Sunday, December 13, 2015

Three Questions

   Third Sunday of Advent   C 
“What should we do?
That's the question John the Baptist gets asked three times this Sunday—
by the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers.
"What should we do?
You've told us that someone mightier is coming after you,
and that he'll set this world on fire.
How do we get ready?
What difference ought this to make in our lives?
What should we do?"

Two thousands years later, it's still a pertinent question.

This week,
I came across a story
by the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy,
which gets us closer to an answer.
Appropriately enough,
it’s called, The Three Questions.

It once occurred to a certain King,
that if he always knew the right time to begin everything;
if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid;
and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do,
he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And [so the King] had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom
that he would give a great reward to anyone [who could answer his questions.]
[Many knowledgeable people] came to the King,
but they all answered his questions differently.…

 [T]he King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none.
But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions,
he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.

The hermit lived in a wood which he never left,
and he received none but common folk.
So the King put on simple clothes,
and before reaching the hermit's cell climbed down from his horse,
and, leaving his bodyguard behind, went on alone.

When the King approached,
the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut.
Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging.
The hermit was frail and weak,
and each time he stuck his shovel into the ground and turned a little earth,
he breathed heavily.

The King went up to him and said:
"I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions:
How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time?
Who are the people I most need,
and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest?
And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?"

The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing.
He just spat on his hand and started digging again.

"You are tired," said the King, "let me take the shovel and work awhile for you."

"Thank you!" said the hermit,
and, giving the shovel to the King, he sat down on the ground.

When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions.
The hermit again gave no answer…and the King continued to dig....
One hour passed, and another.
"I came to you, wise man,” [said the King,] “for an answer to my questions.
If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home."

"Here comes someone running," said the hermit.  "Let us see who it is."
The King turned round, 
and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood.
The man held his hands pressed against his side,
and blood was flowing from under them.
When he reached the King, 
he fell fainting on the ground moaning weakly.
The King and the hermit unfastened the man's clothing.
There was a large wound in his side.
The King washed it as best he could,
and bandaged it with his handkerchief 
and with a towel the hermit had.
When at last the blood ceased flowing,
the man revived and asked for something to drink.
The King brought fresh water and gave it to him.
Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool.
So the King, with the hermit's help,
carried the wounded man into the hut 
and laid him on the bed.
[The King] crouched down in the doorway, 
and also fell asleep.
When he awoke in the morning,
it was awhile before he could remember where he was,
or who was this strange bearded man lying on the bed
and gazing intently [up] at him with bright eyes.

"Forgive me!" said the bearded man in a weak voice,
when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.

"I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for," said the King.

"You do not know me, but I know you.
I am that enemy of yours who swore to take revenge on you,
because you executed my brother and seized my property.
I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit,
and I resolved to kill you on your way back.
But the day passed and you did not return.
So I came out from hiding to find you,
and I came upon your bodyguard, and he recognized me, and wounded me.
I escaped from him,
but would have bled to death had you not dressed my wound.
I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life.
Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave,
and will bid my sons do the same.
Forgive me!"

The King was very glad…to have gained him for a friend,
and he not only forgave him,
but said he would send his servants and his own doctor to attend him,
and promised to restore his property.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out.
The hermit was outside, on his knees,
sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.
The King approached him, and said:
"For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man."

"They have already been answered!" said the hermit.

"What do you mean?" asked the King.

"Do you not see?" replied the hermit.
"If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday,
and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way,
that man would have attacked you,
and you would have been sorry for not having stayed with me.
So the most important time was when you were digging the beds;
and I was the most important person;
and to do me good was your most important business.
Afterwards when that man ran to us,
the most important time was when you were attending to him,
for if you had not bound up his wounds
he would have died without having made peace with you.
So he was the most important person,
and what you did for him was your most important business.
Remember then: there is only one time that is important—Now!
It is the most important time
because it is the only time when we have any power.
The most necessary person is the one with whom you are,
for no one knows whether
he will ever have dealings with anybody else:
and the most important affair is, to do him good,
because for that purpose alone were we sent into this life!"

“What should we do?”
The question once put to John the Baptist is still as relevant as ever.
And the answers Tolstoy proposed in his story ought to ring true for us—
especially in this Advent season,
particularly in the Jubilee Year of Mercy:
Now is the time, this is the moment, today is the day
to see the Lord and to serve the Lord in our neighbor.
Or as St. Paul puts it,
"Rejoice always.
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near."
To truly live by this faith changes absolutely everything.

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