Sunday, November 15, 2015

Who is my neighbor

There’s an infamous story about Kitty Genovese who, in 1964, was knifed in her neighborhood in Queens. She screamed for help. And more than a dozen heard her cries. Yet no one did anything to help or to intervene. Reports have often exaggerated the details of this event, but the fact remains that at least one witness knew she was stabbed and yet did nothing. Not until she was attacked yet again by the same man did someone else call the police. And by then it was too late.

You see, Jesus’ parable today is not so far-fetched. People really act this way sometimes. The priest and the Levite witness the suffering of a fellow man and yet do nothing to intervene. This happens in incidents that grab headlines and it happens in our daily lives.

I hope not many of us have had to witness such atrocities. Those of us who have, I hope, have done something to intervene. But for all of us, it isn’t difficult to find human suffering. Even if our suffering is not so great, we all do suffer and we all, daily, encounter the suffering of others. If we read the news, it will mostly be about suffering. The news from Paris this week tells of great suffering. May God be with them and defend us all. At work, we may witness spiteful and petty cruelties between coworkers. In our families, we may deal with illnesses and addictions. Downtown and in our neighborhood, we may encounter homelessness and addiction.

In my experience, everywhere we go, we see suffering. And wherever we recognize the suffering of another, we may take that recognition, I believe, as a calling from God to be an instrument of God’s healing and help. To be a neighbor.

What we should do in each given situation requires discernment, but we can trust that God has put us in the situation for his purposes. Each and every time. There is nothing random or arbitrary about the situations we find ourselves in, though it may seem that way. In truth, God has put us there. And it’s not to bring harm or callousness, but to bring healing and compassion. If you are witnessing human suffering, God is calling upon you to be a neighbor to the one who suffers.

The lawyer, desiring to justify himself, asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The witness of Kitty Genovese’s attack must have had the same question. He must have thought, "oh she is someone else’s neighbor. Someone else’s problem. Not mine. It’s nothing to do with me. Leave me out of it." When in fact, each witness is given an opportunity by God – not by random chance or accident (which does not exist) but by God, who personally knows and loves every victim, every witness, and every sinner. 

Russian Icon of the Good Samaritan
When the man is stripped and beaten by robbers, God sends him a priest. God calls upon this priest to intervene for good, to help, to show mercy, to be a priest. To the priest, God gives the first opportunity to act as God’s instrument of healing. But the priest passes him by on the other side. He passes by the robbed and beaten man – and he passes by the calling of God in that moment – and he passes by the image of God lying in the dirt. So when the priest fails to do his will, God sends a Levite. And when the Levite fails, God sends a Samaritan, who acts in every way as an image of Christ to the robbed and beaten victim.

Now Samaritans and Jews would ordinarily have nothing to do with one another – they were enemies – but this Samaritan gives no consideration to that. He sees past that tribal acrimony to his common humanity with this bruised and battered Jew from Jerusalem he finds lying in the road.

Our common humanity has its grounding both in the earth we’re made out of and in the breath of life – the ruach – the spirit that God breathes into our nostrils. We are all of us earth with God breathed in – and no human divisions can surmount that common identity.

Our neighbors are not only those with whom we have certain kinds of kinship. Not only our family members and friends. Not only our coreligionists. If we were to assist only those who share our faith, we would thereby prove the enemies and critics of faith correct. They say that faithful religious people are the cause conflict and violence. This becomes true if we fail to live our faith truly.

Neighborliness is not due only to the groups in which we find ourselves. Not only to the born, the young, the healthy, and the free but also to the unborn, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned and enslaved. Not only to Americans, but also to the French and to Syrians and Iraqis and all the people of all the nations of the world. Not only to Christians, but also to Muslims and Jews and Pagans and atheists. Not only to the moral, the innocent, and the orthodox, but also to the immoral, the guilty, and the heretical. Also to sinners. Sinners and hypocrites like us.

How often, desiring to justify ourselves, we say, “Well maybe I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not like so and so. At least I don’t want to do this or that evil. Ugh, how can a person even be tempted by that sin? I’m so far above that.”  Believe me, our own sins are no better. St. Mark the Ascetic writes that “the devil makes small sins seem smaller in our eyes, for otherwise he can’t lead us to greater evil.”[i] The very fact that our own sins look so innocent to us reveals the depth of our depravity.  How much we stand in need of the cross and of the Lord’s forgiveness and his great mercy, available to us all in the holy mystery of repentance.   

We enter today into the Philip’s Fast, which is a season of repentance. This is an especially good time of year for us to identify with all the other sinners in the world, to stop thinking ourselves better than others, to repent, to confess our own sins rather than listing the sins of others, to fast and to give to the poor, to pray for peace on earth, to be a neighbor to all.

So be a neighbor to all people, not because all people are equally right, or because there any truth the relativistic nonsense that “your truth is true for you but not for me,” but because being right is never a person’s deepest identity. Our deepest identity is that which God creates in us – his own image. Therefore, we must never allow our differences with other people – even when they’re in the wrong – to justify any hatred or indifference toward them.

