The Conception of St John the Forerunner

The events of Luke 1:5-25 describe the miraculous events which prophesied the conception of St John the Forerunner.  His parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, were considered by God to be holy, and yet there earthly marriage had not been blessed with children, a very troubling sign for any believer in ancient Israel.

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

The Gospel lesson for today is perhaps a hopeful message for any couple wanting to have a baby, but having a difficult time conceiving a child.  That being said, I don’t think that is the main lesson of this passage.  Rather than promising that childless couples will be given children, the very point of this lesson is that God was bringing about a rare and unusual event  – God is intervening in history and changing history for God is now working out His plan for the salvation of the world.  If Zacharias and Elizabeth already had 5-6 children, having another one wouldn’t be miraculous.   How would one know that God had helped bring it about, if it was already a common occurrence for this couple?    Like the Virgin birth of Jesus, the conception of John the Baptist is miraculous precisely because it is unheard of – an aged woman, past her natural childbearing years, gets pregnant.  Nature couldn’t make this happen – it happens because God has intervened in history to make something seemingly impossible to occur.  The Gospel narrative wants us to understand that what happens is an intervention from God, not something that was inevitable or natural or expected.

We see in this lesson both Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias are considered blameless, free of sin, and righteous before God.  So we know that their inability to conceive a child is not some punishment from God.  Having children is certainly considered blessed in the Scriptures, and to be unable to produce offspring was very troubling to couples as they had to wonder if they were somehow being punished by God for their sins.  But the Scriptures make it clear in this case, Elizabeth and Zacharias are not to  blame for having no children.  And we know from later in the Gospel lesson, that both of them had even prayed for children.  Here they are good people, righteous people, praying people, and yet their prayers had not been answered, and they did not receive the blessing they had hoped for.  And what they are hoping for – a child – is not something supernatural.  All they want is to have a normal life – they are only asking for something normal, not miraculous.  So we see that even the righteous and blameless don’t get everything they want, and sometimes are even denied a “normal” life.  We can all learn from Elizabeth and  Zacharias about dealing with life’s frustrations – no prosperity Gospel for these Gospel saints!  The story suggests now that they are old, they are no longer worrying about having children.  They remain faithful to God and have accepted their lot in life.  Even if friends and neighbors whisper about them that they must have sinned somehow and lost God’s favor – they were denied the natural joy of children because God was dealing with them.

We can learn from this, that we might not receive some blessings in life which we dearly want.  And it may not be because of sin, or because our prayers aren’t acceptable, or because God is ignoring us.  It may not be that our prayers are greedy or grasping – we might simply want to be normal, we might simply want what everyone else has, or what is natural to have.   Even saints in our tradition had to deal with disappointment, not having their holy dreams fulfilled, not being blessed as much as other people.  It is not necessarily a sign that one is in God’s disfavor. What may be happening is that God’s plan is being worked out but we have limited vision and cannot see the big picture or a big enough picture to understand what is happening in our lives.  Here is a call for us to trust the Lord God.

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Zacharias is terrified at seeing an angel at the altar of incense.  But this angel tells him that God in fact has heard his prayer and that Elizabeth is going to get pregnant and give him a son.  This is a true miracle!  Not only will Zacharias be given a son, but this son is chosen and blessed by God, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He is going to do God’s will.  The son is going to be everything a righteous priest might hope for.  It is worth waiting on the Lord, even if you have to wait 40 years before you receive a holy gift from God.

And we do learn in this a lesson about our prayer life, especially about constantly asking God to grant us things.  God hears our prayer, but answers them in His time.  We want everything to be done instantly, and God answers in eternity.  And we learn that we should be careful what we ask for ourselves in this world, because God is working out His eternal plan, and we might find God’s answer to our prayers to come at a time we least expect it, in a way we don’t want, and fulfilling His plan more than ours!

And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”

Despite the fact that Zacharias is amazed at the appearance of the angel, he is not so amazed that he believes what the angel tells him.  One might think that just the appearance of the angel would have been enough of a miracle to convince Zacharias that something special was happening.  But Zacharias wants some sign better than an angel appearing to him.  The angel appearing to him is not sign enough for Zacharias.

But Zacharias may have been thinking, “Great, now that I’m an old man, now you are going to give me a son?  Why couldn’t you have done this 40 years ago when it mattered?  My wife and I are too old for this!”

