The Purpose of Righteousness (III)

The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

This is the final blog in this series, the 1st blog being The Purpose of Righteousness and the previous blog is The Purpose of Righteousness (II).

As we have seen in the previous blogs, biblical writers, saints and monks struggle with the issue of why be righteous in this world when being righteous is so much harder than being a sinner?   If we want a perfectly just world where goodness is rewarded and wickedness is met with immediate punishment, our faith in God will be put to the test.  From biblical times they were able to observe some righteous suffering with no reward in this world while some wicked have a prosperous life with no suffering.   The goodness of God is such that He sends rain and sunshine on the righteous and on the wicked equally.  We are told to be perfect as God our Father who so showers blessings on everyone in the world regardless of their righteousness or unrighteousness.  O, we love, or so we think, a universe and a God who is only and and always perfectly just.

Yet, St. Isaac the Syrian, who we already encountered in this blog series says:

“Do not say that God is just…David may call him just and fair, but God’s own Son has revealed to us that he is before all things good and kind.  He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:34).  How can you call God just when you read the parable of the labourers in the vineyard and their wages?  ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong…I choose to give to this last as I give to you…do you begrudge my generosity?’ (Matthew 20:13).  Likewise how can you call God just when you read the parable of the prodigal son who squanders his father’s wealth in riotous living, and the moment he displays some nostalgia his father runs to him, throws his arms around his neck and gives him complete power over all his riches?  It is not someone else who has told us this about God, so that we might have doubts.  It is his own Son himself.   He bore this witness to God.  Where is God’s justice?  Here, in the fact that we were sinners and Christ died for us…

O the wonder of the grace of our Creator!  O the unfathomable goodness with which he has invested the existence of us sinners in order to create it afresh!…Anyone who has offended and blasphemed him he raises us again…Sin is to fail to understand the grace of the resurrection.  Where is the hell that could afflict us?  Where is the damnation that could make us afraid to the extent of overwhelming the joy of God’s love?  What is hell, face to face with the grace of the resurrection when he will rescue us from damnation, enable this corruptible body to put on incorruption and raise up fallen humanity from hell to glory?…Who will appreciate the wonder of our Creator’s grace as it deserves?…In place of what sinners justly deserve, he gives them resurrection.  In place of the bodies that have profaned his law, he clothes them anew in glory…See, Lord, I can no longer keep silent before the ocean of thy grace.  I no longer have any idea how to express the gratitude that I owe thee…Glory be to thee in both the worlds that thou hast created for our growth and delight, guiding us by the path of thy majestic works to the knowledge of thy glory!” (in Olivier Clément’s  The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pgs 306-307)

And so we come to the dividing point which made the Gospel so unappealing to many Pharisees and righteous Jews:  if the Gospel is for all people, as Jesus also claimed the Temple was to be, what point is there in keeping Torah?  Why be holy if in the end God is gracious to everyone and opens the Kingdom to Jew and Gentile alike?

St. Paul who converted away from the thinking of the Pharisees and embraced the Gospel and the opening of the Kingdom of God to all people writes in Romans 9:30-33:

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law.  Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”

What the Psalmist recognized he almost stumbled over, what St. Isaac recognizes as the great mystery of God’s love, some have stumbled upon it and cannot accept it.  They cannot accept that God’s mercy and love is given to all, but want to keep it limited to either Torah observing Jews or Traditionalist monks or Christians.

The idea of righteousness based on the observance of Torah or Tradition not being what God intended, but rather being a rock upon which the misguided stumble is not only St. Paul’s.  St. Peter himself refers to the same scripture and same idea in 1 Peter 2:6-8:

“For it stands in scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,’ and ‘A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall’; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”

Though we too might stumble on this stone, especially as Orthodox observing Lenten discipline, we can take hold of the garment of Christ, and accept that our salvation is in His holiness, not in ours or in ourselves.

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” (Luke 17:10)

Have we not heard the parable that the Son of God taught us in Matthew 20:1-16 which concludes with these words:

“Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.  And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder,  saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’  But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’  So the last will be first, and the first last.”

God’s justice is based in love and generosity, not in human rationalistic “fairness.” In Christ’s Kingdom of Love, those who worked the least get paid first, and those who worked the hardest and longest get the same reward as those who worked the least.  It all is about love:  God’s generous love toward humanity, and a human love for God.  It is not about reward, not about heaven or hell.

This teaching was not lost on St. John Chrysostom.  We proclaim his Paschal Homily each year in which he extols this righteousness of love and generosity:

If there are any who have labored long in fasting, let them now receive their wages! If there are any who have worked from the first hour, let them receive their fair compensation today!  If there are any who came at the third hour, let them celebrate the feast with thanksgiving!  If there are any who arrived at the sixth hour, let them have no misgivings; they will not be deprived because of that!  If there are any who delayed until the ninth hour, let them approach and not be afraid!  If there are any who tarried even as late as the eleventh hour, let even them not be alarmed by their tardiness!  For the Lord, Who is jealous of His honor, will accept the last as well as the first.  He gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour just as He does to those who work from the first hour.  He is merciful to those who come last, even while He cares for the first ones.  He gives gifts to each of them, bestowing His grace on all of them.  He not only accepts their deeds, He welcomes even their intentions!  He not only respects their actions, but also gives high praise to what they offer!  So then, all of you, enter the joy of your Lord!  Receive your reward, whether you came first or last!  Rich and poor, dance for joy together!  Sober people with the heedless, honor this day!  Whether you kept the fast or disregarded it, rejoice today!  The table is fully laden: feast sumptuously!  The calf is fattened: let no one go hungry!

3 thoughts on “The Purpose of Righteousness (III)

  1. Pingback: The Purpose of Righteousness (II) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  3. Pingback: The salvation of the Lord | daily meditation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.