Repentance: Being Washed by God

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

(Psalm 51:1)

4587289405_a856b3139d_nThe 51st Psalm is used frequently in Orthodox prayers and services as the Psalm of repentance.  King David, the Psalmist and author of Psalm 51, is portrayed at times in Orthodox prayers as the model of a person who repents of their sin.  David is a prophet and saint in the church, but he certainly was not sinless and pure.   He does through his own life choices come to know why he needs God’s mercy and cleansing.  He asks God in his penitential Psalm twice to “blot out” first his transgressions and then his iniquities.  Why “blot out?   What does this imply?  It is an unusual phrase whose meaning is very revealing.  In this blog series, I intend to pursue uncovering some of the depth of Psalm 51. In this first post I will rely mostly on the work of Theophan Whitfield in his insightful article, “Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek“, (in FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI),  who mentions two themes we can see in the psalm – the theme of cleansing but also a legal theme.  Whitfield ties the themes together and helps make the Psalm more understandable.

First Whitfield explains the importance of the imagery of “blotting out” which the Psalmist applies to his iniquities.

“… mahah, which is translated most frequently in the RSV as the verb ‘to blot out.’  In antiquity, especially where writing was done on leather scrolls, erasures required ink to be washed and wiped away.  Consequently, mahah has strong associations with accounting, with maintaining and adjusting records.  There are several references in Torah to the act of blotting out names and deeds as just punishment for evil deeds.  Most vivid in this respect is the prayer of Moses that God will forgive the Israelites for their idolatrous worship of the golden calf:

‘But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin-and if not, blot me (mahani), I pray thee, out of they book which thou hast written.  But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out (’emhennu) of my book’ (Exod 33:32-33).

Here, the image involves erasure of names out of the divine Book of Life itself, names of those whom God will remember no more.”  (p 40-41)

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We see the purpose of the metaphor of blotting out when we understand how it was used in the ancient world.  The only way to erase a mistake in a document written on an animal skin was to wash the document or blot out the mistake and then write it again.  Since accounting and inventory requires frequent changes in the records, blotting out is certainly associated with giving account, or judgment.  Thus the metaphor of blotting out works well with the concept of sin.

In the Exodus text referred to by Whitfield, we see the accounting concept being used by Moses but now for a divine accounting with the book of life where God records the names of those God wishes to remember –or not!  The same concept appears in Revelation 3:5 where Christ says:

He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.  

In this we also come to see a baptismal reference – our sins are washed away or blotted out, not just from us but maybe even more importantly from the book that will be opened at the great judgment.

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And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (Revelation 20:12)

We want our sins, not our names, blotted out of God’s books.  In the end the written texts, the scriptures which are truly important are the ones God has written about us, not what is recorded in the Bible.  Thus the importance of  baptism in which our sins are washed away from ourselves as well as blotted out from God’s book which God will read on the great day of judgment.  The Word became flesh (John 1:14), but we are to become God’s word in the kingdom!  In this case it is truly God who writes us into His book, who makes us His Word.  Whitfield writes:

“In v. 11, the psalmist begs God to turn away-not from him, but from his sins.  He asks God to ‘blot out’ his iniquities as a substitute for blotting out the psalmist himself.”  (p 48)

God became human so that we might become god.  In the end we want to be noted by God – by being written in God’s book.  We must not simply read or even memorize scripture, we must become the word of God in God’s judgment.  Scripture truly is not a book that a publisher prints but really is that record God keeps of us.

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Getting back to Whitfield, he continues unwrapping the concept of “blotting out”:

“…in the flood narrative in particular. [Gen 6-9]

So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out (’emheh) man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and east and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’ (Gen 6:7).

The use is not merely metaphorical.  Here, God is ‘sorry’ that he made man and beast.  He made a mistake, and in the context of bookkeeping (and the context of Scripture!) the appropriate response to a mistake is to wipe away what one has done.

