The Sower of Good Works

The Lord Jesus told this parable:  “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.

But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.

But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.  (Luke 8:5-15)

St. John of Kronstadt comments:

Why is that one evil word, one word of calumny, produces the most disagreeable impression upon us, agitates us to the depths of our souls, whilst on the contrary, sometimes thousands of good words, for instance, concerning God and His works in the world, do not reach our hearts at all, and are lost in the air? The Devil comes and catches away the word, sown in the hearts of men. It is also he, on the other side, who sows and grows in our hearts the seeds of evil, and does not miss the slightest opportunity of implanting enmity and envy for our neighbor in our hearts.

One glance of our neighbor at us, often quite innocent, but appearing suspicious to us, is sufficient to give rise to a feeling of enmity in us towards him. And, therefore, do not let us take to heart any evil occasioned to us, intentionally or unintentionally, by our neighbor, for we know the author if it, and that “the whole world lieth in wickedness” (St. John 5:19), from its beginning, but let us bear every affront offered us serenely, praying for those who offend us, as for our benefactors, for even in their affronts we may often hear words of good-will towards us, although not proceeding from a good heart. May the Lord teach them, and not impute their behavior unto us as sin to them, and let us be more careful, so as not to give place to the Devil.    (My Life in Christ, p. 64)

God’s Love for the Good and the Bad

…the divine love of the Sermon on the Mount, a love that shows its perfection in being directed toward good and bad alike. It is precisely this love, which draws no distinctions but loves all its fellow men equally – the distinctively Christian form of love (agape)…that is, for Maximus, the purest reflection of God, as he has revealed himself in his incarnate Son and in his Holy Spirit. So the unity that the Church realizes on earth is the first and most exalted image of God in the world, precisely as a unity of love.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 103)

Jesus Proclaimed

Jesus Christ whether as the historical person or the one proclaimed through the centuries by the Church is the same, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).  The Gospel is not about Jesus, Jesus is the Gospel.

Who Jesus really was, what Jesus really thought of himself, and who really were included among Jesus’ closest associates – such titillating questions have in recent years occupied the front covers of national news magazines and prompted television documentaries. This is fascinating since the church looks to the Gospels as authoritative witnesses to the one gospel, who is Jesus Christ, and not to the Jesus reconstructed by even our best historians.

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, p. 109)

Refusing God’s Invitation to His Wedding Banquet

And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said: “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.”’ But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:1-14)

John A. McGukin comments:

The God of Jesus Christ, on the contrary, was a God very near, not far away; a God who needed no persuading at all to have mercy but who poured out his mercy with an almost reckless prodigality. This forgiveness of sins, freely given, freely received, in the wedding feast of God’s return to his people, was the heart of Jesus’ evangelion or “Good News.” It consequently must have struck him as perverse that many of his follows rejected this theology, and thus opposed his personal insight into religion and his claims to prophetic authority in preaching it.

These he characterized as the ones who refused to join in the celebration, those who would not come to the feast: “Tell the guests the banquet is all prepared: my oxen and fattened cattle have all be slaughtered. All is ready. Come to the wedding. But they were not interested.” The reaction of the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Father who was too incensed at the “easiness” of forgiveness granted to his dissolute brother to be able to come to the celebration is a typical illustration of the case in point. (Witnessing the Kingdom, pp. 21-22)

Obeying the Gospel When Life is Complex

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.

(Proverbs 3:27-28)

There was a certain brother who lived a life of very strict seclusion, and the devils wishing to lead him astray appeared to him when he was sleeping at night in the form of angels.  They woke him up to sing the Psalms and pray and they would show him a light.  So, he went to an elder and said unto him, “Father, the devils come to me with a light to wake me up to sing and pray.”   The elder said unto him, “Don’t listen to them, my son, for they are devils – if they come to wake you up, say to them, “When I wish to rise up I will do so, but I will not listen to you.” And when they came to wake him he said to them what the old man had told him, and they immediately said to him, “That wicked old man is a liar, and he has led you astray. For a certain brother came to him and wished to borrow some money promising to pay it back, and although he had the money to lend, he lied and said, “I have none”, and he gave him nothing. Learn from this that you can’t trust his word.  Then the brother rose up early in the morning and went to the elder and related unto him everything which he had heard.  The old man said to him, “This is what happened. I did have some money, and a brother came and asked to borrow money from me.   I would not give him any because I saw that if I did so we would both lose our souls. So I made up my mind that I would treat with contempt one of the commandments, rather than the Ten.  Thus, we came to enmity with each other.  However,  don’t believe the devils who wish only to lead you astray.”  When he had been greatly confirmed by the old man, that monk departed to his cell.