In today’s epistle to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “There is… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, there is one God who is father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all” (Eph 4:5-6). That is our relationship with all others. Always bear this in mind. It makes us neighbors of all people, even our enemies. For all people are called by the one God to the true faith and to baptism, never to death and destruction. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes and as we sing each Pascha, "Let us call brethren even those who hate us."

[i] “On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts” No. 94,

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Compassion for Demons

Demons cry out to Jesus, the Son of the Most High God. They beg him not to cast them into the abyss, but rather to allow them to enter a nearby herd of swine.

The Miracle of the Gadarene Swine
about 1000
Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
The J. Paul Getty Museum

Remember, these are demons, like the one to whom the priest says before baptisms,
“I adjure you, most evil, unclean, foul, abominable and alien spirit, by the power of Jesus Christ…, Depart! Acknowledge the futility of your power, which had no authority even over swine. Remember the One who ordered you, in accordance with your own request, to enter the herd of swine” (Second Exorcism).
These are such as have no right to ask anything of the Lord. They are altogether evil and rebellious, and yet they ask. Because they also cannot do anything without the Lord’s permission. They cannot even lead a pig. In Genesis, the Lord gives dominion to us humans over all the beasts (1:28). Strikingly, the demons have no share in this. In presence of Jesus, a Legion of demons is utterly powerless, even over pigs. So perhaps it is not so surprising to hear them begging the Lord for something. Though their effrontery remains staggering.

What is perhaps more surprising is that the Lord grants their petition. They beg him for permission to enter the swine, and he gives them leave (8:32). He doesn’t have to do this, you realize. He could have said to them at this time, again as the priest does before baptisms, “go back to your own Tartarus until the great day of the judgement that has been prepared”(First Exorcism). But the demons beg to be spared from this abyss and he does spare them – at least for now.

The Lord taught his disciples, “Ask and it will be given you” (Luke 11:9). Does this teaching apply even to the unfaithful demons? For a moment here anyway, it seems so.

Why? Does Jesus love even the demons?

We could point to many passages – for example, in the cursing Psalms – that proclaim God’s hatred for the wicked and for his enemies. But I believe the fathers were right to interpret these passages allegorically. The enemy that God hates and that we should hate is certainly not our neighbors or our fellow creatures, but sin and death, temptations and all the thoughts which deceive or distract us from the love of God.

On the other hand, it is also true that the fathers also allegorize the cursed and hated enemies in the Psalms as demons. Meanwhile, God is love and has taught us to love even our enemies. And surely the demons are his enemies. And surely he loves his enemies. I certainly hope so, because every time I sin, I make myself like a demon and an enemy of God. 

One of the last things Father Sid told me before he died was that we must have compassion for the demons. I found the idea then and now both repellent and difficult, but I’m not sure he was wrong. One could understand Jesus’ permission to enter the swine as compassionate.

This should give us hope, I think. If the Lord hears the petitions even of the demons of hell, then surely he will hear us, even when we cry out to him from the depths of our despair. 
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness:  for this we revere you” (Ps 130:1-4).
When the Lord hears us, has mercy on us, and grants our petitions, we must do good with the good he gives us. This is not what the demons do. When their petition is granted, what do the demons then do? Do they seek the good of the pigs entrusted to their care? Do they lead the pigs to slop? Hardly. As you know, they rushed the herd into the lake and drowned them. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,
“Wicked demons are cruel, mischievous, hurtful and treacherous to those who are in their power. The fact clearly proves this, because they hurried the swine over a precipice and drowned them in the waters” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 44).  
When the demons possessed a man, they used their power to hurt the man, and when they possessed the swine, they used their power to hurt the swine. They are utterly petty and hurtful and destructive. They take even the smallest opportunity to do what harm they can. You and I become ever more like these demons when we return again and again to our sins the way that a sow, having been washed, returns to her wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22).

Yet, every time we repent, the Lord forgives us. He shows us mercy. He spares us from the abyss. Every time we cry out to him, he hears us. Every time the Lord forgives us, we have the opportunity, by the grace of God, to become like the good and kind and loving and merciful men and women that God created us to be.

Maybe Jesus was even giving the demons an opportunity. He does not at this time condemn them to the abyss. If this is an opportunity for them, they immediately squander it. Jesus does not condemn the demons. They condemn themselves. Throwing the swine over the precipice, they cast themselves into the abyss.

This is how damnation works, I believe. God does not damn the sinful and wicked, they damn themselves by their impenitence. God does not desire the death of sinners, but rather that we repent and live. There are no penitents among the damned. There are only those who reject God absolutely – who would rather wallow in their hurtful sins than love God and their neighbors.

In hell, we know, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth (e.g. Matt 13:42; Luke 13:28). What might not be clear about this is that all that tooth gnashing is probably not penitent lamentation. The word here can refer to snarling and growling as in anger. The word often communicates “hate, desire for destruction of the other” (TDNT, as quoted by Randal Rauser). So hell is peopled by the hateful, not by victims of some spiteful God. Our God is a loving God who desires our repentance. Let us repent then, and believe the gospel.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Who is the Sower?

