Worship at l'Oratoire du Louvre, Paris,
The scribes and the Pharisees were passionate readers of the Bible, and we cannot say that they obtained nothing from it for their lives. On the contrary, they obtained from the Scriptures a multitude of commandments for regulating their lives all the way to the most minuscule details. The Pharisee invests himself in his reading. He forgets himself before the sublime abundance of interpretations from the wise-men: Rabbi so-and-so says this and that according to such or such texts, Rabbi what's-his-name responds with something else, as demonstrated in such and such passage... And they produce these famous rules, eruditely established and therefore necessarily, according to them, applicable to each and everyone.
Jesus shared this interest for God and for the Bible, he knows it like the back of his hand? He shared (oh how much) a commitment of all his being and the conviction of having something to address to each individual. Yet, the faithful of the synagogue tell us that there is something radically different between Jesus's teaching and the teaching from these shrewd readers who are the Scribes. It's strange that the text tells us nothing about what Jesus teaches in this synagogue while affirming that the teaching of Jesus is one of a kind. This silence on the content of his sermon is heavy with meaning. It is not an oversight, as the text indeed speaks of a message that is delivered in this synagogue, but it is given by the unclean spirit of the man. This message is exactly right. Yet, Jesus is forcefully opposed to this message. Here lies the second paradox that goes with the first: the absence of account of Jesus's awesome sermon in this synagogue.
Here is what the man's unclean spirit says: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Everything is perfectly right in this cry, even the prophecy “you have come to destroy us,” which will indeed be accomplished.
This long-awaited prophecy overwhelms the unclean spirit: “you have come to destroy us.” You have come to destroy, to lay waste to the “we” of this community of thought and obedience constructed with so much passion by our scribes. Jesus has the power to liberate mankind from this “we” in which it was warm and protected.
Protected from what? Protected from all that could change things such as they were. And in this domain, God is a champion since He is the creator par excellence, He is the source of change par excellence. This is why we often prefer not knowing how we're getting along, why we don't like hearing our voice in a recording. Even a top model finds herself ugly when she looks in the mirror, it seems. Horresco referens (Latin: I shudder telling it), the action of God could well lead us to know ourselves, see that we are only a child, maybe even from certain sides only a puppet in the hands of the group, from its codes and its manner of seeing, manipulated by the instincts of our species.
The man with the unclean spirit is neither mad nor possessed, at any rate not more insane or possessed than you or I, or anyone else. For we all fear change, in reality. We really do love to be part of a group, to hide ourselves there within. We fear the chill of leaving the group to become ourselves. We fear the ridicule of being different, and being weak, exposed, alone, naked.
The man's spirit is unclean insofar as he refuses to be freed from this spirit of fear, but otherwise he is perfectly right, first of all in feeling that there is a real power in Jesus, that this power comes from God, and that it could change everything.
It's exactly what Jesus announces in the previous episodes, for we do have two short sermons. In the first, Jesus announces exactly the same thing as the unclean spirit down to this specific detail that he invites individuals to receive this change that comes from God as good news in which and in whom we can have complete trust.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
We see that this good news is not a theological or moral content, and even less so religious as it could be taught by the scribes, but this good news is that there really is a change that is salutary, and that we can have trust in God for that.
We next see in the second episode this power of transformation at work when Jesus calls the fishermen to become fishers of people, fisher of that which is best in each and every one. If they had been farmers, he would have called them to be sowers of humans, each one according to what he or she is.
This is the way that Jesus teaches with power. The Greek word exoussia is also translated by “authority”: “Jesus teaches with authority,” as if his charisma and his rhetoric commanded it and that the crowd, swayed by his doctrine, adopted the theology, the philosophy, the morality he proposed rivaling the Pharisees. But this would lead the synagogue's faithful to pass from one group to another, which is not a true liberation from the “we.” This conversion would only be a facade. This is what the the text shows by erasing the content of Jesus's sermon, and by replacing it by an act that relates the transformative power of Jesus to free this man from the group-psyche and from the fear of being liberated from it.
It is true that there is a a teaching from Jesus, but it is summarized here as trusting God as the power of conversion of our being, for the rest, the word of Jesus is not so much a formal content as a power, his word is the dynamite for exploding our reticence to exist.
The philosopher Kierkegaard, in a touching little book written at the end of his life called For Self-Examination recognizes that within himself he sensed this fear, and that this fear is very common. He says that in order to avoid exposing oneself to self-knowledge and to the emancipatory breath that comes from God, individuals develop two main strategies.
The first consists of not reading the Bible in order to not be in contact with the power of this word. Kierkegaard tells us that this is what the majority of people do, even if they have a Bible at the house, which makes the Bible the most widespread book in the world and one that often collects dust.
