Telling the Secrets of the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Sower of Seeds

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

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

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

 

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

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

The second kind have

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

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

Learning Even from Those Who are Least

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

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

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

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

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

Sin: Consenting to Temptation

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Many wonder what it is they should confess when they come to the sacrament of repentance.  Some are not clear about the difference between a sin and a mistake, or between sin and bad judgment.  The monk Evagrius Ponticus writing in the 4th Century gives us some clarification.  Many “warped” thoughts can run through our minds, some of them disgusting, some persistent and pernicious, some of them tempting.  Evagrius notes that we don’t always have control over what thoughts enter into our heads, or how we react to various stimuli from the world around us.  What we have control over is how we deal with those thoughts.  It is only the things that we can control that can actually turn into sin.  When we know something is wrong and do it, we are committing sin.  Thoughts and feelings in and of themselves are not necessarily sinful even though we might recognize them as being bad.  We may have no control over them. Our control begins with what we decide to do about the thoughts or feelings that enter into our minds.

Whether or not all these thoughts disturb the soul does not depend upon us. However, whether they linger or do not linger, arouse our passions or not, that depends on us.  What turns these “thoughts” into passions and then into sins is the voluntary consent of the human being, who gives way to evil within himself. Temptation in a monk is a thought that arises through the passionate part of the soul (that is, anger and desire) and darkens the intellect.  A sin for a monk is the [free] consent [of the will] to the forbidden pleasure of the thought. . .

In order to prevent consent we need the virtues, and, to be precise, above all we need these two, which keep a tight rein on the passionate part of the soul: love as a bridle for anger, and self-control as a rein on desire.  If both of these rule in the soul, the sensory impressions will not trigger the passions.  (Gabriel Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, Kindle Loc. 748-58, 765-68)

In confession we admit to those things we chose to do which we know are wrong, even if we feel we had little choice but to act in a particular way in a given situation.  Sin lies in knowing that one is doing is wrong or evil, but doing it anyway.  The cure for the soul, what we need to cultivate as a result of going to confession, according to Evagrius is love and self-control.  Fasting, self-denial, asceticism can be a way to learn self-control.  But that is not enough to follow Christ.  To be a Christian is to learn and study the Lord Jesus Christ’s love for us, and then to imitate Him.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

A Christian Understanding of Death

Only through and in the human person will the whole world come into a relationship with God.

The fall of humanity alienated the whole creation from God. It destroyed the cosmic harmony. Through the Fall, humanity became subject to the course of nature. This ought not to have happened. In the life of animals death is an expression of the power of procreation rather than of frailty. Through the fall of humanity, death also receives in nature an evil and tragic meaning. To the animal’s death means only the end of individual existence. Among humans death strikes at the personality; and personality is something more than mere individuality. The body is dissolved and subject to death because of sin. But the whole human person dies. The human person is composed of body and soul; therefore, the separation of body and soul means that the human person ceases to exist as a human person. The image of God fades. Death reveals that the human person, this creature made by God, is not only a body…The fear of death is only averted through the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

Death does not only mean that sin is revealed; it is also an anticipation of resurrection. God does not only punish fallen human nature by death, but also purifies and heals it.

The death on the Cross was not efficacious because it was the death of an innocent man, but because it was the death of the incarnated Lord. It was not a human being who died on the cross but God. But God died in His own humanity. He was Himself the resurrection and the life.  (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, pp. 145-146, 148-149)

A Separation of Church and State

The state is, to be sure, wholly  of “this world.” It belongs to the level of the reality which in the light of the Kingdom “fades away.” This does not mean, however, that it is either evil or neutral, an enemy to be fought or an entity to be ignored for the sake of “spiritual values.” On the contrary, it is precisely the experience of the Kingdom that for Christians gives the state its real meaning and value. The fall consisted primarily in the disconnection of “this world” from God and in its acquiring therefore a pseudo-meaning and a pseudo-value which is the very essence of the demonic, the Devil being “the liar and the father of lies.” To redeem the world, or anything in the world, is then to place it in the perspective of the Kingdom of God as its end and ultimate term of reference, to make it transparent to the Kingdom as its sign, means and “instrument.”