Today’s Parable of the sower is among those that Jesus explains. He tells us that the seed is the word of God. And that the ground is all us folks. We’re like the dirt, which makes sense, given that we’re made of earth. Just as there’s different kinds of people, there’s different kinds of soil, and Jesus tells us what each kind represents.

The tramped down path from which the birds eat the seeds is like those easily deceived and distracted by the devil. 

The rocky soil in which no roots can take hold is like the quick and easy converts who like the good news but are unwilling to endure hardship for it and so as quickly turn away. Some act as if the baptistery has a revolving door. I’ve seen it many times.  

Pope Gregorius I dictating the gregorian chants
from the Antiphonary of Hartker
of the monastery of Saint Gall (Cod. Sang. 390, p. 13)
circa 1000
The soil full of thorns is like those consumed by the cares of this world. Like the rich man who went away sad when Jesus called him to generosity to the poor, for he was attached to many possessions (Matt 19, Luke 18). They were his master. St. Gregory the Great says “thorns are piercing and riches pleasurable. [But] riches are thorns because thoughts of them pierce the mind and torture it. When finally they lure a person into sin, it is as though they were drawing blood from the wound they have inflicted.”

Finally, the good soil is like those who hear the word of God and keep it. Like those who are doers of the word and not hearers only.

But Jesus doesn’t tell us who the sower is. Who is the sower?

There are a few different ideas about this. Some say that the sower is those who preach the word of God, those who gossip the gospel, those who, like the apostles, are sent into the world to proclaim the good news that Jesus, who is the word, has by his incarnation united God with humanity and by his death and resurrection has conquered sin and death. 

Certainly, when we preach this word of truth to the world, with our words and by our way of life, we will witness some who receive it wholeheartedly, like good soil receives a seed, and we will witness some who reject it out of hand, like the hard ground of a path which leaves seeds exposed to be trampled and for birds to eat, and we will witness every response in between.

And certainly, we must imitate the sower. Just as the sower scatters seed in every kind of soil, we must preach the word in the whole world, not only among those primed to listen. We must preach not only to the choir, but also to the workplace, and to the barroom, and to every place we frequent. We must put our lamp on a stand, not under a bushel, but that’s another parable.

It is a bit striking, don’t you think, that the sower even bothers to throw seed on the path and in the rocky soil and among the thorns? Is that the way a farmer plants? Indiscriminately throwing his seed all about? This sower scatters the seed everywhere, not just where it is likely to take root. This is born of a hope so hopeful that to the world it looks like folly. But you know, a path can be tilled. Rocky soil can be cleared. Thorns can be weeded. So we may yet hope for those who seem as yet unable to receive the word. We must keep sowing the seeds of the word among them. Our hope for them must be indefatigable.

Just seeds, mind you, does the sower cast into all conditions of soil. Only the seed of the word is offered to all. The fruit of that seed is yielded only in those who receive and tend it. Cast your seeds on rocky soil, yes, but not your pearls before swine.  

A seed is a small thing, but it is potent. Its potential is vast, but while yet a seed, it seems insignificant. This is the nature of the things we must say and do among those we hope to evangelize. Small things. A brief statement of our hope and our joy in the Lord. A small act of kindness and love.

This is the kind of sowing we can do, but I think that, as we do it, we will always discover that there are seeds of the word already present in every human heart. Someone has already been there! We imitate the sower, but we are not the first sower.

Patiently listen to those who seem hell-bent on rejecting all the things of God. Search for, in what they say and do, a seed of the word and you will usually find it already there, begging to be tended and nurtured. That is, they will already know something of love.

Everyone is loved, you know, even those who do not know they are loved. But even those who do not know it cannot help but be influenced by the fact of being loved. Even if it goes no further than a deep, unconscious recognition that they ought to be loved. That is a seed of the word. And to know that we are not made for suffering and death is a seed of the word. On some level, everyone knows these things, because the seeds of the word have been sown in them.

Who has sown them? Who is the sower?

John Chrysostom
miniature from Liturgies of John Chrysostom
and Basil the Great
Dujcev Research Centre - Sofia, Gr. 64, fol. 1v
18th century
Jesus identifies himself – the Son of man – as a sower in a different parable (Matt 13:37).  Regarding today’s parable, St John Chrysostom says, "The seed is the doctrine of Christ, the ground is the souls of men, and the sower is Christ Himself" (On Matthew, Homily 44). And after Chrysostom says something, it tends to be adopted by all, because he knows what he’s talking about.

But I’d like to point something out. Jesus doesn’t say that the seed is his “doctrine” exactly. He doesn’t speak of his διδαχή. He says that it is “the word of God – ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ.” The meaning is similar, but the difference is important – because who is the Logos of God? Jesus himself! Jesus is the seed. But if Jesus is the seed, is he also the sower? Well, why not? Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he is also the Lamb of God. He is the high priest, and he is also the sacrifice. So I think that he can also be both the Sower and the seed. 

Nonetheless, I also believe that the scripture and the parables of Christ can hold many complementary meanings. I believe that Jesus is the sower, and that we are also sowers in imitation of him. And I’d like to propose a third understanding of this parable.

