D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays

  • Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays: The High Priest, The Publican, The Woman Who Was a Sinner
  • Tre Taler ved Altergangen om Fredagen: Ypperstepræsten, Tolderen, Synderinden
  • 1849
  • KW18, SKS11, SV11

Most of Kierkegaard's direct religious writings are called "discourses", as is this work. (See Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses for an overview of Kierkegaard's religious discourses). They are for upbuilding, but are "without authority". As in the description on "The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle" (see Two Minor Ethical-Religious Essays), the apostle was in relation to the absolute, whereas he, a mere man (though certainly a genius), spoke with, and possessed, no authority—merely sagacity. Kierkegaard's unique plan of attack through his pseudonymous authorship had been to "wound from behind", which was part of his "godly deception". His philosophical works were meant to insinuate themselves into men's minds. His upbuilding discourses, on the other hand, accompanied the pseudonymous works, and formed a contrast to them by being direct and religious. They were, however—and are still—often neglected in favor of the philosophical works. This was a disappointment to Kierkegaard. For more on this see Kierkegaard's Authorial Method.

The first discourse has as its scriptural text a passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews 4.15, "For we have not a high priest who is unable to feel compassion with our infirmities, but one who in all points was tried in like manner, yet without sin". Kierkegaard's main concern is to offer comfort to his reader. Most any kind of suffering that we can face was faced by Christ. He was falsely accused, hated, beaten, betrayed by a friend, denied by another friend, disbelieved by his contemporaries, held up to public ridicule, grossly misunderstood, innocently put to death, etc., etc. But if Christ was sinless, would he not then have been inexperienced in the sufferings associated with sin? Kierkegaard understands the Bible to answer in the negative. He was tempted in all ways. During his fasting in the wilderness when the devil tempted him, he would have been tempted in the order presented by Matthew: by hunger, display of power and imperial rule. Christ as the sufferer par excellence is the very one who is qualified to console us.

...He was not a sufferer who sought consolation from others, still less one who found it in others; no, He was the sufferer whose only, absolutely His only consolation was to console others. Behold, here thou art come to suffering's utmost possibility, but also to suffering's limit, where everything is inverted; for He, none other than He, is 'the Comforter' (p. 365).

But going through the gamut of human sufferings is not the only way that Christ as the high priest relates to human suffering. In the atonement he literally takes our place as sacrificial lamb.

The second discourse is entitled "The Publican", and is based on the Scripture passage in Luke 18.13. There Jesus compares two kinds of attitudes a person can have toward one's own sin. The Pharisee compares himself to others, asserting that he is not as bad as some sinners. The publican stands apart and simply asks for mercy. Kierkegaard uses this passage to restate a perennial theme of his: the necessity of being alone before God. The publican, as the text says, stands apart. He literally stands apart since his relationship to God is as a single individual guilty before his Maker. The Pharisee does not literally stand apart, but he compares himself to others. In this way he puts himself apart as morally superior. Kierkegaard uses this to address the reader directly.

And if thou, before God's holiness hast learnt that it avails thee nothing though thy cry would call upon some one else to help, that there where thou art as the single individual there is literally no one else but thee, that it is the most impossible of all things that there there might be or come any one else but thee—then terror discovers this cry, 'God be merciful to me a sinner.'...

The Pharisee was not in danger, he stood proudly and securely self-satisfied, from him no cry was heard. What is the meaning of this? It means also something quite different—it means that he was not before God....

It begins with the Pharisee standing near, the publican afar off; it ends with the Pharisee standing afar off, the publican near.—He went to his house justified. For he cast down his eyes; but the averted eye sees God, and the eye cast down signifies the lifting up of the heart. No glance is so sharp-sighted as that of faith, and yet, humanly speaking, faith is blind; for reason, understanding, is, humanly speaking, the faculty of seeing, but faith is against the understanding (p. 374f.).

Kierkegaard will not allow for any understanding that precedes faith, or any understanding that assists faith. Faith does not need anything. This subjective approach to faith is approached in much greater length in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Consonant with the priority of faith and the necessity of being alone before God is Kierkegaard's insistence that only the self that accuses itself before God can ever be justified before God. It is not the condemnation of others that ultimately pricks our hearts. "For self-accusation is the possibility of justification" (p. 376).

The third and final discourse is one of Kierkegaard's more moving pieces. It is on the woman who was a sinner, taken from Luke 7.47. This same text was also used for An Upbuilding Discourse. As he points out, this passage is full of striking contrasts. A banquet is a place of festivity, yet this woman uses it as a confessional. She goes to the home of a Pharisee, who stereotypically represents legalizing and spiritual pride. As Kierkegaard remarks, the home of a Pharisee would be the last place in the world for such a woman to find solace, let alone forgiveness. She brings ointment, which might be appropriate for a banquet, except that she has a different use for it.

Jesus says that "her many sins are forgiven her, for she loved much". This of course brings up the debate of the efficacy of grace versus works. Kierkegaard refuses to enter the debate. In his journals and elsewhere he said that salvation is by grace alone. However, as it says in James, works are an important fruit of grace and love. A Christian must do works—if he is a Christian. The woman's work is love. She loved Jesus so much that she forgot herself. She comes to a banquet weeping, and displays her humility in that she did not care for the reaction that would ensue.

When one remembers oneself, one can love in a way, but one does not love much; and just in the degree that one remembers oneself the more, in the same degree one loves the less. She, however, had entirely forgotten herself (p. 382).

In 1848, the year before these discourses were published, Kierkegaard experienced the cognition that his sins were not only forgiven, but forgotten. This belief is realized in this discourse.

But 'her many sins are forgiven her'—and how could this be more strongly expressed than by the fact that everything is forgotten, that she, the great sinner, is transformed into a picture! When it is said, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee,' ah, how readily does the remembrance of herself return to her, if she were not fortified by this boundless forgetfulness: 'Her many sins are forgiven her.' She loved much, hence she forgot herself entirely; she forgot herself entirely, 'hence her many sins were forgiven'—forgotten, yea, they were drowned with her as it were in forgetfulness, she herself, being transformed into a picture, became a recollection, yet not as if it recalled her to herself; no, as she forgot the recollection by forgetting herself, the recollection also (not gradually but at once) forgot her name—her name is 'a woman that was a sinner', neither more nor less (p. 384).

Kierkegaard finally addressed a point that some make, people who are cynical and think that they have punched a whole in the Christian view of love. He imagines someone supposing that there was self-love too in her love of Christ.

I would reply: 'Naturally', and thereupon I would add, 'God be gracious to us, but there simply is no other way'—and then add, 'God forbid that I might ever presume to love my God or my Saviour in any other way; for if there were ever in my love nothing of self-love in that significance of the word, I would only be imagining that I could love Him without having need of Him—and from this presumption God preserve me!'

Kierkegaard was concerned primarily with the self before God. This implies self-concern to some extent. We are in fact called to examine ourselves. Moreover, we will be judged as individuals, and remain individuals in eternity. Some self-consideration is necessary. And as for grace versus works—they cannot be fully separated. Had she not love she would not have come to a loving Saviour. On the other hand, her Saviour was Love itself, and thus inspired love in her. This experience cannot be finely dissected by theologizing and literary craftiness. She loved and she was forgiven. We need not be concerned with chronology nor with cause and effect.