St Abercius, Equal to the Apostles

“In the time of the Emperor Antoninus (138-161), St Abercius was bishop in the city of Hierapolis in Phrygia. The great majority of the town’s inhabitants were pagans, and St Abercius governed his little flock with a heart greatly saddened by the great number of pagans and idolaters, and with fervent prayer to God that He would bring them to the true Light. At the time of a rowdy idolatrous festival, Abercius became inflamed with godly zeal and went into the temple, smashing all the idols. When the furious pagans tried to kill him, three young madmen fell down before the man of God, foaming at the mouth and bellowing. The man of God drove the demons out of them, and they were healed and became calm. Seeing this, the fury of the pagans turned to marveling at Christ’s wonderworker, and five hundred of them were immediately baptized. Little by little, everyone in the city of Hierapolis came to believe in Christ and was baptized. The proconsul of the region, Publius, had a blind mother whose sight Abercius restored by prayer, and both Publius and his mother came to faith in Christ, along with many other people. In old age, Abercius was summoned to Rome, where he healed the Emperor’s mad daughter. The Lord Christ appeared to His faithful follower several times. People from far and near came to him for help in chronic sickness, and the demons not only feared him but were obedient to his commands. At the order of the Lord Himself, he preached the Gospel throughout Syria and Mesopotamia, and went to his beloved Lord in great old age, in the city of Hierapolis at the end of the second century.”  (The Prologue from Ochrid, p. 96)

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Rich in Passions or Poor in Sin?

The Lord Jesus’s parable of the poor beggar Lazarus and the heartless rich man found in Luke 16:19-31 is well known.

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”

How the Church has used the parable through the centuries is found in sermons and hymns written through the centuries.   Below is one hymn from the last Wednesday in Great Lent (Palm week) making reference to the parable and showing us what message was received by Orthodox monastics from the parable.   Because the beggar’s name is Lazarus, Orthodox hymns sometimes connect this beggar to Jesus’s friend Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11) which also explains why the hymn is sung on the Wednesday before Lazarus Saturday.

I am rich in passions and clothed in the deceitful robe of hypocrisy,

and I rejoice in the sins of self-indulgence.  

There is no limit to my lack of love.  

I neglect my spiritual understanding,

that lies at the gate of repentance,

starved of all good things, sick through want of care.  

O Lord, make me like Lazarus poor in sin,

that I be not tormented in the flame

that never shall be quenched,

and pray in vain for a finger to be dipped in water

and laid upon my tongue.  

But in Thy love for mankind

make me dwell with the Patriarch Abraham.

This Lenten hymn takes the parable, applying it to each of us personally – the hymn is spoken in the first person, “I“.  Significantly, “I” (each of us) is the rich man in the parable.  Our riches are the spiritual gifts which God has given us. The hymn removes any economic or class status message from the parable.    The hymn “spiritualizes” the parable turning the nameless rich man into a symbol of deceit, hypocrisy and self-indulgence – engaged in all the behavior of a sinner.  In the hymn, these sins are about me – how “I” behave.    Lazarus in the hymn is portrayed not as an indigent human but rather allegorized into “my spiritual understanding.”  The hymn is Orthodox spirituality, very Lenten and monastic, so everything is being turned into images of repentance for one’s sinful nature.  The parable in this interpretation is not contrasting two distinct people – a rich man and a poor man –  but is an allegory about “me”.   I am both the rich man (enriched by Christ’s spiritual gifts) and I am Lazarus (with impoverished spiritual understanding).   Lazarus is me, or in the hymn more precisely has become “my spiritual understanding” which lies at the rich man’s gate which is allegorized to be “the gate of repentance.”  It is my own heart and mind which are impoverished because I lack good deeds  and am not merciful and compassionate to others.

