Jesus in Context

Most Orthodox calendars list daily Scripture readings in which we have perhaps a Gospel lesson for the day.  And while we certainly benefit from the daily reading of Scriptures and from considering a short Gospel lesson, we can also gain additional insight by reading any one Gospel lesson in its context – considering how it fits in to the other lessons before and after it.  So, for example if we take the Gospel lesson of Matthew 9:1-8 (Christ forgiving a paralytic his sins and then healing the paralytic) which we read on a summer Sunday and look at that lesson in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel we may note other details.  Consider  Matthew 8:14-9:13 as a larger context for the miracle of healing the paralytic:

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Jesus heals not only Peter’s mother-in-law, but also all those who were ill or demon possessed.  There is no sense in this event that Jesus made discipleship a pre-condition for being healed, nor do we even see Him requiring people to make some ascetical effort to obey God, or even a demand that they repent before He will heal them.  The story is one of God’s grace towards sinners and the sick, not about people attempting to be righteous or being rewarded for their efforts.   Christ does not seem in this case to determine if they are worthy of the miracle nor if they have a proper faith or even if they practice any faith.   Jesus heals all who are brought to Him.

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Jesus, unlike modern televangelists or healers, is not trying to attract attention and a crowd.  When Jesus sees the crowd gathering, he says it is time to move on.  He is not there to set the stage for a bigger ministry nor to collect accolades or donations. He completely misses the PR opportunity.  He receives no glory from adoring followers.

What Christ does is give freely God’s abundant mercy and then He moves on.  If people want to become part of His successful ministry, they themselves have to give up everything to follow Him.  No wonder Jesus appeared in such a backward time and such a strange land with no mass communication.  Jesus was seeking neither fame or fortune – he was seeking nothing that today’s mass media gives and which those who want stardom can’t resist.  Jesus built nothing like those who create media empires today.  He chose His time and place for a reason.

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

The disciples have seen all that Jesus did – healing all the sick, casting out demons, and they have witnessed the crowds being attracted to Jesus.  But now, when they experience their own personal miracle in the storm at sea, the best they can do is wonder about what kind of man Jesus is.  They wonder why the winds and sea obey Jesus, but besides being dumbfounded, they show little insight into understanding who Jesus is.  They apparently think there might be something special about Jesus, but they are not sure what!

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

While the disciples are uncertain what to make of Jesus’ special powers, the demons have no doubt about who He is – the Son of God!  The demons show their powerlessness in the face of Christ.  They have to ask permission to leave.     The crowd this time reacts strongly to Christ – they expel him from their land.  The crowd of city dwellers perform their own exorcism of they land by begging Jesus to leave the neighborhood.  Jesus answers their prayer.

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus, now back on the Jewish side of the lake, performs another miracle, but some of the Jewish leaders are offended by Jesus’ words, thinking Jesus is a fraud or worse, they are accusing Jesus of leading people away from God.  On the other hand,  the crowd reaction is fear as they are astounded by what Jesus can do – and they are afraid of Him!  The proximity to divinity is terrifying, but really in this passage we are considering it is only the demons who obey Christ and declare Him to be God’s Son.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus continues on His sojourn, now sitting to eat with a bunch of sinners rather than with those who were known to practice the faith.   These practitioners of the faith cannot understand why Jesus has table fellowship with people who are obvious sinners.   Jesus responds with the astonishing message that these sinners are exactly the people He is seeking out – hardly the kind of Messiah the righteous are working so hard for.

Seeing Jesus in context, we realize what it is for Him to be the Christ and the Son of God and the Lord.  He heals all, not just believers.  He eats with and has fellowship with sinners not just with the spiritual ascetics.  He flees from the crowds who would want to be empowered by Him make Him their earthly ruler.  He lives according to a Kingdom not of this world.  He does God’s will and brings God to all without wanting the prestige and power humans want to attribute to Him.   No wonder the disciples were so confused about who He is.

Jesus taught: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”

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St. John the Baptist: The Greatest Prophet

St. Romanos the Melodist imagines in his lyrics what Jesus might have said to St. John the Baptist when in Matthew 3:13-17 the Forerunner protested to Jesus that he should not baptize Jesus but rather himself needed to be baptized by the Lord.

“I am not asking, Baptist, that you overstep the bounds; I do not

say, ‘Say to me

what you say to offenders,’ nor ‘Give me the advice you give sinners.’

Simply baptize me in silence, and expectation of what will follow

the baptism.

