In the Footsteps of Christ: Walking on Water

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34 has many, what biblical commentators would call, “textual irritants.”  Textual irritants are things found in the text that cause you to stop reading and take a closer look at the text – what does it mean?  Why did it use these particular words?  Why is the grammar or vocabulary unusual or unexpected?   Textual irritants are things in the text that stand out and make you take notice so that you stop reading and start pondering.   Let’s consider the Gospel lesson of the Lord walking on water:

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

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In 14:22 – Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat, it is already late evening (Matt 14:15 & 23).  Why does Jesus have to compel them into the boat?  He forces them to do something they  perhaps didn’t want to do.  Was the bad weather, which will be described in 14:24 already obvious to them?  They had already survived one storm at sea, but Jesus was in the boat with them that time, though he was asleep (Matt 8:23-27).  Now He is pushing them into the boat but is not going with them.  Chrysostom and other Church Fathers think Jesus was gradually teaching them to trust Him, but each time the lesson is a little more difficult.  First He was with them at sea in the storm, but asleep, now He is sending them into the storm but not going with them.  He wants them to learn to trust Him according to these Fathers.

And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there.

Matthew 14:15 says the evening was coming on which led to the disciples wanting Jesus to dismiss the crowd.  Evening was coming on but then Jesus took time to feed the 5000, all ate a full meal and were satisfied, and 12 baskets full of leftovers were gathered up and the crowd was dismissed and the disciples sent off and Jesus went up to pray [Note well: feeding 5000 people takes a lot of time as does dismissing 5000 people].   And then after all these events we read again in 14:23 that evening was coming on – the exact same phrase as before the multiplication of loaves took place.  It is as if no time had elapsed despite all that had happened.  The next time reference in the text at 14:25 mentions the 4th Watch of the night, somewhere between 3-6am.  But the time of the feeding of the 5000 is not only in an unusual place – a deserted place, but the time seems  suspended as well.  Have they entered into and are they experiencing the time of the Kingdom?  The day which has no end?  And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the LORD), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light.”  (Zechariah 14:7)

[Also interesting is that in 14:15, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowd away for evening was coming on, but Christ choose to feed that crowd first.  Now Jesus sends the disciples away BEFORE dismissing the crowd!  Jesus  is teaching them something – this is part of their formation as disciples.   And then evening finally comes on.]

But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.

The wind (Greek: anemou).  The Evangelist Matthew had in the Greek language a number of different words he could use to refer to the wind.  He chooses one which gives us a sense of the wind as a force of nature.  The wind is powerful and unpredictable, we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:8).  The word is used in the expression “ scattered to the 4 winds” meaning the entire world, or the world in which God acts.  This wind will be significant to Peter in a moment.

The wind was contrary –  Remember Jesus sent the disciples out on the sea, and now the wind is against them.  Was this a sign from God that they were headed in the wrong direction?  On the boat they were probably wondering why in the world Jesus had sent them out there in the first place.  Now God was opposing them . . . or was it God, or is it a force that opposes God?  Is the lesson they are learning is that doing the will of God is not easy and sometimes all the forces of nature and the world will oppose you when you set out to do God’s will?

Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!”

 Disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, but it is night, and the wind is howling and the waves buffeting the boat, there are no spotlights on the boat.  They are looking into the darkness and see something walking on the sea.  If the wind and water were totally calm, one might be able to see something on the water, but the wind is blowing hard, so the waves would be roiling as well.   It is pretty hard to see under such conditions, no wonder they are troubled by seeing anything on the water, let alone a person!  They see someone on the water, not in a boat, so of course they think it has to be a phantom of some kind.

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The disciples are not only seeing something, they are having some kind of spiritual experience, for their eyes alone would not be able to see much as it is dark.  The disciples had experienced something of eternity when Christ fed the 5000, something outside of normal time.  Now they experience another spiritual reality.

In 14:26 disciples seeing  is in Greek: idontes – experience or perceive.   Note that in 14:30 the Evangelist uses a totally different word in describing Peter seeing.  There he uses the Greek: Blepwn –  which is the word meaning the opposite of blindness,  but also spiritual perception and insight.  The fact that Matthew uses two different Greek words for seeing tells us he is putting special stress on how and what they are seeing.

And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

 The disciples cry out in fear, but Jesus calmly speaks to them.  Again, one wonders how they could have heard him so clearly under these windy conditions.  He must be very near their boat, another sign that something supernatural is happening.  They are able to hear and see under very adverse conditions.   We might call to mind Isaiah 32:1-4 –  “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed, and the ears of those who hear will hearken. The mind of the rash will have good judgment, and the tongue of the stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.”  

