Difficult Sayings

Author: Jean Guitton


Jean Guitton

We prefer atrocious stories. And, since the last war, it can be said that painters and novelists use sombre blacks, gory reds, strident purples, colours that clash.

On the contrary, when we wish to represent the character of Jesus, the environment in which he lived, the sentiments that animated the early Church, we are tempted to stress, in the wake of Renan or Papini, the Galilean, Franciscan, idyllic side of the Gospel.

That struck me at the last Council. The atmosphere of this Council was one of joy, of a unanimous new start, of bliss offered to everyone. Christianity presented itself in a form so full of charm, of understanding for unbelief, that it seemed to reject all idea of condemnation, all uncertainty about eternal destiny. The reality of sin was indistinct, and also that of the price of pain. Listening to sermons on the Passion, I see that the suffering is toned down, as if the luminous shadow of the Resurrection already surrounded the agony with a halo. And yet, if I re-read any of the gospels, I am struck by the severity of Christ, a judge for eternity. We are no longer capable of making such "pronouncements". Several examples could be given of this state of mind, the effect of which is to put between brackets (Husserl would say) the dramatic aspects of Christianity, the risk of damnation, the duty of martyrdom: the "cross", this dreadful torture which has become a symbol of petty annoyances: "my crosses", the Sister or the woman of the world says.

This mildness of preaching, in the age of the atomic bomb and revolution, will certainly surprise those who study our time. They will wonder how the Westerner of this end of the century is able to like so much to be tormented and to live in great comfort, without believing in risks and suffering. It was from the pleasure of tears that tragedy was born. It calls them forth and relieves them. To the extent to which we project the dramatic into tragedy, we clear it out of our lives. It is possible that such a state of mind may foreshadow catastrophes, for upheavals take place at the moment of greatest peace. And storms are preceded by great calms.

We do not like to be put in the presence of the hard and demanding, at times frightening, side of the preaching of Jesus. This is what I am going to do in this reflection on the difficult words. Go no further, reader, if that makes you sad.

The difficult sayings keep a stamp of authenticity, from the critical point of view which I take up. I envisage various probabilities of authenticity. There are words of Jesus of which it can be thought that they may have been "fictionalized", because they are in conformity with mental expectations. There are others which are contrary to these expectations. And if reliability is defined by the divergence between expectation and event,it can be considered that words that shock have a greater depth of authenticity. Man has never liked to condemn himself or to preach the cross to himself.

That is why I love the difficult sayings. Understand me! I do not love them because they are difficult. God orders us to avoid suffering. Hygiene is the art of avoiding suffering. We love these difficult sayings in so far as we love the truth, even if it is difficult. If it cannot be said that everything that shocks is true, it can be said that everything that is true shocks to begin with, because the truth, being higher than we, obliges us to make an effort.

Jesus teaches that the Son of Man will have to suffer a great deal. Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. Jesus rebukes Peter in his turn and says to him the following difficult words: "Get behind me, Satan!… for you are not on the side of God, but of men". After which, Jesus calls the multitude, and at the same time his disciples: he wants a universal audience, hierarchically constituted. And before this plenary assembly Jesus states the axiom: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will find it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels".

This passage is like an inaccessible, frozen peak, from which everything can be seen, from which everything could be judged. Nowadays, it is the Gospel that is least popular, least known, least preached.

One often hears it said that this text on the Passion was added subsequently, after the event: Christ could not have foreseen a contingent event, whereas it is likely that a story predicting this Passion was added later.

If one admits that Christ is sent by God, that he is God, one has no difficulty in thinking that he announced to his disciples in advance what would happen. It is unlikely that the Eternal, to whom the whole mystery of history is present, should not have desired to prepare his friends for the most shameful event: the passion of the Messiah—not, certainly in a continuous and constant way but by sudden flashes illuminating the event. When one believes that Christ is God, one admits that the vision of what was to happen to him was present in him, at least as regards its substance. At every moment of his life, Jesus was in his mind's eye on the cross. This is the tragic aspect of his life, by which it differs from ours in sublimity. What was meant by "bearing one's cross" an expression that has lost its vigour nowadays? In the time of Jesus, the penalty of the cross was one of the means of proconsular rule. There were constant executions in Jewish countries, to such an extent that, during wars, there was a lack of wood to make crosses. The expression "to bear one's cross" (that is, to carry on one's shoulders the post on which one was going to die) said exactly what it meant. The cross was made to be seen: everyone had seen these condemned men carrying the wood.

The cross indicates the penalty of one who is condemned for following Jesus, as Jesus is condemned for following his Father. We free Christians on this side of the iron curtain know that the profession of Christianity, instead of bringing shame, gives honour, gold, authority and this power of influence which is better than any power of force.

To carry one's cross, is another parable in brief, left in the germinal state: a parable that is not developed, a parable that resembles an oracle, enigmatic, a shortened model of all parables.

Jesus plays on the word "life", on the word psychè. For, in its first acceptation, psychè means "soul", "person", and in another acceptation it means "eternal life". A play on words is revealing. For example, with us, this word "heart", which means both love and courage, and so many other things. Here, the play is on the word "life", on the word "soul", which sometimes means the principle that creates us in time and sometimes the principle that makes us live in eternity. He who loses his temporal life gains eternal life; he who loses his soul will save his soul.

Let us leave that and go on to a passage that is less difficult but perhaps purer.

The text in question is from Luke, chapter twelve. Jesus says something in confidence, springing from the depths of his soul: "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!"

These cries are marginal upsurges, involuntary avowals. That is the mark of the non-fictional, which has been transmitted from mouth to ear, because it had been heard in the first place. Jesus says that he is anxious, that he wishes the fire which he has come to cast upon the earth were lit, that the conflagration would spread. We see Jesus impatient, not waiting for the event, the slow ripening of fruits, as often in the parables on patience. Here Jesus is in the situation of rebels, of those waiting for a fire, a catastrophe. It is no longer the peasant talking, it is the prophet in a hurry like a woman in childbirth. Jesus would like to see the end come; he would like things to happen quickly, more and more quickly. Cries of this kind have been uttered by the great mystics, who could not bear slowness and delay, the interval and the time lag. Jesus was perhaps anxious in his sensitive nature: he wondered if he would carry out his duty easily and fully. He was, through his vision, a contemporary of the future. A being for whom the end is present must be in a hurry for it to take place.

After speaking of fire and water, Jesus speaks of division. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus will say that he has come to bring not peace but the sword, to set a daughter against her mother, to bring it about that a man's foes will be those of his own household. In a word, fire, the water of the abyss, the announcement of the sword and of war, of civil war setting consciences against one another. These words about water, fire, the sword, are not words of peace, at least not in the sense in which modern man seeks peace. They sprang from the spirit of Jesus, from his experience. He who has come to bring light, is thrown into fire. He who is a messenger of happiness, must drink "the cup of malediction". He who has come to bring concord, friendship, and unity, is threatened by division, and in his family itself.

It must not be thought that these two perspectives are in opposition. Light is a victory over fire. The water that purifies, the water of the Spirit (like the fire of the Spirit) is a victory over the water that suffocates, the black water, the water of shipwrecks. And likewise the peace that Jesus proposes to establish, is a peace that will adapt itself to insoluble situations, vipers' nests in the family, the division of the faithful, the torments of conscience. The characteristic of Jesus is to see everything, to conceal nothing.

He who sees everything, he who can assume everything, who can change the flame into fire and the fire into light, who can pacify the storms on the lake and walk upon it, who can transform family hate into an unfailing superior harmony, such a one is not afraid of insolubleness.

Is the fire that Jesus came to light on the earth a cataclysm? Or, on the contrary, is it the fire of love? I answer: it is certainly both the fire of cataclysm and the fire of love, the cupofmalediction and the cup of benediction.

Among the difficult sayings that have a stamp of authenticity, there is an episode that is rarely mentioned because it is almost unbearable to our modern minds. Perhaps also to ancient minds? It is the passage in Mark on Jesus' relations with his relatives.

The relatives of Jesus, having learned what was happening, came to seize him, saying: "He is beside himself!" And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said: "He is possessed by Beelzebul!" His mother and his brothers came and, standing outside, they sent to him and called him. The crowd was sitting around him. They said to him: "Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you". He answered: "Who are my mother and my brothers?'

To understand this passage, we must remember that Moses had ordered that false prophets, the magicians who worked marvels, should be put to death. And this law of Moses continued to be imposed on the Jews. It was applied by the Sanhedrin. What is more, at that time collective responsibility was admitted; the parents were responsible if they did not denounce a false prophet in their child: "If your brother tries to seduce you in secret, you shall not spare him, you shall not hide his fault". So that one understands the attitude of the people of Nazareth. They must seize Jesus, prevent him from destroying himself. Not only himself, but also the members of his family, perhaps his village! The means is to pass him off as crazy: "He has lost his reason. He is out of his mind".

It is this legal situation that explains the absence of the disciples at the moment ofJesus' death. To follow Jesus, this visionary, this condemned man, this outlaw, it was necessary to leave one's clan.

Then the brothers of Jesus, dragging the Blessed Virgin with them, come to ask him to renounce his madness, that is, his mission.

Jesus is abandoned by the people of his village; he is suspected by the authorities that have come even to his village to make investigations about him; but that is nothing. The hard thing is that the members of his family wish to suppress him, to pass him off as crazy. And Jesus suffers to see that his mission is not understood by those closest to him—those who, for thirty years, have seen him live in a village where nothing is hidden.

Then Jesus, looking around at those who were sitting about him, says: "Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother." Words that have always been called difficult.

Actually, the words spoken are the equivalent of the words of St John at the very beginning of his gospel: "He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him…he gave power to become children of God".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 March 1978, page 8

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