…The essence of all that exists is good, for it is God’s creation. It is only its divorce from God and its transformation into an idol, i.e. an “end in itself,” that makes anything in this world evil and demonic. Thus, as everything else in “this world,” the state may be under the power of “the prince of this world.” It may become a vehicle of demonic lies and distortions, yet, as everything else, by “accepting” the Kingdom of God as its ultimate value or “eschaton,” it may fulfill a positive function. As an integral part of “this world,” it exists under the sign of the end and will not “inherit the Kingdom of God.” But its positive and indeed “Christian” function lies in this very recognition of its limit, in this very refusal to be an “end in itself,” an absolute value, an idol, in its subordination, in short, to the only absolute value, that of God’s Kingdom.

It is well known that from a purely legal point of view the crime for which Christians were condemned and denied the right to exists (“non licet vos esse”) was their refusal to honor the emperor with the title of Kyrios, Lord. They did not denounce, reject or fight any other “defect” of the Roman Empire be it, to use our modern “fixations,” injustice (slavery), colonialism (the regime of imperial versus the senatorial provinces), or imperialism (expansion at the expense of other states and nations). Yet what they denounced and fought by denying the emperor the divine title of Kyrios implied in fact much more than all this, for it challenged once and for all the self-proclaimed divinity of the state, its claim to be an absolute value, a divine “end in itself.” And it implied therefore not only a negation, but also an affirmation. (Alexander Schmemman, Church World Mission, pp. 30-32)

The Cheerful Giver is the Righteous Human

24319325696_77e0508aea_nIn the Epistle lesson of 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, St. Paul describes the generous giver, which turns out to be for him identical with a truly righteous person.   His words are something for all believers to consider, for often Christians think of the righteous person as an upright person who avoids sinning and chooses a virtuous way of life.  St. Paul reminds everyone that to truly be righteous one needs to know how to be charitable, generous and cheerful about the giving.  St. Paul’s words are to a large extent him quoting, paraphrasing and/or echoing Old Testament texts.  It is in the Scripture he uses that we really see how St. Paul is describing that the righteous person is a generous person.  Below are St. Paul’s words with the Old Testament texts interspersed to who what he had in mind:

But this I say: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.

Proverbs 22:8-9 in the Septuagint reads:
God blesses a cheerful and generous man . . . He who has compassion over the poor will himself be nourished, because he gave his own food to the poor.

And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.

While God is able to make all grace abound, St. Paul quotes a text (Psalm 112) that refers not to God but to the righteous person:

Praise the LORD. Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments! His descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in his house; and his righteousness endures for ever. Light rises in the darkness for the upright; the LORD is gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with the man who deals generously and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered for ever. He is not afraid of evil tidings; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady, he will not be afraid, until he sees his desire on his adversaries. He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever; his horn is exalted in honor. The wicked man sees it and is angry; he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked man comes to nought.

The Lord is gracious, merciful and righteous, but the righteous person is the one who “deals generously and lends“, who gives freely to the poor and needy.  The righteous is not just interested in avoiding sin, the truly righteous is like God in being generous, kind and merciful.  The righteous person isn’t the one who gnashes his teeth when thinking about sinners, but rather is benevolent and hospitable to those who lack clothing, food, or who are homeless or exiles or strangers or refugees.  It is the person who gives to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, not the person who judges sinners.

mercytoChrist

Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness,

The Prophet Isaiah proclaims (55:6-12) :

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Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

God is abundantly merciful and forgiving – God’s mercy are the seeds Go plants in us to accomplish God’s own will.  God’s Word, in Orthodoxy that surely means Jesus Christ, comes into our lives to change us into the human beings God wishes us to be.  Christ tells us to love others as He has loved us.  We are not just to hold onto Christ’s teachings to purify ourselves, we are to bring forth the fruits of repentance, to be able to offer back to God an abundant harvest through our imitation of Christ’s love and mercy.

while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.

Proverbs 11:24-28 offers us this wisdom:
One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.  A liberal man will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered. The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it. He who diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to him who searches for it. He who trusts in his riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.

Those who are generous, charitable, hospitable, benevolent, merciful and kind are the very people who are rich in God and will receive the Lord’s blessings – becoming enriched by God.  Not gathering in more possessions, but being blessed in giving all the more.

34358292054_143cd83080_nAnd Jesus said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:15-21)

Being Orthodox Means Having a Relationship With God

The Orthodox Church is not primarily an institution. Orthodox Christianity is not a series of rules to live by, nor is it a particular structure of church government. Orthodoxy is not a theological system, nor is its fullest expression limited to any particular period of history or cultural environment.