 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

 “Command me to come” –  Peter, as rash as he sometime is, dares not of his own volition join Christ in this revelation.   He cannot come out on the water on his own, and he knows it.  But if Christ commands him to come  out, he is willing to obey.   Was Peter trying to show off how obedient he could be?  Or trying to show the other disciples that he indeed was greater than them and had a special relationship to Christ?  Or trying to show that he was not afraid – he is obeying Jesus’ command not to be afraid but to be of good cheer?

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Does Jesus invite Peter to come, or command him to come?  In either case, Peter has to decide to do what Christ tells him.  Without hesitation Peter does as Christ bids him to do.

[One is reminded of the demons of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matt 8) asking Christ to apostolize them by sending them into the herd of swine.  They can’t do it on their own, in Christ’s presence, they need Christ’s permission.]

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

Seeing the wind (Greek: anemou).  He would have felt the wind all along as it was battering the boat.  All the disciples knew the wind was blowing strongly against them.  What did Peter suddenly see?    One doesn’t normally see the wind, but one can see what the wind can do – the force of the wind against things.  Peter apparently sees the wind to be the power of nature even chaos it represents, a force far greater than himself Peter has choices before him.  He has to decide what the forceful wind represents – it is a force to be reckoned with, yet is it God’s will or God’s presence or is it opposing God?   Peter faces what the Prophet Elijah encountered: And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind …  (1 Kings 19:11)

Peter can focus his sight on God in Christ,  or on the wind that great force of nature and a real threat to Peter, or on his on experience and the limits of his human powers.   Peter has to decide who is more powerful Christ or the force of the wind and whom will he obey – the force of the wind or the voice of God.   Perhaps it is even the face of death.  Blowing at Peter is the force of chaos, beneath him is the abyss of the sea – Davey Jones’ locker.   A sailor fears being swept overboard by a violent wind, but Peter is already overboard!

Again the Evangelist uses a different word for seeing.  Here, Peter sees (Greek: Blepwn) the wind whereas back in 14:26 the disciples see (Greek: idontes) Christ walking on the water.  The Evangelist changes the word for seeing because he wants us to understand something beyond nature is occurring here.  We cannot see God with the eyes of the world, we need a new way of seeing to find God, for God is holy, God is other, our minds must change in order for us to see God.  So in this lesson, it is in the most unusual place and in the darkness of the night that Peter sees something he has never seen before.   Peter’s eyes are open, he is no longer blind but is seeing the spiritual reality the wind represents – and immediately he is afraid – of what?  The chaos of oblivion?  Of his own death?  Or that now he sees God face to face?

In 14:27 Jesus told them not to fear,  but in 14:30 Peter is afraid – is the issue that he disobeys Christ in this?   His fear is a natural response to the situation, but he in walking out on the water he was obeying Christ, but now in the midst of this he disobeys and allows fear to take over his life.   Is that why Jesus rebukes him as one of little-faith?

Beginning to sink?  One doesn’t just begin to sink, one goes down quickly.  Step off the side of a pool into the water, when do you “begin” to sink?

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Petros – sank like a rock.  Maybe this is what the other disciples thought of Peter – he was so bold as to step out on the water, maybe they thought he was trying to show his faith was greater than theirs.  Later, one can imagine the disciples, but maybe not Peter, were amused.  Yes indeed Peter is rightly named the rock (John 1:42), and he sank just like one.

… and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”   And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 

Surprisingly Jesus rebukes Peter not the wind.  The wind keeps howling until they get into the boat (14:32).   Peter apparently is only a half-believer, and it shows.  Peter shows fear, is this his doubt? – Even though he did Christ’s bidding and came out on the water, once there he ceases to obey Christ’s command not to be afraid.   Just like Peter each of us can obey some command of Christ and yet in the midst of that obedience, disobey some other command of Christ.  Discipleship is challenging.

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Christ did not suspend nature to save this one disciple, He saves Peter while allowing the wind to continue blowing against them.  It is only once they are in the boat, in the fellowship of the community of disciples, in the Church, that the wind no longer prevails.  They also are not brought to their destination by the wind, for it ceased.  They crossed the lake in the boat under their own power.

Of course there is the one time miraculous sign – not only Jesus walking on water but Jesus able to call His disciple out on the lake with Him.   Christ is showing Himself more powerful than nature, more powerful than wind, or deep or gravity.   Yet Christ doesn’t command or teach His disciples to foolishly disregard nature or the powers of nature in their day to day living.  He does not take this moment to promise them that the winds will always be with them or that nothing will ever threaten them or that they will never be afraid again.

