Understanding Seeds and Parables

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

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

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

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

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

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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).

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)

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)

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

“He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”  (Proverbs 17:27-28)
“Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.”  (Amos 5:13-14)

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I first head of Bishop Synesius (5th Century) in a hagiography course.  He was pointed out as a person who held some personal beliefs not in consonance with official church doctrine.  Yet, the local Christian flock held him in such honor that they demanded he accept election as their congregational bishop.  He resisted their demand, pointing out that some of his ideas were not in agreement with the church.  The flock persisted as they believed him a man of integrity despite his sometimes errant theological opinions.  He was a learned man and had a great reputation for thoughtful honesty.  As the flock continued to demand that he accept the office of bishop he told the flock that he would never teach them anything that he did not personally believe.  However, because there were some things the church held with which he disagreed, he told them he simply would not speak on these issues.  He would not teach them anything false, but he would not address some issues on which the Church had established doctrinal positions because he did not personally believe these teachings.  He was educated in Neoplatonists ideas and felt that on some issues the Neoplatonic ideas were more reasonable or stronger than church teachings and logic.  He became their bishop and because of his stated position was seen as a true witness to Christ – always and only speaking about what he believed to be true.  The people could rely on him to speak with conviction, and were not bothered by the fact that there were some beliefs of the Church which he simply didn’t teach.  He didn’t speak against them, he passed over them in silence.  Recently I noticed that Fr. Lawrence Farley mentions Synesius in one of his books.  Fr. Lawrence is not making the point I am making, but here is what he wrote:

An example of such a bishop is Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais. He was born around 370 in North Africa to a wealthy landowning family. He had a successful secular career and a proven track record in the civil service, was married, and was perhaps as much Neoplatonist as Christian. It is significant that when the people wanted to elect him for their bishop in 411, he consented, after great hesitation, on two conditions. He would cease his hobbies of hunting, sport, and time for private study, but two things he would not give up. One was his wife. He demanded that he be allowed to keep her openly and not be forced to hide her away in secret. “On the contrary,” he said, “I want many, well-bred children”—and this in a time when celibacy was increasingly encouraged. The second condition was that he not be forced to renounce his Neoplatonic philosophy. He agreed to “speak mythologically” while in public, as his episcopal duties required, but he would not say anything with which he sincerely disagreed.   (The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 952-959)

doublehelixIt is not just in the modern age that Christians have had to deal with complex ideas which are not easy to reconcile.  Synesius in the early 5th Century was committed to certain philosophical ideas, some of which he could not reconcile with his Christian faith.  He believed the philosophy had, on some issues, stronger logic than what the Church offered on their teachings.  Today, it can be philosophical ideas that trouble us but more likely it will be ideas related to science and the scientific relationship to atheistic materialism which will continue to challenge our thinking.  And certainly the ideas of post-modernism remain at odds with traditional Christian ideas on morality. And it may be that some modern Christian leaders will have to follow the lead of Synesius and simply not teach anything on some issues.  Better that our leaders speak with complete integrity and sincerity on any topic they address while remaining silent on issues with which they have no informed opinion or with which they are not convinced or even disagree with a known Church teaching.  The silence may be wisdom and preferable to them simply giving lip service to teachings with which they disagree or even feel uncomfortable with.

Ideologues often want church leaders to agree with their strong convictions and like to force leaders to have to take a stand, but that does little for the unity of the Church and may never be true Wisdom.   Better to remain silent as a form of wisdom than to speak on issues which are beyond one’s education or ability to reason and reveal one’s folly.

We can think about the Prophecy of Job and how he had to deal with long winded men who felt they rightfully spoke for God.

The Prophet Job cried out:  “Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom!  Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips.  Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him? Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God?  Will it be well with you when he searches you out? Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man?  He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality.  Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?  Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.”  (Job 13:5-12)

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God Himself rebuked the three verbose men who tried to force ideas on Job as to what God’s justice and righteousness mean.

