Overcoming Evil

So many of the sayings and teaching of the desert fathers and mothers are based on the teachings offered us in the New Testament.  In the desert fathers we find this:

“Malice will never drive our malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice.”  (The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 43)

In the New Testament we find this:

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:17-21)

 

Preparing for Pascha

“Therefore, I exhort all of you not to take in your hands these divine mysteries because you feel that the feast forces you to do so. If ever you should be going to share in this holy sacrificial offering, I urge you to cleanse your hearts many days before. How? By repenting, praying, giving alms, and devoting your efforts to things of the spirit. Do not, like a dog, turn yourself back again to your own vomit.

Is it not foolish to show such great concern for material things? Yet, many days beforehand, because the feast is coming, you select the best clothes from your wardrobe and get them ready. You buy new shoes. You prepare a more sumptuous table. You think of many means to provide for yourself in every way. You overlook nothing which will brighten your appearance and make you look stylish and smart. But you take no account of your soul. It is neglected, clothed in shoddy garments, unwashed, wasted with hunger, and you let it stay uncleansed. Will you bring here to church your stylish body but overlook your soul, which is half clad and filled with disgrace? Your fellow servants see only your body, and it does them no harm no matter how you have neglected it. But the Master sees your soul and he inflicts the greatest punishment on it since you have been careless and negligent about it.”   (St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pp. 181-182)

Going to Confession

In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself.

Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. But since the sin must come to light some time, it is better that is happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgment. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment. Our brother has been given me that even here and now I may be certain through him of the reality of God in His judgment and His grace.

As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception, so, too, the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God. Mutual, brotherly confession is given to us by God in order that we may be sure of divine forgiveness. But it is precisely for the sake of this certainty that confession should deal with concrete sins. People usually are satisfied when they make a general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of human nature, in so far as this ever enters into experience at all, when one sees his own specific sins. Self-examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession. Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confessing to a brother and thus miss the good of the confession.

Jesus dealt with people whose sins were obvious, with publicans and harlots. They knew why they needed forgiveness, and they received it as forgiveness of their specific sins. Blind Bartimaeus was asked by Jesus: What do you want me to do for you? Before confession we must have a clear answer to this question. In confession we, too, receive the forgiveness of the particular sins which are here brought to light, and by this very token the forgiveness of all our sins, known and unknown.”

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, pp 138-141)

There is a lot to digest in the quote above, but for us Orthodox, this week, we might pay attention especially to the last paragraph as we prepare for our own confessions.  We should have an answer for the last question when we come to Christ in our own confession – Christ asks us, “what do you want me to do for you?”  What do I need from Christ at the end of my confession?  What do I want from Christ as I confess my sins?    If the answer is “nothing, I’m just fulfilling my obligation”, then we will receive nothing for sure.   Do we want forgiveness of our sins?  Do we want healing of our souls?  Do we want to be cleansed of our sins?  Do we want Christ to abide in our hearts?  Do we want  to be able to forgive others?   Do we want to move in a new direction in life?  Do we want to move toward the Kingdom of God?  Do we want to be able to love others as Christ loves us?

The Dangers of Discipleship

At the same time, he [Jesus] emphasizes from the start the controversial nature of this mission, which would be fulfilled in spite of the longstanding laws of both the Jewish and Gentile worlds, which would provoke anger, rejection, and malice, and which would be the cause of family strife. He does not behave at all as a Jewish rabbi of his time would, who probably would promise his disciples various blessings, predict success in other undertakings, and teach them how to achieve it. Jesus says nothing of the sort. He does not promise his disciples success, happiness in their personal life, material prosperity, or spiritual comfort. He does not promise them acceptance from their compatriots, the Gentiles, or even their close relatives.

We can only guess what sort of reaction such predictions elicited from the disciples. As John Chrysostom writes:

For indeed we have great cause to marvel, how they did not straightway dart away from Him on hearing these things, apt as they were to be startled at every sound, and such as had never gone further than that lake, around which they used to fish; and how they did not reflect, and say to themselves, “And wither after all this are we to flee? The courts of justice against us, the kings against us, the governors, the synagogues of the Jews, the nations of the Gentiles, the rulers and the ruled.”

(Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 425)

God be Merciful to Me

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.”  (Luke 6:27-30)

St John Chrysostom, once asked about what kind of people would ask God to do something that goes against God’s own commandments.  He was thinking it is you and I!

“Those that make requests it is fitting for God to grant, not beseeching him for what is opposed to his laws.  And who is so bold, you ask, as to make God grant what is opposed to his laws?  Those who intercede with him against their enemies; this, of course, is at variance with the law decreed by him.  He says, remember, ‘forgive your debtors.’ (Matthew 6:12).   But do you call on him against your enemies when he has bidden you pardon them?  What could be worse than this absurdity?  In prayer you should have the appearance, attitude and approach of a suppliant; so why do you adopt another guise, that of accusation?  I mean, how would you succeed in gaining pardon of your own faults when you expect God to be the punisher of other’s crimes?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, p 52)

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  (Colossians 3:12-13)

The Sunday of the Loving Father

A connoisseur of fine wine pays attention to the details of the texture and flavor of the wine.  Because Jesus teaches us using parables, we have to become connoisseurs of the stories, noting the various hints and contours of what Christ has created for us in order for us to fully savor what He is revealing to us.  His parables are not meant to be guzzled or gulped down but rather are to be slowly imbibed in order to experience and enjoy the complex and deep lessons.

Though the Gospel text Luke 15:11-32 is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it probably is better termed the Parable of the Loving Father.  Note how Christ starts the parable:  “A certain man had two sons..” – the “man” of the parable, the father of the two sons, really is the central character in the story.  Christ doesn’t begin by saying  there were two brothers or that there was a man who had a father and an older brother.  Christ is telling a parable about the man, the father, the character who holds the whole parable together.  The story is like an icon triptych with the two brothers being the side panels, but the father being the central panel and the main focus of the triptych.

There are many details in the parable we could focus on to understand either of the two brothers, and in Orthodoxy the most frequent reference point is the younger brother coming to his senses and deciding to return to his father – an image of repentance in these pre-Lenten days.

One thing we might explore is how what the younger son asks from his father compares with the Lord’s prayer – both are addressed to the Father.  The younger son says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”  Contrast this with the Lord’s prayer in which we say:   “Our Father … thy will be done … give us this day our daily bread.”  In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for enough bread for the day not for everything our Father might give us in a lifetime in one day!   The Prodigal is not interested in his father’s will and certainly he is not concerned about having his needs met for the day, he just wants to self-indulge right now.

When the younger son returns to his father, he says:    ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy (Greek: axios) to be called your son.’  The Prodigal Son acknowledges his own unworthiness to be called a son.  He uses the word “Axios” which is used of the candidate at an ordination service in the Orthodox Church.    We also see in this the son defining in his mind the nature of “sonship” – it is about worthiness, about earning the position (this actually is also going to be the same attitude as the older brother – both brothers misunderstand their father and his love and the nature of sonship!  They don’t see the father giving them his love, they see themselves as earning their way and thus deserving  his  gifts – they really both are hired servants).   The Prodigal realizes as a result of his own behavior,  he is not a very worthy child, certainly not worthy of his father’s favor.  He thinks that at least maybe he can be a hired employee of his father.  But he has a very distorted view of what it is to be child of his father.  He sees his father as the big daddy with the big bucks – the man who has all the power and he is trying to wrest some of that power to his own advantage.  This by the way is what many ancient people thought was how to approach the many gods who infested their world – manipulate them to get things from them.  They didn’t love their gods, they used them to get what they wanted from them, and so too the gods used the people for their own purposes and needs.  No love in that religion.

But note that the younger son does not ask for forgiveness from his father nor does he do anything to seek reconciliation with his father.  In his mind there is no way he can earn sonship back so he skips seeking reconciliation and looks to get hired on which is how he basically sees his father; besides he has already taken all the property and wealth that he could claim.   He fails to understand what it means to be a child.  What he still doesn’t understand is his father’s love is given freely, it is not earned, it is not deserved.  In the whole parable, the father has not run out of love for his son.  The son may have taken away half his father’s property and all the wealth he, the son, is entitled to, but he has not taken away all the father’s love nor could he ever squander all the love his father has.  The father is still full of love which he eagerly gives to the son.  That should be obvious in the parable. The father continues to treat the son as son and shows that for the father sonship is a relationship of love that can’t be lost or taken away.  If being a child is defined in terms of inheritable property this young man is in trouble, but this father has little concern for the property value which has been lost.  That is nothing compared to the relationship he has with his child.

