Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

“He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”  (Proverbs 17:27-28)
“Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.”  (Amos 5:13-14)

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I first head of Bishop Synesius (5th Century) in a hagiography course.  He was pointed out as a person who held some personal beliefs not in consonance with official church doctrine.  Yet, the local Christian flock held him in such honor that they demanded he accept election as their congregational bishop.  He resisted their demand, pointing out that some of his ideas were not in agreement with the church.  The flock persisted as they believed him a man of integrity despite his sometimes errant theological opinions.  He was a learned man and had a great reputation for thoughtful honesty.  As the flock continued to demand that he accept the office of bishop he told the flock that he would never teach them anything that he did not personally believe.  However, because there were some things the church held with which he disagreed, he told them he simply would not speak on these issues.  He would not teach them anything false, but he would not address some issues on which the Church had established doctrinal positions because he did not personally believe these teachings.  He was educated in Neoplatonists ideas and felt that on some issues the Neoplatonic ideas were more reasonable or stronger than church teachings and logic.  He became their bishop and because of his stated position was seen as a true witness to Christ – always and only speaking about what he believed to be true.  The people could rely on him to speak with conviction, and were not bothered by the fact that there were some beliefs of the Church which he simply didn’t teach.  He didn’t speak against them, he passed over them in silence.  Recently I noticed that Fr. Lawrence Farley mentions Synesius in one of his books.  Fr. Lawrence is not making the point I am making, but here is what he wrote:

An example of such a bishop is Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais. He was born around 370 in North Africa to a wealthy landowning family. He had a successful secular career and a proven track record in the civil service, was married, and was perhaps as much Neoplatonist as Christian. It is significant that when the people wanted to elect him for their bishop in 411, he consented, after great hesitation, on two conditions. He would cease his hobbies of hunting, sport, and time for private study, but two things he would not give up. One was his wife. He demanded that he be allowed to keep her openly and not be forced to hide her away in secret. “On the contrary,” he said, “I want many, well-bred children”—and this in a time when celibacy was increasingly encouraged. The second condition was that he not be forced to renounce his Neoplatonic philosophy. He agreed to “speak mythologically” while in public, as his episcopal duties required, but he would not say anything with which he sincerely disagreed.   (The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 952-959)

doublehelixIt is not just in the modern age that Christians have had to deal with complex ideas which are not easy to reconcile.  Synesius in the early 5th Century was committed to certain philosophical ideas, some of which he could not reconcile with his Christian faith.  He believed the philosophy had, on some issues, stronger logic than what the Church offered on their teachings.  Today, it can be philosophical ideas that trouble us but more likely it will be ideas related to science and the scientific relationship to atheistic materialism which will continue to challenge our thinking.  And certainly the ideas of post-modernism remain at odds with traditional Christian ideas on morality. And it may be that some modern Christian leaders will have to follow the lead of Synesius and simply not teach anything on some issues.  Better that our leaders speak with complete integrity and sincerity on any topic they address while remaining silent on issues with which they have no informed opinion or with which they are not convinced or even disagree with a known Church teaching.  The silence may be wisdom and preferable to them simply giving lip service to teachings with which they disagree or even feel uncomfortable with.

Ideologues often want church leaders to agree with their strong convictions and like to force leaders to have to take a stand, but that does little for the unity of the Church and may never be true Wisdom.   Better to remain silent as a form of wisdom than to speak on issues which are beyond one’s education or ability to reason and reveal one’s folly.

We can think about the Prophecy of Job and how he had to deal with long winded men who felt they rightfully spoke for God.

The Prophet Job cried out:  “Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom!  Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips.  Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him? Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God?  Will it be well with you when he searches you out? Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man?  He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality.  Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?  Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.”  (Job 13:5-12)

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God Himself rebuked the three verbose men who tried to force ideas on Job as to what God’s justice and righteousness mean.

After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.  Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”  So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer.   And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends…   (Job 42:7-10)

4440153997_fdf59bed87_nThere are endless issues over which debates rage in the modern world.  The Internet allows instant polarization on issues at the total expense of wisdom, knowledge or reason.  While we can be drawn immediately into every raging controversy on the Internet, we might remember words which St. Augustine said warning the Christians of his day not to rush into every controversy with science and philosophy:  “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines that position, we too fall with it.

 

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The Gospel or a Prosperity Gospel?