Orthodoxy is nothing less than a relationship with God. Orthodoxy is the expression of the way God interacts with His people. In other words, Orthodoxy is the way God relates to the Church as the Body of Christ, the way He relates to each individual within it, and conversely, a way by which people may interact and interrelate with God.

Orthodoxy begins at or before birth, and it does so as an impersonal relationship between a Creator and His creature. However, when the person participates in the Mystery of Holy Baptism, that relationship enters a new dimension: it becomes personal. In a personal relationship, each person has a name and is recognized when called by that name. Jesus talks about this when He says that He, the shepherd, calls His sheep by name, and they recognize His voice. In the Mystery of Baptism, just as the person dies and rises again in the water, God’s name is revealed, but so too is the name of the person being baptized. God now has a way of getting our attention: He can call us by name.  (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Bread, Wine & Oil, pp. 29-31)

For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls . . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord. (Petitions from the Divine Liturgy)

St. Tikhon, the Enlightener of North America comments:

Therefore the angels at His very birth already sing “on earth peace, good will toward men.” But perhaps you might ask — where is peace on earth, since from the coming of Christ until this day we see conflicts and wars; when at the present time one nation rises against another and one kingdom against another; when even now discord, hostility, and animosity are seen so often among people?

Where are we to look for peace, which was brought and left by Christ (cf. John 14:27)? “It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains”; “all nations will stream toward it” “and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” “and they will not train for war again” (Is. 2:2, 4); “every man shall sit under his own vine undisturbed” (Mic. 4:4). This kingdom of peace on earth, which was foretold by the Prophets of the Old Testament, is indeed the Church of Christ; and it is in it [the Church] that peace should be sought. Here man is given peace with God, since in the mysteries he is purified from sin and becomes a child of the Lord, pleasant to Him. Here also in the services offered to God, in the mysteries, in the order and life of the Church, a Christian draws peace and delight and calmness for his heart.

The nature of man is transformed and renewed, and into his meek, gentle, truly humble, merciful, and loving soul comes the God of peace and love. And a Christian then experiences the heavenly bliss of which there is nothing higher on earth. No troubles or sufferings of any kind can overshadow this blissful peace in a Christian. On the contrary, we know from the history of the Church of Christ that holy men even rejoiced in suffering and boasted in sorrows, captivity and prisons, deserts and dens of the wicked. Amidst all deprivations they were placid and calm, perhaps more so than people who live with all the comforts and prosperity ever feel. They are not afraid of death itself; they calmly expect its approach and depart to the Lord in peace. Peace is dispersed everywhere in the Church of Christ.

Here people pray for peace in the whole world, for the unity of all; here all call one another brethren, and help one another; here everybody is loved, and even enemies are forgiven and cared for. And when Christians listen to the voice of the Church and live according to its commands, then they truly have peace and love.  (St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 453-471)

What Communion Has Light with Darkness?

For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? . . .  And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”  (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)

Coptic Pope Shenouda III  offers thoughts on what repentance really is:

If sin is separation from God, then repentance is returning to God. God says: “Return to me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:8). When the prodigal son repented, he returned to his father (Luke 15:18-20). True repentance is a human longing for the origin from which we were taken. It is the desire of a heart that strayed from God, and finally felt it could go no further away.

For just as sin is conflict with God, so repentance is reconciliation with God. This is what our teacher Saint Paul stated about his apostolic work, saying: “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading by us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). But repentance is not confined to reconciliation. Through repentance, God returns and dwells in the human heart, transforming it into a heaven. As for the unrepentant, how can God dwell in their hearts while the sin is dwelling therein? As the Bible says, “What communion has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

…Repentance is resurrection for the spirit, because the death of the spirit is separation from God. As Saint Augustine said: “Repentance is a new pure heart, which God gives to the sinners to love Him with.” It is a divine act performed by God inside the person…

…Not every forsaking of sin is considered repentance. Repentance is the forsaking of sin because of the love of God and the love of righteousness. Other reasons for forsaking sin include fear, embarrassment, inability, preoccupation (with the remainder of love for this sin in the heart), or the consequences of unsuitable situations. These reason are not considered repentance. True repentance is the discarding of sin practically, mentally, and from the heart, which springs out of love for God, His commandments, and His kingdom, and the care of the repentant person for his or her lot in eternity. (The Life of Repentance and Purity, pp. 17-18)