But there are indeed numerous people who read and listen to the words of the Bible, giving themselves the opportunity of seeing their reflection in the mirror of Scripture, and of being open to the power of life that comes from God. Among these readers of the Bible, there exists a second avoidance strategy which also has quite some success, which is to only read the Bible in a learned way, which comes back to not exposing oneself at all. The description that Kierkegaard gives of this procedure is pithy: “ Take the Holy Scripture and close your door but equip yourself also with ten glossaries and twenty-five commentaries: you can then read the holy books peacefully and without anymore discomfort that if you were reading the official newspaper. If perchance and extraordinarily, in the midst of your reading and before a certain passage, the idea came into your mind: have I truly taken seriously for myself what this text addresses (you alerted yourself of course in a moment of distraction where your mind had departed from its usual seriousness), the danger is not so great. Are there not indeed several possible interpretations of this text? Perhaps someone has recently discovered a new manuscript – Heaven preserve us! - offering previously unpublished variations; perhaps five commentators have the same opinion, seven another, two have absolutely remarkable views, three have mixed feelings or a reserved opinion... ” Here is what prolongs the time and what enables us to insulate ourselves from all the transformative power in the Word of God.
Kierkegaard calls this “looking at the mirror” rather than “looking in the mirror.” He is right: the Bible is an extremely efficient mirror for gaining self-knowledge, both of the self and of one's own life, and to be open to this impulsion that God offers us to free ourselves from an unclean spirit that prohibits us from living, or to make us rise from fisherman to fisher of humans, perhaps, or any other good surprise in store for our future.
Kierkegaard invites us to instead read the Bible as one reads a love letter coming from his or her beloved at the other end of the world. When we read a love letter, we isolate ourselves in our room, we close the door, and we really read the letter with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength and all our intelligence (Mark 12:20). If we don't read the Bible like the lover reads a letter from his or her beloved, then we read the Bible but we don't read the Word of God, we keep ourselves from being open to God's action, we do not rejoice in the good news, we do not even see ourselves in the mirror of Scripture.
Nonetheless, Kierkegaard does not disqualify the scholar's work, her study of the language and the sources of the text, of its literary genres, of its variations, or the effort of putting the various interpretations into debate. He explains the place of scholarly study of the Bible by pursuing his parable of the lover receiving a letter from the beloved, but in supposing that this letter is written in a foreign language that the lover does not know. Thus the person will first buy a dictionary and search for each word, he will inform himself via friends who know the language to try to clarify obscure passages. And then finally, when he will have established a translation, he will read it like a lover who reads a letter from his beloved. And oh well if some passages remain obscure or rendered unclear by his attempt at translation, each passage that grabs him will be for him precious and decisive. And his beloved will be touched by his efforts even if he misunderstood certain things.
If the savant's study of the Bible is like the first work of the lover searching to translate his love letter, it's perfect. During this period, we need others, but afterwards, to truly read the letter, the lover must be alone and not disturbed by others. This is why the worship here, in the Oratoire, is only half of the worship, same as for the various theological and biblical courses, and our books... it's good, but without doing like the savant which Kierkegaard talks about, without closing oneself with glee in intellectualism, from fear of opening up and seeing oneself as one really is, and accepting to change and to grow, thanks to God.
Christ is right in one of his sermons that often is resumed in one line, to cite the word from the Book of Isaiah where God tells us, “ My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Mt. 21:13), a house where we expose ourselves to that which comes from God. Prayer is what in reality the man does who will be freed from the unclean spirit. He cries at once his conviction and his fear. He exists by this “we” offered by the scribes wanting to carry each one and unify the group by the confession of faith, by rites, a morality, by a certain way to consider the Scriptures... the man is at the same time prisoner of this and he dies from the trouble of being deprived it. Yet he rises, alone, and addresses himself to Jesus in whom he recognizes the who God has sent. The man is doing better than most of the people present in the synagogue that day, and Jesus is going to be able to use his power to the benefit of the man, and command silence from the “we” that was speaking in his place.
Settling for what one hears at church, or settling for one's scholarly reading, is to look at the mirror instead of looking in the mirror if we do not afterwards read the Bible differently, alone, exposing oneself like the lover reading his beloved's letter. Otherwise we can spend our entire lives reading the Bible without ever having listened to the Word of God. We may have recognized in the Bible a veritable masterpiece, exerted an astounding zeal of insight, finesse, and intelligence without for as much having been touched, liberated, and converted in the slightest.
We have the right to enjoy an intense pleasure in this erudition and to want to stop there, we have the right to want to stay where it's warm and calm in our thought-and-practice group, but at least by honesty with regards to oneself, it is good to recognize that with the method we have avoided encountering the Word of God.
In the Church, we are not alone, but we are not together as suggested by the etymology of the word “synagogue.” It means “to walk together, to gather.” The gathering of Christians for reading the Bible is directly inspired by the synagogue's, but Christians chose to call their gathering not by the name “synagogue”, but by the name “church” and this is important. “Church” means literally “to be called out.” The gathering is like the work translating the love letter, the ultimate aim is that you, individually, you have the courage to isolate yourself afterwards to read your love letter, by reading your Bible, by praying your Bible, by listening in the soft words of our God to this calling to leave your cocoon, and then to draw from your Bible not a theory but a personal inspiration. Like a lover reading his or her love letter, to feel the desire to surprise our God with lots of good surprises to make Him happy. It is no longer a question of obedience or submission, but of trust and enthusiasm.
It is thus that there is one God, one Christ, and therefore one Church, one Bible, but a number of chapels, and even more readers and individual readings. God is waiting for ours with the anticipation of a lover.
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