And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.

Zacharias was not convinced that the angel himself was enough evidence that something miraculous was to occur.  He demanded a sign, and so the angel gives him one – Zacharias is to be struck dumb, his voice is muted completely.  Later in Luke’s Gospel we realize Zacharias is apparently deaf as well (Luke 1:62-64).  He is completely silenced because he wouldn’t believe the voice of the angel – he can neither hear nor speak.  He is not going to be able to tell anyone what he saw, but will come to realize in due time that his wife in fact is pregnant.  And even when he realizes that, he still will be deaf and unable to speak, not knowing if God will ever allow him to hear anything but his own thoughts, yet never able to share them with others.

And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless. So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.

Perhaps one of the lessons here is be careful what you ask in prayer.   Make sure you ask for things that you will be happy with no matter how God answers your prayer or  when God chooses to answer it.  Ask only for those things that even if the prayer isn’t answered until 40 years later, you will still want to receive it!  Again, it is lesson to pray for things with an eternal significance, not things that we want immediately but are of no long term consequence.

And be prepared to surrender the blessing you receive back to God.  For Zacharias and Elizabeth’s son would be executed by King Herod – not because their son did any evil.  For as the promise notes, their son will not even drink alcohol.  He will be holy, and even so, he will be martyred because of his faithfulness to God.

St. John the Forerunner, pray to God for us!

May we all want true holiness in our lives and in our families, even if that means we will suffer for the Lord.

God’s Love for the Good and the Bad

…the divine love of the Sermon on the Mount, a love that shows its perfection in being directed toward good and bad alike. It is precisely this love, which draws no distinctions but loves all its fellow men equally – the distinctively Christian form of love (agape)…that is, for Maximus, the purest reflection of God, as he has revealed himself in his incarnate Son and in his Holy Spirit. So the unity that the Church realizes on earth is the first and most exalted image of God in the world, precisely as a unity of love.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 103)

Jesus Proclaimed

Jesus Christ whether as the historical person or the one proclaimed through the centuries by the Church is the same, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).  The Gospel is not about Jesus, Jesus is the Gospel.

Who Jesus really was, what Jesus really thought of himself, and who really were included among Jesus’ closest associates – such titillating questions have in recent years occupied the front covers of national news magazines and prompted television documentaries. This is fascinating since the church looks to the Gospels as authoritative witnesses to the one gospel, who is Jesus Christ, and not to the Jesus reconstructed by even our best historians.

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, p. 109)

The Unexpected Gospel: To Unstop our Blocked Ears

Then the disciples came and said to Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”   (Matthew 13:10-11)

Luke 12:32

It can be hard for us to feel excitement about the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven, for we hear about it all the time in church, and it loses its newness and attraction to us.  Year after year we listen to the same Gospel lessons and they come to sound so familiar, so ordinary, that we forget how totally unexpected, how original, how startling and exciting was the message of St. John the Forerunner and Jesus Christ and His apostles : “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent!

To get some sense of the newness of the Gospel, let us consider the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We’ve all heard that phrase in church and it seems like that is just common fare from the Bible.  And yet, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” never occurs in the Old Testament.    Not even one time.  And how about the phrase “the Kingdom of God”?     That occurs one time in the  Old Testament, in the Wisdom of Solomon.     A book Protestants don’t even have in their English bibles.

So when the Evangelist Matthew has St. John the Forerunner and then Jesus proclaim, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:7), the people were hearing a newly worded message for the first time.    This Gospel belonged to the New Creation for it was new and renewing.  It is no wonder that the apostles didn’t always understand Jesus.  They would not have learned about the Kingdom of heaven growing up or  in any scripture classes they took at their local synagogues.  Jesus was proclaiming a new idea, something strange to their ears, to get their attention.  What is more surprising is that the people don’t ask more often, “What’s the kingdom of heaven?  We’ve never heard of it.  What are you talking about?

And do you think the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven” permeates the New Testament?     The Evangelists John, Luke and Mark  and the Apostle Paul never use the phrase “the kingdom of Heaven”?    Not once.  None of them.

