From Wendell Berry:
It is not possible to look at the present condition of our land and people and find support for optimism. We must not fool ourselves.
It is altogether conceivable that we may go right along with this business of “business,” with our curious religious faith in technological progress, with our glorification of our own greed and violence always rationalized by our indignation at the greed and violence of others, until our land, our world, and ourselves are utterly destroyed. We know from history that massive human failure is possible….
On the other hand, we want to be hopeful, and hope is one of our duties. A part of our obligation to our own being and to our descendants is to study our life and our condition, searching always for the authentic underpinnings of hope. And if we look, these underpinnings can still be found.
It has been a few weeks since we finished our scripture study on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, but I find myself running across passages from other things that I am reading and studying that keep sending me back, with new eyes, to some of those passages. My daily prayer includes short reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945, just days before the concentration camp was liberated. Anyone who spends any significant time with me knows how much I think Bonhoeffer’s life and witness under Nazi totalitarianism has to say to those of us today in the United States who are trying to practice authentic discipleship to Jesus.
The reading from a few days ago, in part, said this: “A faith that really keeps to what is invisible and lives by it, acting as if it were already here, hopes at the same time for the time of fulfillment, of seeing and possessing. We hope for it as confidently as the hungry child to whom his father has promised bread can wait a while because he believes. Yet eventually the child wants to get the bread… A faith that does not hope is sick (my emphasis). It is like a hungry child who does not want to eat or a tired person who does not want to sleep.”
The section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which intersects these words of Bonhoeffer’s is chapter 7, verses 7-11. It is a simple passage that we most often interpret as being about prayer and the persistence of prayer. Indeed the bold heading in my bible just before the passage reads, “The Answer to Prayers,” directing us to read the following lines in that context. But I think that it is only about prayer incidentally, that in fact it goes to something deeper than prayer, but something that authentic prayer is rooted in, namely, hope. The passage is about hope and how hope invites us to take the initiative.
Up to this point in the Sermon, much of what Jesus has asked of those gathered can be understood as an ethic that went beyond the conventional religious, personal and social responsibilities of the time. He has expressed an ethic that is incredibly counter-cultural, and in some ways counter-intuitive, especially for the vast majority of his audience who find themselves struggling to survive in a religious, economic and political reality which is oppressive–sapping their strength, destroying their spirit, robbing them of hope. The reality in which Jesus’s followers live is not a reality which rewards those who ask, seek, or knock. Asking, seeking and knocking are sure ways to get a punch to the gut or a kick in the head. What an oppressed people have learned to do is to keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and to go about their business.
But this new order of reality to which Jesus is calling his followers is not a reality that will simply assert itself without the action or risk or initiative of those listening to his words. It is a reality that is utterly dependent on the dialectic between God and God’s people. Those who have been taught not to ask must learn to ask. Those who have been taught not to seek must learn to seek. Those who have been taught not to knock at that door must summon the courage to knock. A disempowered people will not bother to knock, or seek, or ask. Experience long ago taught them that there is no response to their asking, nothing which their seeking will find, and no friendly welcome at that door. Those who oppress rely on the fact that those they oppress will one day interiorize that oppression and do the work of the oppressor for them. And therein lies the death of hope. The hope that is essential for change has been beaten out of them.
As Bonhoeffer put it so poignantly above, “A faith without hope is sick.” And Jesus must surely understand that this people, to whom he is entrusting the practice of the kingdom of God which at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, needs to have rekindled in them the fire of hope. Verse 7 states: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” This is not a statement of fact. It is, rather, a promise, a promise that goes against every available piece of evidence in the lives of those to whom Jesus speaks. Jesus has been speaking long to this people, and I imagine that he sees in their eyes a spark of hope, yearning to be fanned into full flame, but all too experienced and disappointed by the way things are in the “real world.”
And so as the Sermon winds down, Jesus reaches out to his listeners, inviting them to shake off their paralysis, their despondency, and all that this bitter existence has taught them. This is a new moment. And it is a moment that needs their initiative, their word, their longing–their hope. No longer slaves, no longer sheep, no longer objects, Jesus invites them to see themselves as agents in their own salvation, and the salvation of the world. He invites them to experience that faith which is no longer sick, a faith invigorated by hope, a hope which inspires and motivates and transforms. In the asking and seeking and knocking, they become the very agents of change which the kingdom of God needs. And they are promised that their asking, seeking and knocking will no longer be in vain; that this God is unlike the powers-that-be of this world which have proven to be unresponsive to their cries and their yearnings and their hopes. And while change may not be immediate, these people can walk away from the Sermon knowing that they are empowered to play a part here, to take the initiative; and that they, like the hungry child, can wait a little while longer because they know their father is bringing the bread and the time of fulfillment is near.