In Psalm 51, however, mahah is used in connection with God’s mercy, not with divine punishment.  The psalmist pleads for mercy through the wiping away of his sins.” (p 41)

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Here we see the full extent of “blotting out” for now we realize that the erasure of our names means we will disappear from the face of the earth. God is sorry in Genesis 6 that He created humans, but for God all the sins of humanity which cause Him grief can be blotted out.  The waters of the flood are going to cleanse them away, just like baptism cleanses our sins today.  The great difference is baptism does not drown us, just our sins.  In Genesis 6-9, God is requiring an accounting and realizes that the humans God created were a mistake and being impermanent beings it is possible to blot them out!  The imagery is powerful, God’s heart is broken by His human creation (Genesis 6:6).  It is this broken heartedness which God can recognize in us as true repentance.  The value of the story of the flood is not in its literalness but in what it reveals about God, us, sin and repentance.  Repentance is God blotting out our sins to cleanse us and make us a new creation.

The blotting out of sin is used to bring to our minds how mistakes or wrongs are corrected in accounting.  It is difficult, but possible, to wash away what is wrong in the written ledgers.  Wrongs can be washed away with some effort and corrected.  It is an image that God calls to mind at the time of the great flood as well as at the great judgment day.   In both cases, we humans end up standing before God to await the sentence being pronounced – what is written in the book of life: our names or our sins?

Whitfield says this standing before the judge is referred to in the Psalm in another way when the Psalmist says his sin is ever before him:

“The description of sin sitting ‘in front of me’ and ‘in front of you’ indicates that the psalmist is face to face with God, which is the traditional image of standing under judgment in a court of law.”  (p 45)

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The imagery of Psalm 51 calls to mind judgment but also the possibility of mercy.  God can wash away our sin while leaving our names in the book of life.  We are to become scripture, God’s written word, if we are to live with God forever.  Scripture thus is not a book exterior to us in which we learn about God, but rather is what we are to become to be with God in the Kingdom.  Christ is the Logos of God and we are the logoi of God written in God’s book of life.

Next:  Repentance: Telling God What to Do

What is a Biblical Prophet?

And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”   (1 Kings 17:24)

On July 20 we Orthodox commemorate the Holy Prophet Elijah (Elias).

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“…the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God – not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which often also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another.”  (Jaroslave Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It? p. 11)

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The Samaritan Woman: Coming to Faith and Ending Religion

So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”  Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to him. Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:5-42)

Fr. Alexander Men referring to the end of the Gospel lesson when the Samaritans come out to see Jesus writes that today we are all like these Samaritans in how we come to faith in Christ:

Samaritans surrounded the Jewish traveller, not caring that He was from a hostile nation, and led Him to their village; we do not know what happened then, but the most important thing in this story is the result. After listening to Him, they said to the woman: “Now we see the truth; no longer because of what you said, but because we have seen for ourselves.

So now all of us are in the same position: at first we believe in the words written in the Scriptures and in other books, then we believe in what other people tell us. But the happiest moment in our spiritual lives is when we come to know the mystery of God, the mystery of the Lord Jesus, as revealed in our hearts, no longer through the words of others but through our own instincts and our own profound experience. We, like the Samaritans, guess at what is true and ponder on it. But He is near us, He reveals His word to us. Only we must also be ready to hear Him – like that simple woman of Samaria, like everyone who has ears to hear and hears. Amen. (Awake to Life!, p. 78)

Fr Alexander Schmemann comments on the Gospel lesson and how it shows that Christ was declaring an end to religion not creating a new one for Christ is calling us to life itself:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. “‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him’” (Jn. 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity present as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. (For the Life of the World, pp. 19-20)

Old Testament as Images of the New

While many Christians love to defend the literal reading of Scripture, in Orthodox hymns we are more likely to find the richness of Scriptures.  The literal reading of a text is often not seen as the true significance of the text.  For one thing Orthodoxy follows the teaching of Christ that the Old Testament is really about Christ.  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  . . .  If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.”  (John 5:39-46)  For example,  a hymn for Wednesday Matins of the 2nd Week of the Pentecostarion offers our interpretation of Genesis 22 (Abraham’s offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice) and from Jonah 1-2:

ISAAC WAS LED UP THE MOUNTAIN AS A SACRIFICE;

JONAH DESCENDED INTO THE DEEP.