Perhaps we can also understand the sower as God the Father. The Father is the source (ἀρχή) of the word. It is of the Father that the Son is begotten and from whom the holy Spirit proceeds. God the Father sends the word into the world by the power of his holy Spirit.

 The consummation of this sending is the incarnation of the word. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But even before the incarnation and in every time and place, God plants the seeds of the word.

Justin Martyr
fresco by Theophanes the Cretan
and his son Symeon
in the Stavronikita Monastery
circa 1546
The holy martyr Justin the Philosopher says much about these seeds of the word. He believes that God has planted the seed of the word in every person and that the word that is within them is none other than the divine word who is incarnate in Christ. Even the pagan philosophers then, inasmuch as they are reasonable, and inasmuch as they know truth about anything, are dependent on Jesus Christ, even though they do not realize it. St. Justin writes, “Christ… is the Word of whom every race of men [are] partakers; and those who [live] reasonably [that is, according to the word] are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists” (First Apology, xlvi).  

Inasmuch as a person is on the side of truth and love, they are already Christ’s, for our God is truth and love. Our task, then, is not only to sow seeds but, perhaps more urgently, to tend the soil in which the Lord has already sown the seeds of his divinity.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

To be Sons of the Most High

According to Matthew, Jesus preaches to us from the mountain. He preaches above us, as God, and with all the authority of God. Just as God speaks to Moses on the mountain, so Jesus speaks to his disciples this Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1).

And, according to Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain and stands on a level place (Luke 6:17) to be among us, to be one of us, to be a man like us in all things but sin, to be our brother and to speak to us as our brother, this Sermon on the Plain.

And really these two sermons are substantially similar, though perhaps the one has a more divine perspective and the other a more human perspective. The fact that the divine and human messages agree completely reveals how completely Jesus is both God and man, how clear is the image of God in man, and how possible it has become for us to become one with God in Christ Jesus.

Today, speaking to us on the plain, Jesus admonishes us to behave in quite extraordinary and unworldly ways.

He tells us to do to others what we wish they would do to us (6:31). That’s as opposed to getting all you can get, doing what you can get away with, and looking out for number one, which seem to be guiding principles of life in the world. Pope Francis, I understand, recently repeated this golden rule to a joint session of Congress. Let us pray they hear and listen.

St. Maximos the Confessor
Jesus tells us to love, not only those who love us, but even those who hate us. St. Maximus the Confessor says that Jesus commands us this “to free [us] from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor, and to make [us] worthy of the supreme gift of perfect love. [We] cannot attain such love if [we] do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them 'to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'" (1 Tim 2:4).

A lot of people in the world and in the Church support family values. As well they should. But sometimes, our idea of strengthening the family goes no further than loving those who love us. And sometimes we even think it includes hating and seeking to destroy those who would tear our families apart.

And that’s not enough. Jesus sets us a higher standard. What about loving our enemies? Or the enemies of our families? What about murderers and drug dealers and prostitutes and rapists, who make our neighborhoods unsafe? Do you want them dead? I have heard fellow Christians speak murderously of evil men. I myself know what it is like to hate and even to want dead someone who would hurt the innocent or the weak. May God forgive me, the sinner. Let me tell you something, God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he repent and live (Ezekiel 18:23). This is the word of the Lord that came to Ezekiel (18:1). So, when we desire the death of a sinner – even if he is an Islamic terrorist, even if he hurt our child – we are not like God.

Jesus tells us to do good to those who do no good to us. Giving on condition of getting is just bartering. It isn’t love. Just because someone isn’t in a position to do anything for us, doesn’t mean it’s alright for us to neglect their needs. The neighborhood in which we find ourselves right now offers many opportunities to do good for those who can’t or won’t do good for us. When we think about the poor and the drug addicts and the homeless and the alcoholics who are our neighbors here, alongside the other fine and virtuous people who live here with us as well, we shouldn’t be asking ourselves, “what good are they to us?” or  “What good can they do for us?” That isn’t the right question. Rather, if we think about our neighbors here with the mind of Christ, our question will be, “What good can we do for them?” “How can we make their lives better?” “How can we benefit them in both spirit and body?”
Russian icon of St. Nicholas of Velikoretsk,
17th century,
made for the Church of Velikoretsk

If we were Christians, the idea of a needy neighborhood would attract us, not repel us. We would seek people in need – people among whom we could do good without receiving anything in return.

Remember that Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) and they say that this was also the motto of St. Nicholas, the patron of the Byzantine Catholic Church,

Jesus tells us to lend our goods and our money expecting nothing in return. Now this is distinctly unworldly. Already, more than five hundred years before Christ, the Lord plainly says to Ezekiel that a righteous man does not lend at interest (Ezekiel 18:5,8). Nowadays, collecting interest is as common as opening a savings account or an IRA. And, given the economic reality that our money has no fixed value, I suppose these interest rates actually are usually not usurious in that they do not increase the value of our savings so much as maintain it. But we have lost all understanding of usury in the contemporary world and Church.