The Gospel lesson is also for us today.  It is  about the call to discipleship – obedience to Christ.  Even if we willingly obey Christ or do what we think he wants us to do, we might find ourselves in trouble, needing to be saved, facing death or the hostile forces of nature or of evil or of our fellow humans.  And then we have to ask ourselves do we really believe Christ is more powerful than all of these?  Are we willing to die for Christ, knowing Him to be more powerful than death, realizing we have nothing to fear from death itself for Christ has overcome death.

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On a small level, when I came to Dayton, OH, with my family in 1986, I was following Christ, and walking out onto water.  We came to establish an Orthodox parish where there was none.   I did not know whether the mission would succeed or not.  There was a small group of disciples here, but I did not know if we could work together to plant a church.  There were forces we had to deal with including that almost all of the original people were very strong willed.   Each one could blow like the wind where it would.    Could we set aside our individual egos and personal dreams and drives in order to work together to build a community?    Yet we did it, we all climbed aboard that boat with Christ to weather the storm.

And it is true that not only in founding St. Paul’s parish were we walking on water, but all  who have joined us through the years, who left behind family and friends and the familiar to convert to Orthodoxy and join the parish, also walked by faith on water.  None of us knew what would happen, but we trusted Christ each in our own turn.

And on another level, we understand this Gospel lesson to be about facing the end of life  – we each and all have to face death at some point.  Peter was suddenly confronted with it right there in the face of Christ, while obeying Christ and walking with Christ.   To the end we have to cry out:

God be merciful to me the sinner and save me.

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.'”

We are Made into Icons of Christ

With unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are all being transformed into the same image [Greek: icon], from glory to glory, and this is from the Lord, the Spirit.  . . . Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who perish, as the god of this world has blinded the minds of those who do not believe, so that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ who is the image [Greek: icon] of God should not dawn on them.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:3-4, EOB)

This transformation of all believers into the likeness of Christ (cf. “the same image” [2 Corinthians 3:18] and “Christ who is the image of God [4:4] – the key word eikon is used in both places) should be understood as a further clarification of the senses in which Paul can claim that the Corinthians are a letter from Christ that can be known and read by everyone. Because they are being changed into the likeness of Christ, they manifest the life of Jesus in their mortal flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 4:11). Consequently, the deepest paradox of the passage emerges: Paul’s reading of the sacred text (Exodus 34) reveals that revelation occurs not primarily in the sacred text but in the transformed community of readers.  

(Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, p. 144)

As St. Paul states it Jesus Christ is the image (icon) of God the Father and we believers are being transformed into that same image!  We believers are becoming Christ.  We are the Church (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Church is the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:18), and so we together are becoming Christ.  We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ – not individually, but collectively as part of the Church which is Christ’s body.  In as much as we become the image of God, in as much as we become Christ, we become the Word of God to the world.  To read and understand Scripture, we need to be able to see Christ manifested in the world – we need to see the Church.  The Church is to be light to the world thus fulfilling Christ’s own teaching.  We are to be the fullness of Christ in the world.  As Richard Hayes notes above for people to understand a passage such as Exodus 34 they need to see Christ, visible to them in His Body, the Church.

The Scriptures: A Wealth Beyond the Needs of All

 

“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,

 

Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)

Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”

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

The “Punishment” of Adam and Eve

 

It is quite common among Orthodox saints to view God’s activities in the world through the lens “God is love.”  They felt this was a non-negotiable truth.  If something reported in Scripture does not seem consistent with a loving God, then the issue is we don’t understand the story, how it was written and/or how it is to be interpreted.  The fault is not with God but with our limited understanding of the world.  There is mystery in the world, and much happens that we simply don’t understand because we don’t have the big picture – we can’t see how God sees the world, and so our interpretation of events and logic are very limited.

These saints were totally OK with moving away from a literal interpretation of a text if the literal interpretation seemed to show that God is not love.   Some Patristic writers and Orthodox saints for example interpreted God’s comment to Adam that if you eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge you will die as a loving warning to Adam rather than as a threat of punishment.  And they saw death not as punishment but God preventing a person from growing endlessly in evil – terminating life was to stop the negative growth of evil in a person.  God thus uses death to stop us from increasingly falling under Satan’s power.   As an example, St Isaac the Syrian writes:

“Just as He decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam because of sin, and just as He showed that (the sin) existed by means of the punishment–even though this (punishment) was not His (real) aim: He showed it as though it was something which (Adam) would receive as repayment for his wrong, but He hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared, He concealed His eternal intention concerning death and what His wisdom was aiming at: even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world.  Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there.”

So though death appears to be a punishment, God was actually hiding his intention.  His intention was to give us eternal life, but the way to that end was through death – the death of the Son of God on the cross. 