BOTH WERE IMAGES OF YOUR PASSION, O SAVIOR:

THE FIRST WAS BOUND FOR THE SLAUGHTER;

THE OTHER PREFIGURED YOUR DEATH

AND YOUR WONDROUS RISING TO LIFE!  LORD, GLORY TO YOU!

Apocalyptical Times

 

There are periods in history in which apocalyptic thinking comes to the forefront of some people’s minds as they are convinced the end of the world (or at least the world as they know it) is imminent.  Such apocalyptic rhetoric is often popular and can catch on like wildfire  and consume the attention of groups of people.  This thinking has become common even in the extremely polarized culture  of American politics in which both Democrats and Republicans want to so demonize each other that they try to convince their base that the election of “the other party” will bring on a cataclysmic catastrophe for the country.   Certain forms of American Protestantism with its literal reading of Scripture sometimes makes the book of Revelation its centerpiece for interpreting current events.  It can strike a fervor in the hearts of some believers, even if it is completely misguided.

The Orthodox Study Bible offers a few thoughts on reading Revelation or apocalyptic literature in general that might help us see the literature in a bigger context which can help us understand the text and the see the context for what it is.

“The apocalyptic texts are offered to Christians in every generation to encourage them in their struggles against sin, the principalities and powers of darkness in this world (Eph 6:12) and the fear of death. These writings assure us that even in the midst of the cosmic cataclysms and battles against evil powers occurring just before Christ returns—the time of “great tribulation” (Mt 24:21)—the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Mt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7–10). ”  (Kindle Loc. 65918-23)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance—just as He did His prophets and apostles—so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.”   (Kindle Loc. 65924-26)

“So the essential purpose of the apocalyptic writings is to encourage the faithful to be full of hope and prepared to persevere to the end, no matter what happens (Mt 24:3–13; Lk 21:25–28). All are inspired to look through the darkness of the present age and to behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride—the Church—who, through Her sacraments, has prepared herself for the coming of the Lord (2Pt 3:7–14; Tts 2:11–14). The closing words of the New Testament express this very sense of expectation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).”  (Kindle Loc. 65926-31)

Reading the book of Revelation or any of the apocalyptic literature is not meant to induce panic or offer a panacea for all that ails the world.  The literature is a reminder that no matter what happens in the world or in history, God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!  It is to give us faith and hope so that we can persevere, trusting God in all circumstances, even when darkness seems to prevent us from seeing the Light.  Throughout Great Lent, we pray and fast to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We celebrate this victory of God because it prepares us to await the Coming Again of Christ.

Jesus in Context

Most Orthodox calendars list daily Scripture readings in which we have perhaps a Gospel lesson for the day.  And while we certainly benefit from the daily reading of Scriptures and from considering a short Gospel lesson, we can also gain additional insight by reading any one Gospel lesson in its context – considering how it fits in to the other lessons before and after it.  So, for example if we take the Gospel lesson of Matthew 9:1-8 (Christ forgiving a paralytic his sins and then healing the paralytic) which we read on a summer Sunday and look at that lesson in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel we may note other details.  Consider  Matthew 8:14-9:13 as a larger context for the miracle of healing the paralytic:

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Jesus heals not only Peter’s mother-in-law, but also all those who were ill or demon possessed.  There is no sense in this event that Jesus made discipleship a pre-condition for being healed, nor do we even see Him requiring people to make some ascetical effort to obey God, or even a demand that they repent before He will heal them.  The story is one of God’s grace towards sinners and the sick, not about people attempting to be righteous or being rewarded for their efforts.   Christ does not seem in this case to determine if they are worthy of the miracle nor if they have a proper faith or even if they practice any faith.   Jesus heals all who are brought to Him.

