Answers to Unspoken Questions - June 17, 2013

In this life, we may ask for many things. Sometimes we don’t get what we want; sometimes we find we need to come to grips with the nature of what we want. Sometimes we get what we want; sometimes we get it good and hard. This applies to our work as well as our play. But adjusting what we want and what we get are the very stuff of the human condition.

A wonderful example can be seen in the reading this past week from the Gospel of Luke:

[36] One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table.
[37] And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment,
[38] and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
[39] Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
[40] And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?”
[41] “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
[42] When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?”
[43] Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
[44] Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
[45] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
[46] You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
[47] Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
[48] And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
[49] Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”
[50] And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36–50 (RSV)

This passage is rich in many lessons, of course, but I want to concentrate only on the notion of expectation. Here is a woman, ashamed of her sins, doing a loving deed, but there is no indication that she has expectations of reward for this deed, only the sadness of her fallen life, her need for apology rather than amends or compensation. There is no indication that she assumed her deed would expiate her sins. Her tears that washed the feet of Jesus were of the present and for her past, not her future. The Pharisee, on the other hand, judged her past as binding her present, indeed her future. He too had no expectations that her deed would expiate her sins.

Then Jesus told a story (a parable) that tied forgiveness to sin in a surprising way: the greater the sin, the more wonderful the forgiveness. One assumes that both the woman and the Pharisee saw the gap between sin and forgiveness in a completely different way, that the greater the sin, the less likely the forgiveness would have meaning, as though one would need to work one’s way back from great sin to lesser sin before getting forgiveness. Both the woman and the Pharisee were unable to bridge that gap; for each, the sin was too great, the expiation too impossible.

Most of the time, of course, we do expect answers, we seek answers. In fact, that’s what questions are for. But there is a lesson in this passage of the woman who asked no questions, expected no answers. For her, Jesus asked the question and supplied the answer. For most of us, we do not merely mourn our past, but we question our future. To give you one very mundane example that has the advantage in this blog of tying this to publishing.

When I sold a company I had founded in 1990 (and sold in 1996), Books in Philosophy, in order to start St. Augustine’s Press, I had been in publishing as editor and publisher in both scholarly and trade houses. I had done my best to try to understand the market for books, the needs of people for edification or inspiration or information or enjoyment or any other reason to buy and read books. I had failed. The market in America is too large, too varied, too confusing. And I came to the conclusion that if I were to be in publishing further, it would have to be in a way that did not require wisdom that I knew I lacked. My answer (though I do not think this is by any means the only answer or even the best answer) was to avoid thinking about knowing my buyers but about knowing me. I resolved to have one main question to myself in choosing a given title to publish: am I interested in reading this? I did this with the hope, not the knowledge, that there were other people out there who were like me, who would find this book or that one interesting, important, edifying. It proved to the best decision I ever made in publishing.

Unlike the women in Luke’s Gospel, I was looking for an answer. But like her, it turned out that the question was far more important than the answer; within the question itself lay the answer. Like the lesson we learn early (or never) in philosophy in the story of Socrates’ visit to the Oracle of Delphi (please note that the Oracle sort of mumbled answers, which may have required the hearer to do a bit of interpretation). She told Socrates to “know thyself.” Is this not in some ways Jesus’ answer to the women, that her real self is not wholly defined by her past sin? To know yourself may be revelatory, may be life-changing, or, in the case I mentioned here, merely a roadmap that one travels with hope.

Sometimes, of course, our answers to spoken questions are completely surprising and even frightening. We are left then with self-understanding seen in a greater way. Here is my favorite example, this from the greatest man who ever lived:

[7] And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.
[8] Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me;

[9] but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
[10] For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7–10 (RSV)