Why can’t we enter heaven without dying? Because sin that clings to us cannot enter heaven – death purges us of sin, we resurrect to a new life free of sin.   This is the imagery of baptism as well – we die with Christ and are buried with Him, but then resurrected to the new life free of sin as our sins remain in the watery grave of the baptismal font.   St. Isaac continues:

“Again, when he expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise, He expelled them under the (outward aspect of anger: ‘Because you have transgressed the commandment, you have found yourselves outside (Paradise)–as though dwelling in Paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy. But inside all this stood (the divine) plan, fulfilling and guiding everything towards the Creator’s original intention from the beginning. It was not disobedience which introduced death to the house of Adam, nor did transgression remove them from Paradise, for it is clear that (God) did not create Adam and Eve to be in Paradise, (just) a small portion of the earth; rather, they were going to subjugate the entire earth. For this reason we do not even say that He removed them because of the commandment which had been transgressed; for it is not the case that, had they not transgressed the commandment, they would have been left in Paradise forever.”

(Isaac the Syrian ‘The Second Part,’ Chapters IV-XLI, p 164)

For St. Isaac, God was not responding to human behavior such as sin, but had a plan in place all along.  God knew what humans were going to do, and used human action as the very means for human salvation.  This is far from the angry vengeful God portrayed in some forms of Christianity.  It is a God who is infinitely loving and who works with us despite our penchant for sin and rebellion.  God has not interest in our death or punishment but forever works to bring us to salvation.

Why Do We Suffer In God’s World?

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Old Testament Miracles Give Life to the World

Bible story lovers can often recite the details of many of the miracles reported in the Old Testament – Noah and the flood, Moses and the burning bush, etc.  For many centuries, really from the beginning of Christianity, much of the Old Testament including its miracles were often interpreted as prefiguring Christ or were prophecies of Christ.  Take for example what use Jesus Himself makes of the story of the Prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale:

 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.   (Matthew 12:38-41)

Jesus doesn’t discount the historicity of the story of Jonah, but sees it completely as a prophecy of his death and resurrection.  The Jonah “miracle” is actually seen by Christ as something of small importance as a historical event.  But as a prophecy of the resurrection it looks forward to its fulfillment in Christ, both in this world and on judgment day.

So, too, in 1 Peter 3:18-22, we see how the story of Noah and the flood are not viewed as events of great historical importance but rather are a prefiguring of baptism and salvation in Christ:

 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. 

St. Photius the Great (9th Century) gave a sermon for the Annunciation  in which he shows a typically Patristic interpretation of some Old Testament miracles.  All three miracles were interpreted by the early Church as prophecies of the Virgin birth.  The three events are miracles in their own right, but Photius notes that by themselves these miracles are really rather minor events that actually did not contribute in any meaningful way to the life of the world.  By themselves the “miracles” really don’t show the glory of God because they are rather nondescript.  It is only when they understood as prophecies of the Virgin Birth that their real importance is understood.  In the quote below, Photius has the Archangel Gabriel talking to the Virgin.

Gabriel tells her that it is not his job to interpret what God is doing or how God can accomplish the miracle of the incarnation of the Word of God.  However, God gave hints in the three Old Testament miracles which were given to help her and all of us understand the real miracle of the incarnation of God.  The three Old Testament miracles turn out to be rather small events but they both confirm the current big miracle of Christ and also help break it down into smaller events which we humans are better able to digest and comprehend.  When we bring together the three smaller events we begin to understand the real significance of the incarnation of God.  So the Archangel says these words to Mary:

“One thing I know, one thing I have been taught, one thing I have been sent to tell.  This I say: the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee (Luke 35:1).  It is that which shall teach thee how thou shalt be pregnant.  It shall interpret how thou shalt conceive.  It is a participant in the Lord’s wish, since they are enthroned together, while I am a slave.  I am a messenger of the Lord’s commands, not the interpreter of this particular command.  I am the servant of His will, not the expounder of His intent.  The Spirit shall set everything in order, for it searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10).  I cry out, ‘Hail, much-graced one,’ and I praise the miracle in song, and worship the birth, but I am at a loss to tell the manner of the conception.  But if thou wishest to accept credence of my tidings by means of examples, inferring great things from small ones, and confirming the things to come by things past, — thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son in the same manner as Aaron’s rod was budded without cultivation, acting like a rooted plant (Num 17:23).  As the rain borned down from heaven on the fleece watered that alone but did not refresh the earth (Judges 6:37), thus thou too shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth the Lord.  This thy ancestor also, David, announces in advance, inspired by God of thy pregnancy: “He shall come down like rain upon a fleece, lie a drop falling upon the earth’ (Ps 71:6).  As the bush received the fire, and feeding the flames was not consumed (Exod 3:2), thus shalt thou conceive a son, lending Him thy flesh, providing nourishment to the immaterial fire, and drawing incorruptibility in return.  These things prefigured thy conception, announced in advance thy delivery, represented from afar thy pregnancy.  Those strange things have been wrought that they might confirm thy child’s ineffable birth.  They happened beforehand that they might delineate the incomprehensibility of the mystery: for the flaming bush, and the bedewed fleece, and the rod bearing leaves would not have contributed anything useful to life, nor would they have incited man to praise the Wonder-worker, nay, the miracle would have fallen to no purpose, unless they had been set down as prefigurations of thy giving birth, and been, as it were, the advance proclamations of the Lord’s coming. “ (THE HOMILIES OF PHOTIUS PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE , Tr. Cyril Mango, p 119-120).

