Paragons of Virtue: Women of the Old Testament

Sometimes the behavior of the chosen people in the Old Testament appears to be of questionable moral character.  One day, about 40 years ago, a parent told me he had decided to begin reading the Bible, and as with many people started with Genesis.  As he read through the scriptural stories, he was troubled by both the nature of many stories in the Old Testament and by the seeming lack of moral conscience on the part of some of the Bible’s main characters.  He told me that he could not recommend to his two teenage children to read the Bible because he didn’t think his children would learn good moral behavior from some of the characters.

There is truth in what he says.  There are a number of characters and a number of situations in the Old Testament where the chosen saints act in a less than moral fashion.  This obvious truth was commented on even in Patristic times.  Early Christians had to worry that Hellenic readers of the Old Testament might not see good moral examples in the people of the Bible.  Consequently, they began to point to truth that was beyond the literal reading of the text and which required a more sophisticated or nuanced reading of scripture.  If the Bible was to be seen as divinely inspired scripture, it had to be shown that it had a divine message and was far more than a mere human story or history.

Jacob of Serugh (d. 521AD) reflecting on the behavior of various women in the Old Testament, notes that if their behaviors seem incomprehensible or even immoral it is only because we are reading the Old Testament text too literally.  If we are only reading to learn about historical events, we are missing the focus of the Old Testament.   Only when we understand that the heroes of the Old Testament were actually seeking Christ, can we appreciate their lives and purpose in the Scriptures.  He mentions specifically Leah, Rachel and Ruth, all who (in his reading at least) had too great an interest in sex (whereas virginity was more associated with virtue).  He praises them as women of virtue and integrity because they were seeking Christ and could not find their spiritual fulfillment in the world.  They are praised for seeking Christ even if they didn’t fully understand what the object of their desire really was.   Jacob says in the literal reading of the Old Testament we come to doubt the ethics of some of the leading characters and certainly don’t want to emulate them as they literally are not paragons of (monastic) virtue.   For Jacob, we are troubled by what we read in scripture only because we aren’t seeing the stories of the Old Testament as having to do with finding Christ.  He emphases that these women who appear to be running after men, are important because of their relationship to Christ, not because of the few behaviors they engaged in as described in the Bible.

“When and how have women so run after men

as these women who contended over the Medicine of Life?

The divine plan, mistress of mysteries, incited these women

with love of the Only-Begotten before He had ever come.

It was because of Him that they acted without restraint and schemed,

putting on the outward guise of wanton women,

despising female modesty and nobility,

not being ashamed as they panted for men.

Someone who wants to get hold of a treasure, if he could,

would perform a murder in order to gain the gold he so desired.

These women, while running after men,

were yearning for the Son of God’s great Epiphany,

and they struggled for the seed of the House of Abraham,

since they had learnt that in it the People of the earth would be blessed.” (TREASURE-HOUSE OF MYSTERIES, p 90)

Jacob like other Patristic writers commenting on the Song of Songs believes if you read the Bible like a soap opera, all you see is a lot of sex, violence and selfish actions.  But for him, the Bible is a text about divinity and about Christ.  We have to read the narrative looking for God and not just to read about how humans behave or misbehave.  Jacob doesn’t advocate getting rid of some biblical texts because they are difficult to understand and stumbling blocks for the faithful.  He doesn’t think the Bible is less valuable as a divine text because the ‘saints’ sometimes sin.  Rather, he advocates for seeing the text for what it is – a mystery both hiding and revealing Christ.

Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.  (Galatians 4:21-26)

The Mystery of Christ the Word of God Found in the Scriptures


Previous post in the series:  Literalism: The Word of God vs. Scriptures.  First post in the series: Jesus Christ, The Word of God and Scriptures.

In this blog series we explored the relationship between Jesus the incarnate Word of God and the Scriptures as the written Word of God.  Whereas Protestant Christians treat their Bibles as The Word of God, the history and Tradition of Orthodoxy Christianity shows the Church as celebrating Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God, to whom the written texts of the Scriptures bear witness.  Indeed, Christ is found clothed or hidden in the texts of the Scriptures, even in the Old Testament. This is what makes the Scriptures so beautiful.  They are essential for the revelation which occurs through those texts which clothe and hide the Christ.  One could say they are the majesty with which Christ clothes himself (Psalm 93:1).   Yet, we come to Christ the personal Word, and realize the Scriptures point beyond themselves to Him – as Jesus Himself taught in John 5:39.

The Word of God is divine, but is not a book.  The Scriptures bear witness to whom the Word is -the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who became incarnate as human.  Jesus is the living Word, by whom all things visible and invisible were created.  The Word of God is not a thing but a person who acts in all creation and throughout history.  It is He who entered into history in the incarnation of the Word.

 For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself.   (St. Irenaeus of LyonsAgainst Heresies and Fragments, Kindle 8134-37)

5504096566_5e83aa674c_nThe Scriptures are indeed a type of incarnation of the Word – they make visible to us words about God.  They make visible to us in printed form the words which God speaks.  Yet, still they are bearing witness to Christ and not coterminous with Him.  The Scriptures witness to Christ, and Christ reveals God the Father to us.  The physical world is thus revealed as capable not only of bearing witness to God but of bearing God and being the very means by which we encounter God.  The material world is not that which separates us from God or prevents us from encountering Him.   The material world ever more miraculously is capable of union with God and of being the means for us to attain theosis. The written manuscripts of Scriptures can convey us all the way to the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity.

