Charity vs Coveting

“In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”   (Acts 20:35)

As we move through the Nativity Fast, or as it is better known in America, the Christmas shopping season, it is good to remind ourselves of our Christian faith, for in fact the season is supposed to be preparation for our Christian celebration of the birth of our Lord, God and Savior.  As advertisements bombard us with images of what we should want, request, desire, feel we can’t live without, or get in order to be one up on our neighbor, we can remind ourselves that coveting and greed are sins that don’t lead us to God.  St Gregory Palamas writing in the 14th Century reminds us:

You shall not covet anything belonging to your neighbor’ (cf. Exod 20:17), neither his land, nor his money, nor his glory, nor anything that is his. For covetousness, conceived in the soul, produces sin; and sin, when committed, results in death (cf. Jas. 1:15). Refrain, then, from coveting what belongs to others and, so far as you can, avoid filching things out of greediness. Rather you should give from what you possess to whoever asks of you, and you should, as much as you can, be charitable to whoever is in need of charity, and you should not refuse whoever wants to borrow from you (cf. Matt. 5:42).

Should you find some lost article, you should keep it for its owner, even though he is hostilely disposed towards you; for in this way you will change him and will overcome evil with good, as Christ commands (cf. Rom. 12:21). If you observe these things with all your strength and live in accordance with them, you will store up in your soul the treasures of holiness, you will please God, you will be rewarded by God and by those who are godly, and you will inherit eternal blessings. May we all receive such blessings through the grace and compassion of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom with His unoriginate Father and the all-holy, bountiful and life-quickening Spirit are due all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and through all the ages. Amen.     (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 46520-46535)

Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:30-36)

 

Double Vision: God and Human

St. Ephraim the Syrian, poetically captures the mystery of the incarnation of God which we celebrate at Christmas.  Look at Christ, then look again.  We can see Him as both God and human, but also as either God or human.  It is, as I’ve noted before for me as a photographer – I can pay attention to the big picture, the landscape, only at the expense of the smaller details.  My lens widens my view.  Or, I can use the macro-lens and focus on the detail, but only at the expense of losing sight of the big picture.  My lens through which I see the world won’t let me view fully both at the same time.  Both views can be beautiful and worth capturing in pictures, but I need to switch between lenses and so can only really view one at a time.  My mind knows both views exist and appreciates both, but isn’t able to picture both simultaneously.

St Ephrem lyrically expresses the theology of Christ:

We come to see You as God,

and, lo! You are a human:

we come to see You as human,

and there shines forth the Light of Your Godhead!

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3039-40)

The mystery of the incarnation is that we see the God-man Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human.  It is also true though that in most encounters with Christ people tend to focus on His divinity or His humanity.  We do this not because we can’t accept the truth but because the truth is beyond comprehension.  If we know the theology of Christ, we can only marvel at how it is possible for Jesus to be both God and human.  The mystery and marvel of who Jesus caused many to wonder whether His mother gave to birth to God or to a man.  Holding the truth together was the constant challenge in early Christian theology.  God in the flesh – God becomes that which is not God.  God able to do what seems impossible.

Keeping All the Commandments

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'”

And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. Jesus looking at him said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”  (Luke 18:18-27)

St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) comments:

Again, to the rich young man He said ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and come and follow Me’ (Matt. 19:21). It is with reference to this incident that St Basil the Great observes that the young man lied when he said that he had kept the commandments; for if he had kept them, he would not have acquired many possessions, since the first commandment in the Law is, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul’ (Deut. 6:5). The word ‘all’ forbids him who loves God to love anything else to such an extent that it would make him sad were it to be taken away. After this the Law says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18), that is, ’you shall love every man’.