Quite literally: The father has nothing but love for his child.  He has nothing but love to give to his child.

When the father talks to the slaves (Greek: doulos), he commands them as slaves (doulos) to dress the son and adorn him and prepare a feast for the son.  The father has plenty of slaves who have to obey him, but he is not interested in another obedient slave.  He wants a son, a child not another hired servant.  The father loves his son and the father clearly treats his slaves like slaves.  But the father wants this child to be his child, not just a hired servant.

The older brother also has trouble understanding what it is to be a child of his father.   First, I would note that the slaves in the parable do understand there is a difference between themselves and the brothers.   The slaves say, “your brother has returned”.  Your father is celebrating the return of your brother.  The servants know they are servants, but this missing child of the father, the prodigal, he still is his father’s son.  The slaves know there is a difference between themselves as servants and a child of the master, but the father’s own children don’t understand this distinction.  They act as if they are nothing more than hirelings themselves.

When the elder brother hears the party for his brother in full swing,he refuses to go into the father to talk to him but  rather, makes the father come out to him (In effect, he treats his father like his servant!  Come here, I want to talk to you!) (Note the father also went out to greet the prodigal on his return – the father is willing to leave his home, to leave everything behind, in order to maintain or restore the relationship with his children).  The elder brother says “these many years I have served (douleuo) you, I have never transgressed one of your commandments.”  The elder brother sees his years of living with his father as nothing more than servitude.  The elder brother whines that for all these years I have been your slave and totally obeyed you, though I resent it.   He has not been a son acting in love but a slave.  And it bears repeating, the father doesn’t want another obedient slave, he has plenty of those.   He wants a son, a child, one who shares his life, his love and all his earthly goods.   [St Symeon the New Theologian, in one of his poems has God saying this: “… ‹to learn› precisely that I am God creator of all things, (Sir 24.8) to know and understand that the person sitting in the deepest pit has been reconciled to Me, (Ps 87.7) and converses with Me without mediation like a friend to a friend, (Ex 33.11) having passed beyond the rank of hired servant and the fear of slavery, serving Me tirelessly, attending Me with love, associating with Me by obedience to the commandments. I do not mean those who serve Me as employees, nor again those who come to Me as slaves, but I speak of those who are my friends, familiars, and my sons by their actions.”   (Divine Eros, Kindle Location 9096-9108)   A very similar theme to what we see of the loving Father in the ‘Prodigal’ parable.]

The Elder brother harshly accuses the younger brother of consorting with prostitutes (15:30) yet early on (15:13) all the text says is that the younger son lived as a prodigal (wasteful, extravagant, excessive, self-indulgent) life.  The text doesn’t list any sins of the intemperate younger brother.  The older brother is sure that his younger brother is not merely foolish but a sinner and evil.

The father accepts his lost son back, but the elder son sounds just like the Pharisees at the beginning of this chapter in  Luke 15:1-6  –

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’

The elder brother is a Pharisee – he accuses his father of receiving sinners and eating with them.  The father is the good shepherd who goes out to seek and find the lost and celebrate being reconciled with them, no matter why they left to begin with.

The father says to his elder son:  Child (teknon, child, but this time doesn’t call him  my son!), you are always with me and own everything  (note in vs 12 the father divided the proper and gave it to them (autois in the plural, not just to the younger son but to both sons!).  The father is saying,  you are my son, not my slave!   Be merry and rejoice!   I don’t want your obedience I want your love and joy.  I want to be with you.  The father says, by law all that I have is yours – but what he wants his son to have is love and joy which no law could make him accept or do!  The father wants a relationship with his child that is based in love not law.  The father is quite willing to do whatever the law requires, but his heart is in loving his children.

There are many lessons for us to learn from this parable and we can like wine connoisseurs savor the many lessons offered to us.   We might also think about applying the lessons to ourselves.  Which of three people in Christ’s parable are you?

The prodigal child – initially wasteful and foolish, who repents and begs mercy but who doesn’t believe he could ever be a child of the father because he is unworthy.  The father loves him anyway and embraces him despite his faults and despite the fact that he can’t buy or earn the father’s favor.

The elder son – diligent and hardworking, faithful, but lacking in mercy, love and forgiveness, but who also thinks the father’s love must be earned.  He too doesn’t s believe the father freely gives his love.  Thus he is angry that the father shows himself to be loving, merciful, forgiving and generous to both his undeserving brother and to himself.  He doesn’t believe in the father’s grace or love.  He won’t forgive his brother or his father or himself.  Really he rejects his father freely giving him or his brother good things.  The elder brother is saying, “I earned your favor, you aren’t giving me anything, I worked for it.”

The father –  full of hope, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness who is ever striving to bring about reconciliation and unity and to uphold what he values so dearly for his family?  He gives freely and generously to those who are his children, and he holds no grudges, and he forgives all debts.

Jesus tells us to love one another as He has loved us.  He has loved us like the father in the parable loves his children.  Are we willing to do the same?

The Publican and Pharisee as Spiritual Athletes

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The canon from the Lenten Triodion for Matins for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee uses athletic imagery to contrast the two men in prayer and to help explain Christ’s parable.

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The righteousness of the Pharisee proved to be vanity, and was condemned, for it was yoked to pride;  but the Publican gained humility, which goes with the virtue exalting men on high. 

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The Pharisee thought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; but the Publican on foot outran him, for he yoked humility with compassion.  Pondering with our minds the parable of the Publican,  let us all emulate him with tears, offering God a contrite spirit and seeking the remission of our sins.

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The Publican and Pharisee both ran in the race of life,  but the one was overcome by foolish pride:  He was brought to a shameful shipwreck,  while the other was saved by humility.   

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 Changing to a righteous course of life,  let us emulate the wisdom of the Publican:  Let us run from the hateful conceit of the Pharisee, so letting ourselves attain to life.  

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St. John Chrysostom offers a comment on the parable of the Publican and Pharisee which brings to the forefront of spiritual thinking what is really important in our struggle to follow Christ:

To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots.      For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility. You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility.

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The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance.  So, humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcomes the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God. In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth.    (Homily V, The Fathers of the Churchp. 158-160)

It is not being a sinner or our sins which will prevent us from attaining the Kingdom of God.  Rather, it is our pride and arrogance, judgmentalism, which will prevent us from being with Christ.  It is not God’s justice which will deny our entry into heaven, but our lack of mercy, humility and love.

See also my post: A Chariot Race: The Publican vs The Pharisee

Renouncing the Passions

The patristic tradition, as well as contemporary psychology, has identified the restraints to perfect love. From an Orthodox perspective, if love is union with God, and the pursuit of love is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit then those things that separate us from God – sin, the passions, death, and the devil all represent restraints to perfect love.

Our own self centered, egocentric orientation, our fallen nature represent the biggest restraints to love. “When we speak of all the passions together, we call them ‘the world.’ So when Christians speak of renouncing the world, they mean renouncing the passions.”

(Philip Mamalakis, “The Spiritual Life and How to be Married in it,” Raising Lazarus, p. 223)

Christ-like Mercy

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”   (Matthew 5:7)

“He is merciful who shows compassion to his neighbor not only with gifts, but also when he hears or sees anything that causes suffering to someone, he does not prevent his heart from burning. And even if he is struck a blow by his brother, he does not presume to retaliate against him with so much as a word and cause him mental suffering.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life, p. 66)

Zacchaeus: A Sinner Transformed

The Lord had said to the Pharisees, “But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). So now, showing His approval of such actions and finding in them a defense against those who murmured against Him, He says, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as Zacchaeus also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9), as he has now become faithful, righteous, hospitable and a lover of the poor. “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

He was actually saying to the fault-finders, “I went in to be the guest of a sinner, but in order to transform and save him, showing him to be a lover of God instead of a lover of money, just instead of unjust, welcoming instead of inhospitable, and merciful instead of unsympathetic, such as you can see him becoming even now.” Do you see how Zacchaeus loved and sought, and was loved, summoned and made Christ’s own?

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 58).