“So long as we only see the Logos of God as embodied multifariously in symbols in the letter of Holy Scripture, we have not yet achieved spiritual insight into the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Father as He exists in the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Son, according to the saying, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father . . . and I am in the Father and the Father in Me’ (John 14:9-10). We need much knowledge so that, having first penetrated the veils of the sayings which cover the Logos, we may with a naked intellect see – in so far as men can – the pure Logos, as He exists in Himself, clearly showing us the Father in Himself. Hence a person who seeks God with true devotion should not be dominated by the literal text, lest he unwittingly receives not God but things appertaining to God; that is, lest he feel a dangerous affection for the words of Scripture instead of for the Logos. For the Logos eludes the intellect which supposes that it has grasped the incorporeal Logos by means of His outer garments, like the Egyptian woman who seized hold of Joseph’s garments instead of Joseph himself (cf. Gen. 39:7-13), or like the ancients who were content merely with the beauty of visible things and mistakenly worshiped the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).”  (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15419-32)


The written Word of God is a gift to us, however, the Giver of the gift makes Himself fully accessible to us.  The gifts don’t stand between us and God but are the very means by which we enter into communion with God.  We are in the spiritual life moving from the visible to the incomprehensible, from the texts of the bible to the ineffable God.  However beautiful the words and expressions and texts of the Bible are, their Creator is even more so.  Those written texts lead us to beyond themselves to the Truth.  They are but signs of the reality of God.

St Paul most accurately and lucidly revealed to every believing soul the perfect mystery of the Christian faith, showing to all how to attain experience of it through divine grace. This mystery is the effulgence of celestial light in the vision and power of the Spirit. He did not want anyone to think that the illumination of the Spirit consists simply in enlightening us through conceptual knowledge, and so to risk falling short of the perfect mystery of grace through ignorance and laziness. To indicate the true character of spiritual knowledge St Paul therefore gives as an example the glory of the Holy Spirit that shone from the face of Moses. ‘If the ministry of death,‘ he says, ‘engraved in letters on stone, was accompanied by such glory that the sons of Israel could not bear to gaze at the face of Moses because of the glory, transitory though it was, that shone from it, then how much greater must the glory be that accompanies the ministry of the Spirit? If the ministry of condemnation is glorious, the ministry of righteousness must greatly excel it in glory. Indeed, what once seemed full of glory now seems to have no glory at all, because it is outshone by a glory that is so much greater. If what was transitory came with glory, what endures will be far more glorious’ (2 Cor. 3:7-11). He says ‘transitory’ because it was Moses’ mortal body that shone with the glory of light. And he continues: ‘Having such hope as this, we can proceed with great confidence’ (2 Cor. 3:12). A little later he affirms that this everlasting and immortal glory of the Spirit shines even now with immortal and indestructible power in the immortal inner being of the saints: ‘With unveiled face we all’ – all, that is to say, who through perfect faith are born in the Spirit – ‘reflect as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, and are transfigured into the same image from glory to glory through the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Cor. 3:18). The words ‘with unveiled face’ indicate the soul; he adds that when one turns back to the Lord the veil is taken off, and that the Lord is the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:16-17). By this he dearly shows that from the time of Adam‘s transgression a veil of darkness has encroached upon mankind and has covered the soul. But we believe that through the illumination of the Spirit this veil is now removed from truly faithful and saintly souls. It was for this reason that Christ came; and to those who truly believe in Him God has given the grace to attain this measure of holiness.  As we said, the effulgence of the Holy Spirit is not merely some kind of revelation on the level of conceptual images, or merely an illumination of grace. It is the true and unceasing effulgence of God’s own light in the soul: ‘The God who said, “Out of darkness let light shine”, has made His light shine in our hearts, to give us the illumination of the knowledge of Christ’s glory’ (2 Cor. 4:6).   (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34467-506)

We come to Christ, not just to the words about Him.  In Him we find life.  The scriptures point to Him and thus show us the way beyond this world to life in the world to come.

10238317573_b823f50cc4_m“According to St John’s Gospel, all things were made through the Logos, or Word of God (John 1.3). The term logos is in Greek a key term, difficult to translate into other languages, because it has such a wide range of connotations: it can mean word, reason, meaning, principle, definition. So the Logos of God, through whom the universe has been created, is both the word, utterance, of God the Father, and also the meaning of the universe, and the meaning of everything in the universe. To say that the cosmos was created by the Logos of the Father is not just to say that it was created by God, but also to suggest that the meaning of the cosmos is to be found in the Logos.”   (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 886-91)

The Word of God does not merely inform us about God.  The Word encounters us and engages us and gives us full experience of God the Trinity.  The Word of God forms us in God’s image.  The Word of God reforms us when we are fallen in sin and conforms us to God’s will.  The Word of God does all of this because of Who the Word is.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.    (John 1:1-4, 14)

Literalism: The Word of God vs. the Scriptures

Previous post in this series:  The Living Word, Not Literalism

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. And he said to me, “Son of man, go, get you to the house of Israel, and speak with my words to them.   (Ezekiel 3:1-4)

So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter.   (Revelation 10:9-10)

Though in the Bible in a few narratives a saint is commanded to literally eat the scroll on which words are written, we have no problem understanding these commands as having a metaphorical or spiritual meaning.  Indeed, we know that the Bible is for reading, and it will do us little spiritual good to tear out and eat the pages of our bibles.  The Word of God which we encounter in the text of our Bibles, has to be lifted from the text in our minds and souls for us to appropriate the Word and for that Word to become written on our hearts.  This cannot be accomplished by literally chewing and swallowing the paper pages of our Bibles.  Literally eating the pages of the Bible would no doubt lead to John’s stomachache which he describes in the Revelation passage above.

We experience in our spiritual life the need to distinguish the Word of God from the manuscripts upon which they are written with ink.  We do consume the Word, but in a spiritual manner, exactly as the Church Fathers taught.  We experience in our lives how the Word of God who is Jesus Christ is different from the Bible as the written Word of God. “…God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6).  Christ manifests himself now beyond the text printed in the manuscripts.  We encounter Christ also both hidden and revealed in the sacraments, in the liturgies and in the Church which is His body.   The Scriptures bear witness to Christ, but Christ is not limited to their words and pages.  We must get beyond the literal word to come to the Word of God.  God’s revelation is fully there, hidden in the text, and the text is essential for our encounter with Christ, and yet as we encounter the incarnate Word of God, we move beyond the printed text not just to the virtual reality of Christ, but to The Word of God Himself.