Because in this way you will gain a dignity which does not belong

to angels, for I will also make you greater than all the prophets.

Not one of them saw me clearly,

but only in types and shadows and dreams.

But as he stands before you by his own will,

you see, you grasp

the unapproachable light.”

(On the Life of Christ, p. 43-44)

John is considered to belong to the Old Testament prophets, but in Orthodoxy he is the greatest of the prophets (see Matthew 11:9-11) for he saw his Lord and Messiah not only in shadows and from a distance  but saw Him face to face, spoke with Him and baptized Him.  On June 24 in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the birth of John the Forerunner of the Lord (see Luke 1).

Truth Relies on Us All

The Lord Jesus said: “‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?'”  (John 14:21-22)

St Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD) offers an answer to the Apostle Judas‘ question as to how it is that God’s manifestation may be seen only by some when “objectively” the event should be visible to everyone.

“…True doctrine conforms to the dispositions of those receiving the word, for although the word presents to all equally what is good and bad, the one who is favorably disposed to what is presented has his understanding enlightened, but the darkness of ignorance remains with the one who is obstinately disposed and does not permit his soul to behold the ray of truth….

In keeping with this insight of mine, consider the air which is darkened to the Egyptians’ eyes by the rod [Exodus 10:21-29], while to the Hebrews’ it is illuminated by the sun. By this incident the meaning which we have given is confirmed. It was not some constraining power from above that caused the one to be found in darkness and the other in light, but we men have in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or of darkness, since we place ourselves in whichever sphere we wish to be.

Jesus & Moses at the Transfiguration

According to the history, the eyes of the Egyptians were not in darkness because some wall or mountain darkened their view and shadowed the rays, but the sun cast its rays upon all equally. Whereas the Hebrews delighted in its light, the Egyptians were insensitive to its gift. In a similar manner the enlightened life is proposed to all equally according to their ability. Some continue on in darkness, driven by their evil pursuits to the darkness of wickedness. while others are made radiant by the light of virtue.”  (The Life of Moses, p. 69, 72-73)

St Gregory’s answer is based in a clear idea of synergy – God’s revelation, God’s manifestation requires also observers who prepared/open to receive what God reveals.  This idea is reflected in quantum physics where the observer affects the outcome of what is being observed.  God does not even impose His revelation on humanity.  Our inner disposition toward God will determine what we experience of God in our life.  Almost 200 years before Gregory of Nyssa’s writing, St Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) offered a very similar idea:

“In respect to His greatness, and His wonderful glory, no man shall see God and live (Exodus 33:20), for the Father is incomprehensible; but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power, even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God, which thing the prophets did also predict.  For those things that are impossible with men, are possible with God (Luke 18:27).  For man does not see God by his own powers; but when He pleases He is seen by men, by whom He wills, and when He wills, and as He wills.  For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to everyone from the fact of his seeing God.

For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor.  But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.  And for this reason, He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith.  For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him.  It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness.”  (ADV. HAERESES 4.20.5)

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And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  (John 17:3)

Weapons in the Church?

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)

In 431AD, Emperor Theodosius II the Younger, issued an edict regarding imperial dignity, rights and security which acknowledged that being Christian also meant belonging to a kingdom not of this world.   It was normative for the Emperor to be protected by armed guards which also was a show of imperial power.  Even as the Byzantines thought that their Empire could accomplish God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven“, they accepted that life on earth still required the use of he sword at times.  They were not Utopian or Pollyanna-ish in their view of a Christian empire.  However, Theodosius decreed at the Ecumenical Council in Ephesus that when entering a church, all weapons were to be left outside the church.  Not only weapons, but even his crown, another sign of imperial power, was not to be brought into the church.  Before God we stand stripped of outward signs of imperial power or weaponry, acknowledging our own submission to the will of God. 

Although we are always surrounded by the lawful imperial weaponry, and it is not fitting for us to be without weapon-bearers and guards; when, however, entering the churches of God, we shall leave our weapons outside and take off the very diadem, emblem of our imperial dignity. (at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, 431. From For the Peace from Above, p 111)

For Emperor Theodosius, even the “good guys” were not to bring weapons into the church.  We all stand before God as sinners without defense and in need of God’s mercy.

