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A Classic Study -

The Invitation, pt. 1 by Soren Kierkegaard

This is the first article in a three part series, which is a classic study written in 1850 by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The series is an exposition on Christ's "wonderful" invitation in Matthew 11:28. These writings are taken from Kierkegaard's book Indovelse i Christendom, called in English Training in Christianity or Practice in Christianity.-- Ed.

The Invitation - I

"Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28; KJV).

Oh! Wonderful, wonderful! That the one who has help to give is the one who says, "Come unto Me!". What love is this! There is love in the act of a man who is able to help and does help him who begs for help. But for one to offer help! and to offer it to all! To offer it--no, to shout it out, as if the Helper were the one who needed help, as if in fact He who is able and willing to help all was Himself in a sense a needy one, in that He feels an urge, and consequently need to help, need of the sufferer in order to help him!

"Come unto Me!" -- There is nothing wonderful in the fact that when one is in danger and in need of help, perhaps of speedy, instant help, he shouts, "Come here!" Neither is it wonderful that a quack shouts out, "Come here! I heal all diseases." Ah, in the instance of the quack there is only too much truth in the falsehood that the physician has need of the sick man. "Come here, all you that can pay for healing at an exorbitant price--or at least for a remedy. Here is medicine for everybody. . .that is, everybody who can pay. Come here, come here!"

But commonly it is understood that one who is able to help must be sought out; and when one has found him, it may be difficult to gain access to him, one must perhaps implore him for a long time; and when one has implored him for a long time, he may perhaps at last be moved. That is, he sets a high value upon himself. And when sometimes he declines to receive any pay, or magnanimously relinquishes claim to it, this merely expresses the value he attaches to himself. He, on the other hand, who made the great self-surrender here surrenders himself anew. He Himself it is who seeks them that stand in need to help; it is He Himself who goes about and, calling them, almost beseeching them, says, "Come here!" He, the only one who is able to help, and to help with the one thing needful, to save from the sickness which in the truest sense is mortal, does not wait for people to come to Him, but He comes of His own accord, uncalled for--for He indeed it is that calls them, that offers help--and what help! That simple wise man, too, of ancient times[Footnote #3] was just as infinitely right as the majority who do the opposite are wrong, in that he did not set a high value upon himself or his instruction, though it is true that, in another sense, he thereby gave expression with a noble pride to the incommensurability of the pay. But he was not so deeply concerned through love to men that he begged anyone to come to him. And he behaved as he did--shall I say, in spite of the fact, or because?--he was not altogether certain what his help really amounted to. For the more certain one is that his help is the only help, just so much more reason he has, humanly speaking, to make it dear; and the less certain he is, so much the more reason he has to offer with great alacrity such help as he disposes of, for the sake of accomplishing something at least. But He who calls Himself the Savior, and knows Himself to be such, says with deep concern, "Come unto me!"

"Come unto Me, all ye!" -- Wonderful! For that one who perhaps is impotent to give help to a single soul--that he with lusty lungs should invite all is not so wonderful, human nature being what it is. But when one is perfectly certain that he can help; when one is willing, moreover, to devote oneself entirely to this cause and to make every sacrifice, it is usual, at least, to reserve the liberty of selecting the objects of one's care. However willing a person may be, still it is not everyone he would help, he would not sacrifice himself to that extent. But He, the only one who can truly help, the only one who can truly help all, and so the only one who truly can invite all, He stipulates no condition at all. This word which was as though coined for him from the foundation of the world, he accordingly utters: "Come here all." O, human self-sacrifice! even at thy fairest and noblest, when we admire thee most, there still is one act of sacrifice beyond thee, the sacrifice of every determinant of one's own ego, so that in the willingness to help there is not the least prejudice of partiality. What loving-kindness, thus to set no price upon oneself, entirely to forget oneself, to forget that it is he who helps, entirely blind to the question who it is one helps, seeing with infinite clearness only that it is a sufferer, whoever he may be; thus to will unconditionally to help all--alas, in this respect so different from us all!