For by means of the creation itself, the Word reveals God the Creator; and by means of the world [does He declare] the Lord the Maker of the world; and by means of the formation [of man] the Artificer who formed him;   (St. Irenaeus of LyonsAgainst Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5377-79)

Not only in Scripture but the hand of God is always at work in history, in nature, in the laws of physics, in our DNA.  God “writes” His Word in so many ways that become visible to us, and readable to us if we have the eyes to see.  In them we can encounter God, but we have to move beyond them to truly see God and not just be aware of God’s activities.

But by the law and the prophets did the Word preach both Himself and the Father alike [to all]; and all the people heard Him alike, but all did not alike believe.   (St. Irenaeus of Lyons,  Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5380-81)

The pre-incarnate Jesus Christ spoke to the prophets and to the people of God.  The Old Testament scriptures use the very words of the pre-incarnate Christ to bear witness that Jesus Christ is Lord.  We use the Scriptures as a door into the reality of the Word of God.  Just like an icon is a window into heaven, so too the texts of Scripture are a door by which we pass into the heavenly realms.  The Bible is an interface between God and creation, so it is essential to our knowing Truth.  Yet the ink and paper cannot contain or limit God.  Rather we have to move beyond them to know the living Word.

In Scripture the Logos of God is called and actually is dew (cf. Deut. 32:2), water, spring (cf. John 4:14) and river (cf. John 7:38), according to the subjective capacity of the recipient. To some He is dew because He quenches the burning energy of the passions which assails the body from without. To those seared in the depths of their being by the poison of evil He is water, not only because water through antipathy destroys its opposite but also because it bestows a vivifying power conducive to well-being. To those in whom the fountain of contemplative experience is continually active He is a spring bestowing wisdom. To those from whom flows the true teaching about salvation, He is a river copiously watering men, domestic animals, wild beasts and plants.”        (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15358-65)

In the words of Scripture – not only through the ink and paper which record the message but also in the very metaphors, parables, images and events – we come to God the Word living in the texts.  Only in moving beyond the literal words can we enter into that relationship with God.

The divine Logos of God the Father is mystically present in each of His commandments. God the Father is by nature present entirely and without division in His entire divine Logos. Thus, he who receives a divine commandment and carries it out receives the Logos of God who is in it;      (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15397-99)

God is found by us not only in the printed word but in and through the meaning of these printed manuscripts.  God has hidden Himself in the text, but in that encounter with the text, the pure in heart do come to the Giver of the Law, the Speaker of the words, to God our Father and Creator.  God is mystically present in the Scriptures but our full encounter with Him takes us beyond the limits of the text, of the manuscripts, of the paper, and even beyond the metaphors and meaning of those sacred words.

“It is by means of the more lofty conceptual images that the inner principle of Holy Scripture can be stripped gradually of the complex garment of words with which it is physically draped. Then to the visionary intellect – the intellect which through the total abandonment of its natural activities is able to attain a glimpse of the simplicity that in some measure discloses this principle – it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.”   (St Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15433-42)

It turns out that the printed text of the Scriptures are like garments, which cover us.  Those garments can be beautiful.  They can say something about us.  But they also clothe us and hide us.  They are not literally us.  That is what we discover in the spiritual reading of the Scriptures.  We move beyond the clothes, the coverings, and we come to the One who made the garments, to the one who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift.  God.

Without natural contemplation no one can appreciate the disparity between the symbols through which the Law is expressed and the divine realities which these symbols represent.  Further, if through such contemplation a man has not first discerned this disparity and, denying his sense-perception all access to the hidden realm of divine and intelligible realities, does not long to penetrate with his intellect into its beauty, he cannot be liberated completely from the external diversity to be found in the symbols. So long as he cleaves to the letter, his inner hunger for spiritual knowledge will not be satisfied; for he has condemned himself like the wily serpent to feed on the earth – that is, on the outward or literal form – of Scripture (cf. Gen. 3:14), and does not, as a true disciple of Christ, feed on heaven – that is, on the spirit and soul of Scripture, in other words, on celestial and angelic bread. I mean that he does not feed through Christ on the spiritual contemplation and knowledge of the Scriptures, which God gives unstintingly to those who love Him, in accordance with the text: ‘He gave them the bread of heaven; man ate the food of angels’ (Ps. 78:24-25. LXX).”   (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19610-36)

The beauty of the garments which clothe the Word are wonderful.  The gifts given by the Creator are life-giving.  Yet, we are able to move beyond those wonders and beyond that beauty to the Giver of the Gifts, to the One who is clothed with the garments of salvation.

“When our intellect has shaken off its many opinions about created things, then the inner principle of truth appears clearly to it, providing it with a foundation of real knowledge and removing its former preconceptions as though removing scales from the eyes, as happened in the case of St Paul (cf. Acts 9:18). For an understanding of Scripture that does not go beyond the literal meaning, and a view of the sensible world that relies exclusively on sense-perception, are indeed scales, blinding the soul’s visionary faculty and preventing access to the pure Logos of truth.”   (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15451-56)

Next:  The Mystery of Christ the Word of God Found in the Scriptures

Methodius: The Deep Things of the Scriptures

In the world today, especially in American Christianity, there are divisive debates opposing biblical literalists with those who do not think every scriptural verse was or is meant to be read only literally.  Similar debates occurred from the beginnings of Christianity.

