The right moment for reconciliation

“Jesus said to the crowds,
“When you see a cloud rising in the west
you say immediately that it is going to rain–and so it does;
and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south
you say that it is going to be hot–and so it is.
You hypocrites!
You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky;
why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

“Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?
If you are to go with your opponent before a magistrate,
make an effort to settle the matter on the way;
otherwise your opponent will turn you over to the judge,
and the judge hand you over to the constable,
and the constable throw you into prison.
I say to you, you will not be released
until you have paid the last penny.” (Lk 12:54-59)

In the daily Gospel reading above from Luke, I’m struck by the inclusion of a Greek term that I’m most familiar with in the context of rhetoric and philosophy: kairos. Jesus says that his opponents do not know how to interpret the present time, or the kairos. In Greek writings about rhetoric, kairos is often used to describe the “right moment” at which to speak in a particular way in order to persuade or to affect one’s audience, for example, a well timed remark in the midst of a political debate. Jesus’ remark is striking, because judging how to act with attention to kairos, or the right moment, is one of the most difficult aspects of rhetoric. It requires more than abstract thought, but also knowledge of particulars, such as: who is my audience, and how can I draw on my experience in the best possible way right now? In the New Testament, kairos appears frequently, and takes on the meaning of God’s appointed time. Instead of the human being finding the right moment, God finds the right moment.

Therefore, it is surprising that Jesus rebukes his audience by saying that they are not good at judging the kairos. In many other cases, it is God who judges the right moment to act, and not us. (For example, Jesus right before his ascent says only God knows when the kingdom of Israel will be restored, in reply to his disciples’ request to find out whether he plans to restore it right now.)

The next paragraph, though, offers some insight into what Jesus has in mind. He tells his listeners that if one is on his way to court, the best thing is to make up with the one with whom one is in conflict on the way, that is, immediately, and not to put it off. Here, Jesus suggests that the time for reconciliation and for peace between people is always now. In yesterday’s reading, Jesus spoke of how mother, father, brother, and other families can be pitted against one another as a result of faith or religion. Now, he offers a counterbalancing image: one of reconciliation before it is too late to do so. If the wind is hot, or a cloud appears in the sky, the farmer rushes to take care of his crops. He does not delay. We sense in the urgency in these earlier images.

We never know the length of our own lives, or how much time will be left to make up or to set things right with another person. Jesus explains, the kairos, the right time for God’s reconciling work, is always right now.