Photius was unimpressed by the three Old Testament miracles – one could easily imagine God doing greater things than these.  He feels no one who was told of these three Old Testament miracles would be over awed.  But when the events are read in the light of the incarnation of God in Christ, suddenly the importance of the three events is made clear – and that they are events significant to the life of the world is suddenly made known in the Virgin birth of the incarnate God.   In Christ, the events help explain what God is doing and how it is possible for God to enter into the human condition.  Mary does not need  long theological explanations about the incarnation – Gabriel tells her to think rather about the three stories, the three Old Testament miracles, and she will understand the significance for the entire world of her pregnancy.  The prophecies are fulfilled as well as given historical importance and cosmic meaning in Christ.  The incarnation of God the Word in the Virgin is made comprehensible by the events which prefigured and prophesied it.

Tradition = Scripture, Rightly Understood

“So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself, as we have seen, ‘according to the Scripture.’  ‘Tradition‘ for the early Church is, as Florovsky puts it, ‘Scripture, rightly understood.’ Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principals which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.”  (John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicea, p. 45)

Jesus is Lord

“‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ (Isaiah 40:13)  But we have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16)

Jesus as Holy Wisdom of God
Jesus as Holy Wisdom of God

 

“Indeed, it is quite astonishing how Paul uses Old Testament texts, speaking of Yahweh with clear reference to Jesus (e.g. Rom. 10:13, 1 Cor. 2:16). Most striking of all is the application of one of the sternest monotheistic passage of the OT (Isa. 45:23) to the exalted Jesus in Phil. 2:10 – a hymn already in circulation before Paul took it up. Here quite clearly ‘Jesus is Lord’ has become a confession not just of divinely given authority, but of divinity itself.” (James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p 56)

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:9-11)

Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’  (Isaiah 45:21-23)

Elder Aimilianos on The Good Samaritan

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Archimandrite Aimilianos comments on how the unfortunate man of the parable is really each of us.

“After this, St. Makarios tells us that ‘all creatures saw the king who had been given to them.’ The sky, the earth, the animals, and all the angels and heavenly powers, had been placed under a king. Who? Man. Yes, man was made king even of the angelic powers because whereas they are ministering spirits, sent forth to serve (Heb. 1:14), man was created a king, according to the image of God (Gen. 1:26). ‘They saw the king who had been given to them become a slave of evil powers.’ He who had been given authority over all the angels, and was exalted over all heaven and earth, became the slave of a fallen angel. ‘Then his soul was cloaked in darkness, bitter and evil, for he was now the slave of darkness. He was the man who ‘fell to robbers’ and was ‘left for dead’ on the road ‘from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:30-37).’ The man in the parable was Adam, although all of us, in our own way, retrace his steps, and fall victim to the same spiritual robbers. See the sermon ascribed to St. Basil, On the Passions 9: ‘He (i.e. the devil) managed to drag man down from Jerusalem to Jericho: from the high place to the valley, because Jerusalem sits on a hilltop, whereas Jericho lies below the level of the Dead Sea. Leaving the security of Jerusalem, man fell among thieves, who wounded him and stripped him of his garments. First came the wound, then the stripping. The wound of the soul is sin. The stripping is the removal of the soul’s garment of incorruption. And this happens because sin obliterates the grace given to us in Baptism. Thus fornication is a wound, as is adultery, and so is resentment and envy, and all other such things, which strike the soul like a band of robbers; these robbers are the demons, who, by exploiting our impulse to sin, attack and wound us. And after the wound comes the stripping. If we were speaking of bodily things, the stripping would precede the wound, but here the wound comes first, so that you might learn that sin precedes the loss of grace, which was given to us by the Lord.” ( The Way of the Spirit, p 240)