Early on it was Christians who claimed it was a Jewish demand to read the Scriptures literally that caused them to fail to see the Christ when He appeared on earth and to fail to believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  St. Methodius (martyred 311AD) was a prolific author, whose works (and also works attributed to him) come down to us.  In the two excerpts below, Methodius is engaged in some anti-Jewish polemics, but that is not what interests me.  What I think is relevant to the modern age is that he is quite convinced that if we only read the Scriptures literally (which he says is the Jewish reading of them), we miss the prophecies of God and the ways in which the Old Testament prefigures the events of the new.  Only by reading the Scriptures as oriented toward the future does one understand their true importance and meaning.  In one work attributed to Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, he writes:

“Wherefore let it shame the Jews that they do not perceive the deep things of the Scriptures, thinking that nothing else than outward things are contained in the law and the prophets; for they, intent upon things earthly, have in greater esteem the riches of the world than the wealth which is of the soul.”

10commadmentsThe “deep things of the Scriptures” for Methodius are particularly the way in which the Jewish Scriptures reveal Christ.  One need only look at examples of ancient Jewish commentary on the Scriptures to realize the Jews were often extraordinarily creative in their interpretation of biblical texts.  But there are examples (Midrashim and the halakhic sections of the Talmud) of Jewish scriptural interpretations which are very legalistic and which focus mostly on life on earth and how to live it.  These interpretations are not interested in a future heaven but see Scriptures as teaching us how to live in this world and they seem to be the Jewish interpretations which Methodius has in mind.

Methodius follows a Christian line of thinking which sees the Scriptures as being mainly eschatological – focusing on heaven and leading us to the life in the world to come.  This is exactly where he accuses Jewish teachers of failing to recognize “the deep things of the Scriptures” and of being literalistic and worldly.  So he offers an example:

“For since the Scriptures are in this way divided that some of them give the likeness of past events, some of them a type of the future, the miserable men, going back, deal with the figures of the future as if they were already things of the past. As in the instance of the immolation of the Lamb, the mystery of which they regard as solely in remembrance of the deliverance of their fathers from Egypt, when, although the first-born of Egypt were smitten, they themselves were preserved by marking the door-posts of their houses with blood. Nor do they understand that by it also the death of Christ is personified, by whose blood souls made safe and sealed shall be preserved from wrath in the burning of the world; whilst the first-born, the sons of Satan, shall be destroyed with an utter destruction by the avenging angels, who shall reverence the seal of the Blood impressed upon the former.”    (Methodius, Kindle Location 2302-2312)

So while the Jews see the Passover and Exodus as something which reminds them of the past, and which commemorate God’s saving activities in past history, Methodius points out their deep significance is that they both point out what Christ accomplishes by His death on the cross and they find their fulfillment and meaning in Christ’s saving work.  The importance for Methodius of the Passover and Exodus is not to teach us about ancient history, it is in fact to orient our lives to the future, to be prepared for what God is planning to do.  If we keep looking to the past (which for him is what a literal reading of the Scriptures does to us), we fail to be looking ahead to what God is now doing and where God is now leading us.  As Christians, we are still participating in the Exodus and Passover  in and through Jesus Christ, but not as ancient historical events.  In Holy Week and Pascha each year, we participate in the Passover and Exodus as part of our experience of salvation in Jesus Christ.    We don’t have to look to the past to understand the spiritual importance of these events, for Christ makes them real and accessible to us, and makes them part of our salvation.  We need to experience these events as present realities which we participate in, in Christ, rather than think of them as past events.

When one reads the liturgical texts of Holy Week and Pascha and experiences that week, one realizes indeed we move from death to life and from earth to heaven.  We experience liturgically and in the present the Passover and Exodus, which is what Methodius is writing about.

“And let these things be said for the sake of example, showing that the Jews have wonderfully fallen from the hope of future good, because they consider things present to be only signs of things already accomplished; whilst they do not perceive that the figures represent images, and images are the representatives of truth.

Methodius teaches the correct reading of Scripture is not to see it as a history book to teach about the past, but all of it is written to direct our lives toward the future, toward the eschaton, toward the Kingdom of God which is to come.  The Old Testament is thus mostly a prefiguring of the Christ.  It is meant to be read figuratively as it really is a collection of figures and images that help us recognize the Truth – who is Jesus Christ. Read in this way even the Gospels are not mostly about the history or biography of Christ.  Rather they too gear us toward life in the world to come.

The celebration of Pascha each year is also not gearing us toward a past event, but gears us to the future.  Thus we sing:

Christ IS risen from the dead…

His resurrection is both a current reality which we experience in Pascha, baptism and the Eucharist, but also orients us toward the Kingdom which is still to come.  We do not sing, Christ WAS risen from the dead.  We are not celebrating a past event, but a current and future reality.

For the law is indeed the figure and the shadow of an image, that is, of the Gospel; but the image, namely, the Gospel, is the representative of truth itself. For the men of olden time and the law foretold to us the characteristics of the Church, and the Church represents those of the new dispensation which is to come.

Though the Church exists now and we live in the Church, yet the Church is “the new dispensation which is to come.”  We have a very similar expression in the prayer of the Divine Liturgy in the anaphora in which we give thanks for all the things which have come to pass including “the kingdom which is to come.”   Here we encounter this spiritual sense of time in which already we experience the future which is not yet fully realized!  We thank God for that future Kingdom which is to come as something God has already given us.

Whence we, having received Christ, saying, “I am the truth,” know that shadows and figures have ceased; and we hasten on to the truth, proclaiming its glorious images.   For now we know “in part,” and as it were “through a glass,” since that which is perfect has not yet come to us; namely, the kingdom of heaven and the resurrection, when “that which is in part shall be done away.”

For Methodius, Christians live in this experience of the Kingdom of God which is already available to us and yet not fulfilled.   The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament were models and blueprints of what was to happen.  Christ is the reality of which these promises and prophecies foretold, and yet still there is more to come which we cannot yet fully experience in this life.