We hear the phrase Kingdom of Heaven and we think, O that’s what the bible is all about  or that is what the New Testament constantly talks about.  But no, there is only one author in the New Testament who uses the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” and that is St. Matthew.  He uses the phrase 31 times .   But He is the only writer in the entire Bible to use that phrase.  It seems as if he coined a phrase and an idea that he wanted us to hear.  He made the Kingdom of Heaven a central idea to the Gospel.  And he was quite the evangelist, for now we think that phrase occurs throughout the Bible from beginning to end.

However, for us already the newness of the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven has worn off.   We’ve heard about it so much that our senses are dulled.   We are at risk to become like the people of the Gospel who turned against Jesus, as St. Paul says in the Acts of the Apostles:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people, and say, You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’   (Acts 28:25-27)

We Christians today need constant spiritual renewal to restore in our hearing and in our hearts just how new, exciting and unexpected the Kingdom of Heaven really is.  It is light shining forth out of the darkness.

And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus used many images to try to convey to His followers what the Kingdom of Heaven is.   He needed to do this because the constant was new, perhaps even foreign to those listening to Him who had heard the Torah taught as a book of Law.     We are not unlike them, for we Orthodox every summer read through Matthew’s Gospel, learning about the Kingdom of Heaven – repeated 31 times for as many years as we follow the Orthodox lectionary.  It becomes hard for us to hear it as new each year.

Jesus gives us parables to tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  He doesn’t explain to us how the Kingdom of Heaven is like these common experiences, nor if the parable speaks only about the beginning of the Kingdom being like these things, nor if the Kingdom will be like these things but not like any other things, nor if the Kingdom will never change.  Here are His images:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field;

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. “

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad   (Matthew 13:24-52)

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents   (Matthew 18:23-35)

For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  (Matthew 20:1-16)

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come.  (Matthew 22:1-14)

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.   

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.    (Matthew 25:1-30)

When we realize that His disciples and followers never learned about the Kingdom of God from the Torah or the Tanakh, we realize why Jesus spent so much time explaining ideas about this coming Kingdom.

In the parable found in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son, but the invited guests refuse to come to the feast.  Ultimately, the king commands his servants to bring in what amounts to the dregs of society to fill his banquet hall.  Yet, when the king comes into the banquet hall he sees one man who had no wedding garment.

While the parable is about this unexpected and surprising Kingdom of Heaven, it has one more surprise in the lesson itself – the wedding garment.

Many homilists  assume Jesus must have been referring to a practice that was known in his day so they assume it is true, but most scholars agree that there is absolutely  no known practice of a wedding garment in Israel.  Jesus was telling a parable and may have made up this detail about the wedding garment for the purpose of His parable.  It helps us understand Jesus is using story, not historical fact, to teach us about the Kingdom.  [Another clue that the parable is pure story and not presenting something factual – just think about the time frame it would have taken.  The food is all prepared and sitting on the banquet tables.  The king  sends out his servants initially to bring in the guests, they are rejected, he sends more servants, they are abused and killed.  Send the arm to burn down the city.  Then send more servants to gather all the undesireable – from the thoroughfares, yet the city was burned down! –  then the king finally gets to go to the banquet and the food is still hot on the tables.  All in a few hours apparently.  This could only happen in fiction.]

My “practical” thinking says it is not likely that people provided a wedding garment to everyone who came to a wedding.  The cost would be exorbitant!  Where would people store such garments?  The poor (most of the population) would not have money to purchase their own wedding garments, nor would anyone have had room to store such a garment to be worn only at weddings.

What is possible is that St. Matthew himself wanted us to experience what the disciples experienced when they first heard the parables from Jesus – the parables had details in them which are unexpected and which are not obvious at all and make us say, “What?!?!?”.  They require us to think about them, study them and interpret them.  Maybe St. Matthew wanted us to experience this newness of the Gospel, so that our ears wouldn’t be dull but rather we would hear about this Kingdom of Heaven, and not sure of what it is ,  would want – or more likely, need – to learn more and to seek it out.  The parables are inviting us to seek, not giving us pat answers.

So maybe Jesus or St. Matthew wanted us to think about these mythical or mystical wedding garments – to unstop our ears and to open our hearts and minds to the Gospel.

Maybe because the king had brought in the dregs of the earth to his banquet he provided a wedding garment – not customarily, but especially because everyone was poor and in need.  So the man without the special garment may have refused the special garment or for whatever reason intentionally bypassed accepting the garment and certainly that rejection of the king’s hospitality was noted by the king was already aggravated by his illustrious, invited guests who had jilted him and killed his servants.