Even if interest rates are not always usurious in the contemporary context, they often are. Witness the predatory pay-day loan stores that pop up especially in poor neighborhoods to take advantage of those who already have little by offering them needed loans, but with outrageous and crippling interest. The Christian ethical principle to keep in mind with lending is that a loan is always to be made for the benefit of the borrower, not the lender. This is just exactly backwards of how the world thinks.

Meanwhile, Jesus goes beyond prohibiting the collection of interest and commands us to expect nothing in return for our loans. Not even the principal, let alone the interest. Now that’s radical. It’s downright ludicrous, in fact, by any worldly measure. That’s not even what we’d call lending, It’s more like just plain old giving. I think that’s his point.

Treat others as you want them to treat you. Love even those who do not love you. Do good even for those who do not do good for you. Lend without expecting any return. Why? What is the purpose of all this disproportionate behavior? Do you know who you'd be like if you did all these things? Well, I"ll tell you: you’d be like God.

God loves us, even when we do not love him. He loves even his enemies, those who hate him, and those who persecute his Church. He loved Paul before, during, and after his persecution of the Church. Jesus loved and forgave those who crucified Him even as they were driving the nails into his hands and feet.

God does good for those who do no good for him. What good can we – we, who are sinful – do for God? What gift can we creatures offer to our creator worthy of his greatness? And yet, he gives us every good thing. All blessing flows from our good God. He gives us our lives, our loved ones. Every simple pleasure and every blessing come from God.

“He is kind [even] to the ungrateful and the selfish” (Luke 6:35) As the life of Hosea prophesies, even if we are unfaithful like Gomer, God is faithful (cf. 2 Tim 2:13).

So this way of life Jesus commands us to today is nothing less than a prescription toward theosis. Do these things and you will be like God. Jesus says that if we do these things, we will be “sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35). These things, which are impossible without grace, help make us again like God.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

To take up a cross

We know – most of us – what happened on the cross.

For example, just last week, I asked my five year old nephew what happened on the cross and first he said, "You mean the cross on top of the church?" And I said, "No, I’m asking about the reason we put a cross on top of the church. I mean, what happened on the real cross? Do you know?" And he said, "They nailed Jesus to it."

That is indeed the awful and awesome truth – that Jesus, our Savior and the Savior of the world, hung upon the cross and there he died for us and for our salvation. “[He] ascended the cross in [his] human nature, to deliver from the enemy’s bondage those whom [he] created,” as we pray quietly before the Divine Liturgy. The one who is life himself – the way the truth and the life (John 14:6) – died. Life died – life entered into death – so that, though we die, in him, we may live (John 11:25) – and live forever.

We know this – most of us. We have the inestimable benefit of living in a post-resurrectional cosmos. We know and partake of the life that comes after the cross and through it. The cross for us has rightly been bejeweled. The cross for us is the tree of life. For us it no longer symbolizes death and ignominy, but life and glory. “The King of Glory” we write on icons of the cross. And now, if we glory, let us glory “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us], and [we] to the world,” as Paul writes to the Galatians (6:14).

“We bow to your cross, O Lord, and we glorify your holy resurrection!” We will sing this for the last time tomorrow, on the leave-taking of the exaltation of the holy cross. 

This action is itself a beautiful image of death and resurrection. We bow or prostrate as we sing of the cross. Our bodies are lowered to the ground as they will be in death. Then, we stand upright again as we sing of resurrection, as we will stand up again from our graves when the Son of man “comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

So when Jesus says today, ""If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34), all of this imagery should come to our minds, given the benefit of our vantage point.

But what can Jesus' disciples and the multitude have thought when he preached this to them? This is the first time that Jesus directly mentions the cross. This is the case in the gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is the first time Jesus uses the word “cross,” and he’s not talking just about his own cross, but about the crosses of those who would be his followers – about our crosses. Isn’t that something?

Now Jesus had just foretold his own death and resurrection, so I suppose we could presume that he also described how he would die, but the gospel doesn’t tell us that. Regardless, how confounding the idea of taking up a cross must have sounded to those who first heard it! In a way we have an advantage over these first hearers, but in a way they have an advantage over us.

They perhaps could not see the good and beauty of the cross, as well as we. Even though Jesus had just told them that he would rise again from the dead, I imagine that it still would be difficult for them to conceive of this instrument of torture and death (to which Jesus is calling them) as a life-giving thing.

We, on the other hand, knowing the outcome, having read the last page of the story, may fail to see sometimes the suffering and scandal the cross represents as it lies before us on the tetrapod in bright pigments and enwreathed with flowers. We may expect to skip straight to the resurrection and forget about how the way to resurrection is through the cross. We may be tempted to skip straight to the feast of Pascha without first observing the black fast of Good Friday.

But when Jesus told the multitude that, if they were to follow him, they were going to need to follow him to the cross, they’d have had no illusions about what this meant. They knew what crosses were for and they had witnessed crucifixions, which were all too common in that time and place.

To carry a cross is to suffer. To take up a cross, is to accept or even embrace that suffering. Here’s the thing: we all have a cross whether we accept it or not. There’s no escape from suffering in this life. Most of those crucified went to the cross very much against their will. The end of suffering can only be fully realized in the life to come, if we choose to go that way. 

