The Absolute Is Known In The Personal

This is our second paradox in story: The Absolute is known in the personal.

I used to teach my counseling students how to utilize and understand paradox. The point of paradox is being able to change the client’s frame of reference. If a person has more ways of viewing things – more frames of reference – that have a fresh reality and more choices in behavior.

Jewish tradition and stories are filled with paradox. Take a paradox like the absolute is known in the personal. Our concept of God persists that he is distant. He is “up there” somewhere. We even tend to call him by names the philosophers give him: First Cause, Unknown Mover, and perhaps if we are fans of Star Wars, “The force.” We seek the Absolute in absolute remoteness. But this paradox says it “ain’t so”, for the Absolute is known in the individual, never in the abstract. It (He) is known in persona experience and in relations.

A Jewish story goes like this: Two brothers worked together on a family farm. One was unmarried and the other married with children. They shared what they grew equally as they always did, produce and profit. But one day the single brother said to himself. “You know, it’s not right that we should share the produce equally, and profit too. After all, I’m all alone, just by myself and my needs are simple. But there is my poor brother with a wife and all those children.” So in the middle of the night he took a sack of grain from his bin, crept over the field between their houses and dumped it into his brother’s bin. Meanwhile, unknown to him, his brother had the same thought. He said to himself, “It is not right that we should share produce and profit equally. After all, I am married and I have my wife to look after me and my children for years to come. But my brother has no one, and no one to take care of his future.” So he too, in the middle of the night, took to taking a sack of grain from his bin and sneaking across the field to deposit it in his brother’s. And both were puzzled for years as to why their supply did not dwindle. Well, one night it just so happened that they both set out for each other’s house at the same time. In the dark, they bumped into each other carrying their sacks. Each was startled, but then it slowly dawned on them what was happening. They dropped their sacks and embraced one another. Suddenly the dark sky lit up and a voice from heaven spoke, “Here at last is the place where I will build my Temple. For where brothers meet in love, there my Presence shall dwell.

That the Absolute God is known, not in the abstract, but in the personal is, of course, enshrined in the Lord’s saying that as long as you did it to one of the least of my brethren or sisters you did it to me. It has also become the theme of countless stories such as Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant or Van Dyke’s classic, The Other Wise Man.

In Van Dyke’s class, the Wise Man, Artaban, in his pursuit of finding the King of the Jews, misses his three friends who set out before him: Casper, Melchoir, and Balthazar. He misses the Christ Child too because his adventures lead him into strange encounters with dying beggars, and frightened mothers to whom he gives two of his three jewels saved for the Child. He returns to Jerusalem after a fruitless search in Egypt and there for thirty-three years he still diligently searches for the Child.

This year it is Passover time. Artaban, now an old man, notes an unusual commotion and he inquires as to its cause. People answer him, “We are going to the place called Golgotha, just outside the walls of the city, to see two robbers and a man named Jesus of Nazareth hanged on a cross. The man calls himself the Son of God and Pilate has sent him to be crucified because he says that he is King of the Jews.” Artaban knows instinctively that this is the King he has been searching for. So he rushes to the scene. But on his way he meets a young girl being sold into slavery. She sees his royal robes and falls at his feet pleading with him to rescue her. His heart is moved and he gives away his last jewel for her ransom. Just then, darkness falls over the land and the earth shakes and great stones fall into the streets, one of them upon Artaban, crushing his head. As he lay dying in the arms of the girl he has just redeemed (ransomed), he cries out weakly, “Three and thirty years I looked for thee, Lord, but I have never seen fully thy face nor ministered to thee!” but then, a voice comes from heaven, strong and kind, and says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of my brethren or sisters, you did it to me.” Artaban’s face grows calm and peaceful. His long journey is ended. He had found his King.

You can see in this story a journey, an obstacle, and an ultimate grace and redemption. Notice, too, where Artaban found his absolute Kind: in the personal, in the people who crossed his journey’s path.

Gerard Manley Hopkins says it this way:

         As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

         As tumbled over rim in roundly wells

         Stones ring: like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

         Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

         Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

         Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

         Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

         Crying What I do is for me; for that I came.

         I say more: the just man justices;

         Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces:

         Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

         Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

         Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

         To the Father through the features of men’s faces.