The Meaning of Life

As some of you know, I have recently been diagnosed with cancer. Yeah, it sucks. I’ve been trying to blog about it, but so far nothing I wrote ever seemed quite – right. So the subject remained untouched, till now.

Over the last few days I’ve been praying and thinking about the situation a lot and, not unsurprisingly, found myself pondering the ‘meaning of life’ – mine in particular, and what the future might hold, both during the radiation treatments and after. Just when I thought God wasn’t going to give me any insight right away, I was reminded of a story I haven’t read in years. I went looking for it to read again and after having don so found it fit the moment perfectly. Surprise, God was paying attention after all. (Just kidding – of course He was.)

It’s called The Three Questions; it’s a short story written by Leo Tolstoy and since it’s in the public domain now I present it to you in it’s entirety below. It’ll only take about 5 minutes or so to read, and says more about where I am right now than I ever could.

So, grab a cuppa joe (or tea for that matter) and take the time to read it. Regardless of your philosphical or religious leanings I think you’ll agree it’s hard to argue with Tolstoy’s answers.



The Three Questions

By Leo Tolstoy

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 this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.

In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that, one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.

All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to no one. 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 quitted, and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his body-guard 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 spade 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 recommenced digging.

“You are tired,” said the King, “let me take the spade and work awhile for you.”

“Thanks!” said the hermit, and, giving the spade 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, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said: “Now rest awhile-and let me work a bit.”

But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said: “I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.”

“Here comes some one 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 stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound.

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. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep–so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining 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 revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his 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 my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should 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 made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. 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.”

“You have already been answered!” said the hermit, still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.

“How answered? 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 repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; 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 man, 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 man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

Exploratory Storytelling- Joseph’s Story

This past Sunday (Dec 28, 2008) I presented a monologue to my home church that examined the nativity from the perspective of Joseph. If you haven’t heard it you can visit my home church’s website or listen to it using the link below.

081228 Joseph’s story – Dennis gray – 10am.mp3

After the service, as expected, a number of people challenged me on the premise of my presentation. For a few hundred years now western Christianity has had this idea that Joseph was a young man and that Mary was his first wife. The image has been presented for so long that it is hard for us to consider other possibilities. As one woman in the congregation put it, “You’re a heretic aren’t you?

But such has not always been the case, and indeed even today there are branches of Christianity that find the idea of an older, more mature Joseph quite acceptable. These ideas largely stem from what are known as the apocryphal writings, a number of documents which for one reason or another were not included in the Bible. The most common reason for their exclusion was “that many things are found in them corrupt and against the true faith handed down by the elders…” Origen .

That there are questionable contents in these books is without question (pun intended) but does that mean that everything in them is in error? The gospels are so devoid of information about Joseph that if we are to be completely honest, anything that we imagine regarding the man is, in truth, speculation. So I would ask you, gentle reader, to speculate with me and consider that, at least in part, there may be some validity to some of these ideas about the surrogate father of Jesus Christ.

Joseph – A biography…

Basically the story of Joseph as presented by the apocrypha goes something like this.

Joseph’s first wife was a woman called Melcha or Escha or Salome, depending on which apocryphal book you read. They lived forty-nine years together and had six children, two daughters and four sons, the youngest of whom was James, Jesus’ brother. A year after his wife’s death, the priests announce throughout Judea that they wished to find a good man of the tribe of Judah to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age. Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went up with the other candidates and by the manifestation of a miracle (this varies) God selected Joseph, and two years later the Annunciation took place.

Now, let me repeat, these accounts have no definitive authority whatsoever; however, over the years they have acquired some popularity, even inspiring many artists in their depictions of the events. This is especially true of the Coptic Church who were among the first to venerate Joseph. Coptic commentators point out that there are some good reasons to believe that Joseph was an older man, (though many will admit that the age of ninety is likely an attempt to associate him with Abraham and Moses).

Consider this: a younger man would likely have gone ballistic when he heard that his betrothed was pregnant and knew full well it wasn’t his doing. An older man might have been more disposed to protecting the reputation of her family as the Bible suggests. There’s also an argument to be made that an older man would be more likely to accept the spiritual reality of the dream rather than just excuse it as being influenced by Mary’s story. In a similar light, an older man is more likely to be able to restrain himself from relations with Mary while awaiting the birth of the child, though admittedly fear of harming the Holy Child makes for powerful motivation even for an amorous young Jew.

Now might suggest that this was created to re-enforce the idea that Joseph was the “protector of virgins”, and I have to agree it looks that way. However, I find it interesting to note that the stories can be traced to the late 2nd/early 3rd century, while the veneration of Joseph only traces back to the 4th century. Is it possible the story inspired the elevation of Joseph to sainthood?

Now, none of this is conclusive but then our speculation doesn’t stop there. My monologue also contained another interesting idea.

Dual Genealogies Explained

Another dimension to this is that many of the same authors, including one Julius Africanus, also expounded an interesting explanation for the fact that the lineage of Jesus (by his father Joseph of course) is different in the Gospel of Luke from the one presented in the Gospel of Matthew. In the book of Matthew Joseph’s father is listed as being a man named Jacob, whereas Luke says Joseph’s father was Heli.

Julius did some 3rd century Google-ing (that is actual back and forth footwork) and determined that Jacob and Heli were, in fact, half-brothers; their mother having remarried after the death of her first husband. This led Julius to some interesting speculation. Yes, I know, more speculation, but most explanations of the two genealogies are no more than that. The question is, is one man’s speculation more feasible than another’s?

Julius looked at the fact the two men were brothers and was reminded of the Levitate requirement that if a man were to die without a male heir, then his brother should marry his widow to sire an heir for the deceased husband. (Deut. 25:5-6) What if that were the case with Jacob and Heli? Africanus suggests that Heli dies without an heir, so his widow, who is identified as a woman named Eisha, marries her husband’s half brother Jacob. By Jacob, Eisha gives birth to a boy named Joseph, who would grow up to marry Mary. Biologically the boy is the son of Jacob, but because of the Levitate edict, that the brother sires an heir “for his brother”, the child would be legally considered to be the son of Heli!

Since Matthew is one of the disciples, and we know that Mary, the mother of Jesus, spends at least some time with the company that followed the Lord; it is not unreasonable to suggest that Matthew would know about the circumstances of Joseph’s birth and the connection to Jacob. So Matthew records Jesus’ blood lineage.

Luke, on the other hand, is a companion of Paul’s, but is apparently not around prior to the crucifixion. For his account it would not be unreasonable to suggest he relied on the official records and therefore counted Heli as being the earthly grandfather of Jesus, so his account is the legal lineage.

Since this scenario is entirely plausible, it means that both genealogies could well be valid lines of succession, through Joseph, for the man known as Jesus of Nazareth.

IMHO (In My Humble Opinion)

Personally, I like this explanation. So apparently did early scholars such as Aristotle, who rejected all other ideas once he heard this one. As speculations go, it has cultural validity, is based on sound Biblical concepts, and is in many respects more plausible than the idea that Luke’s lineage is somehow that of Mary. But again, it is all speculation; baring a major archaeological discovery, we will never truly know the truth this side of the next life.

But even having said that, such speculation is not without value. It is important that we, from time to time, consider the validity of our assumptions. Many old ideas have been rejected not because of any valid argument, but just because they are old ideas. In some cases personal grudges and/ or bigotry are involved. In like manner, many new ideas are also rejected for no reason other than they are new.

And so, gentle reader, I present to you some food for thought. Not to be taken as gospel, or even as a great likelihood, but simply to be considered as grist for the mill in our continuing effort to understand the reality that is the story of our Lord Jesus.