I have been inspired by the claims of saints and theologians in the Orthodox tradition that Scripture is a deep well from which we continually draw the waters of wisdom, or a treasury from which we receive the great riches of God’s own teachings [see my blog series Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury which is also available as 3 PDFs: The Bible a Treasury (PDF)] .
In this blog series I will be offering some thoughts and reactions to an intriguing footnote in Fr. Alexis Trader’s book, IN PEACE LET US PRAY TO THE LORD, regarding the comments of St. Simeon the New Theologian on the Gospel lesson of the Last Judgment from Matthew 25: 31-46 (which in the Orthodox Tradition is read on the 2nd Sunday before Great Lent begins, known as Meatfare). In Fr. Alexis’ comments we find a good example of how the scriptures can be used or interpreted in varied and very specific circumstances as well as a justification for taking the obvious/literal meaning of a biblical text and completely reinterpreting the text for one’s own particular needs. Here is the relevant portion of the footnote from Fr. Alexis’ book:
“For example, when Saint Simeon considered the scriptural passage in which Christ said, ‘for I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in,’ he rejected the most outward social interpretation of good deeds to the needy that seems obvious to many, but in fact excludes some of the desert-dwelling Saints from the Kingdom of Heaven and includes those who have not in the least purified themselves and have simply taken from what was not theirs in the first place and given it back to the poor. Instead, he understood Christ’s words as a call to feeding Christ by hungering for Him with tears, repentance and faith, a revolutionary interpretation, but completely in accord with the heart of the Tradition and the Gospel. (Cf., Saint Simeon the New Theologian, ‘Discourse 9 on Almsgiving,’ Catechetical Discourses, pages 38-41 (in Greek).” (Fr. Alexis Trader, IN PEACE LET US PRAY TO THE LORD, Note 54 on pp 55-56)
Below and in the blogs to follow are some ideas which come to my mind as I read Fr. Alexis’ footnote:
1) That Patristic writers often downplay what we moderns would consider ‘the literal meaning’ of a text is well attested in the long history and tradition of the Orthodox Church (as well as in the Jewish interpretive tradition). Church fathers frequently allow the literal sense, but then move on to find the deeper or more spiritual meaning of the text, considering the literal meaning to be the least important interpretation. Fr. Alexis characterizes the interpretation which says that the Matthew 25 Last Judgment Parable actually teaches people to minister to Christ by serving the poor and needy as “the most outward social interpretation of good deeds to the needy” and he says this interpretation is precisely rejected by St. Simeon the New Theologian. In rejecting this literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, Fr. Alexis says St. Simeon is “completely in accord with the heart of the Tradition and the Gospel.” While Fr. Alexis’ claim may be true especially in the monastic Tradition, I certainly have seen numerous commentaries by Orthodox writers including patristic saints (such as St. John Chrysostom) which understand Matthew 25: 31-46 quite literally to be a commandment to all Christians to minister to the poor as a way to serve Christ. (see for example my blogs Hearing Isaiah 58 in the Gospel, The Least of Christ’s Brothers and Sisters, Giving to the Poor = Lending to God, The Last Judgment: What Did You Give to Others?)
2) What bothers St. Simeon so much about a literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 is that monastics – who have withdrawn from the world or taken up solitary lives in desert places – have no chance, due to their circumstances of literally fulfilling the teaching of Christ (they have already given up everything so they have no material goods to give away and also they may live in remote places far removed from the urban poor or needy and thus do not have opportunity to minister to the poor). So by St. Simeon’s logic, if the literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 is the only one possible then monks and ascetics have forfeited their salvation, which he cannot believe to be true. Thus St. Simeon seeks some other meaning for the text so that the text can be made to apply to the monks. St. Simeon believes monks of all Christians are the ones most trying to literally live the Gospel life. So if some teaching of Christ cannot be applied to their life, then the teaching must be re-interpreted so that it can shown how the monks are literally fulfilling the Gospel. St. Simeon cannot discard Matthew 25:31-46, so he creatively rereads it to mean something other than its literal sense. Rather than ignore the text as not particularly relevant to monks who have already given up all material possession, St. Simeon gives the text a totally new (and in Fr. Alexis’ word) “revolutionary” meaning. Of course this new meaning is arrived at only at the expense of the text’s literal sense; not to mention that the saint’s reading so changes the meaning of the text as to make anyone literally attempting to fulfill Christ’s teaching by ministering to the poor and ‘least of the brethren’ as in fact totally missing the purpose of the text and failing to fulfill its teaching! Thus you don’t fulfill the text by feeding Christ through providing for the poor, but you only fulfill the text and feed Christ by your tears of repentance for you own sins. Showing love and mercy to the poor and needy is no longer what the text is about. Thus monastics alone really fulfill the text’s message while those ministering to the ‘least of the brethren’ through charity do not!