In the early church we note how frequently and with great comfort and confidence the Fathers noted any biblical passage may have more than one meaning and the listeners had to decide for themselves which meaning applied to them.

During Holy Week when we pray the Bridegroom Matins, we sing these words:

Your bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

There we make use of the wedding garment imagery.  We use it to remind ourselves that we are not worthy of this blessed Kingdom of Heaven – we can’t enter it by our own goodness.  We realize our own nakedness – even if we are splendidly clothed in posh frocks!  Our chosen clothes from this world, no matter how expensive and tailored, leave us completely undressed when we try to enter the banquet hall without the God-given festal garments.    We are in need of God’s mercy and grace.  And we ask Christ to “enlighten the vesture of my soul“.  We want Christ the Giver of Light to change the garment of our soul into light so that we can enter Paradise.  We are speaking of a spiritual garment here, not a physical one.    “Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”   (2 Corinthians 5:2)

Maybe Jesus in His parable reference to the wedding garment reminds us that when we are baptized, we put on a new garment, a white baptismal garment which has a particular symbolic meaning.  For it was the belief of many Jews and Christians in the ancient world that Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were given beautiful garments to wear by God.  Garments made of light. They all believed that when Adam and Eve sinned, these beautiful garments of light were taken away from them.  Some also believed that Satan then covered us with dark robes of sinful thinking to help prevent us from seeing the image of God in each other, so that we would forget about the Kingdom Heaven and live only for this world.  Something in which Satan seems to have succeeded quite well.  Satan’s garments blind us, while baptism gives us a new garment which enlightens and illumines us.

Perhaps the wedding garment parable reminds us of that special garment which God gives to us – which we receive at baptism.  A spiritual garment, not a physical one.   The white baptismal garment is but a symbol of the reality.  The prayers of baptismal service say we will have to give account to God for the baptismal garment we received, and how we treated it and what we did with it:

That he/she may preserve his/her baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God, let us pray to the Lord.

So if you don’t know where your baptismal garment is – I’m not talking about the physical clothes, but the spiritual garment, or if you don’t even remember this garment at all, maybe it is time to look for it so that you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven and remain there for all eternity as the King’s invited guest.   You have to start thinking about the garment that adorns your soul, not the garments you buy at the mall.   “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”   (1 Peter 3:3-4)   What St. Peter advised women in his day, becomes Christian advice for all in the modern age – don’t be so concerned with appearance, rather pay attention to the substance of your inner self.

 

 

 

Refusing God’s Invitation to His Wedding Banquet

And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said: “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.”’ But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:1-14)

John A. McGukin comments:

The God of Jesus Christ, on the contrary, was a God very near, not far away; a God who needed no persuading at all to have mercy but who poured out his mercy with an almost reckless prodigality. This forgiveness of sins, freely given, freely received, in the wedding feast of God’s return to his people, was the heart of Jesus’ evangelion or “Good News.” It consequently must have struck him as perverse that many of his follows rejected this theology, and thus opposed his personal insight into religion and his claims to prophetic authority in preaching it.

These he characterized as the ones who refused to join in the celebration, those who would not come to the feast: “Tell the guests the banquet is all prepared: my oxen and fattened cattle have all be slaughtered. All is ready. Come to the wedding. But they were not interested.” The reaction of the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Father who was too incensed at the “easiness” of forgiveness granted to his dissolute brother to be able to come to the celebration is a typical illustration of the case in point. (Witnessing the Kingdom, pp. 21-22)

From, Through and to God

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.

Amen.

(Romans 11:33-36)

Christ Proclaims Peace. Christ Is Our Peace.

You know the message, [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is the Lord of all. (Acts 10:36)

For he [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…   (Ephesians 2:14)

Because I thought Willard Swartley’s book, COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS , was such an excellent look at “peace” in the New Testament as well as a superb scripture study, I decided to comment on the book in a couple of posts, hoping to encourage others to read the book.  The previous post is The Covenant of Peace.

Swartley argues that peace – shalom – is a central theme of the Covenant that God made with Israel.  That peace/shalom comes from God for His people, but the people have to uphold their part of the covenant by living the peace that God commands.