And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  (Ephesians 6:17)

I am with You Always

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”   (Matthew 28:18-20)

O wonder! The Lord bade me stay my mind in hell and not despair. So close is He to us: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” and “I will deliver thee; and thou shalt glorify me.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 431)

The Man Born Blind is Healed by His Creator

John 9:1-38  Jesus gives sight to the man born blind

St. Irenaeus (second century) interprets “that the works of God may be manifest in him” (John 9:3) as a direct reference to the continuing work of God as Creator of the human person:

‘Now the work of God is the fashioning of man. For, as the Scripture says, He made [man] by a kind of process: “And the Lord took clay from the earth, and formed man.” (Genesis 2:7)  Wherefore also the Lord spat on the ground and made clay, and smeared it upon the eyes, pointing out the original fashioning [of man], how it was effected, and manifesting the hand of God to those who can understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust. For that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb [viz., the blind man’s eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him, in order that we might not be seeking out another hand by which man was fashioned, nor another Father; knowing that this hand of God which formed us at the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning back His own, and taking up the lost sheep upon His shoulders, and with joy restoring it to the fold of life…

As, therefore, we are by the Word formed in the womb, this very same Word formed the visual power in him who had been blind from his birth; showing openly who it is that fashions us in secret, since the Word Himself had been made manifest to men: and declaring the original formation of Adam, and the manner in which he was created, and by what hand he was fashioned, indicating the whole from a part. For the Lord who formed the visual powers is He who made the whole man, carrying out the will of the Father.'”

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 38-39)

The Samaritan Woman: Desire Was Created for Christ

For those who have tasted of the Savior, the Object of desire is present. From the beginning human desire was made to be gauged and measured by the desire for Him, and is a treasury so great, so ample, that it is able to encompass even God. Thus there is no satisfaction, nothing stills the desire, even if men attain to all the excellent things in life, for we still thirst as though we had none of the things for which we long. The thirst of human souls needs, as it were, an infinite water; how then could this limited world suffice?

This is what the Lord hinted when He said to the Samaritan woman, “he who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst’ (Jn. 4:13-14). This is the water that slakes the thirst of human souls, for it says, “when I behold Thy glory I shall be satisfied with it” (Ps. 17:15 LXX). The eye was capable of perceiving light, the ear for sound, and each member for its appropriate end; the desire of the soul has for its object Christ alone.

(St. Nicolas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 96)

Gospel of the Samaritan Woman:  John 4:5-42

Christianity is a Hope

“Christianity, claims Michel Quenot, is not a moral structure but a hope. It is a witness to the fact that ‘Christ, by his death, has conquered death,’ and that all are now able to participate in his eternal Life. This is possible to the extent that one is willing to welcome the Word of God into the very depths of one’s being, to open one’s heart to that which the eyes of flesh can no longer see and to fulfill one’s true nature as created in the image of God. The Church Fathers teach us that man is called to become a mediator for all that became separated through sin and which Christ reunited in his person: the heart and the mind, the soul and the body, matter and spirit, heaven and earth.”

(Maxime Egger in The Resurrection and the Icon by Michel Quenot, p x)

Holy Myrrhbearing Women

As the true friends of the Creator were saying this,

Mary, who was following, said,

“Initiates of the Lord and his truly fervent lovers, do not think like this;

but be patient, do not lose heart.

For what has happened was a dispensation,

so that women, as those who were the first to fall,

might be the first to see the risen One.

He wishes to grant to us who mourn the grace of his ‘Rejoice!’,

he who grants resurrection to the fallen.”

On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 170)

Frequently, the Patristic writers see the Gospel events as an “undoing” of the Fall of Eve and Adam.  In the poem above, St. Romanos the Melodist, explains  that the Women Disciples of the Lord learn about the resurrection before the chosen Apostles so that woman would be given the opportunity to “reverse the curse”.  Eve fell before Adam, but now the women get to share the Good News with the men.  All sin is forgiven in the resurrection as humans are put on the path to the Kingdom of God and allowed to enter into Paradise again.

Even Death is a Freedom

Bright Friday: Even Death is a Freedom

Christ’s resurrection as a “wonder” would have pointed to a new religion; resurrection as a sign points to a new mode of existence. It is this mode that the ecclesial social event wishes to realize. Death is the most burdensome and unbearably irrational existential limitation of human nature. And in his historical existence Christ assumes this irrationality, he dies, in order to signify that even death may be experienced as freedom of relationship with the Father, that is, as life without limitation.

He assumes human nature “unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), one of the most horrific forms of execution. And he does it so that this most horrific death should become a savific sign.

(Christos Yannaras, Against Religion: The Alienation of the Ecclesial Event, pp. 32-33)