(adapted from The Paradise of the Holy Fathers Vol 2,    Kindle Loc 1150-61)

The above story from the desert fathers shows just how complex the spiritual life can be.  Even a monk who strictly keeps the ascetical life can be bothered by demonic thoughts.  This monk, though having committed himself to living alone, knows enough to talk to an elder when the demons are bothering him.  He does not rely on his own mind to solve his problem, but humbles himself and turns to his brother for help.  The elder gives him sound advice, but then the demons tell the monk that the elder himself has been involved in scandal and failed to be honest and do the right thing (as according to the Proverbs quotes at the beginning of this post).  The demons endeavor to plant mistrust between the brother monks by pointing out that the elder has faults and is not himself perfect.  Still, the story shows it is better to trust a fellow Christian with known faults than ever to listen to demons or demonic thoughts.  The elder admits the truth of the accusation against him but also has an explanation for why he chose to do what he did.  He admits he had to choose between evils, and had to ignore what he believes to be a godly commandment.  He felt to give the money would produce even worse spiritual results than to withhold the money.  Nevertheless, his decision ended badly as he and the other part parted in enmity.  Even when we do what we believe to be the best thing in a difficult situation, there can be some negative consequences.

Still, he tells his younger brother in Christ, no matter how you judge me for what I did, never listen to demons.   The monk agrees with that wisdom.  We are to rely on one another for wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that our brothers and sisters in Christ will be without fault in some matters.  And because someone may have done something wrong in one thing, doesn’t mean they are wrong about everything else.  We always have to practice discernment as Christians.  But discernment also requires us to make difficult judgments – we might not know the whole story, we have to consider the motives of those who tell us the faults of others, we might have to choose between the lesser of evils, we might have to make a choice even without having all the information we need to know.   Remaining faithful to Christ and His teachings are what we always need to do, but sometimes life is complex and we have to discern as best we can what we need to do to fulfill the Gospel.

From, Through and to God

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.

Amen.

(Romans 11:33-36)

The Gospel: Making Us Glad

“When speaking of how God is known, the Bible seldom speaks of insight or illumination or demonstration; rather, it says that God appeared, did something, showed himself, or spoke to someone, as in the beginning of the book of Hosea: ‘The word of God came to Hosea‘ (Hos. 1:1). Accordingly, the way to God begins not with arguments or proofs but with discernment and faith, the ability to see what is disclosed in events and the readiness to trust the words of those who testify to them…

 For the Greeks, God was the conclusion of an argument, the end of a search for an ultimate explanation, an inference from the structure of the universe to a first cause. For Christian thinkers, God was the starting point, and Christ the icon that displays the face of God. ‘Reason became man and was called Jesus Christ,’ wrote Justin. Now one reasoned from Christ to other things, not from other things to Christ. In him was to be found the reason, the logos, the logic, if you will, that inheres in all things.

The Christian gospel was not an idea but a certain kind of story, a narrative about a person and things that had actually happened in space and time. It was, says Origen, an ‘event recorded in history.‘ In its proper sense the term gospel, as he explained in his commentary on the Gospel According to John, refers to those books that include a ‘narrative of the deeds, sufferings and words of Jesus.‘ But this narrative was not a bare report of what had taken place. The gospel, he writes, is ‘an account of things that…make the hearer glad when he accepts what is reported.‘ It is centered on a specific human being, Jesus of Nazareth…”

(Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 7 & 15-16)

Jesus in Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity is a Hope

“Christianity, claims Michel Quenot, is not a moral structure but a hope. It is a witness to the fact that ‘Christ, by his death, has conquered death,’ and that all are now able to participate in his eternal Life. This is possible to the extent that one is willing to welcome the Word of God into the very depths of one’s being, to open one’s heart to that which the eyes of flesh can no longer see and to fulfill one’s true nature as created in the image of God. The Church Fathers teach us that man is called to become a mediator for all that became separated through sin and which Christ reunited in his person: the heart and the mind, the soul and the body, matter and spirit, heaven and earth.”

(Maxime Egger in The Resurrection and the Icon by Michel Quenot, p x)

Holy Myrrhbearing Women

As the true friends of the Creator were saying this,

Mary, who was following, said,

“Initiates of the Lord and his truly fervent lovers, do not think like this;

but be patient, do not lose heart.

For what has happened was a dispensation,

so that women, as those who were the first to fall,

might be the first to see the risen One.

He wishes to grant to us who mourn the grace of his ‘Rejoice!’,

he who grants resurrection to the fallen.”

On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 170)

Frequently, the Patristic writers see the Gospel events as an “undoing” of the Fall of Eve and Adam.  In the poem above, St. Romanos the Melodist, explains  that the Women Disciples of the Lord learn about the resurrection before the chosen Apostles so that woman would be given the opportunity to “reverse the curse”.  Eve fell before Adam, but now the women get to share the Good News with the men.  All sin is forgiven in the resurrection as humans are put on the path to the Kingdom of God and allowed to enter into Paradise again.