… shalom is a gift of God, but the people must actualize that reality by living in accord with the righteous and just statutes that God gives and prescribes in the covenant (Ps 119; Exodus 20; Deut 18:16-18).  (p 30)

Thus the New Testament use of peace is not introducing something to people of God which didn’t exist in the first covenant, but rather expands upon it and fulfills it.  Swartley offers many examples of the New Testament building upon and expanding the theme of peace found in the Old Testament.  The New Testament often focuses on a peace theme that may not be mentioned directly in an Old Testament text but which the New Testament writers draw out of the text.  So, for example, Genesis 14:18 reads:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.

Hebrews 7:1-2 making use of  this Genesis text in reference to Christ makes a clear connection between Melchizadek  and peace:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God… is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. 

Swartley notes:

Heb 7:1-3 is plainly Christological in its use of eirene.  As commonly recognized, it is a midrash on Gen 14:18-20.  (p 254)

In another instance Swartley looks at Acts 10:36 –

You know the message, [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is the Lord of all. 

Swartley points out:

The key phrase in [Acts] 10:36, ‘preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all’ … Its significance is …  First it is a quotation from Isaiah 52:7 (LXX)… This is one  of the Isainic texts announcing that God’s good news of peace will be heralded to and embraced by those at ‘the ends of the earth.’ (Isa 52:10; cf Acts 1:8).   (p 161-162)

What the New Testament does is link God’s good news promised through the prophets with Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus heralds the coming of God’s peace.  The notion of peace/shalom is part of the covenant with Israel, but the New Testament fully connects this peace to Jesus Christ and expands upon the ideas presented in the first covenant.

Jesus as the Messiah shows Himself to be the King of Peace.  Unlike earthly kings he does not rely on weapons of war to establish His Kingdom.  He does not rely on threats of violence, on revenge, on self preservation or self defense.

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.  (1 Peter 2:23)

He shows Himself to be the Son of God precisely by acting in humility, willing to suffer for and because of humanity.  Commenting on Mark 15:39, Swartley notes:

  For this is the treasure of the Gospel: the One who did not retaliate against the evil plots of the leaders, but willingly offered himself as suffering servant, in accord with God’s purpose… is the true Son of God. (p 115)

Swartley says this same idea of the suffering Messiah – the One willing to suffer but not afflict suffering on His enemies shows Himself to be from the God of Love.  Even in the Book of Revelation, Swartley claims the same theme is evident.

The theology is similar to that of John’s Gospel, in which death and exaltation are viewed as one: in being ‘lifted up’ Jesus fulfills his commission to glorify God.  The drama of Revelation is of the same moral fabric: through the Lamb’s suffering and the suffering of the believers God’s victory over evil is won. (p 334)

The paradoxical image of victory through suffering love forms the heart and soul of Revelation’s Christology.  Suffering love marks the authentic followers of the Lamb.  (p 343)

The up-side-down Kingdom of Heaven is inaugurated by a King whose weapon against evil is humility, suffering and the cross.  Indeed as we sing in Orthodoxy, “the cross is the weapon of peace.”  The incarnate Son of God chooses to suffer as his weapon and warfare.  He teaches his followers to deny themselves and to take up the cross to follow Him.  We are to stand our ground against evil, but not with weapons which can kill, but by laying down our lives because we completely trust God and see ourselves as belonging to His Kingdom more than to this world and its way of war.

As Swartely nicely states it:

Rather than thinking first and foremost about peace with security, the exposition leads one to think about peace through repentance.  (p 2)

The Gospel is a challenge to how we want to deal with evil through self preservation and self protection rather than through self denial.  Many an Orthodox saint thought self-preservation did not prevent evil but rather was the cause of much evil – making us think that killing and harming others is a good.

