“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,
Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)
Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”
Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra offers a thought about how we can prepare ourselves to read Scripture. The Scriptures are spiritual, so we have to prepare our hearts spiritually to receive the Word contained in them:
“…it requires desire, exile, interest and lack of interest. What does that mean? Can you fill up a glass that’s already full? For divine meaning to enter your mind, for divine grace to enter into you, you have to empty your heart of its passions, of your self-centeredness, your selfishness, your hate, envy, and negative feelings; you have to purify your heart of these things, and fill it with virtues.
The passions are like static. You turn on the radio to listen to a station, and all you hear is static. You don’t understand a thing the announcer is saying. If you want to hear, you’ve got to eliminate the static. And how can you hear the voice of God, when the passions are booming away and growling loudly within you? You’ve got to free yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll remain a fleshly, carnal person, and a ‘carnal person cannot receive,’ does not understand, ‘the Spirit of God‘ (1 Cor 2.14).” (The Church at Prayer, p. 109)
Illumine our hearts, O Lord and lover of all humanity, with the light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our understanding, so that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel. Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to You.
For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we render glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your all holy, life giving Spirit. Amen.
Now when the magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:13-23)
In the long history of Christian interpretation of the Scriptures, the Church has been blessed by the many meanings which have been derived from the texts. From the earliest days of Christianity (and in ancient Jewish interpretations of the Scriptures as well), commentators noted how the texts can guide and influence our behavior.. Inspiration is thus not only found in the authors of the texts, but also is in those who read the texts. For example, year after year, we read the Christmas narrative in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but we don’t exhaust the meaning of the texts. Obviously, insight into the literal meaning may be more limited because that has been explored for 2000 years – that stone has been turned over countless times. But the text also is capable of giving us insight into our lives today, and to give us further revelation about God’s purposes in unfolding history. So we know the magi leave the newborn Christ and return to their own country by a route different than the one that brought them to Jerusalem. This literal reading of the text, provides us insight into our own spiritual sojourn to Christ at the Nativity.
“The Magi, divinely warned in a dream, return to their country by another road. They must avoid Herod. In the spiritual sense, he whom God has led to the crib can certainly go back home, to his own country, to his house; but it will be by another road. That is to say, the motives, the attitudes, the manner of existing, the means used, can no longer be the same. When one has gone to Bethlehem, a radical change takes place.” (Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior by a Monk of the Eastern Church, pp. 8-9)
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)
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)
Hide me under the shadow of Your wings, From the wicked who oppress me, From my deadly enemies who surround me. . . . As a lion is eager to tear his prey, And like a young lion lurking in secret places. Arise, O LORD, Confront him, cast him down; Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword, With Your hand from men, O LORD, From men of the world who have their portion in this life,
The Psalms are filled with appeals to God asking for protection from enemies, for overthrowing adversaries and requesting justice in dealing with oppressors. While they have a “literal” meaning, and sometimes the inscriptions at the beginning of each Psalm tell us a little bit about the circumstances in which they were written, the Psalms don’t always tell us how we are to pray them, use them or understand them.
When we read Patristic commentary on the Psalms, we find that the Fathers made a wide variety of uses of the texts, interpreting them in various ways, depending on their purpose of their writing. The Psalms could be read as prophecy about Christ, as well as expressing the mind of Christ and His understanding of the world. The Fathers found in the Psalms defense for dogma and doctrine. They found in Christ the meaning of the Psalms and the revelation of God and pure theology.
Various Psalms made it into the fixed portions of the Church’s liturgies, Vespers and Matins. The Psalms were seen as expressing the spiritual warfare which all Christians found themselves in – during every epoch and in each geographical place on the planet.
The Fathers often saw in the more warmonger Psalms a call to greater spiritual struggle against Satan and all his demonic hosts.
In the earliest days of Christianity and in other times when Christians found themselves being oppressed, the Psalms appealing to God for justice against oppressive forces were comforting. They offered the hope that one day, perhaps only in the Kingdom, evildoers would be overthrown, the workers of iniquity would get their comeuppance while the poor, oppressed and downtrodden would find themselves being lifted up by God and given the blessings of which they had been denied on earth.
Two Psalms which made it into Matins focus on the troubles a Christian might face in the world. If we look at some verses from two such Psalms –
Lord, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. Many are they who say of me, “There is no help for him in God.”
But You, O LORD, are a shield for me, My glory and the One who lifts up my head. I cried to the LORD with my voice, And He heard me from His holy hill.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people Who have set themselves against me all around. Arise, O LORD; Save me, O my God! For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; You have broken the teeth of the ungodly. Salvation belongs to the LORD.
Your right hand upholds me. But those who seek my life, to destroy it, Shall go into the lower parts of the earth. They shall fall by the sword; They shall be a portion for jackals.
There is an interpretive question which can be raised. While these Psalms quoted above might be an appeal for justice as well as mercy for one who is being oppressed, or perhaps for an entire people who are being cruelly coerced, what happens to the meaning of these Psalms if one is in the ruling class, in the majority, with those who are in power? What happens when the troublemakers and wicked are in the minority? They can be a plague, even if they the few. Sinners and malcontents, people who hold minority viewpoints or who adhere to other religious beliefs might all be a nuisance at best but totally undesirable in a society.
So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
The early Christians, being persecuted because of their faith in Christ would certainly have prayed these Psalms in a particular why, asking God to help them against their more powerful oppressors and enemies. They are a prayer asking for justice and deliverance. The Psalms are being prayed because of a belief in God’s mercy, compassion and loving kindness.
However, when the Christians ceased to be in the minority, among the oppressed, but now were in positions of power and able to determine the fates of not only themselves but of others, these same Psalms can be turned away from a cry for mercy and help into a demand for punishment, domination, brutality and persecution of others – not just the criminals, but anyone deemed undesirable. These same Psalms which are appealing for God’s mercy against evil oppressors can be turned into justification for pogroms, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and forcing people into exile.
If we pray for mercy and justice for ourselves, we need to work for mercy and justice for all. We are to interpret the Psalms through Christ’s Gospel commandments:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
“The issue is not that we are taught by the advent of Christ to read the Scriptures retrospectively, but that the Christ in whom Christians place their trust and now worship is the same Christ who long ago revealed the ways of God in the Scriptures. The Venerable Bede, commenting on 1 Peter 1:12 early in the eighth century, put it this way:
He had said previously that the Spirit of Christ had foretold his sufferings and subsequent glories to the prophets, and now he says that the apostles are proclaiming the same things to them by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.
Hence it is evident that the same spirit of Christ was formerly in the prophets as was afterwards in the apostles, and therefore each was preaching the same faith in the suffering and subsequent glory of Christ to the peoples, the (prophets) that it was still to come, the (apostles) that it had already come; and because of this (they preached) that there is one Church, part of which preceded the bodily coming of the Lord, part of which followed (it). Interpretively, then, Israel’s Scriptures testify to the Christ (and no other) who first inspired them.”
The take-away is that the entire Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – bear witness to the same Lord Jesus Christ. It is the same Holy Spirit who inspires the authors of both covenants.
“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” (John 5:39, 46)
The recent blog series reflecting on the relationship between Jesus who is the incarnate Word of God and the Scriptures which are the written Word of God is now available in one PDF document. You can view the document at Jesus Christ, The Word of God, and Scriptures (PDF).