This is our choice, then: to reject the cross and die anyway or to accept the cross with love and, through death, live forever. We can react to suffering as Job’s wife recommends, that is to curse God and die (Job 2:9). Or we can respond to suffering as Job does, not without questioning, but without sin anyway (Job 1:22), and with love anyway (Job 10:12), blessing the name of the Lord anyway (Job 1:21).

Our Lord heals us, but he does not always and immediately take away all our suffering. Everyone here has suffered. Some more than others. And there is nothing just about its distribution. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt 5:45), and so does pain afflict us all physically, psychologically, spiritually. And there is no understanding it, as far as I can tell.

Sometimes suffering is the direct result of sin – for example, gluttony, and drunkenness, and violence all result almost immediately in some kind of suffering either for the self or for others. Dying by the sword, Jesus says, results from living by it (Matt 26:52). But then sometimes children as innocent as doves are cut to death this way for no reason. And there is no understanding that, as far as I can tell.

It is possible only by the grace of God for us to be freed from sin, and even then we will not be freed from suffering and affliction and persecution by the evil spirits and by the enemies of God. Jesus was without sin, yet in his great love for us, he suffered greatly. He suffered so that, through suffering, we can be united to him. He has given suffering, which was meaningless, the only meaning that it can have. God, by becoming a man who suffers, has transfigured suffering into grace – into a way of living the life of God.

Because Jesus takes up his cross, we must take up our crosses if we are to follow him – if we are to become like him, which is what it means to be his follower. Our crosses are made up of all our difficulties and all our pain and suffering. And Jesus is present to us in these. By his cross, Jesus has transformed our suffering, as Metropolitan George of Mount Lebanon writes, “into a creative force, a means of drawing near to God, so that we can make it into a ladder by which we climb up to heaven.”

Sunday, September 6, 2015

You shall love

Today a Pharisee – a lawyer – asks Jesus to tell him the greatest commandment.

This is meant as a test or – the word also means – a temptation. Little does the Pharisee know that he is testing the Lord his God. Jesus is Lord. And, by testing him, the lawyer is breaking the law in ignorance: “You shall not test the Lord your God,” it says in the law, (Deut 6:16; cf. Matt 4:7; Luke 4:12) but that is not the greatest commandment. And so Jesus does not point this out, as he did to the devil in the desert, who also tested him (Matt 4:1,7).

Jesus is patient with these Pharisees. This is the fourth and final time they test him in the gospel of Matthew. He answers their questions. The questions are good, even if the motive behind them is not. Jesus tells us later to “practice and observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell [us], but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt 23:3). It is for this hypocrisy and not for their teachings that Jesus denounces the Pharisees.

A rabbi once came to our seminary in Pittsburgh to give a presentation. During the Q and A, a member of the staff asked the rabbi what he thought of Jesus. And the rabbi shocked all by saying, “Jesus was a Pharisee.”

We are so used to hearing the name of Pharisee associated with various evils that this idea could sound blasphemous. If you look up the word ‘pharisaic” in the dictionary, it says “hypocritically pious.” And Jesus is most certainly not this, but that isn’t what the rabbi meant.

The rabbi meant that if you study first century Judaism and compare the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of the various Jewish factions, you will find that Jesus agrees more with the Pharisees than with the other groups.

For example, Jesus accepts the prophets as from God – so do the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, who hold that only the law – that is, the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – only these books and no others – are scripture inspired by God and binding upon the people of God. 

So dispute about the canon is nothing new. In our day, we have Protestants rejecting certain books of the Bible – the deuterocanon, which they call the apocrypha. In Jesus’ day there was also dispute – though of course about different books.

And Jesus agrees with the Pharisees about what was inspired by God. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that David is inspired by the Spirit in composing Psalm 109. I suppose the Sadducees would have disagreed because the Psalms are not a part of Torah. Jesus, however, agrees with the Pharisees, who clearly recognize the inspired authority of the Psalm and therefore have no argument against Jesus’ revelation regarding it – that the Messiah is more than merely a Son of David, but also the Lord. Being the Lord, Jesus knows best what the Lord inspires.

And Jesus teaches the coming resurrection of the dead – so do the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,”(Matt 22:23because it is not as clearly and directly described in the Torah as it is in the prophets and later writings. However, Jesus points out that a proper understanding of Torah does reveal the resurrection (Matt 22:31-32).

And finally, Jesus knows which is the greatest commandment of the law – so do the Pharisees. They agree about this. The lawyer is asking Jesus a question to which he already knows the answer – an old lawyerly trick.

The greatest commandment is “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”(Matt 22:37; cf. Deut 6:5). The Pharisees know this, because this, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the Shema, the principal words of the law, found in Deuteronomy:
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”(Deut 6:4-9).
These words from Deuteronomy are among those contained in the Pharisees’ phylacteries. A phylactery is a little leather box containing a scroll with these words – the shema. They literally bind these to their foreheads and to their arms when they pray. You may remember how Jesus later criticizes how the Pharisees make their phylacteries broad, so as to be seen by men, (Matt 23:5) rather than so as to always remember this greatest commandment, which is their true purpose. 