Finally, Swartley points out that in the Tradition we have received from the people of the First Covenant, that the use of war and military weapons to achieve one’s goals is introduced to humanity by those angels who themselves rebelled against God and God’s Kingdom:

It is striking that the various conceptualizations of evil in and behind biblical thought link war and military weapons to evil itself: in the ‘Watchers Myth’ (Azazel) gives to humans the knowledge of weapons for war (1 Enoch 8:1) (p 107, n 35)

“And Azaz’el taught the people the art of making swords and knives and shields and breastplates . . .”  (1 Enoch 8:1)

Death entered into the human condition as a result of sin.  “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— ” (Romans 5:12).  It was humans who then used this sin caused death to inflict further death on other humans.  but it is Christ who uses death – His own – to defeat death and bring peace with God to all humans.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  (Romans 5:8-10)

Instead of death stopping us from sinning, we humans used death to stop other people from living.  In so doing we made ourselves enemies God who is the Giver of life.  Christ undoes all of this by using death – His own – to conquer death, to give life to all, and to reconcile all of us to God.  No longer are we at war with God, but in Christ we are at peace with God.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  (Romans 5:1-2)

Next: Peace in the Epistles of St. Paul

God’s Love Means Our Salvation

“If a genuine righteousness were required of human beings, then only one in ten thousand would be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, continues Isaac. This is why God gave people repentance as a remedy, for it can heal a person from sin in a short time. Not wishing human beings to perish, God forgives everyone who repents with his whole heart. God is good by nature, and he ‘wishes to save everyone by all sorts of means’.

Isaac resented the widespread opinion that the majority of human beings will be punished in hell, while only a small group of the chosen will delight in paradise. He was convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time necessary for their repentance and remission of sins:

By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy nature is so good and so compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right: how he can forgive human beings their sins—like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer or like the case of a woman with two small coins or the man who received forgiveness on the cross. For God wishes our salvation, and not reasons to torment us.

Earthly life is given to everyone as a time of repentance. It is enough for a person to turn to God to ask forgiveness for his sins immediately to be forgiven. The token of this forgiveness is the Incarnation of the Word of God, who, when all creation had abandoned and forgotten God, came down to earth in order to redeem humankind and the whole universe by his death on the cross.”

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, pp. 294-295)

Amassing Mercy

Reflecting on Matthew 18:15-35

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

The Lord Jesus gives us a teaching about how we should deal with a person who sins against – who fails us, or falls short of what we need or expect, or who doesn’t live up to their obligations.  The simple teaching is you work for reconciliation, you go talk to them about how they failed you with the hope of restoring a right relationship.

But a simple teaching rarely can cover all the nuances and variations we can imagine.  It doesn’t even tell us how often we are to do it.  We want quantifiable directions – we then know when we have tried “enough” and when it is time to give up or move beyond the current situation.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

 

Jesus teaches us to love, to show mercy, constantly to work for reconciliation.  The Apostle Peter probably thought he was being generous in forgiving someone seven times for offending him.  Jesus blows away Peter’s magnanimous offer –  not seven times but 70 times 7 times.    But then Jesus decides to show Peter how small minded he really is being, and He tells this parable about what we likely are to experience in the Kingdom of heaven:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed (a debtor) him ten thousand talents;

Jesus in telling a story about someone who owes ten thousand talents is immediately moving into the world of exaggeration and overstatement.  Remember, one talent could be worth as much as 15 years worth of wages!   This servant owes his king, $63 Billion!  You don’t see numbers like this in all of the Scriptures.

and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me,

Have patience” -literally the Greek text has the man asking the King, “Defer your anger with me...”

Interestingly, so far at no point has the parable mentioned the king being angry – this is the assumption of the servant that the king is an angry with him or that the king is somehow an unfairly demanding person.  But the whole parable is so ridiculously exaggerated to  show us the king is anything but an angry judge.  The king has time and time again lent money to this worthless servant.  He has lent him 63 billion dollars!  This is not the behavior of an angry, unfair ogre.

The servant doesn’t ask the king not to be angry with him, he knows the king has every right to be angry, but he asks him to defer or set aside his anger for a time to give the servant a a chance to repay.  More to the point, the servant takes no personal responsibility for his own borrowing this ginormous sum of money.  The servant sees the problem purely as the king is an angry man and that is why he wants to be repaid!  His thinking is so warped and distorted.  It apparently never occurs to him that he himself is responsible for the debt he has incurred.  He is really a warped individual and thinks the king wants repayment, not because the king is just but because the king is angry!

Our parable continues:

So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

The servant is asking the King to defer, to delay his anger for 150,000 years!  Again we recognize the absurdity of the story/parable.  It is not meant to be heard literally.  How would a servant amass such a huge debt?  Either the servant has been playing the king for a fool, or the king has already shown himself to be incredibly generous, patient and forgiving.