But how can he have kept this commandment if, when many other men lacked daily nourishment, he had many possessions and was passionately attached to them? If, like Abraham, Job and other righteous men, he had regarded those possessions as the property of God, he would not have gone away sorrowing. St John Chrysostom says the same thing: the young man believed that what was said to him by the Lord was true, and this was why he went away full of sorrow, for he had not the strength to carry it into effect. For there are many who believe the sayings of the Scriptures, but have not the strength to fulfill what is written.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc 29316-39)

The Sabbath Rest


Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.  (Luke 13:10-17)

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright comments on how ‘the Law’ could be misunderstood or misapplied in life.  Torah was not meant to oppose ritualistic law to virtues – compassion, mercy, love.  One however could find oneself in the troubling position of having to choose to help someone (show mercy) on the Sabbath but the very thing you need to do would violate the Law of Sabbath rest, and would be so interpreted by some Jewish leaders.  Mercy should win out in such cases.  This is what Jesus taught – there is no conflict with the Sabbath rest if someone needs your mercy.  Mercy is not opposed to rest for it gives rest to the one in need.  Wright comments:

Within this, a major theme emerges in which the sabbath principle and command find a new focus, though with echoes of the Deuteronomy principle (sabbath as liberation for the slaves). The sabbath becomes the sign of God’s justice and care for the poor, and even for slaves and animals. Thus, in Exodus 23:11, the sabbath is the chance for the poor to rest; this includes slaves and animals too. This principle blossoms, importantly, into a theme which looks quite different to begin with but actually belongs very closely with the sabbath: the Jubilee.   (Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, Kindle Loc 2108-12)

The Sabbath was given as a day of rest for all including slaves and animals from their labors, troubles, burdens.  This is the principle to which Jesus appeals in the synagogue:  You are supposed to give rest to slaves and animals on the Sabbath, does not this apply to relieving any human in need as well?   In Luke 13:10-17, Jesus is being very specific about one person: does not this woman, a faithful Israelite, deserve rest from her burden on the Sabbath as well?  If my action of mercy gives her rest from her burden on the Sabbath, is not my action righteous?

 “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your bondmaid, and the alien, may be refreshed.”  (Exodus 23:12)

Healing on the Sabbath thus fulfills the law not violate it according to Jesus.  Note in Luke 13:10-17 the way the ruler of the synagogue words his criticism – he aims it at the woman (“come on those days and be healed) not at Jesus the Healer.  He blames her for violating the Sabbath not Jesus.  He criticizes the one who now has rest, not the one who has given her rest.  Maybe he felt he could not criticize someone who had just performed a healing miracle in the synagogue.  Or maybe it was just a misogynistic comment and had nothing to do with miracles at all.  In any case, Jesus not only heals the woman but defends her as a daughter of Abraham.  She is not just some foolish or troublesome woman, she is part of the chosen ones of God!  The people in the synagogue should be honoring her, not criticizing her.  Jesus will not accept a “good ol’ boy” comment from the synagogue ruler.  He rebukes the patriarchal paternalism of religious leadership.

Furthermore, we can see in Mark 1:23, a demon possessed man is in the synagogue – for all we criticize the Pharisees, we can see that they had sinners in their assemblies.  Even the demon possessed came into the synagogues where Jesus is.  We should think about that in terms of our Sunday Liturgies.  Do we exclude sinners from coming to Christ for healing?  Which assembly is Christ most likely to attend – the one with demoniacs, sinners and the sick, or the one which excludes such people from their assembly?

St. Mark the Ascetic offers an interpretation of the Sabbath commandment which moves away from a literal understanding of it.  For St Mark the six days of work simply means to do works of kindness, charity and mercy – that is the normal labor of Christians in our daily lives.  A Sabbath rest from such work comes when you follow the command of Christ to give all your possessions away to follow Christ.  Only then are you no longer obligated to do works of charity since you now own nothing and have nothing to give away.

The Law figuratively commands men to work for six days and on the seventh to rest (cf. Exod. 20:9-10). The term ‘work’ when applied to the soul signifies acts of kindness and generosity by means of our possessions – that is, through material things. But the soul’s rest and repose is to sell everything and ‘give to the poor’ (Matt. 19:21), as Christ Himself said; so through its lack of possessions it will rest from its work and devote itself to spiritual hope. Such is the rest into which Paul also exhorts us to enter, saying: ‘Let us strive therefore to enter into that rest‘ (Heb. 4:11).   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 3886-94)

Apparently for St Mark it is those of us who aren’t in monasteries who are obliged to fulfill the Gospel commandments to love, give in charity, show mercy, kindness, compassion and care for the poor and needy.  Those who enter the monastic life can rest from those labors as they have given everything away – they can then devote themselves to prayer and fasting.  Those of us committed to the married life and to our families have the additional obligation, responsibility and work of caring for the poor and needy.  It is through acts of charity, almsgiving, mercy, kindness and  generosity that we follow Christ and live as the holy ones of God.