Jesus taught:  “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.  But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.”  (John 15:18-21)

Biblical scholar Morna D. Hooker comments:

“Contrast with this the promise of one of the [TV] evangelists who is well known to those who are familiar with the North American phenomenon known as “electronic religion”, who every week assures his audience on television and radio: “Something good is going to happen to you today – spiritually, physically, financially.’ It is fairly  easy to see that something is wrong with this message, for what have promises of financial success to do with the Christian gospel? Why should Christians expect material benefit from the gospel? Such promises of physical and financial benefit are crude appeals to self-interest; religion is being sold to viewers as a way to success. Religious men and women will do well because God will reward them. What sort of a gospel is this? Christ died – and I am cured from my cancer. He became poor – and my bank balance gets steadily healthier. He was hung up on a gibbet – and I am a great success.

Now of course this is a travesty of religion – so much so, that we find ourselves amazed that anyone is taken in by it. But perhaps the travesty is only an extreme example of an attitude which is much more marketed in this way, then the Church has totally succumbed to the values of the outside world. Religion is being sold like any other commodity, and the vital question is “What do I get out of it?” But what sort of values should Christians be maintaining – in a world which esteems self-reliance and applauds success? What sort of values should they be maintaining in a world where millions have no hope of being self-reliant or successful?

Christians are no more likely than anyone else to find the solution to problems of inflation and unemployment, injustice and famine. What they can do is to show the relevance of the Christian gospel to all those problems. When the world is divided between rich and poor, prosperous and starving, those with jobs and those without, strong and weak, where should Christians be found? Looking for something good to happen to them, spiritually, physically and financially – or concerned about the welfare of others? Maintaining the rights of the strong, or standing up for the weak? Enjoying the success that has come to them through their own efforts or through good fortune – or identifying with those who have no hope of ever experiencing anything good? (From Adam to Christ, pp. 68-69)

There are many ways we can help victims of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes as well as provide support for future needs of people.  Many organizations do wonderful charitable work to help victims of disasters.  We can help others by donating to  International Orthodox Christian Charities.

God’s Feet

The Hymn of Cassia (9th Century)

The woman had fallen into many sins, O Lord,
yet when she perceived Your divinity,
she joined the ranks of the myrrh-bearing women.

In tears she brought You myrrh before Your burial.
She cried, “Woe is me!
For I live in the night of licentiousness,
shrouded in the dark and moonless love of sin.
But accept the fountain of my tears,
You who gathered the waters of the sea into clouds.
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
You who bowed the heavens in Your ineffable condescension.

Once Eve heard Your footsteps in paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul,
Do not despise Your servant in Your immeasurable mercy.

+ Hymn of Cassia (Tone 8) of Bridegroom Matins of Holy Wednesday

Remembering 9/11

Even 16 years after the events, when I see any documentaries on TV about the terrorist attack on the United State on 11 September 2001, I find myself hypnotized by the images on the screen.  A paralysis of disbelief takes over as I watch in horror the events unfolding and experience the terror and sorrow of the victims and their families – images that seem burned into my memory.

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I have not been moved to hatred or thoughts of revenge.  My reaction has been a total sorrow that we in the world are in such condition that hatred takes over our lives and that we humans can do such horrendous acts of murder.  Such dehumanization is hard to fathom – both that we dehumanize those we see as enemies and that we ourselves become dehumanized and come to think that murder and mayhem and evil are somehow godly.  They are inhuman acts, why do we imagine they can be godly?  Unless of course we think God is tyrannical, maniacal and demonic.  From the time Cain murdered his brother Abel, humans have been willing to kill and murder on such a scale that is should trouble every human . . .  but doesn’t, tragically enough.

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So, how are we to understand such inhumanity?  Here are some words from a 4th Century Christian bishop, St. Basil the Great, whose saintly parents had lived through the Roman persecution of Christians:

“An enemy is by definition one who obstructs, ensnares and injures others.  He is therefore a sinner.  We ought to love his soul by correcting him and doing everything possible to bring him to conversion.  We ought to love his body too by coming to his aid with the necessities of life.

That love for our enemies is possible has been shown us by the Lord himself.  He revealed the Father’s love and his own by making himself ‘obedient unto death‘, [Phil 2:8] as the Apostle says, not for his friend’s sake so much as for his enemies.  ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.‘ [Rom 5:8]

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And God exhorts us to do the same. ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.‘ [Eph 5:1-2]

God would not ask this of us as a right and proper thing to do, if it were not possible.

On the other hand, is it not perhaps true that an enemy can be as much of a help to us as a friend can?

Enemies earn for us the beatitude of which the Lord speaks when he says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.‘ [Matt 5:11-12]”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 232-233)

It is no easy task to be a Christian in the face of terrorism.  It is not impossible as St. Basil says to do what Christ commands us to do.  But it is for us very had and seems like a great burden . . .  like taking up our cross to follow Christ.

Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8:34)

Christ is The Power of the Cross

St. Isaac of Ninevah says the image or sign of the cross because it represents Christ already is imbued with divine power.  It doesn’t matter what materials are used to construct the cross, whether it is three or two dimensional.

“Here too, in the case of the Cross, the moment this form of the Cross is depicted on a wall or on a board, or it is fashioned out of some kind of gold or silver and the like, or carved out of wood, immediately it puts on, and is filled with, the divine power which was residing there at the time, and (so) it becomes a place of God’s Shekhina, even more so than in the Ark.

Just as the ministry of the New Covenant is more honorable before God than the things which took place in the Old Covenant, just as there is a difference between Moses and Christ, just as the ministry which Jesus received is more excellent than the one which was given through Moses, and just as the honor of a human person is greater and more excellent in His creation than (that of) dumb objects – so is this form of (the Cross), which now exists, much more honorable because of the honor of the Man whom the Divinity took from us for His abode; and because this divine good pleasure which is in this Man who completely became its temple is different from the metaphorical good pleasure which of old was in those dumb objects in which was the shadow of these things to come in Christ.” 

(The Second Part, Chapters 4-41 (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium), p. 56)

Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

September 8 for Orthodox is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

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“Rational man suffered even more, awaiting his liberation. For this reason, mankind offers the highest gift to Christ Who becomes man: His Virgin Mother.

In fact, we men had nothing more honorable to offer God. The Panaghia(‘Pan Aghia’: ‘All Holy Mother of God’) had already offered herself entirely to God, and as a most pure vessel was ready to receive in her womb her Son and her God and so, at her Annunciation, when Archangel Gabriel told her that she would become the Mother of Christ, she could answer with confidence in God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word’ [Luke 1:38].

Moreover, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God if she had not offered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God would not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say ‘Yes’ to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have – human nature – in order that God might give man what he did not have – deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God’s free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.

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This mutual freedom is the prerequisite for love. God offers freely without any necessity, and the Virgin accepts the gift freely without compulsion. The Virgin could not co-operate with God if she had established her own egoistic satisfaction at the content of her freedom – rather than her offering to God and man. Moreover, the Virgin is always rightly blessed by all generations of Christians, and especially during these holy days, as the: ‘cause of the deification of all.’ At the same time, she points out the way of true freedom.” (George Capsanis, The Eros of Repentance, pp. 68-70)

The Nativity of the Theotokos (2017)

On September 8 we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

“The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it ‘For us men and for our salvation’ is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the other of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.

The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, therefore, is a glorification of Mary’s birth, of Mary herself and of her righteous parents. It is a celebration as well of the very first preparation of the salvation of the world. For the ‘Vessel of Light,’ the ‘Book of the Word of Life,’ the ‘Door to the Orient,’ the ‘Throne of Wisdom’ is being prepared on earth by God himself in the birth of the holy girl-child Mary.” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 2, Worship, p. 132).

The Parable of the Vineyard: Let’s See Results

The Gospel Lesson: Matthew 21:33-42

The Lord Jesus spoke this parable:

There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

Fr. William C. Mills comments:

“The owner of the vineyard wants to see the results of our labor. He wants to see our fruit! One day we will have to give an account of what we have accomplished during our time planting, watering, feeding, and tending the vines in the vineyard. He will see if we were dedicated and devoted servants who worked diligently, or if we were slothful and lazy, because we were too busy keeping tabs on other people rather than working. If we are constantly scrutinizing the workers in the other rows of the vineyard and neglecting our own work, we will not be good servants.

The Lord has invested a lot of time, energy, and work in planting this beautiful vineyard; hopefully we will be shown to be faithful servants!”  ( A 30 Day Retreat, p. 54)

The Salvation of the World

“we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25)

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

St. Paul uses several different images of the Church – the Body of Christ.  In them it is always clear that to be a Christian is to be integrated into something greater than oneself – a body, a temple.  We cannot be a Christian without being part of this greater whole, which is the Church.  As the early Christians noted, “one Christian is no Christian.”

When we think of Christianity purely in individualistic terms, we lose sight of what it is to be a Christian.  We end up with a wrong idea about what salvation is.  Many “Christians” today think salvation is to “die and go to heaven.”  Yet numerous New Testament scholars point out that idea is not really found in the Gospel proclamation.  Salvation is about liberation from death and is about the redemption of the world.  Just as the New Testament envisions Christianity always being a Body of members, so too it understands salvation to be for the entire world, not just for a few individuals.  The incarnation of the Son of God brings salvation to the world and to humanity for it heals human nature.