The hymn then switches its point of reference – I am to embrace Lazarus’s poverty by becoming poor in sin.  From an Orthodox point of view, worldly wealth does me no good if I’m also rich in sin.  I am to impoverish myself by abandoning all forms of sin in order to be spared the fires of hell.  This interpretation of the hymn avoids any judgment of the rich and also steers away from any class struggle.  The rich man is not being condemned because of his wealth, nor is Lazarus being praised just for his poverty.  The parable itself does not tell us anything about Lazarus being virtuous.  His poverty is not claimed to be voluntary.  The rich man is not accused of having obtained ill-gotten wealth through illicit or sinful means.

The hymn’s interpretation of the parable completely avoids any judgment of social status or rank.  It is not about class warfare.   The parable is allegorized in the hymn turning it into a monastic lesson about sin, not about showing compassion to the poor or giving charity to the needy.  The interpretation attempts to make the Gospel completely relevant to the monastics for whom the hymn was written – people who at least in theory had completely denied themselves all worldly wealth in order to follow Christ.  The parable is made relevant for those who have chosen poverty by reminding them that poverty is not about one’s social class nor is it about how much you really possess, but rather poverty and wealth are both about one’s spiritual condition.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit“, Jesus teaches.  Spiritual riches and spiritual poverty are not dependent on one’s wealth or possessions.  They are a matter of the heart.

Struggling to Love One’s Enemies

“Everyday experience shows that even people who in their inner depths accept Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies do not put it into practice. Why? First of all, because without grace we cannot love our enemies. But if, realizing that this love was naturally beyond them, they asked God to help them with His grace they would certainly receive this gift.

Unfortunately, it is the opposite that prevails. Not only unbelievers but people who call themselves Christians are afraid of acting toward their enemies according to Christ’s commandment. They think that to do so would only be of advantage to the other side, seeing the enemy refracted through the distorting prism of hatred as having nothing good in him, that he would take advantage of their ‘indulgence’ and respond to their love either by crucifying or shamelessly crushing and subjugating them, thus letting evil, as generally personified by this enemy, triumph.

The idea that Christianity is ‘wishy-washy’ is profoundly mistaken. The saints possess a force powerful enough to sway people, influence the masses, but theirs is the reverse method – they make themselves servants of their brethren, and thus win for themselves a love in its essence imperishable. By following this course they gain a victory that will obtain ‘world without end’, whereas a victory won through violence never lasts and by its nature is more to the shame than to the glory of mankind.”   

(St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 224-225)

The Bishop and the Diocese

“‘Apart from the bishop, let no one do anything pertaining to the Church. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop or by a person appointed by him. Let the people be present wherever the bishop appears, just as the catholic Church is wherever Jesus Christ is. Apart from the bishop it is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate a Eucharist, but whatever he may approve is also pleasing to God, so that whatever you do may be sure and valid.’ (St. Ignatius of Antioch – d. 107 AD)

It was perhaps in the eucharistic liturgy that the leading role of the bishop could best be discerned. Ordinarily he alone presided. As he prayed aloud at the altar, the presbyters stood silently on either side of him, while the deacons assisted him in such matters as the distribution of the consecrated bread, or saw to it that order was maintained in the church.  From his cathedra, the chair that was the symbol of his teaching authority and that was usually situated at the center of the back wall of the sanctuary, and flanked by the presbyters’ benches, he was accustomed to preach. This was the bishop’s most important task, and, until about the beginning of the sixth century, it was only infrequently that priests and deacons preached.”   (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 115).

 

The Tranquility of Creation

St. Gregory of Nyssa in his book describing the creation of humans, ON THE MAKING OF MAN, gives us a very idyllic picture of the world in the moment before humans arrived on the scene – the calm before the storm.