As St. John Cassian notes:

And fasting, as beneficial and necessary as it may be, is nonetheless a gift that is voluntarily offered, whereas the requirements of the commandment demand that the work of love be carried out. And so I welcome Christ in you and must refresh him.” (The Institutes, pp 132-133)

For St. John Cassian fasting is a voluntary labor, but hospitality is commanded by Christ in the Gospels.  Not everyone can fast but everyone can be merciful.  St Gregory the Great says:

My friends, love hospitality, love the works of mercy. Paul said: Let the love of the brotherhood remain, and do not forget hospitality; it was by this that some have been made acceptable, having entertained angels hospitably; and Peter told us to be hospitable to one another, without complaints; and Truth himself said: I needed hospitality, and you welcomed me. And yet often we feel no inclination to offer the gift of hospitality. But consider, my friends, how great this virtue of hospitality is! Receive Christ at your tables, so that he will receive you at the eternal banquet. Offer hospitality now to Christ the stranger, so that at the judgement you will not be a stranger but he will accept you into his kingdom as one he knows.” (Be Friends of God, pp 62-64)

The Son of God Became the Son of David

St. Irenaeus (d. 202AD) wrote a great deal about salvation and from him we can understand just how theologically minded they were in the early Church.  We also see how early in Christian history he writes for when Irenaeus says “the fathers,” he still means the Jewish Patriarchs of the Old Testament, not the church fathers.  Irenaeus himself is destined to become one of the church fathers quoted frequently by future generations of Orthodox theologians. But in the nascent church when they spoke of the scriptures they might still mean what we today call the Old Testament.

Writing about Jesus, he says:

Thus then He gloriously achieved our redemption, and fulfilled the promise of the fathers, and abolished the old disobedience. The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death.   But God the Father was very merciful: He sent His creative Word, who in coming to deliver us came to the very place and spot in which we had lost life, and brake the bonds of our fetters.

And His light appeared and made the darkness of the prison disappear, and hallowed our birth and destroyed death, loosing those same fetters in which we were enchained. And He manifested the resurrection, Himself becoming the first-begotten of the dead, and in Himself raising up man that was fallen, lifting him up far above the heaven to the right hand of the glory of the Father: even as God promised.  (The Proof of The Apostolic Preaching, Kindle Loc 616-24)

For St Irenaeus there are two births of Christ.  First He, the timeless and pre-eternal Word of God, is born of the Virgin as Son of David, a human yet God, in the flesh.  Second Jesus becomes the first born of the dead in His resurrection. Christ does this in order to give us a new birth as well.  We too are born in the flesh but also because of the flesh we are mortal and die.  In being united to Christ in baptism we are born again.  Christ thus both redeems our first birth in the flesh and gives us the new birth to eternal life.  Just as Christ has two births and sanctifies them both, so He as our Creator has given us two births, the first into this world and the second into eternal life in the world to come.

The Blessedness of Mary

Jesus replied:  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  (Matthew 12:48-50)

The great Orthodox poet and hymnographer St. Ephraim the Syrian in one of his beautiful poems has the Virgin Mother talking to her child, Jesus about jealousy.  Mary is often aware in Orthodox hymns of the theology of her child – she understands Him to be the incarnate God and Lord of the universe.  Knowing Him to be Lord of all, is she jealous that everyone has a relationship to Him, not just her?   Does she regret that she will always have to share His love, attention and affection with every single human on the planet – and so will she?  Mary shows her humanity in reflecting on the passion of jealousy, but also how she rises above human passion, pathos, sin and hubris – which is why she was chosen by God to be Theotokos.  She rises above the limits of her own humanity to share in the common humanity of all people.  Her role in human history is unique, yet it is what connects her to all humans who will ever live.  God could see her love for all which reflects God’s own love for the world.

I shall not be jealous, my Son,

that You are with me, and also with all people. 

Be God to the one that confesses You,

and be Lord to the one that serves You,

and be Brother to the one that loves You,

that You may gain all!  