We’ll continue looking at this idea in the next blog.
9 thoughts on “St. Simeon’s Interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 (A)”
I don’t know that “revolutionary” or “completely in accord with the heart of the Tradition and the Gospel” is an apt description of Simeon the New Theologian’s interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46.
It’d be much wiser to call it one reading of Matthew 25:31-46 among a number of readings, and arguably not one of the best ones.
And to assert that a literal reading of Matthew 25:31-46 is flat-out wrong, and say that those who put it into practice literally are missing the point and not fulfilling the gospel of Christ Jesus, is sheer folly, in light of the witness of Paul the Apostle, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Martin of Tours, Caesarius of Arles and a host of others who took it literally and exhorted Christians to put it into practice literally.
Even monastic experience disputes Simeon’s take on Matthew 25:31-46. In the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we encounter monastics who break their fasts to provide hospitality to guests perceived as God-sent (with hospitality seen as a higher virtue than fasting), or charitably give away basket handles so the work of a brother in need can be completed while their own is left unfinished (and thus unmarketable). John Chrysostom and Basil the Great certainly staffed their hospitals, poorhouses and hospices with monastics. And nearer to our own day, the likes of Elizabeth of Moscow and Mary Skobtsov saw no conflict between monasticism and philanthropy, taking both to the streets in response to Christ Jesus’ gospel.
In fact, the philanthropy set forth in Matthew 25:31-46 is a form of asceticism (spiritual athletic training), a way in which we “deny ourselves” by giving to others, because the gospel of Christ Jesus commands us to love God and love neighbor rather than focus on ourselves, and any meaningful love takes concrete form. As James 2:15-16 reminds us, warm feelings and nice words are not enough.
Quite frankly, given all that, Simeon’s take on Matthew 25:31-46 seems a wee bit self-serving: even monasticism can become narcissistic if it turns too inward and focuses exclusively on oneself. It’s wise to remember that Simeon was hardly mainstream, uncontroversial or indisputably orthodox in his own day. He is, at the very least, an encouraging sign that even saints are not infallible: they can be wrong sometimes, and still be holy nonetheless.
Failure to take Matthew 25:31-46 seriously and live it, rather than explain it away or “spiritualize” it, just might be one of the biggest things that has dulled the potential impact of Christianity on the world.
Points all well taken, and I will take up some of them in the next 2 blogs.
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I tend to think that both the spiritual and literal interpretation are in accord with the Scripture.
For the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor is one and the same. On the one hand, to love your neighbor without the love of God is futility. As St. Paul wrote, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” And St. Augustine, “Anyone who does not love Him Who made man has not learned to love man aright”; On the other hand, to claim to love God without the love of your brother is hypocrisy. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
With regard to the spiritual interpretation, hunger, thirst, being a stranger, nakedness, sickness and imprisonment, these are the spiritual condition of sinners and unbelievers, or the spiritual needs of the believers. Those who fail to minister to the spiritual needs of their brethren do not have the Love of God in them, and therefore, they will be punished along with the devil and his angels. The monastics, even though they have given up earthly possessions, they are rich in Christ and spiritual blessings, and therefore can still minister to the needs of others with what that they have freely received from God.
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