So this commandment is certainly not new to the Pharisees. They have heard it and prayed it daily since they were children. Jesus did not fail the Pharisees’ test. He knows the answer as well as them.

But he doesn’t stop there with the rote answer. Rather, he reveals something more about how it must be lived. He draws a correspondence between this great commandment and a second commandment, from Leviticus. “A second is like it,” he says. And that is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Some had noticed before that there is a verbal correspondence between these two commandments that joins them: each begins “you shall love.…”  Of course, they have more in common than that. Jesus is making a very striking point about these two commandments. Loving our neighbors is like loving God because God has made our neighbors like God. In his image and likeness he has made us.

Sometimes, during the Divine Liturgy, the reality of God’s presence in us becomes strikingly apparent. For one example, there are prayers prescribed for the priest and deacon to say quietly before the holy doors before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. At a certain point, the rubrics say that the priest and the deacon are to bow to the faithful. While they bow, they are praying part of psalm 5: “I will bow down before your holy temple in awe.” Notice this. The rubric says to bow to the people, and the text says we are bowing to the temple. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?”(1 Cor 3:16). Therefore, how can we love God if we do not love one another, when God dwells in our neighbors?

For another example, at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, I cense all the icons of the church. Toward the end of this great incensation, I cense the people. It has occurred to me that this is not something separate from the incensation of the icons. Rather, I am continuing to cense the icons, because you all are icons of God. An icon is an image, and God has made you in his image.

The image of God in us is indestructible. No sin can destroy it. It is who we are in our very being. We are in his image, but we are in pursuit of his likeness. Some have suggested that we have lost our likeness to God through our sin. But Jesus restores our likeness. In him, we can again become like God. Because he has identified himself with us. He, who is the Lord, has become man.

Jesus reveals this when he teaches the Pharisees something more about the Messiah – about himself – by interpreting David’s Psalm messianically. The messiah is the one who sits at the right hand of the Lord, and Christ points out that the one who sits at the right of the Lord is also the Lord: “The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand.” So he who is truly our Lord and God has become the messiah of Jews and the savior of all humanity.

Though it was always true, now in Christ it is fully revealed, that we must love our neighbor if we are to love God, because in Christ, God is become our neighbor. Many of the Pharisees were failing to love their neighbors, neglecting “justice and mercy and faith”(Matt 23:23and so, Jesus reveals, they were not really loving God after all. So let us follow the teaching of the Pharisees to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds, but let us not fail as they fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. “Let us be doers of the word and not hearers only”(James 1:22).

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ten Thousand Talents

Today in a parable, our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a God’s eye view of sin and forgiveness (Matt 18:23-35).

An official owed his king ten thousand talents. The king is the Lord. You and I are the servant. His debt represents our sinfulness. So when Jesus describes this debt, he is actually describing our sinfulness, which concerns us personally and is worth considering carefully.

There are different estimates as to the actual value of ten thousand talents. We know that a talent was the largest unit of money at the time. It was worth about six thousand denarii, which was a day’s pay. So a talent was more than 15 years of pay. Even if a day’s pay was equivalent to less than half of the current minimum wage in Indiana, ten thousand talents would be worth more than a one and a half billion dollars. So we are talking about a huge amount. Imagine the burden of a debt like that. It is an impossibly large sum – more than a laborer could make in two thousand lifetimes. 

It will help us to understand Jesus’ rhetoric a bit further if we also consider the word here for ten thousand – it’s μυρίος, which is the largest Greek numeral – and as such, it is sometimes used rhetorically and less technically to mean “countless” or “innumerable” – it’s where we get the word myriad. So the servant’s debt to his master is the largest numeral of the largest unit of money. In other words, it’s as big as it can be – that’s the point, I think.

And it’s also possible that Jesus is making an allusion – because this isn’t the first time that the sum of ten thousand talents is mentioned in scripture. In the book of Esther, Haman, the enemy of the Jews, feeling himself insulted by Mordecai, offers to the Persian King Ahasuerus – also known as Xerxes – ten thousand talents of silver if he will agree to destroy all Jews (Esther 3:9).

Haman was indebted to his king ten thousand talents, just like the official in today’s parable. And for what? – for seeking “to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate all Jews”(Esther 3:13) – the people of God. So this sum of ten thousand talents here is blood money. The debt of the servant in today’s parable represents our sin. And the consequence of our sin is death – and that death is born by the true messiah of the Jews – Jesus the Christ.

By our sins, we participate in the failed attempt to destroy Jesus, just as Haman, by his debt of ten thousand talents, participates in a failed attempt to destroy all Jews. In both cases, the Lord triumphs over sin and death. Through Esther, he delivers the Jews from oppression in Persia. And he raises Jesus from the dead. So there are meaningful parallels here. This enormous debt is an image of sin and death. 

It is fitting that Jesus describes all our sinfulness with a parable about money – because the love of money is the root of all evil. But we mustn’t think that if our sins don’t involve money that this isn’t about us – we must not leave this comfortably in the abstract.