“Now all things already arrived at their own end: the heaven and the earth (Genesis 2:1), as Moses says, were finished, and all things that lie between them, and the particular things were adorned with their appropriate beauty;

the heaven with the rays of the stars, the sea and air with the living creatures that swim and fly, and the earth with all varieties of plants and animals, to all which, empowered by the Divine will, it gave birth together;

the earth was full, too, of her produce, bringing forth fruits at the same time with flowers; the meadows were full of all that grows therein,

and all the mountain ridges, and summits, and every hillside, and slope, and hollow, were crowned with young grass, and with the varied produce of the trees, just risen from the ground, yet shot up at once into their perfect beauty;

and all the beasts that had come into life at God’s command were rejoicing, we may suppose, and skipping about, running to and fro in the thickets in herds according to their kind, while every sheltered and shady spot was ringing with the chants of the songbirds.

And at sea, we may suppose, the sight to be seen was of the like kind, as it had just settled to quiet and calm in the gathering together of its depths, where havens and harbors spontaneously hollowed out on the coasts made the sea reconciled with the land;

and the gentle motion of the waves vied in beauty with the meadows, rippling delicately with light and harmless breezes that skimmed the surface; and all the wealth of creation by land and sea was ready, and not was there to share it.”  (pp 20-21)

St. Gregory pictures the perfect creation, tranquilly settling in from the more violent creation which brought the chaos under control, separating the waters from the land and causing the dry earth to emerge.  That tumult and turmoil lasted only a brief moment for St. Gregory – things instantly attained their finished state – trees reaching their heights instantaneously.  In his understanding, the first trees grew but not over years but immediately attaining their height.  His view is that the world we are in today emerged both spontaneously but not yet in completed form.  Things had to grow but did so instantly.  Things didn’t have to follow what we now know as the order of nature in those opening days of creation – they were exempt from the laws of nature that we know.

Humans were created last to be the crown of creation – the earth was a Paradise created by God for His human creatures.  Humans were not made to wait for the world to emerge – it was all there, perfectly, before humans were placed in it, according to St. Gregory.  Humans had nothing else to do but maintain the  pacific serenity and blessed placidness.  They, however, were about to undue all that God had planned.

Prayer for the Peace of the Whole World

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Almighty God and Creator, You are the Father of all people on the earth. Guide, I pray, all the nations and their leaders in the ways of justice and peace. Protect us from the evils of injustice, prejudice, exploitation, conflict and war.

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Help us to put away mistrust, bitterness and hatred. Teach us to cease the storing and using of implements of war. Lead us to find justice, peace and freedom.  Unite us in the making and sharing of tools of peace against ignorance, poverty, disease and oppression.

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Grant that we may grow in harmony and friendship as brothers and sisters created in Your image, to Your honor and praise. Amen.

(My Orthodox Prayer Book, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Kindle Location 824-834)

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Telling the Secrets of the Kingdom

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”  Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  (Luke 8:10)

In the 4 Gospel accounts, the word “Kingdom” (of heaven or of God) appears some 115 times.  The Evangelist Matthew uses “Kingdom” the most – 52 times, while the Evangelist John only mentions it twice.  Depending how you count the sayings, Matthew uses parables, metaphors or pithy statements thirteen times (25%) to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to something more familiar to his listeners: a sower of seeds, good seeds, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a fishing net, a householder and his treasure, a king settling accounts with his servants, a householder hiring laborers for his fields, a king and the marriage feast for his son, wise and foolish maidens and their lamps, a man entrusting his property to  variously talented servants, and the separating of sheep from goats.

These comparisons give us a sense that the Kingdom may be different than we imagine – for all parables require some interpretation, but Jesus does not tell us exactly how the Kingdom is like these many different common scenarios.  The Lord leaves their interpretation open ended, for his disciples to hear and and grasp the hidden meaning.  Yet, He says the secrets of the Kingdom are given to them. The meaning of the ambiguous parables and enigmatic aphorisms are the secrets of the Kingdom of God which Christ is gifting to us.  The parables, metaphors and apothegms often defy common logic or our sense of “justice” causing us to have to lay aside an earthly sense of correctness in order to see or hear the hidden meaning.  They are like photos of a common object, taken from an unusual perspective – it can take us a long time before we realize what we are looking at, if we ever figure it out.