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3100-3102)

The hymns reflect an idea that Mary is Jesus’ mother not just because she physically gave birth to Him, but because she embodied God’s love for all humanity.  God chooses Mary not for her body but because of her soul and heart.  It is not only her womb which was heaven and able to contain the uncontainable.  Jesus Himself reflects this thought in response to something a woman once shouted at Him.

A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  (Luke 11:27-28)

Image result for icon Theotokos nursing

Jesus recognizes in His Mother that is her having heard God’s word and kept it when enabled her to be Theotokos.  Her role in salvation is both physical and spiritual – she indeed is a bridge between these worlds.  As is sung in the Akathist to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, initiate of ineffable counsel;
Rejoice, faith of silent beseechers.
Rejoice, introduction to Christ’s miracles;
Rejoice, consummation of his doctrinal articles.
Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
Rejoice, bridge leading those from earth to I heaven.

Rejoice, marvel greatly renowned among the Angels;
Rejoice, wound bitterly lamented by demons.
Rejoice, for you gave birth to the light ineffably;
Rejoice, for the “how” you taught to no one.
Rejoice, surpassing the knowledge of scholars;
Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of believers.
Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.

Basil the Great: Reading Scripture and Creation

Image 1…in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or “cultic” act, but the very way of life. …All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens”, “homo faber”…yes, but first of all, “homo adorans”. The first and basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands at the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God…”  (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For The Life of the World)

Fr Schmemann saw the human as basically a worshiping creature.   Yes, we are ingenious at fabricating things, we are sentient and capable of wisdom.  But for Schmemann the human was created by God to be a priest, to worship  the Lord and that is partially what we lost when we humans decided we don’t need God to know our universe.  As soon as we desired to approach the cosmos in a role other than as priest in service of God, when we stopped seeing creation as a means to our maintaining our relationship with God, we lost our unique role as humans in the cosmos and lost our communion with our Creator.

St. Basil the Great saw humans as  ‘homo legitur‘ – the literary beings – the ones, as theologian Stephen M. Hildebrand notes in his biography of the Saint, created by God to be able to read not only the scriptures but the cosmos itself.  Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes this ability to read is what sets humans apart as a species: “Our ability to understand the universe and our position in it is one of the glories of the human species.  Our ability to link mind to mind by language, and especially to transmit our thoughts across the centuries is another.  Science and literature, then, are the two achievements of Homo sapiens that most convincingly justify the specific name” (THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 3).  Modern science agrees with St Basil that we are gifted to read.  However, a difference between modern science and St Basil would be that Basil believed God gave us two sets of scripture – the Bible and creation, both written to reveal God to  us.  We need to learn to read both while modern science only wants to focus on the empirical cosmos which it does not see as revealing divinity to us.   Hildebrand writes:

Basil sees man as a reader, but a reader must have a text. Man’s texts, for Basil, are principally two, the Scriptures and the whole of creation, including the human body. The author of man’s two books is God himself. One important implication here is that both the Scriptures and creation, being texts, are full of meaning and significance. The posture that the French poet Paul Claudel took before reality expresses well St. Basil’s too. Claudel in front of a piece of reality—a flower, a mountain, a woman—always felt the need to ask, “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?”‘  We might typically translate this as ‘What does it mean?’ but literally it is rendered ‘What does it want to say?’ For Basil, the Scriptures and the world want to say something, or God wants to say something through them.

So man is the reader, and creation and the Scriptures are the texts, the books. Basil tells his flock, ‘This whole world is as it were a book that proclaims the glory of God, announcing through itself the hidden and invisible greatness of God to you who have a mind for the apprehension of truth‘ (Hex. 11.4; 51).  The text, whether creation, the Scriptures, or the human body, calls for a response from the reader.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc 657-667)

Basil believed the cosmos, creation, including the human body were a text to be read by humans to understand what God has done, is doing, is going to do.  In every sense of the word, Basil looked beyond the literal to find the meaning and for him the meaning always had to do with discovering the Creator through God’s activity in the cosmos.  “Glory to You [O Lord] spreading out before me heaven and earth, like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom” (from the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”).

I would suggest that St Basil would have been impressed with exactly how much modern science and technology has been able to read from the text of creation including the human body.   Just think about all the things we read in drawing blood samples from people or through pathology, chemical analysis, and especially now through DNA which is literally a language that has been recording all that God has been doing in and through humans for as long as humanity has been on the planet and even in the millions of years before that.  “In the beginning was the word.  The word was not DNA.  That came afterwards, when life was already established … But DNA contains a record of the word, faithfully transmitted through all subsequent aeons to the astonishing present”  (Matt Ridley quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 40).