Methodius uses this same concept of the now and not yet as his basis for understanding our own lives and our bodies.   In John 2:19-22 we read:

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

Methodius uses this Gospel dialogue as the basis for claiming every human body is a tabernacle.

For then will all our tabernacles be firmly set up, when again the body shall rise, with bones again joined and compacted with flesh. Then shall we celebrate truly to the Lord a glad festal-day, when we shall receive eternal tabernacles, no more to perish or be dissolved into the dust of the tomb. Now, our tabernacle was at first fixed in an immoveable state, but was moved by transgression and bent to the earth, God putting an end to sin by means of death, lest man immortal, living a sinner, and sin living in him, should be liable to eternal curse. Wherefore he died, although he had not been created liable to death or corruption, and the soul was separated from the flesh, that sin might perish by death, not being able to live longer in one dead. Whence sin being dead and destroyed, again I shall rise immortal; and I praise God who by means of death frees His sons from death, and I celebrate lawfully to His honor a festal-day, adorning my tabernacle, that is my flesh, with good works, as there did the five virgins with the five-lighted lamps.”   (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Kindle Location 2326-2343)

For Methodius the resurrection of Christ the Savior is not an event gearing us toward the past and leading us to commemorate old events or reenact them.  Rather, the sacramental and liturgical life are geared to the future which we begin to live and celebrate now in this world in our daily lives as Christians.  Our human bodies have a present, past and future in salvation.

If we read the Scriptures, including the New Testament, as mostly historical records of past events, we miss their very importance.  For all Scripture in Methodius’ interpretation gears us to the Kingdom of God.  The Old Testament was meant to guide and direct God’s people toward the coming Messiah.  But, not only that.  For the Old Testament when properly read orients us toward the coming Kingdom of God which is present on earth in Christ and His Church, but which is yet to be fully realized and is still to come.  The Old Testament and the New are both point us toward that Kingdom, the eschaton, which is to come.   Thus all Scripture is geared toward the future, to the fulfillment of the Kingdom.  Rather than anchoring us to the past Scriptures propel us to the future eschaton and life in the world to come.  This is the same purpose that Tradition serves in the Church.  Unfortunately, just as Methodius accuses the Jews of misunderstanding Scripture by failing to understand them as directing us to the future, so too some Orthodox misunderstand Tradition and see it as anchoring us to the past rather than as propelling us toward the eschaton and life in the world to come.   The misreading of Tradition can misdirect us in life.

As St. Paul who is the Apostle to us says:

“Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:13-14)

Paradise – Spiritual and Empirical

“And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:8-9)

Adam & Eve in Paradise

The Fathers of the Church were biblical literalists in the sense that they took every single word of Scripture seriously.  The words of Scripture had a plain meaning, but they also both hid and revealed a spiritual sense.  Entering into the spiritual sense or meaning of the text was an entry into Paradise.  St Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346AD) commenting on Genesis 2 in which God places the first human in Paradise:

“Paradise is twofold – sensible and spiritual: there is the paradise of Eden and the paradise of grace. The paradise of Eden is so exalted that it is said to extend to the third heaven. It has been planted by God with every kind of sweet-scented plant. It is neither entirely free from corruption nor altogether subject to it. Created between corruption and incorruption, it is always rich in fruits, ripe and unripe, and continually full of flowers.

When trees and ripe fruit rot and fall to the ground they turn into sweet-scented soil, free from the smell of decay exuded by the vegetable-matter of this world. That is because of the great richness and holiness of the grace ever abounding there.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 40797-40804)

St. Gregory of Sinai’s description makes Paradise heavenly or divine, and yet it has the characteristics of our empirical world.  For even in Paradise, according to Gregory, trees and fruit rot and fall to the ground.   The flora of Paradise shares characteristics with the flora of we know on earth.  And yet there is a spiritual difference in the empirical nature of things – for though tree and fruit eventually succumb to rot and decay, they have no smell of decay but rather contribute a sweet scent of the earth.   There are no offensive odors in Paradise for everything is sweet, lovely, filled with life and light.  It is, as Gregory describes it, a world between corruption and incorruption.  It is not yet a world of eternal life, and yet the stench of decay is not natural to it.

St. Gregory is following a tradition, understanding Paradise to have both an earthly sense and a heavenly which can also be found 600 years earlier in the writings of St John of Damascus (d. 749) who in his An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith writes about Paradise as a kingdom:

“Now when God was about to fashion man out of the visible and invisible creation in His own image and likeness to reign as king and ruler over all the earth and all that it contains, He first made for him, so to speak, a kingdom in which he should live a life of happiness and prosperity. And this is the divine paradise, planted in Eden by the hands of God, a very storehouse of joy and gladness of heart (for “Eden” means luxuriousness). Its site is higher in the East than all the earth: it is temperate and the air that surrounds it is the rarest and purest: evergreen plants are its pride, sweet fragrances abound, it is flooded with light, and in sensuous freshness and beauty it transcends imagination: in truth the place is divine, a meet home for him who was created in God’s image: no creature lacking reason made its dwelling there but man alone, the work of God’s own hands.

. . .

Thus, to my thinking, the divine Paradise is twofold, and the God-inspired Fathers handed down a true message, whether they taught this doctrine or that. Indeed, it is possible to understand by every tree the knowledge of the divine power derived from created things. In the words of the divine Apostle, For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made (Romans 1:20).  . . .

The tree of life too may be understood as that more divine thought that has its origin in the world of sense, and the ascent through that to the originating and constructive cause of all. And this was the name He gave to every tree, implying fulness and indivisibility, and conveying only participation in what is good. But by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we are to understand that sensible and pleasurable food which, sweet though it seems, in reality brings him who partakes of it into communion with evil. For God says, Of every tree in Paradise thou mayest freely eat. It is, me-thinks, as if God said, Through all My creations thou art to ascend to Me thy creator, and of all the fruits thou mayest pluck one, that is, Myself who art the true life: let every thing bear for thee the fruit of life, and let participation in Me be the support of your own being. For in this way thou wilt be immortal. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. For sensible food is by nature for the replenishing of that which gradually wastes away and it passes into the drought and perisheth: and he cannot remain incorruptible who partakes of sensible food.”

The Pure Heart is God’s Writing Tablet

One result of the Gutenberg printing revolution is that today when Christians hear the phrase, “the Word of God”, a Bible comes to mind.  Yet for the vast majority of Christian history to this point, the printed Bible as we now envision it or carry it around, did not exist.  Prior to the printing press, what did Christians bring to mind when they heard the phrase, “the Word of God“?

They may have thought about sometime very real, and physical, but it may have been a Who rather than a what.  For Christians since the time of St. John’s Gospel have imaged the Word of God as Christ, not as a book.  Even God in the Old Testament does not appear to have envisioned a book as the natural way to contain, envision and express His Word.  Jeremiah the Prophet gives us this word from the Lord:

“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God does not see the tablets of stone, let alone papyrus or paper as being the rightful material upon which to record His word.  Ultimately, God wishes His word to be embedded deep within each human – written on our hearts; rather than being printed on paper and external to us, God’s word is meant to be recorded within each of us.  With God’s revelation written on our hearts, to know the Lord does not even require a printed bible.  Rather each of us becomes a living bible with whom all other humans can interact.

St. Maximos the Confessor takes the prophecy of Jeremiah to heart, and says that it is the pure and humble heart upon which God fulfills His prophecy:

“When God comes to dwell in such a heart, He honors it by engraving His own letters on it through the Holy Spirit, just as He did on the Mosaic tablets (cf. Exod. 31:18).”     (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 15522-24)

“A pure heart is perhaps one which has no natural propulsion towards anything in any manner whatsoever. When in its extreme simplicity such a heart has become like a writing-tablet beautifully smoothed and polished. God comes to dwell in it and writes there His own laws.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 15528-30)

God’s word is kept best in the heart of humans.  This is no doubt why our Lord Jesus Christ chose disciples to go into the world, rather than writing any books and handing them out.  The Apostle Paul says:

10commadments“You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor?”   (2 Corinthians 3:2-8)

The written code can remain lifeless and inert, whereas the word written on the heart is Spirit which enlivens each person who receives it.  And what God writes on the hearts of people is not dependent on the perishable copy of a book.  Even for people who have no access to bibles, this is no limit to God’s spirit who is able to transcend such limits and can inspire the hearts of those ignorant of the printed word.

“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts …”  (Romans 2:14-15)

The New Testament sees in Christ Jesus the fulfillment of all of the prophecies and promises of God.  Jeremiah’s life-giving word which is written on the receptive heart is completely fulfilled in Christ’s Body.

“But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:

“The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”   (Hebrews 8:6-13)

The covenant written on inert matter – whether stone or paper – is passing away.  The covenant written on our hearts is the everlasting covenant in which we become the witnesses to Christ in the new way, just as the written word is a witness to Christ in the old.

The Future: Revealing the Nature of Humankind

There is an upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History which seems very interesting to me:  Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code.  But what first caught my eye was an ad for the exhibit which used this catchphrase:

Our future is DNA.

I’m used to encountering the claim that our DNA is a recorded history of the evolution of humankind.  To study the human genome is to peer into our past and to understand the evolutionary developments which have occurred.  Theistic scientists might claim that DNA is another Scripture in which what God has been doing through the human race has been genetically recorded and only now are we beginning to interpret that history of God active in creation.

DNA however is not merely about past history, for it also tells us something about where humans are headed and what genetically is changing and becoming part of the human race.   And no doubt science’s knowledge of DNA is causing some to consider what changes in DNA humans can or should bring about in their own evolution.  Human consciousness as some scientists now are admitting means humans are no longer passive, predetermined ‘victims’ of evolution.  Rather now humans can make choices which affect our DNA and thus our evolution. (Much medical science in preserving life does this all the time – populations of diseased people who would have died young, now live into reproductive ages and thus continue their genetic ‘problems’ into future generations).  Albert Einstein said science tells us only what we can do not what we ought to do (that he said is for religion to determine).

The thought that DNA actually orients us toward the future made me think about how reading any of God’s scriptures – bible, nature, DNA – really always points us to the future. The Fathers read the Old Testament as pointing forward in time to Christ, and the New Testament as orienting us to the eschaton – that life in the world to come.   To read the bible only to learn past history, is to miss the significant purpose and message of the scripture.  Just like thinking that DNA is only a record of the past rather than an insight into the future of humankind is also to blind oneself to what is recorded and to what it leads us.  Fr. John Behr writing about St. Irenaeus (d. 202AD) helps us understand this future orientation for reading God’s word:

“We have seen how, for Irenaeus, God’s self-manifestation and self-communication refers exclusively to the Incarnation.  The Old Testament theophanies were prophetic, proleptic events, always referring to the Incarnation, preparing the human race for the reception of this event and training them to follow God.  Likewise, in the Old Testament, the human race was gradually being accustomed to bear the Spirit, who, in the economy of the Incarnation, at the Baptism, was the unction with which the Father anointed Jesus to be the Christ, so that the Spirit himself might also ‘with him [Christ] become accustomed to dwell in the human race and to rest in men and to reside in the handiwork of God’.  It is only in the eschatological event, ‘at the end of time’, that God fully reveals himself in Christ and fully communicates his Spirit, and that the full perfection of man is manifested. Thus, the truth of man is eschatological, not protological [emphasis mine, not in the text]: it lies hidden with Christ in God (cf. col.3:3).”   (John Behr, ASCETICISM AND ANTHROPLOGOY IN IRENAEUS AND CLEMENT, p 57)

Those Christians who believe the revelation of what it means to be human is found in Genesis 1-3 are looking in the wrong direction: the truth of man is eschatological, not protological.    Like the study of DNA which is opening possibilities in the future and showing us where we are headed as a species, so too it is the future, the eschaton, not the past which reveals to us the most about humanity, what it is to be human, and what it means to be human.

It is in the eschaton – that glorious future of humankind and creation – that we come to understand what it means to be human, and what a human being fully is.  There we will know Christ fully and so understand ourselves.

Noah: Teaching us to Look to the Future Not to the Past

During this 3rd week of Great Lent, the daily scripture lessons from Genesis are focusing on the story of Noah and the great flood (Genesis 6:9-8:22).  Modern American Christians are often obsessed with trying to prove the historical accuracy of the flood story, doing archaeological studies to try to find the ark, or even building arks to show it all can be done.

Interestingly the New Testament makes use of the Noah story but shows none of the interest in the Noah narrative that we see in much of fundamentalist or biblical literalist thinking.  We can look at 4 New Testament references to Noah and glean what use the earliest disciples of Christ made of the Noah story.

First, we do have one instance in which the Lord Jesus Himself refers to Noah.  Here we will look at the version from St. Matthew’s Gospel (there is also a parallel version in St. Luke’s Gospel).  Jesus is teaching about the end times and says:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.  As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left.   Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”    (Matthew 24:36-42)

Jesus uses the Noah narrative to teach his disciples to be vigilant – alertly watching for the Lord’s second coming.  Jesus is using the great flood as a prophecy to prepare us for what is going to come.  Jesus is using the Scriptures in the manner advocated in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:    “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”   The Old Testament is profitable for many things, but its most important role is not necessarily to teach history.  Jesus uses the great flood narrative as prophecy to exhort us to be prepared for the end of the world.  The Noah scripture is important because the return of Christ is going to come in the same way that the flood arrived: unexpectedly.   The people of old were not prepared for what happened, but we are forewarned.  We see what happened to them, and we are not to be caught unawares.  Thus Noah is a lesson gearing us for the future and what is coming, not mainly a way to investigate the past.

The second text comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.”  (Hebrews 11:7)

Here we have presented to us Noah as an example of a man of faith – he was faithful in preparing for what was for him the unseen future:  no great flood had occurred before.  Noah had no idea what was going to happen, but he was faithful to God in preparing for the future eventuality.   Once again the Noah story becomes for us a lesson in faithfulness as we await the future and the coming again of the Lord.  Noah give us an example as to how we are to behave now as we await the end times.

 Third we have a reading from St. Peter:

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.   Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”   (1 Peter 3:18-22)

In this reading St. Peter engages in a form of scriptural interpretation which is called typology.  The flood story is significant because it tells us about something Christians now experience: baptism.  The Noah narrative anticipates the salvation story of Christ and the Church.  It’s significance is not in the past but in what was for it future events, including our own baptism.

Finally, a 2nd reference from St. Peter to Noah:

“For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if  by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked (for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”   (2 Peter 2:4-9)

The Noah story is being used by St. Peter again as prophecy – it is a lesson about God  saving and rescuing godly people from the time of trial.  What happened to Noah is a lesson for us to prepare us for current problems and for the future day of judgment as well.  Noah’s story from the past is not there to have us look backwards in time to search more into the past, but rather to teach us how to live in the present and to prepare for the future.  For the New Testament authors, the Noah narrative, inspired by God, prophetically prepares us for the future and turns our gaze not to past history but to the future eschaton.

Throughout Great Lent, the Old Testament scripture lessons are being read to help us anticipate what we are preparing for during the Great Fast: namely, the resurrection of Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.   Great Lent is trying to shake us from a wooden, literal reading of equating historical facts to truth, and making truth co-terminus with these facts, and replacing such thinking with an acknowledgement that Truth is eternal.  Truth encompasses all the facts of the universe, but is not limited by it.  Truth ultimately transforms facts by revealing their place in God’s plan of salvation.   Jesus was making a cosmic claim for the universe when He declared Himself to be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

I’ve written other blogs on the story of Noah and the great flood, including a long blog series in which I commented on and offered Patristic comments on every verse from the Genesis chapters on the flood.  You can begin reading that blog series at God Questions His Creation:  The Story of the Flood (a).

All of the blogs in the series on Genesis and the flood are also available as PDFs, a few of them are:

Reading Noah and the Flood through the Source Theory Lens (PDF)

The Story of the Flood (PDF)

The Conclusion of the Flood (PDF)

You can find a complete list of PDFs with links to them at  Blog Series available as PDFs.

St. Simeon’s Interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 (A)

I have been inspired by the claims of saints and theologians in the Orthodox tradition  that Scripture is a deep well from which we continually draw the waters of wisdom, or a treasury from which we receive the great riches of God’s own teachings [see my blog series Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury which is also available as 3 PDFs:   The Bible a Treasury (PDF)] .