This servant can never possibly repay this debt, no matter what he promises.  He is lying to the king, right to his face, when he says he will repay everything.  Not only has he bilked the King out of fortune, but now he lies to the king to attempt to ward off the king’s anger!  The man is as wicked as he stupid.  But the king forgives him everything!  The king doesn’t just defer his anger and say, OK, I’ll give you time and opportunity to be true to your word and repay me.  The king realizes this lying scumbag, thinks I am a fool.  But then the King does the most improbable thing of all and totally cancels the debt.  You do not have to pay your debt.

And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt (the loan).

The king remains consistently moved by mercy.  He is not reacting to the man, but acting toward him according to the inner nature of the King.  Most incredible, the king accepts the intention of the man – “I will repay you” – even though the king knows the man could never pay this debt.

The king finds the man’s expressed intention to be sufficient.  St John Chrysostom in the sermon we read each year at Pascha says that God “both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering.”

There is a message here that even if we don’t know how to change our life or to repent of our sins or to repay God for all the bad we have done or to thank him for all the good blessings He has bestowed on us – God will accept us if we just acknowledge we need to do so.  If our intention is right, God will accept us, even when He knows we can’t or won’t live up to what we intend to do.  This isn’t a matter of our pretending or lying about it.  We need to be sincere in our intentions to do God’s will even if we realize we will fail.  This is a message of tremendous hope for those of us who chronically repeat our sins and failures.  Strive to do good, faithfulness in the effort will be rewarded even if you don’t succeed in achieving the goal.

But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii;

A denarii is one day’s wages.  So he is owed 100 days wages.  A sizable amount, but not an impossible amount to repay.  But compared to his own debt, this debt is a trifle.  This servant has just been forgiven a debt of $63 Billion.  Seems like he can now afford to forgive a few debts himself, but he is not willing to forgive $12,000.  He acts as if he can’t afford to forgive this amount of money.

and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’  So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience (defer your anger) with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt.

The fellow servant begs for mercy and uses the exact phrase that the forgiven man used before the king.

He refused –  The Greek could be translated: he was not willing, he did not wish to do what was requested of him.  He willfully refuses to show mercy despite having just received unmerited and undeserved mercy on a transcendent scale.

When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!

The King is not fooled, he knows exactly what this servant it – wicked.  Yet he had forgiven him originally everything.

I forgave you all that debt because you besought me;

I forgave you for no other reason than you asked me to

and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’

Mercy – this is what we constantly petition from God:  Lord have mercyKyrie eleson.

We are right to ask God for mercy, as He is phenomenally merciful, ridiculously merciful, merciful beyond measure.    But the caveat is that if we want God to continue to show mercy to us – for all time, unto eternity, now and forever and unto ages of ages – we also have to show mercy to those indebted to us, or those who sin against us (miss the mark, fail us in some way) or trespass against us.

Here, we might call to mind two other passages from Matthew’s Gospel:

Matthew 6:12  –  And forgive us our debts , As we also have forgiven  our debtors;

and also

Matthew 6:14-15 –   For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

So now how does the king behave?

And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.

Now for the first time, we are told of the king’s anger.  He was not being angry when he set out to collect the debts owed him.  Then he was simply being just.  Now he is angry.

And when would the servant be able to repay this debt?  Never.  So when will he get out of prison, away from being tortured?  Never.  Because he wouldn’t be merciful in one instance or for one moment, he loses the King’s mercy forever.

The anger of the king is not over the amount of the man’s debt, but his unwillingness to forgive or to change his ways.  God’s anger is not over our own sinfulness, but He certainly can be angry that we don’t repent or don’t want His forgiveness or that we refuse to forgive others.

The King is angry, not because of the servant’s debt and his inability to repay the debt, but because the servant was unwilling to show mercy despite being shown phenomenal mercy.

So what’s the lesson of this parable?  The moral of the story?

So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

This whole Gospel lesson started with Jesus teaching how we are to deal with someone – a brother or sister, someone we feel close to – who betrays us, who fails us, who falls short of what we expect or needed from them.  Jesus says we should go and talk to them and try to restore the brotherly or sisterly or neighborly relationship with them – a relationship with they broke or betrayed or denied.  They broke the relationship, but Jesus said, our response should be that we will try to fix it.  We don’t go to them to condemn and criticize them and vent our wrath.  We go to restore a relationship, to seek reconciliation.