Just think about ways we read creation today:  paleontology, archaeology, radio waves, molecular structures, laws of physics,  history, anthropology, biological evolution, quantum mechanics, chemical structures and signatures, mathematical equations, binary code,  the remnants of the Big Bang, just to name a few.  Creation has been recording all that God is doing from the beginning, and we are just beginning to learn to read the text which is the cosmos and to understand God’s creation and God’s activity from the beginning of the universe.  God has His hand in creating the cosmos and that cosmos is the record of what God was and is writing.  God’s narrative is God’s creation just as Scripture is – God’s word for those who could read to comprehend what God is willing to reveal.

We can read today so much more from the cosmos and about creation than St Basil ever imagined was possible (as well as countless things he couldn’t imagine at all).  As we sing in the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”: “The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!

Of course, just like in scriptural interpretation there is the danger of reading what we believe into the text rather than seeing what the text reveals.  Eisegesis instead of exegesis is a risk for scientists as it is for biblical scholars.

We are the creatures who have learned not only to read, but also to write, to create literature.  This is part of what Dawkins says sets humans apart.  But in creating  literature, we also are not only using our reading skills, we are participating in creation and in the creative process.  Chemist Peter Atkins who says all creation is moving toward chaos and collapse notes that literature, as well as music and architecture really are ways in which we slow down nature’s slide into chaos.  “The emergence of consciousness, like the unfolding of a leaf, relies upon restraint.  Richness, the richness of the perceived world and the richness  of the imagined worlds of literature and art – the human spirit- is the consequence of controlled, not precipitate, collapse”  (quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 16).

The Genesis creation account has God working against chaos, against entropy, to create [Greek: Poetry] order and bring life into existence.  This is a miracle in the midst of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.   Humans have an ability as God does to bring restraint to the universal move toward entropy.  Our ability to read and write are part of our creative abilities which put restraint, even if only temporarily on the slide to chaos.  God as the original writer or poet of creation gives to us what we can read – God brings restraint to entropy.  We humans can share in that creativity by exhibiting restraint!  And when we are truly creative, we put restraint on entropy as Atkins noted.  ‘Art’ that yields chaos is simply doing what the cosmos does naturally -move toward entropy which in the end is not art at all.  True human genius is restraining to entropy and controlled.

The second law of thermodynamics

Hildebrand continues:

“As Basil says about Genesis 1:26, ‘We have, on the one hand, you see, what looks, in its form, like a story, but is, on the other hand, at the level of power, a theology’ (Hex. 10.4).  God, then, is not concerned merely to communicate so much information, even useful information, about himself or about us. The Scriptures are not just informative, but, if you will, performative, and here the action that God wishes us to perform is the worship of him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a reader, man is constantly called to relate to God and to his own salvation what he finds in the two great books, Scripture and creation, that have been given to him. This is why Basil is never interested in mere history or mere observation.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc  673-678)

Science will only be interested in the informative part of creation, but believers are called to the performative part – knowing the truth, how are we to behave?  This is where St Basil is not so much interested in history or the ‘facts’ as he is in what does it mean, especially in our understanding of God and God’s will.   Basil sees Genesis as story but as a narrative with a message: the revelation of God also known as theology.  It is the message which we ultimately want to know.  To turn Genesis into science or facts or to reduce it to history is to look at creation through the eyes of science rather than the eyes of faith.  Scripture is to open the eyes of our heart to the depths of meaning which God is revealing to us.  The study of creation can have the same purpose which is why Christians should pay attention to nature and science as St Basil recommended.

A Temptation of Wealth

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And Jesus 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 12:16-21)

The error of the rich fool in Christ’s parable is easy to see.  He assumed life would go on as it is forever.  He forgot he lived in a world defined by change.  And that change includes the fact that we are mortal beings – each life is bound by a beginning and an end.  His great plan came to nothing as his life ended.  There is a lesson to learn: how not to have one’s life end in nothing.  Life will end, we will die, but that doesn’t have to equate with life meaning nothing in the end.  We can live in a way that others will regret when we die, but even that is minor. To live so that in the end nothing is the only thing left might be good in Buddhism, but in Christianity there is a full life in the world to come.  We don’t want to end in nothing but rather in abundant life found in God.   [see also my post Sins and Debts.]