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Jesus, unlike modern televangelists or healers, is not trying to attract attention and a crowd.  When Jesus sees the crowd gathering, he says it is time to move on.  He is not there to set the stage for a bigger ministry nor to collect accolades or donations. He completely misses the PR opportunity.  He receives no glory from adoring followers.

What Christ does is give freely God’s abundant mercy and then He moves on.  If people want to become part of His successful ministry, they themselves have to give up everything to follow Him.  No wonder Jesus appeared in such a backward time and such a strange land with no mass communication.  Jesus was seeking neither fame or fortune – he was seeking nothing that today’s mass media gives and which those who want stardom can’t resist.  Jesus built nothing like those who create media empires today.  He chose His time and place for a reason.

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

The disciples have seen all that Jesus did – healing all the sick, casting out demons, and they have witnessed the crowds being attracted to Jesus.  But now, when they experience their own personal miracle in the storm at sea, the best they can do is wonder about what kind of man Jesus is.  They wonder why the winds and sea obey Jesus, but besides being dumbfounded, they show little insight into understanding who Jesus is.  They apparently think there might be something special about Jesus, but they are not sure what!

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

While the disciples are uncertain what to make of Jesus’ special powers, the demons have no doubt about who He is – the Son of God!  The demons show their powerlessness in the face of Christ.  They have to ask permission to leave.     The crowd this time reacts strongly to Christ – they expel him from their land.  The crowd of city dwellers perform their own exorcism of they land by begging Jesus to leave the neighborhood.  Jesus answers their prayer.

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus, now back on the Jewish side of the lake, performs another miracle, but some of the Jewish leaders are offended by Jesus’ words, thinking Jesus is a fraud or worse, they are accusing Jesus of leading people away from God.  On the other hand,  the crowd reaction is fear as they are astounded by what Jesus can do – and they are afraid of Him!  The proximity to divinity is terrifying, but really in this passage we are considering it is only the demons who obey Christ and declare Him to be God’s Son.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus continues on His sojourn, now sitting to eat with a bunch of sinners rather than with those who were known to practice the faith.   These practitioners of the faith cannot understand why Jesus has table fellowship with people who are obvious sinners.   Jesus responds with the astonishing message that these sinners are exactly the people He is seeking out – hardly the kind of Messiah the righteous are working so hard for.

Seeing Jesus in context, we realize what it is for Him to be the Christ and the Son of God and the Lord.  He heals all, not just believers.  He eats with and has fellowship with sinners not just with the spiritual ascetics.  He flees from the crowds who would want to be empowered by Him make Him their earthly ruler.  He lives according to a Kingdom not of this world.  He does God’s will and brings God to all without wanting the prestige and power humans want to attribute to Him.   No wonder the disciples were so confused about who He is.

Jesus taught: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”

The Scriptures: A Wealth Beyond the Needs of All

 

“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.”

(Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, pp. 16-17)

Christmas Changes Us

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)

Rich in Passions or Poor in Sin?

The Lord Jesus’s parable of the poor beggar Lazarus and the heartless rich man found in Luke 16:19-31 is well known.

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”

How the Church has used the parable through the centuries is found in sermons and hymns written through the centuries.   Below is one hymn from the last Wednesday in Great Lent (Palm week) making reference to the parable and showing us what message was received by Orthodox monastics from the parable.   Because the beggar’s name is Lazarus, Orthodox hymns sometimes connect this beggar to Jesus’s friend Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11) which also explains why the hymn is sung on the Wednesday before Lazarus Saturday.

I am rich in passions and clothed in the deceitful robe of hypocrisy,

and I rejoice in the sins of self-indulgence.  

There is no limit to my lack of love.  

I neglect my spiritual understanding,

that lies at the gate of repentance,

starved of all good things, sick through want of care.  

O Lord, make me like Lazarus poor in sin,

that I be not tormented in the flame

that never shall be quenched,

and pray in vain for a finger to be dipped in water

and laid upon my tongue.  

But in Thy love for mankind

make me dwell with the Patriarch Abraham.