The Apostle Peter then asked Jesus a reasonable question – how often do we need to try to reconcile with someone who betrays us, or fails us or disappoints us, or sins against us – 7 times?   Jesus replied to that saying not 7 but 70 times seven times.

But even that exaggerated number doesn’t do justice to describing the mercifulness of God.  For then Jesus tells us this parable of the unforgiving servant – a man who is so far in debt he will never ever be able to repay all that has been given to him, even if he had 3000 lifetimes to do it.

Love is not based in mathematical logic or reason.  If we focus on “reasonable” questions, we won’t choose to love as Jesus tells us to.

We do not have to pay for our sins, Christ has already done that.  The debt for our trespasses has been paid in full.  Forgiveness was given to us with a huge price paid by God, but we didn’t pay that price.  God didn’t simply cancel our debt, He paid for it in His own blood.  Unlike the king in the parable who simply cancelled the debt, zeroed it out and wrote it off as if it never existed.  Our God chooses to pay for our sins, our debt, our trespasses.   He could simply forgive us because He is so rich in mercy, yet instead He pays for it with His death on the cross!   He chooses to suffer for us.  NO cheap grace here.  No cancelling of a debt with no consequences for the debt.  God shows His absolute love and grace for us in choosing to suffer and die for us.  By His resurrection He shows the debt is cancelled and can never be reinstated no matter how much more we sin, trespass, get in debt.  This is why grace is so amazing.

God not only gives us all we need for salvation and eternal life – God pays for it.  He doesn’t give us something that doesn’t cost Him anything.  God pays with His life that we might be forgiven and enter into His Kingdom.

All God asks from us is that we forgive one another, show mercy to one another, be patient with one another, defer our anger for as long as it takes us to get over it.

When We Fail as Disciples

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful.  (Matthew 17:14-23)

It was a tough day for the Apostles.  First, they were not able to perform a miracle and heal a boy. Worse yet, the father of the boy goes and brokenheartedly reports their failure to the Lord Jesus.  Second, Jesus seemingly piles on to their woes by lamenting having to bear with them.  Third, Jesus then tells them the real bad news – He is about to be killed by these people.  Did the Apostles even fear that perhaps they contributed to people wanting to kill Jesus because they failed to heal the boy?  The crowd is turning against their Lord because they cannot do something He promised them they could do:  “These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, ‘Go . . . to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.‘”  (Matthew 10:5-8)  The Gospel lesson begins with the Apostles in dismay and ends with them being filled with sorrow.

“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Like the Apostles, we who are Christ’s disciples today may not be able to heal a child, or to do other miracles for those who come to us, but there things we can that will fulfill Christ’s commandments to us.  We don’t want people coming to Christ complaining to Him about how we fail in the most basic things.    We shouldn’t let it happen that people could come to Christ and say about us:   “Lord, I came to the members of Your parish and they didn’t minister to me.  We don’t need to worry about  “I was sick, and they didn’t heal me.”  But what about “I was sick and  they didn’t even visit me or pray for me.”  These are things we as Christ’s disciples must never fail in because they really are within our power to do.  We don’t need any miraculous powers to pray for others or visit them.

There are many other complaints people might make about us to our Lord:

I came to Your disciples and . . .

They weren’t patient with me or my child.

They weren’t merciful to me

They didn’t forgive me.

I was hungry, they didn’t feed me

I was homeless or poor and they didn’t welcome me.

I was sick or in prison and they didn’t visit me.

I was naked and they didn’t clothe me.

I was thirsty but they gave me no drink.

I was a stranger and they didn’t welcome me.

Or even

…. They gave me no peace.

They brought me no joy.

They showed me no kindness.

They did not practice self-control.

I was an addict and they fed my addiction .

I was an alcoholic and they didn’t help me stay sober.

I was addicted to porn and they sent me dirty jokes.

The Lord Jesus invites all kinds of people into His Church with all kinds of needs and imperfections:

And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”   (Mark 2:15 -17)

As Christ’s disciples, we are to minister to them in the ways that Christ commanded us, and many of those ways are not miraculous, but simple things well within our powers.

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”  (Matthew 8:16-17)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.  (1 Peter 2:24-25)