We of course seeing the rich fool’s error might decide that we can avoid his mistake, we can plan to win the lottery and give a sizable portion to charity, not just store up the winnings for our ease.  There is folly in this as well as St John Climacus pointed out.  Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou writes:

Yet St. John of the Ladder warns us that even the idea of charity—the desire to have plenty in order to give to others—can be little more than an excuse for avarice:

Do not say you are interested in money for the sake of the poor, for two mites were sufficient to purchase the kingdom (cf. Luke 21:2). . . .

The pretext of almsgiving is the beginning of avarice, and the finish is detestation of the poor. The collector is stirred by charity, but, when the money is in, the grip tightens. The demon of avarice fights hard against those who have nothing. When it fails to overcome them, it begins to tell them about the wretched conditions of the poor, thereby inducing those in the religious life to become concerned once more with material things.    (Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle 1343-49)

One might be the rare person who would give all their lottery winnings to charity.  But then we might turn out to be like the rich young man who according to Mark 10:21-22 Jesus loved yet despite this who walked away from Jesus when the Lord told to give his wealth away in charity.  “And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”   We might start off believing we wanted the wealth to help others, but how long before we decid to keep back just some for ourselves?  We might read again the Acts 5 account of Ananias and Sapphira.   Money as they saw is a good servant but a bad master.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.”   (Hebrews 13:5)

Faith as Synergy

 

The saints frequently describe the life of faith as a synergy between the human and God.  Each has their part to do which is part of the mystery of faith in an omnipotent God who grants free will to His creatures.  God does not do for us what we must choose to do for ourselves.  God warned Noah about the flood but did not build him the ark.  On the other side of that, we need so many things from God which we constantly seek, such as God’s mercy.  Our best efforts will fall short if we don’t connect with God.   I think the Virgin Mary expresses it well in her hymn in Luke 1:46-50 where though she is fulfilling the heights of being human she recognizes this is God’s wish and will for the world and not just for her life.  If there is no “God with us” our greatest miracles will be no more than a temporary delay of the universal decline into entropy.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”

This cooperation between the Creator and human creatures is readily found in Orthodox spiritual writings.

St John Chrysostom says: ‘A man’s readiness and commitment are not enough if he does not enjoy help from above as well; equally help from above is no benefit to us unless there is also commitment and readiness on our part. These two facts are proved by Judas and Peter. For although Judas enjoyed much help, it was of no benefit to him, since he had no desire for it and contributed nothing from himself. But Peter, although willing and ready, fell because he enjoyed no help from above. So holiness is woven of these two strands. Thus I entreat you neither to entrust everything to God and then fall asleep, nor to think, when you are striving diligently, that you will achieve everything by your own efforts.”  (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 11142-51)

An important point for us – even being a chosen apostle does not guarantee synergy or communion with God.  Being Apostles was no advantage to either Judas or Peter  over us in terms of cooperating with God for salvation.  If we think faithfulness is hard and would be made easier if Jesus did a bit more, we might remember it didn’t help Judas to be one of the Twelve Chosen and to walk with Jesus daily.  Faith is the willingness to cooperate with God to accomplish God’s will.  It doesn’t guarantee that were won’t be struggle or loss or sorrow or setback.  It does mean believing despite all these struggles.  It means being judged in our current circumstance, not in some better time.   “For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not” (2 Corinthians 8:12).  We are not told to do our best in perfect circumstances, rather we are told to be perfect in the circumstances we find ourselves.  Which means in the end we need God’s mercy.

Sins and Debts

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?  (Mark 8:36-37)

The Bible, especially  the New Testament takes some of its imagery for the spiritual life from the business world – from bartering, selling, trading, profit making, an exchange of goods and services, commercial transactions.  But, at least according to some biblical scholars, the use of financial transactions as a metaphor for the spiritual life is something that develops over time in Israel eventually becoming common place by the time of the New Testament.