This Lenten hymn takes the parable, applying it to each of us personally – the hymn is spoken in the first person, “I“.  Significantly, “I” (each of us) is the rich man in the parable.  Our riches are the spiritual gifts which God has given us. The hymn removes any economic or class status message from the parable.    The hymn “spiritualizes” the parable turning the nameless rich man into a symbol of deceit, hypocrisy and self-indulgence – engaged in all the behavior of a sinner.  In the hymn, these sins are about me – how “I” behave.    Lazarus in the hymn is portrayed not as an indigent human but rather allegorized into “my spiritual understanding.”  The hymn is Orthodox spirituality, very Lenten and monastic, so everything is being turned into images of repentance for one’s sinful nature.  The parable in this interpretation is not contrasting two distinct people – a rich man and a poor man –  but is an allegory about “me”.   I am both the rich man (enriched by Christ’s spiritual gifts) and I am Lazarus (with impoverished spiritual understanding).   Lazarus is me, or in the hymn more precisely has become “my spiritual understanding” which lies at the rich man’s gate which is allegorized to be “the gate of repentance.”  It is my own heart and mind which are impoverished because I lack good deeds  and am not merciful and compassionate to others.

The hymn then switches its point of reference – I am to embrace Lazarus’s poverty by becoming poor in sin.  From an Orthodox point of view, worldly wealth does me no good if I’m also rich in sin.  I am to impoverish myself by abandoning all forms of sin in order to be spared the fires of hell.  This interpretation of the hymn avoids any judgment of the rich and also steers away from any class struggle.  The rich man is not being condemned because of his wealth, nor is Lazarus being praised just for his poverty.  The parable itself does not tell us anything about Lazarus being virtuous.  His poverty is not claimed to be voluntary.  The rich man is not accused of having obtained ill-gotten wealth through illicit or sinful means.

The hymn’s interpretation of the parable completely avoids any judgment of social status or rank.  It is not about class warfare.   The parable is allegorized in the hymn turning it into a monastic lesson about sin, not about showing compassion to the poor or giving charity to the needy.  The interpretation attempts to make the Gospel completely relevant to the monastics for whom the hymn was written – people who at least in theory had completely denied themselves all worldly wealth in order to follow Christ.  The parable is made relevant for those who have chosen poverty by reminding them that poverty is not about one’s social class nor is it about how much you really possess, but rather poverty and wealth are both about one’s spiritual condition.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit“, Jesus teaches.  Spiritual riches and spiritual poverty are not dependent on one’s wealth or possessions.  They are a matter of the heart.

Why Do We Suffer In God’s World?

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:34-39)

The time between Christ’s Ascension into heaven and His second coming to earth is the time of the Church.  The Church really is that interstice between the two comings of Christ – participating in both this world and that world which is to come.  So while Christians are called to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), we find ourselves in a world in which there still is great sorrow and suffering and we still must wait for that world in which sickness, sorrow and suffering have passed away (Revelation 21:4).  Biblical scholar Richard B. Hays comments on how St. Paul deals with the current age, the time of the Church awaiting Christ’s return:

Paul reads the Psalm [44] as a prophetic prefiguration of the experience of the Christian church, so that the text finds its true primary meaning in Paul’s own present time. The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this’ rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e., himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance . . . Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.

This psalm raises plaintively the issue that we have already seen to be the central theological problem of Romans: the question of God’s integrity in upholding his promises to Israel. Paul is struggling to vindicate God from the suspicion of capriciousness in choosing to ‘justify’ Gentiles who do not observe the Torah. Is God a fickle god who has cast off Israel (cf. Rom 3:1-8, 3:21-26, 3:31, 9:14, and all of chapters 9-11)?

The psalmist raises a question precisely analogous to the one that Paul is seeking to answer: does the community’s experience of suffering indicated that God has abandoned them?

But there is still one more significant overtone to be heard in Paul’s quotation of Psalm 44. The psalmist’s main point in verses 17-22 is that the suffering of Israel cannot be construed as a punishment for unfaithfulness or idolatry; on the contrary, God’s people suffer precisely because of their faithfulness to him.”  (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 58-60)