We should feel invited to place ourselves in this parable as the servant, to examine our own consciences, and to discover our own sins against God and against our fellow servants. Sins perish in the light and thrive in the darkness – so we must name them and confess them.
I cannot judge you. You and God alone know which sins trouble your hearts – and I can only know my own sins. We must all bring our sins to God in holy confession, as the servant did at first – falling on his knees and begging for the patience and kindness of the Lord. When we do, we will receive the Lord’s forgiveness.

When the extent of his debt is revealed, the servant stupidly asks for more time to pay back his king – it should be clear to us that this is a sum no servant could ever repay. This, I think, is how it must sound to the Lord if we ever say that we’ll make it up to him by being good people for the rest of our lives. That won’t make it up to him! That is good and necessary, but that doesn’t mean that it’s enough. Nothing we do can ever earn our reunion with God. We are utterly and absolutely dependent upon his grace. Apart from the energies of God, there is no theosis. We do not partake of the divine nature by our own power, but by the power of God, with which we cooperate. We must make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue, but we must never think that our efforts can succeed unaided (cf. 1 Pet 1:4-5). They spring from, are supported by, and succeed in and only in the life of God, freely and gratuitously given by God.

So the king does not give his servant more time to pay him back, which would be impossible – no, he forgives the debt completely! He gives more than the servant asks for. The Lord is gracious and we depend upon his grace.

We must realize that our sin is like a debt too large for us to ever repay, and, having received the forgiveness of that debt, let us turn from our sin, repent, and sin no more. We should allow this seemingly inexcusable, impossible forgiveness and lovingkindness to prick our hearts so that we do not remain inert and insensible to our “natural wickedness.”[i] With all our hearts, let us turn away from the evils to which we have become habituated and enslaved.

This turning, this repentance, this conversion, this μετάνοια begins, as our Lord demonstrates in this parable, with forgiveness. Not only with being forgiven, but also with forgiving others.

Our Lord taught us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or, a more literal translation of the Lord’s Prayer is “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” which closely ties the prayer to today’s parable of debts. So as we forgive, we will be forgiven. And if we are to have any hope for ourselves we must have the hope for others that forgiveness expresses.

After receiving the forgiveness of such an enormous amount, the servant should quickly and easily have followed his king’s example when a fellow servant begged for patience regarding a comparably small debt – a hundred denarii – a tiny fraction of what he had been forgiven.

The wrongs we suffer from our fellow servants – which really are wrongs – sometimes terrible wrongs – are nonetheless small when you compare them to the weight of our sins against the Lord. So forgive others, as the Lord forgives you. Do not nurse hurt feelings or brood on wrongs. Do not let resentments grow in your hearts like weeds growing ever deeper roots. For, according to the measure with which you measure, it will be measured to you (Matt 7:2). If you would be forgiven, you must forgive. Even those who don’t deserve it. Even those who don’t ask for it. But especially those who do.

In light of the great blessing and forgiveness shown him, the unmerciful servant’s unwillingness to forgive his fellow servant who begs for patience is inexcusable. It is so offensive to his king that he rescinds his earlier forgiveness, and turns the servant over to the jailers till he should pay all his debt, which, according our holy fathers Apollinaris and John Chrysostom, is another way of saying “forever,” because the debt is immeasurable and is more than he could ever repay.

The king’s action here reveals something about forgiveness I believe we should notice. You often hear the expression, “forgive and forget” – and this maxim is often held up as a Christian ideal. You should know first of all that this phrase is nowhere in scripture. And when the Lord says to Isaiah that he will not remember sins (43:25; cf. Heb 8:12), I don’t think we should understand this to be a blank space in God’s omniscience. I think it means rather poetically that he puts aside the sins he has forgiven and does not cause us to suffer their full consequence. He still knows what we have done, for he knows everything. And the king in today’s parable demonstrates this. Remember that the king is Jesus’ own image of God. Yet, after he has forgiven the servant’s debt, he clearly still knows its amount – because after the servant is unmerciful the king turns him over to the jailers after all – till he should pay it back. When justice demands it, the king is able to remember the debt.

We should actually find comfort in this because, even if we are unable to forget a wrong completely, this does not mean we cannot forgive. Forgiveness is possible, even when forgetting is impossible.

And thank God, because if we do not forgive, the king will turn us over to the jailers forever. Apollinaris writes that these jailers represent “the angels entrusted with our punishment.” Still worse than this punishment is another: Jesus says, “So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” As Chrysostom points out, Jesus does not say “’your father’ [or ‘our father’] but ‘my father.’ For it is not proper for God to be called the Father of one so who is so wicked and malicious.”[ii]  The greater punishment is to lose our familial relationship with God, gained by our baptism and our faith. It is a rejection of both to condemn our brothers and sisters – to damn instead of to bless – to have an unforgiving heart – to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies.

So we must remember our own sins and forgive others their sins against us. Then, as we forgive, our heavenly Father will forgive our sins against him, which are far greater. So let us imitate “the indescribable love of God” and forgive everything.  

[i] cf. Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 61.1
[ii] Ibid 61.4

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