By describing the Kingdom in terms of parables, Christ moves us away from thinking about the Kingdom purely in terms of commandments, rules, regulations, or rubrics.  Christ uses the comparisons paradoxically – the Kingdom of heaven is like… – to give us a sense that it is like nothing we can imagine.  The parables and metaphors of the Kingdom turn out to be an apophatic way of thinking about the Kingdom exactly because Christ doesn’t explain how the things mentioned are able to enlighten us  about the Kingdom.

The parables of the Kingdom have been proclaimed by Christians for nearly 2000 years.  They are the true teachings of Christ, timely in every generation and situation, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not itself changing.  Whether the Faith is prospering or being persecuted, whether the listener is rejoicing in blessings or surviving through suffering, the Kingdom of God remains the same.  It is a reality not affected by our times or by our mental state.

St. Paul whom God chooses to proclaim the Kingdom, discovers that being faithful to God can leave one in perplexing circumstances.  If one believes faithfulness to God is going to automatically yield prosperity, just read 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9, in which Paul describes soldiers hunting him down to arrest and kill him, and then also suffering personally some “thorn in the flesh” – an affliction he attributes to Satan, perhaps a serious, disfiguring illness which God will not take away from him.  Despite these setbacks, he remains faithful to that Kingdom which can be compared to seeds and sowers, talented servants as well as sheep and goats.

Even in the face of such terrible recent disasters – hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, wild fires in California, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas – the Kingdom of God remains the same reality revealed to us in the Gospel lessons.  Despite our worries about health care, and divisive politics, policy turmoil, soaring drug related deaths, the Church calls us to remember the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we can remain properly oriented in an uncertain world.   The mystery of the Kingdom, helps us to keep our feet on firm ground, even as the sands shift and the water rises against the house.

The Gospel does give us an answer to current worries – it gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God.  It is just that this insight is not necessarily the answer we think we need to solve all our problems.

The Lord Jesus taught this parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (Luke 8:5-9)

Understanding Seeds and Parables

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  (Matthew 13:8-10)

“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).

The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?

If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?”  (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)

St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Sower of Seeds

In Luke 8:5-15, the Lord Jesus tells the following parable:

“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.

 

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes about the types of persons represented by the three types of ground upon which the seed of the word fell. Concerning those of the first kind he says:

No sacred or divine word will be able to enter those who have minds that are hard and unyielding, for it is by the aid of such words that the joyful fruit of virtue can grow. Men of this kind are highways that are trodden by unclean spirits, and by Satan himself, and they shall never be producers of holy fruit, because their hearts are sterile and unfaithful. (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 41)

The second kind have

a religion without roots…when this kind of person goes out of the church, he immediately forgets the holy teachings he has heard there. And as long as Christians are left in peace, he keeps the faith, but as soon as persecution arises, he will be ready to take to flight in search of safety.

This holy Father finally exhorts us not to allow the cares of this world to choke the tender shoots of faith and commitment as soon as they sprout from the soil of our hearts and minds. We must not be deceived, thinking that thorns and new shoots can exist side by side.” (Archbishop Dmitri, The Parables, p. 14)

Learning Even from Those Who are Least

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” ‘” (Matthew 21:15)

St. John of Kronstadt reminds us that we might hear the truth spoken to us from people we would never even imagine had anything significant to teach us.  Sometimes we resent the person for being so presumptuous as to tell us something we don’t want to hear or acknowledge precisely because it’s true.

“Sometimes  younger people, or those of equal station, or older ones, teach you by means of hints which you cannot endure, and you are vexed with your teachers. We must endure and listen with love to everything useful coming from anyone, whoever he may be. Our self-love conceals our faults from us, but they are more visible to others. This is why they remark them to us. Remember, that “we are members of one another” (Ephesians IV. 25), and are thus even obliged to mutually correct each other.

If you do not bear being instructed by others, and are vexed with those who teach you, it means that you are proud, and this shows that the fault of which others hint that you should correct yourself is really in you.” (My Life in Christ, pp. 303-304).