"Come unto Me!" -- Wonderful! For human compassion does indeed do something for them that labor and are heavy laden. One feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, gives alms, builds charitable institutions, and, if the compassion is more heartfelt, one also visits them that labor and are heavy laden. But to invite them to come to us, that is a thing that cannot be done; it would involve a change in all our household and manner of life. It is not possible while one is living in abundance, or at least in joy and gladness, to live and dwell together in the same house, in a common life in daily intercourse, with the poor and wretched, with them that labor and are heavy laden. In order to be able to invite them thus one must live entirely in the same way, as poor as the poorest, as slighly regarded as the lowliest man of the people, familiar with life's sorrow and anguish, sharing completely the same conditions as they whom one invites to one's home, namely they that labor and are heavy laden. If a man will invite the sufferer to come to him, he must either alter his condition in likeness to the sufferer's, or the sufferer's in likeness to his own. Otherwise the difference will be all the more glaring by reason of the contrast. And if a man will invite all sufferers to come to him (for with a single individual one can make an exception and alter his condition), it can be done in only one way, by altering one's own condition in likeness to theirs, if originally it was not adapted to this end, as was the case with Him who says, "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden." This He said, and they that lived with Him beheld, and lo! there is not the very least thing in His life which contradicts it. With the silent and veracious eloquence of deeds His life expresses, even if He had never given utterance to these words, "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden." He is true to His word, He is what He says, and in this sense also He is the Word.

"All ye that labor and are heavy laden." -- Wonderful! The only thing He is concerned about is that there might be a single one of those that labor and are heavy laden who failed to hear the invitation. As for the danger that too many might come, He had no fear of it. Oh, where heart-room is, there house-room always is to be found. But where was there ever heart-room if not in His heart? How the individual will understand the invitation He leaves to the individual himself. His conscience is clear: He has invited all them that labor and are heavy laden.

But what then is it to labor and to be heavy laden? Why does He not explain it more precisely, so that one may know exactly who it is He means? Why is He so laconic? O, thou petty man, He is so laconic in order not to be petty; thou illiberal man, He is so laconic in order not to be illiberal; it is the part of love (for "love" is toward all) to prevent that there be a single person who is thrown into alarm by pondering whether he also is among the invited. And he who might require a closer definition--would he not be a self-loving person, reckoning that this ought especially to take care of his case and apply to him, without considering that the more of such closer and closer definitions there were, just so much the more inevitable that there must be individuals for whom it became more and more indefinite whether they are the invited. O man, why doth thine eye look only to its own?

Why is it evil because He is good? The invitation to all throws open the Inviter's arms, and there He stands, an everlasting picture. As soon as the closer definition is introduced, which perhaps might help the individual to another sort of certainty, the Inviter has a different aspect, and there passes over Him as it were a fleeting shadow of change.

"I will give you rest" -- Wonderful! For these words, "Come unto Me", must thus be understood to mean, abide with me, I am that rest, or, to abide with me is rest. So it is not as in other instances, when the helper who says, "Come here", must thereupon say, "Go hence again", declaring to each individual severally where the help he needs is to be found, where there grows the pain-quenching herb which can heal him, or where the tranquil place is where he can cease from labor, or where is that happier region of the world where one is not heavy laden. No, He who opens His arms and invites all--oh, in case all, all they that labor and are heavy laden were to come to Him, He would embrace them in His arms and say, "Abide with Me, for in abiding with Me there is rest." The Helper is the help. Oh, wonderful! He who invites all and would help all has a way of treating the sick just as if it were intended for each several one, as if each patient He deals with were the only one. Commonly a physician must divide himself among his many patients who, however many they are, are very far from being all. He prescribes the medicine, tells what is to be done, how it is to be used--and then he departs to another patient. Or else, in case the patient has come to see him, he lets him depart. The physician cannot remain sitting all the day long beside one patient, still less can he have all his sick people in his own home and yet sit all the day long beside one patient--without neglecting the others. Hence in this case the helper and the help are not one and the same thing. The patient retains beside him all the day long the help which the physician prescribes, so as to use it constantly; whereas the physician sees him only now and then, and only now and then does he see the physician. But when the Helper is the help, He must remain with the patient all the day long, or the patient with Him. Oh, wonderful! that it is this very Helper who invites all!

(We will continue Kierkegaard's study in the next issue.)


3. Kierkegaard is speaking of Socrates, who did not accept payment for philosophical discussions and advice, because he did not claim to be a teacher.--Ed.

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