Shouldering the Load of a Sinful World

“The kingdom of God cannot be imposed; if it is to be brought about we must be born again, and that supposes complete freedom of spirit.  Christianity is the religion of the cross, and it sees meaning in suffering.  Christ asks us to take up our own cross and carry it, to shoulder the load of a sinful world.  In Christian consciousness, the notion of attaining happiness, justice, and the Kingdom of God on earth without the cross or suffering is a huge lie.  It is the temptation that Christ rejected in the wilderness when he was shown the kingdoms of the world…”  (Nicolas Berdiaev quoted in Michael Plekon (ed), TRADITION ALIVE)

Powerful image:  Christ on the cross takes upon Himself the sin of the world.  When we take up our cross to follow Christ, we also “shoulder the load of a sinful world.”   God so loved the world so as not to reject it, but to bear its sin.  We Christians are also to work for the salvation of the world by carrying the cross and by taking upon ourselves the sin of the world.

Who is that Rich Man that Shall be Saved?

Clement of Alexandria (d. circa 216AD) reflecting on Mark 10:17-31 asked the question, “Who is that rich man that shall be saved?”   In the Gospel lesson the disciples are dismayed by Jesus teaching that the rich shall find it difficult to enter the Kingdom of God as they associate being rich with being blessed by God.  Clement understands that Jesus is not saying the rich cannot be saved, but that the rich must embrace a particular life style which is pleasing to God in order to enter into God’s Kingdom.  (Of course the rich might rather be in the kingdom they create by their own riches!  Christians assume people will want to be in God’s eternal Kingdom rather than in their own temporal one).  St. John Chrysostom addresses the issue of what it takes for those blessed with prosperity and possessions to enter God’s Kingdom – especially since “you can’t take it with you.”

“The skill which the person of means needs to use their wealth well is the highest of all arts.  Its workshop is built not on earth but in heaven, because those who are wealthy must communicate directly with God to acquire and practice this art.  Its tools are not made of iron or brass, but of good will, because the rich will only use their wealth well if they want to do so.  Indeed good will is itself the skill.  When a prosperous person sincerely wants to help the poor, God will quickly show the best way.  Thus while a person training to be carpenter must learn how to control a hammer, a saw, a chisel, the one training to serve the poor must learn how to control the mind, heart and soul.  The prosperous must learn always to think good thoughts, expunging all selfish thoughts.  The one blessed with abundance must learn how to feel compassion, expunging all malice and contempt.  He must learn how to desire only to obey the will of God.  That is why I say the skill of being a rich disciple of Christ is the highest of all arts; and the one who possesses it is truly a saint.”  (St. John Chrysostom)

The Difference between Self Denial and Obedience

Christ requires of everyone a spiritual and moral feat, ‘striving.’  He was not at all, as He was sometimes depicted, a ‘democrat,’ for whom mere membership in disenfranchised classes constituted merit.   In this way, we can explain Christ’s coldness to loud expressions of popular delight.  The enthusiasm of the masses springs up easily and easily takes its prey form among those who thirst for submission and seek idols.  Such shall not be the children of the Kingdom.”  (Father Alexander Men, SON OF MAN)

 Fr. Men poses for us Orthodox a challenge in distinguishing between taking up the cross of Christ and simply obeying leaders.   The two ideas have been closely merged in many Orthodox writings.  Yet in telling us to take up the cross and follow Him, Christ is calling us to “a spiritual and moral feat, ‘striving.'”  Self denial is not the equivalent of blind obedience to another.  Taking up the cross means making choices to follow Christ no matter what others decide to do.  Being Orthodox does not mean abandoning wisdom and discernment.  Some want to give up their freedom because they fear God, like the man in the parable who buries the one talent given to him because he fears his master’s judgment.  But in the parable the man is not blessed, fear of failure or mistake is no justification for not choosing to do the good.  Some indeed are willing to obey and submit to others – even to abusive and despotic rule – and they seek idols to worship, not a cross to carry.   If we seek the praise of others, even of abusive leaders, we abandon the way of the cross.  The children of the Kingdom are willing to strive for it – not just to suffer while awaiting its arrival, but actively to seek out the Kingdom, rather than looking for leaders they can idolize.

The Goal of Martyrdom: Not Salvation, but Witness

Four monks came to visit the famous elder Pambo.  Each in turn spoke to Pambo about his neighbor’s virtues.  The first fasted very strictly all the time; the second practiced poverty; the third practiced great charity; and the fourth lived in obedience to an elder for 22 years.  Abba Pambo listened and then said, ‘I tell you, the virtue of the last one is most impressive.  Each of the others attained the virtue he choose and wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, denying himself, does the will of another.  Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if the persevere to the end.’  (THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS)

I know some in Orthodoxy today would read this story literally as extolling blind obedience to an elder as the Christian way.  What I see in the story is that we can find ways to follow Christ which are most comfortable to us – some of us fast strictly because we choose to follow Christ in that way and are capable of following dietary rules, some of us live simple lives as our chosen way to follow Christ, and some choose to be generous because they are gifted with such a spirit.  In each case the person is not so much a disciple but rather doing what comes easy to them, in fact doesn’t involve all that much self denial, as they are “gifted” with the personality that makes them want to do these things.   Thus each chooses the virtue he/she wants to have and most choose something congenial to their own spirit.   

Jesus said to deny the self and take up the cross. 

The one who serves another often has to swallow his own pride and his own way and deny himself and his judgments and feelings in order to do the work that needs to be done – as determined by another.  This is self denial.   Remember Eve in Genesis 3:6, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”   The story is about human willfulness – it looked good to her, but she didn’t consider the situation from anyone else’s point of view, or how her action might affect others or relationship with others.   She was self centered, self determined, self willful, self loving.   Self love is not true love, and one cannot be fully human unless one loves others.  The martyr does not serve his/her own interest – not even that of his/her own salvation, certainly not that of his/her own glory.  A martyr is a witness to others (the very meaning of the word “martyr”!).  The martyr serves not his/her own interests, but considers the impact of his/her life on other believers, and then acts for the good of the others.  The martyr chooses self sacrifice in order to witness to others that Christ is worth more life in this world.