After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.  Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”  So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer.   And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends…   (Job 42:7-10)

4440153997_fdf59bed87_nThere are endless issues over which debates rage in the modern world.  The Internet allows instant polarization on issues at the total expense of wisdom, knowledge or reason.  While we can be drawn immediately into every raging controversy on the Internet, we might remember words which St. Augustine said warning the Christians of his day not to rush into every controversy with science and philosophy:  “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines that position, we too fall with it.

 

The Gospel or a Prosperity Gospel?

Jesus taught:  “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.  But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.”  (John 15:18-21)

Biblical scholar Morna D. Hooker comments:

“Contrast with this the promise of one of the [TV] evangelists who is well known to those who are familiar with the North American phenomenon known as “electronic religion”, who every week assures his audience on television and radio: “Something good is going to happen to you today – spiritually, physically, financially.’ It is fairly  easy to see that something is wrong with this message, for what have promises of financial success to do with the Christian gospel? Why should Christians expect material benefit from the gospel? Such promises of physical and financial benefit are crude appeals to self-interest; religion is being sold to viewers as a way to success. Religious men and women will do well because God will reward them. What sort of a gospel is this? Christ died – and I am cured from my cancer. He became poor – and my bank balance gets steadily healthier. He was hung up on a gibbet – and I am a great success.

Now of course this is a travesty of religion – so much so, that we find ourselves amazed that anyone is taken in by it. But perhaps the travesty is only an extreme example of an attitude which is much more marketed in this way, then the Church has totally succumbed to the values of the outside world. Religion is being sold like any other commodity, and the vital question is “What do I get out of it?” But what sort of values should Christians be maintaining – in a world which esteems self-reliance and applauds success? What sort of values should they be maintaining in a world where millions have no hope of being self-reliant or successful?

Christians are no more likely than anyone else to find the solution to problems of inflation and unemployment, injustice and famine. What they can do is to show the relevance of the Christian gospel to all those problems. When the world is divided between rich and poor, prosperous and starving, those with jobs and those without, strong and weak, where should Christians be found? Looking for something good to happen to them, spiritually, physically and financially – or concerned about the welfare of others? Maintaining the rights of the strong, or standing up for the weak? Enjoying the success that has come to them through their own efforts or through good fortune – or identifying with those who have no hope of ever experiencing anything good? (From Adam to Christ, pp. 68-69)

There are many ways we can help victims of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes as well as provide support for future needs of people.  Many organizations do wonderful charitable work to help victims of disasters.  We can help others by donating to  International Orthodox Christian Charities.

The Intercessions of the Theotokos

“The Mother of God, who is also the Mother of all humankind, pleads at the tribunal for universal mercy, not for the forgiveness of sins (which is impossible, for sins must be completely expiated and suffered through) but for mercifulness to sinners. The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind, that is, of the Church which abides for ages of ages in its sobornost as one, holy, and universal. In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of its parts – hell – but sorrows over this part.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 193-194)

According to Fr. Sergius, the Theotokos intercedes for us all – pleads that God will be merciful to all of us.  She does not ask God to forgive sins, but rather that the God of justice will show as much mercy, leniency and compassion as is possible to everyone who lived on earth.  She does not ask God completely to lay aside judgment, but rather to behave according to His nature – God is love.  If it is necessary that God corrects us or punishes us, may God do it in His love and His mercy, not to destroy us but to bring us to holiness.

Fr. Sergius’ imagery is most interesting, for he doesn’t envision the saints in heaven being self-satisfied as they leer down on sinners in hell.  The saints aren’t rejoicing in the punishment of sinners but rather the saints of God surround hell with their prayers and love.  Saints do not rejoice that any of humanity is punished in hell.  Saints do not rejoice that humanity can be divided between those in heaven and those in hell, but rather those in heaven continue to extend love to their fellow humans by joining the Theotokos in beseeching God: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy!