The Sinner and Humility

“Today we heard the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Lk. 18.10-14). It speaks of humility. I won’t repeat the story to you now, because you all know it perfectly well. But within the larger meaning of the parable, there’s something I’d like you to take careful note of. The Pharisee thought he knew God. He believed that he and God were friends. He was, however, mistaken in this belief, and it was rather the other man, the Publican, who was God’s friend.

The Pharisee thought he knew God, but he didn’t. It’s not that easy to know God. But because he faithfully observed the outward rules of religion, he was under the false impression that God was somehow in his debt, that God owed him something. God for him was a kind of accountant, keeping a set of books showing what people owed him and what He owed them. But it’s not like that.

The moment the Pharisee said, I’m not like those other people (cf. Lk. 18.11), he cut himself off from God. Why? Because God is humble, and since the Pharisee felt no need for humility, it follows that he felt no need for God. He knew the law, and the traditions of his faith, but he did not know God.

The Publican, on the other hand, had no illusions about himself. He was sunk up to his neck in the swamp of his sins. And yet, even though he was awash in the slime of his transgressions, what did he say to God? Be merciful to me a sinner (Lk. 18.13). And at the moment, in his sinful, suffering, disconsolate heart, he felt certain that he was justified (Lk. 18.14), which means that God recognized and received him. As a sinner he had been living in darkness, but his humility brought him into the light of paradise and granted him communion with God.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 296-297)

Sinners Called by Christ

“You are, of course, quite right: there is no room for doubt! The Lord does indeed long to gather all into His arms. All – but particularly the worst sinners.

This truth must, however, be rightly interpreted, rightly understood: the Lord calls to Him all sinners; He opens His arms wide, even to the worst among them. Gladly he takes them in His arms, if only they will come. But they have got to make the effort of coming. They must seek Him, go to Him. In other words, they must repent. It is not that He rejects those who do not repent. He still longs for them, and calls them. But they refuse to hear His call. They choose to wander away, in some other direction.”

(Macarius, starets of Optino, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 58)

The Canaanite Woman: Breaking the Lord’s Boundaries

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.   (Matthew 15:21-28)

St Ephrem the Syrian taking the Gospel lesson writes lyrically: 

You, too, daughter of Canaan, for righteousness

conquered the Unconquerable One by boldness.

The Just One set a boundary on the land of the Gentiles

that the gospel might not cross over.

Blessed are you who broke through the obstacle fearlessly,

The Lord of boundaries praised you for the strength

of your faith. From afar He healed your daughter in your house. (Hymns, p. 379)

Strangers to Sin

“But if sin and death entered into this world and inhabit this world, it is certain that those who are dead to this world through Christ, or rather with Christ, are strangers to death and sin. Having been raised with him, they have even merited to sit with him in the heavenly places. Their citizenship is no longer in this world but in heaven…” 

 (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 312)

Jesus, Your Servant

 Jesus said: For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:27)

We consider Jesus Christ to be our Lord, God and Savior.  Yet, Jesus also came as a servant – certainly some ancient prayers from the early Church speak to God as Father about “Your servant, Jesus.”   And Jesus both declared Himself to be a servant and demonstrated He was a servant in the washing of His disciples’ feet.

You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.   (John 13:13-15)

Jesus comes as a servant.   He behaves like a servant and tells us in this we are to imitate Him as servants of one another.  He never tells us that we are to lord it over anyone.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”   (Matthew 20:25-28)

Was he tempted to use His power to feed the crowds in order to make them indebted to Him or so that they would have to cower before Him?   The crowd apparently was so enamored with Him – but Jesus fled this scenario:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.    (John 6:15)

Was he tempted to gain popularity by doing miracles to win admiration and to inspire awe?   The crowd was apparently tempting Him with this kind of power, but Jesus rejected it.

Was he tempted to subject people to His authority as a mighty king?  Certainly during the crucifixion he was taunted with a claim of being the King of Israel.  The people said they would believe in Him if He proved He was king:

“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”    (Matthew 27:42)

And though Christ came that all might believe in Him, He does not come down from the cross to claim authority over these people or demand that they cringe before Him.

He told His disciples at His arrest, that He had the ability to appeal for power from on high, yet He chose not to do so:

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?    (Matthew 26:53)

Was he tempted to keep others in obedience to Himself by threats of force or bribes of food?  Again, it seems to have happened on several occasions:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”  (Mark 8:11-12)

Jesus did not come to impose like a dictator, but to purpose like a servant.  We who follow Him should do the same.

He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.   (Matthew 23:11-12)

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.  (Luke 22:25-27)

Eyes But They Cannot See

When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him…  (John 12:36-37)

One of the most troubling aspects of humans is our ability to blind ourselves to truth, when we don’t want to see it, or don’t like it, or don’t agree with it.   Christ came and healed so many, and yet so many saw Him as a threat.  He gave them health, forgiveness of sins and even fed them, but they feared He was there to take things away from them.  He even died for us – like a sheep led to the slaughter – but others saw Him as a threat who had to be destroyed.  Orthodox theologian Georges A. Barrios commenting on a prophecy from Isaiah writes:

“’Shut their eyes lest they see‘ (Is 6:10);

God’s prophetic warnings are a blessing to those who are disposed to receive them and repent. Otherwise they are a cures, inasmuch as the unrepentant sinner, by rejecting God’s appeal, is ipso facto, confirmed in his own blindness and obstinacy.”  (The Face of Christ in the Old Testament, p. 167)

The prophets give us fair warning about what God is going to do, but when we refuse to believe God’s love we reject both God’s prophecy and God’s promises.  We condemn ourselves to darkness and then curse the darkness.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.  (John 3:19-21)

Baptized into Christ

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And baptism into Christ means incorporated into the diverse community of fellow baptized, co-crucified, co-resurrected, justified inhabitants of Christ”  (Gal 3:28).

. . . justification is an experience of both death and resurrection, and both must be stressed. But the resurrection to new life it incorporates is a resurrection to an ongoing state of crucifixion: I “have been” crucified means I “still am” crucified. Therefore, justification by faith must be understood first and foremost as a participatory crucifixion that is, paradoxically, life-giving (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-15). The one who exercises faith, and is there by crucified with Christ, is systauroo in Gal 2:19 – as in Rom 6:6), because he or she is animated by the resurrected Christ, who always remains for Paul (and the New Testament more generally) the crucified Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 2:2; cf. John 20:20, 27; Rev. 5:6). As Miroslav Volf says in commenting on this text, the self “is both ‘de-centered’ and ‘re-centered’ by one and the same process, by participating in the death and resurrection of Christ through faith and baptism…” Volf continutes:

By being ‘crucified with Christ,’ the self has received a new center – the Christ who lives in it and with whom it lives…The center of the self – a center that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, who has become the story of the self. More precisely, the center is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.

This understanding of faith as crucifixion is reinforced by Paul’s insistence that the believer’s experience (narrated representatively by Paul in first-person texts) is not only a death with Christ but also a death to the Law (Gal 2:19), to the world (Gal 6:14), and of the flesh (Gal 5:24). The mention of death of the flesh and to the world also demonstrates that Gal 2:15-21 should not be read only as a Jewish experience of liberation from the Law. Rather, every believer begins and continues his or her existence in Christ by co-crucifixion. Gal 2:19-21 suggests that co-crucifixion is both the way in and the way to stay in the convent.

Once again, we must stress that it is the resurrected crucified Christ with whom believers are initially and continually crucified. This is important, both christologically and soteriologically, in two ways. First, as an experience of the risen or resurrected Christ, co-crucifixion is not merely a metaphor but an apt description of an encounter with a living person whose presence transforms and animates believers: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me by giving himself for me.” As Douglas Campbell says, this is no mere imitatio Christi! For “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian into the likeness of Christ.”

(Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, pp. 70-71)

The Purpose of Theology: To Become Wise

There is in Orthodox Tradition a sense that correct belief leads to a correct way of life or that correct thinking leads to correct living.  Conversely, a wrong way of living – sinning – can often be traced to a wrong set of beliefs.  Confession and repentance in this thinking are efforts to get to the root cause of one’s sinful behavior and to aim to correct the thinking or beliefs that have allowed one to choose wrong behavior.  Correct theology then is not just a set of intellectual premises which we affirm through rational logic, but rather is the healing antidote to what ails humanity and leads us astray from God.  Correct theology is both the light that shows us the right path and the proper path itself.   As Jesus Himself said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”   (John 14:6)

“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”   (John 8:12)

Protestant Theologian Jeremy S. Begbie writes:

By “the gospel” I mean the announcement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Triune Creator, the God of Israel, has acted decisively to reconcile the world to himself. Here is theology’s raison d’etre and its lodestar – theology is not free-floating speculation, but it is disciplined by this gospel and seeks to interpret the whole of reality from this center. Just because it is so motivated, the theologian is ultimately responsible to a living God: the God of the gospel is not an inert presence but personally active, continuously at work to transform his creatures and his creation. Hence learning about God is undertaken in the context of learning from God, as God relates to us and we to God. This means, in turn, that theology is inseparable (though distinct) from prayer and worship – thinking appropriately about God means regularly engaging with God. . . .  Precisely because it relates to the whole of us and concerns the energetic, life-transforming God of the gospel, theology has a practical orientation.

One of the best ways to express this is to speak of theology fostering wisdom. In the so-called Wisdom literature of the Bible (for example, the book of Proverbs), gaining wisdom concerns much more than amassing data for the mind’s scrutiny. It is practically geared. To be wise means being able to discern what is going on in specific, down-to-earth situations and to judge what it is right to say and do in those situations in a way that is faithful and true to God. We become wise in order to live well. As “lived knowledge,” wisdom is directed toward a lifestyle thoroughly “in tune” with God – godly living – that resonates aptly with the Creator’s intentions for us and his world.

(Resounding Truth, p. 20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   (Colossians 3:16-17)

The Holy Trinity – The God Who Saves

Theophany is a feast celebrating God revealing Himself to us.  The revelation though is a surprising mystery – for God is not a Him but a Trinity of Divine Persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  At Theophany we hear the voice of the Father, are aware of the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove, and see the Son who is Jesus the incarnate God baptized in the River Jordan.  The Trinity is manifested at the Baptism of Christ.

St Nicholas Cabasilas writes:

“Even though it is by one single act of loving-kindness that the Trinity has saved our race, yet each of the blessed Persons in said to have contributed something of His own. It is the Father who is reconciled, the Son who reconciles, while the Holy Spirit is bestowed as a gift on those who have become friends. The Father has set us free, the Son was the ransom by which we are freed, but the Spirit is freedom, for Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). The Father has re-shaped us, by means of the Son we were re-shaped, but “it is the Spirit who gives life” (Jn. 6:63). The Trinity was foreshadowed even at the first creation. Then the Father created, and the Son was the hand for Him who created, but the Paraclete was the breath for Him who inbreathed the life.”

(The Life in Christ, p. 74)

Becoming A Child of God

“Some Christians relate to God as slaves in the narrowest sense. They accept his will and obey his commandments and do what is required of them out of fear, out of the impending judgment, of the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7-12). But the spiritual life is not managed only through fear. Other Christians enter into the spiritual warfare as hirelings, as laborers or as soldiers in the pay of the king, as people who give themselves to God as for hire, accepting the responsibilities of the Christian life for the sake of reward (Lk. 6:35). Unlike the slave who acts out of fear, the hireling acts out of duty and obligation. He joins the ranks of God’s army to wage battle against the passions, against the evil forces of darkness that are in him and around him in the fallen world, because he is assured of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promise to pay him just reward (1 Cor. 3:8; 2 John 8).

But greater perfection is expected of us. To be complete one must become, by grace, not only a slave or a hireling but also, and above all, a child of God, a brother – by adoption – and a friend of Christ. As a friend Christians accept God’s call with gladness of heart and act in all things out of love for the Master, who has loved them first (1 John 4:10). Friendship with God is unconditional because God’s love is unreserved, free, and absolute. Friends of Christ enjoy a deep, intimate personal relationship with him and come to know the hidden truths of the Gospel. They obey the commandments out of love, expecting nothing in return. “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14-15).

(Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Aspects of Orthodox Worship, p. 32)