One area where the difference between Biblical and Second Temple Hebrew is rather dramatic is that of sin. During the Second Temple period (516BCE  to 70AD) it became common to refer to the sins of an individual or a nation as the accrual of a debt.  This explains the diction of the Our Father, “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12). The metaphor of sin as a debt is rarely attested in the bulk of the Hebrew Bible. But as soon as it became a commonplace to view a sin as a debt—and this took place early in the Second Temple period—it became natural to conceive of virtuous activity as a merit or credit.   (Gary Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 3901-3907)

Indeed, numerous Church Fathers explain the value of giving in charity in terms of debt – our gifts to the poor and needed are “regifted” as a loan to God, and God will repay us in His Kingdom for all the charity we gave during our lifetime.  “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed”  (Proverbs 19:17).  Giving in charity thus makes God indebted to us.  God will make good on this loan.  The imagery was used not rigidly to declare there is a Karma governing even God, but, rather to help us understand that our acts of charity, kindness, mercy, forgiveness are not our loss or to our detriment but ultimately benefit us in God’s Kingdom.  We are in charity not giving up things or giving away thing or impoverishing ourselves – we are providing for our future with God.  We are putting money in our retirement fund, saving up for that future.  “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4).

Scholar Gary Anderson notes in St Ephrem’s hymns, this language is common.  St Ephrem (d. 373AD) says:

He Who is Lord of all, gives us all, And He Who is Enricher of all, borrows from all. He is Giver of all as one without needs. Yet He borrows back again as one deprived. He gave cattle and sheep as Creator, But on the other hand, He sought sacrifices as one deprived.  (Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 4322-4327)

God gives us everything – the entire cosmos.  We are stewards of His varied graces and as such we “owe” God all that we do in the world.  We are indebted to God because God has given us everything.  When we fail to recognize we are living on borrowed time, ‘renting” space on the planet, and using God’s resources, we become indebted to God because we are not giving God His due.  God allows us to use what God has given us, but we are obligated to give back to God from our blessings since we really are the stewards of these borrowed things, not the owner.  As St Basil the Great (d. 379AD) wrote,  the Lord “’did not instruct us to throw away possessions as evil and flee them, but to administer them‘ (Sh. Rul. 92; 323)”  (Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc 3203-3205).   God trusts us and entrusts to us God’s creation to use to His glory.  To be fully human we have to see ourselves as thus being obligated to serving God.  We should treat as precious life and creation because they are God’s prized possessions.

What do we owe God?  Everything, though God in the Old Testament is willing to accept a tithe from what we produce.   The Lord Jesus in speaking about love seems to lift the 10% payback limit and says that we are to give in love for God and neighbor.  Love can’t be quantified.  Anderson points out that St Ephrem uses the imagery of commercial exchange and praises it.  As Ephrem says in one of his hymns:

Give thanks to him who brought the blessing and took from us the prayer.

For he made the one worthy of worship descend

And made our worship of him ascend.

For he gave us divinity

And we gave him humanity.

He brought us a promise

And we gave him the faith Of Abraham, his friend.

For we have given him our alms on loan

In turn, let us demand their repayment. (Hymns on Faith 5.17)

(Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 4336-4344)

The good things we do are a spiritual exchange.  We are constantly doing these spiritual commercial transactions with God.  God gives us His blessings and we in turn offer God our prayer.  God sends His Son to become incarnate and we give to Him our humanity.  God gives us seed, sun and rain – we in turn grow wheat and grapes and offer to God bread and wine.  God accepts our offering and transfigures it into the Body and Blood of Christ.  We receive this Holy Communion as we offer thanksgiving to God.

We are constantly interacting with God and co-creating with God, turning the natural resources God has provided to us into means for our union with God, and for transfiguration by God into communion with God.  And note the audacious boldness of St Ephrem’s hymn: “In turn, let us demand their repayment.”  We don’t merely ask or beg God’s help, we can demand it!  If we have done our part, we can demand from God that God upholds His part of the promise, the bargain, the transaction.  “Lord have mercy!” is not a plaintive and helpless cry, but a command to God to do what you have promised because we have done what you asked of us. But, of course, we can only demand if we actually did what we were supposed to do.

And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. 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.  (Matthew 6:12-15)

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  (Luke 6:37-38)

[See also my post: The Wages of Sin is Death.  What are the Wages for Taking Up the Cross?}