St. Gregory Palamas: The Gospel is Innate to Us

Though I have heard many arguments in favor of a literal interpretation of Scripture, rarely have I found biblical literalists to focus their read of Scripture on Christ’s commandments in  Luke 6:31-36 :

Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

This teaching of Christ is very straightforward and lends itself well to a literal interpretation.  And yet it is a literal reading of the text which is so hard for us to abide by. And this is true even though the Gospel lesson starts with Christ commanding us what to do.  The teaching is not a parable, but commands us to imitate God.  St. Gregory Palamas surprisingly doesn’t think obeying this commandment of Christ should be difficult for us to accomplish since he believes God wired us humans exactly for this type of behavior!  He  comments:

“When He said, ‘As you would that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise’ (Luke 6:31), the Lord was demonstrating through this summary of His counsel that every gospel commandment was not only innate in human nature, but also just, easy and to our advantage, readily comprehensible to all and self-evident. What do I mean? Surely you are aware that it is bad to be angry with your brother and pour abuse on him, especially without cause, and that you yourself are unwilling to be the object of his anger or rebuke? Nor is this an opinion that you reach after some thought; rather, you are immediately vexed when anger and insults are directed at you, and you try to avoid them in any way you can, refusing to accept them because they are obviously evil, wrong, and unprofitable. You feel the same when another man looks at your wife with passion and curiosity, or when someone tells you a lie, not only to harm you, but on any subject at all.

In short, we feel the same about everything the gospel commandments forbid. What needs to be said about those sinful acts which the ancient law had already prohibited: murder, adultery, breaking oaths, injustice and the like? Or about their opposite virtues and our satisfaction with people who practice them towards us? Do you see that you know for yourself each one of the commandments, and consider it just and beneficial? Not only that, but you also deem it to be easy. Otherwise you would not think that anyone who was angry with you, told lies or schemed against you in some way, deserved much blame, if you really did suppose that it was difficult or impossible for him to abstain from each of these evils.” (The Homilies, pp 354-355)

St. Gregory’s bottom line is we get angry when we see sinful or evil behavior in others because, apparently,  we assume it is easy, or rather it is natural, for us to control such behaviors.  We think the others deserve blame because they simply aren’t making the effort to do good or choose the right.  If we really assume it is easy to choose the good, if we assume others easily ought to be able to avoid offending us, then why don’t we ourselves always avoid sin?

On the other hand, if we recognize how hard it is for we ourselves to do good and avoid sin, then why aren’t we compassionate toward and empathetic with others when they offend us?

“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”  (Romans 7:14-25)

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