we discover the truth that “all good things around us, are sent from heaven above.” We realise that we receive every moment we live. Living in such a faith means that we can interpret the facts of evil and suffering as consequences of the divine love, which gives real freedom to the universe, and especially to his/her human children.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed by the Nazis, knew a thing or two about suffering, He said somewhere vis a vis separation, that God does not fill the gap left by an absent loved one, but leaves the gap open so that people may continue their communion with each other, even at the cost of pain. This saying has comforted people in bereavement. I would want to generalise it: God does not fill the gaps left by disease, injustice, disaster, and neglect, but leaves them open, so that people may fill them by their own decision, even at the cost of pain.
Bonhoeffer also wrote; “The God who is with us is the God who abandons us. God lets himself be forced out of the world on to the cross. Only a suffering God can help.”
Without childish pretences, we can ask, seek and knock, recognising that we have to provide some of the answers, make some of the discoveries and open some of the doors, for ourselves and others; and oppose evil and suffering, knowing that all goodness is of God.
Our private prayer (and it should be private!) strengthens us for action and endurance.