In this blog series I will be offering some thoughts and reactions to an intriguing footnote in  Fr. Alexis Trader’s book,  IN PEACE LET US PRAY TO THE LORD, regarding the comments of St. Simeon the New Theologian on the Gospel lesson of the Last Judgment from Matthew 25: 31-46 (which in the Orthodox Tradition is read on the 2nd Sunday  before Great Lent begins, known as Meatfare).  In Fr. Alexis’ comments we find a good example of how the scriptures can be used or interpreted in varied and very specific circumstances as well as a justification for taking the obvious/literal meaning of a biblical text and completely reinterpreting the text for one’s own particular needs.  Here is the relevant portion of the footnote from Fr. Alexis’ book:

“For example, when Saint Simeon considered the scriptural passage in which Christ said, ‘for I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in,’ he rejected the most outward social interpretation of good deeds to the needy that seems obvious to many, but in fact excludes some of the desert-dwelling Saints from the Kingdom of Heaven and includes those who have not in the least purified themselves and have simply taken from what was not theirs in the first place and given it back to the poor.  Instead, he understood Christ’s words as a call to feeding Christ by hungering for Him with tears, repentance and faith, a revolutionary interpretation, but completely in accord with the heart of the Tradition and the Gospel.  (Cf., Saint Simeon the New Theologian, ‘Discourse 9 on Almsgiving,’ Catechetical Discourses, pages 38-41 (in Greek).”  (Fr. Alexis Trader, IN PEACE LET US PRAY TO THE LORD, Note 54 on pp 55-56)

Below and in the blogs to follow are some ideas which come to my mind as I read Fr. Alexis’ footnote:

1)     That Patristic writers often downplay what we moderns would consider ‘the literal meaning’ of a text is well attested in the long history and tradition of the Orthodox Church (as well as in the Jewish interpretive tradition).   Church fathers frequently allow the literal sense, but then move on to find the deeper or more spiritual meaning of the text, considering the literal meaning to be the least important interpretation.  Fr. Alexis characterizes the interpretation which says that the Matthew 25 Last Judgment Parable actually teaches people to minister to Christ by serving the poor and needy as “the most outward social interpretation of good deeds to the needy” and he says this interpretation is precisely rejected by St. Simeon the New Theologian.  In rejecting this literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, Fr. Alexis says St. Simeon is “completely in accord with the heart of the Tradition and the Gospel.”    While Fr. Alexis’ claim may be true especially in the monastic Tradition, I certainly have seen numerous commentaries by Orthodox writers including patristic saints (such as St. John Chrysostom)  which understand Matthew 25: 31-46 quite literally to be a commandment to all Christians to minister to the poor as a way to serve Christ.  (see for example my blogs Hearing Isaiah 58 in the Gospel, The Least of Christ’s Brothers and Sisters, Giving to the Poor = Lending to God, The Last Judgment: What Did You Give to Others?)

2)    What bothers St. Simeon so much about a literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 is that monastics – who have withdrawn from the world or taken up solitary lives in desert places – have no chance,  due to their circumstances of literally fulfilling the teaching of Christ  (they have already given up everything so they have no material goods to give away and also they may live in remote places far removed from the urban poor or needy and thus do not have opportunity to minister to the poor).   So by St. Simeon’s logic, if the literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 is the only one possible then monks and ascetics have forfeited their salvation, which he cannot believe to be true.   Thus St. Simeon seeks some other meaning for the text so that the text can be made to apply to the monks.  St. Simeon believes monks of all Christians are the ones most trying to literally live the Gospel life.  So if some teaching of Christ cannot be applied to their life, then the teaching must be re-interpreted so that it can shown how the monks are literally fulfilling the Gospel.   St. Simeon cannot discard Matthew 25:31-46, so he creatively rereads it to mean something other than its literal sense.  Rather than ignore the text as not particularly relevant to monks who have already given up all material possession, St. Simeon gives the text a totally new (and in Fr. Alexis’ word) “revolutionary” meaning.  Of course this new meaning is arrived at only at the expense of the text’s literal sense; not to mention that the saint’s reading so changes the meaning  of the text as to make anyone literally attempting to fulfill Christ’s teaching by ministering to the poor and ‘least of the brethren’ as in fact totally missing the purpose of the text and failing to fulfill its teaching!   Thus you don’t fulfill the text by feeding Christ through providing for the poor, but you only fulfill the text and feed Christ by your tears of repentance for you own sins.  Showing love and mercy to the poor and needy is no longer what the text is about.  Thus monastics alone really fulfill the text’s message while those ministering to the ‘least of the brethren’ through charity do not!

We’ll continue looking at this idea in the next blog.

Next:  St. Simeon’s Interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46 (B)

Santa & Facts, Jesus & Truth

“The professor began the lecture by inquiring, ‘How many of you believed in Santa Claus when you were young?’  Every hand was raised, including that of the professor.  Then the professor asked: ‘Who believes in Santa Claus today?’  Only one hand remained in the air, that of the professor.  The students appeared puzzled until the professor explained that the point of the Santa Claus story was that it is good to be good.

Many today could be called fact fundamentalists: if something didn’t happen, it isn’t true.  They have lost the ability to hear stories as true stories whose truth does not depend on their historical factuality.  Some stories look like historical accounts, but their meaning is found at the level of metaphor.  And so it is with the parables in Mark’s Gospel.”  (Dennis Sweetland, “Parable in Mark”, THE BIBLE TODAY, November/December 2011, p 353)

Some of the Church Fathers felt Genesis was theology in the guise of narrative.  Truth is found not only in fact but also in parable, aphorisms, metaphors, fables, poetry and sometimes in wit.  Our modern tendency as believers to over emphasize literal fact as the only way truth can be expressed causes us to undervalue the parables and Scriptural narratives.   Our Lord Jesus Himself read the book of Jonah as prophecy regarding the three day burial and resurrection.  To read the story only as a historical event misses the very purpose which Christ makes of the story.   The birth of Christ is told as story, but it expresses the theology of the incarnation.  To overly focus only on the literal facts in the text would cause us to miss some of the major theological points of the story and its challenge to the Roman empire’s claims and to pagan religious claims.

The story of Santa like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree are fictional, yet they can offer us truth about what it important and good.

Sweetland concluded his article with these words:

“When all is said and done, those who understand how parables function could say: We don’t know if these events happened exactly this way or not, but we know that these stories are true.” (p 358)