Orthodox Theologian Christos Yannaras notes the negative effects of an individualistic understanding of Christianity:

“In our days, a mistaken religious upbringing has led many people to consider the Church as a means or instrument to ensure individual salvation for each of us – and when they talk of ‘salvation’ they mean an unlimited kind of survival after death in some ‘other’ world.  But in reality the Church entrusts to everyone the enormous honor to be responsible for the salvation of the whole world, of this world whose flesh is our flesh and whose life is our life.  And salvation for the Church is the liberation of life from corruption and death, the transformation of survival into existential fullness, the sharing of the created in the mode of life of the uncreated.”  (ELEMENTS OF FAITH, p 48)

The salvation of the world includes individuals, but is always about the entire creation – it is about uniting together that which sin divided, separated, alienated.

“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 219-22)

Arise, O Lord, Confront Them and Us?

 Psalm 17

Hide me under the shadow of Your wings,
From the wicked who oppress me,
From my deadly enemies who surround me.
. . .
As a lion is eager to tear his prey,
And like a young lion lurking in secret places.
Arise, O LORD,
Confront him, cast him down;
Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword,
With Your hand from men, O LORD,
From men of the world who have their portion in this life,

The Psalms are filled with appeals to God asking for protection from enemies, for overthrowing adversaries and requesting justice in dealing with oppressors.  While they have a “literal” meaning, and sometimes the inscriptions at the beginning of each Psalm tell us a little bit about the circumstances in which they were written, the Psalms don’t always tell us how we are to pray them, use them or understand them.

When we read Patristic commentary on the Psalms, we find that the Fathers made a wide variety of uses of the texts, interpreting them in various ways, depending on their purpose of their writing.  The Psalms could be read as prophecy about Christ, as well as expressing the mind of Christ and His understanding of the world.  The Fathers found in the Psalms defense for dogma and doctrine.  They found in Christ the meaning of the Psalms  and the revelation of God and pure theology.

Various Psalms made it into the fixed portions of the Church’s liturgies, Vespers and Matins.  The Psalms were seen as expressing the spiritual warfare which all Christians found themselves in – during every epoch and in each geographical place on the planet.

The Fathers often saw in the more warmonger Psalms a call to greater spiritual struggle against Satan and all his demonic hosts.

In the earliest days of Christianity and in other times when Christians found themselves being oppressed, the Psalms appealing to God for justice against oppressive forces were comforting.  They offered the hope that one day, perhaps only in the Kingdom, evildoers would be overthrown, the workers of iniquity would get their comeuppance while the poor, oppressed and downtrodden would find themselves being lifted up by God and given the blessings of which they had been denied on earth.

Martyrs Andronicus, Probus, Tarachus

Two Psalms which made it into Matins focus on the troubles a Christian might face in the world.  If we look at some verses from two such Psalms –

Psalm 3

Lord, how they have increased who trouble me!
Many are they who rise up against me.
Many are they who say of me,
“There is no help for him in God.”

But You, O LORD, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head.
I cried to the LORD with my voice,
And He heard me from His holy hill.

I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people
Who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O LORD;
Save me, O my God!
For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone;
You have broken the teeth of the ungodly.
Salvation belongs to the LORD.

Psalm 63

Your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek my life, to destroy it,
Shall go into the lower parts of the earth.
They shall fall by the sword;
They shall be a portion for jackals.

There is an interpretive question which can be raised.  While these Psalms quoted above might be an appeal for justice as well as mercy for one who is being oppressed, or perhaps for an entire people who are being cruelly coerced, what happens to the meaning of these Psalms if one is in the ruling class, in the majority, with those who are in power?  What happens when the troublemakers and wicked are in the minority?  They can be a plague, even if they the few.  Sinners and malcontents, people who hold minority viewpoints or who adhere to other religious beliefs might all be a nuisance at best but totally undesirable in a society.

So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.  (Matthew 7:12)

The early Christians, being persecuted because of their faith in Christ would certainly have prayed these Psalms in a particular why, asking God to help them against their more powerful oppressors and enemies.  They are a prayer asking for justice and deliverance.  The Psalms are being prayed because of a belief in God’s mercy, compassion and loving kindness.

However, when the Christians ceased to be in the minority, among the oppressed, but now were in positions of power and able to determine the fates of not only themselves but of others, these same Psalms can be turned away from a cry for mercy and help into a demand for punishment, domination, brutality and persecution of others – not just the criminals, but anyone deemed undesirable.  These same Psalms which are appealing for God’s mercy against evil oppressors can be turned into justification for pogroms, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and forcing people into exile.

If we pray for mercy and justice for ourselves, we need to work for mercy and justice for all.  We are to interpret the Psalms through Christ’s Gospel commandments:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:43-48)