Is Free Will the Curse?

The Grand Inquisitor: with related chapters from The Brothers Karamazov (Hackett Classics)

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor”, the inquisitor blames Christ for the mess humans are in because God chose to give free will to humans and humans are not capable of making right decisions and thus because of God are doomed to hell.   The inquisitor accuses Christ of failing to take over human free will and by allowing us to choose love – or not—leaves humans with no real hope of attaining heaven because we seem incapable of using free will for the good.  Free will for the Inquisitor is a curse that God imposed on humans and so God is to blame for human sinfulness.  David Bentley Hart in That All Shall Be Saved sees the issue very differently.  This is the 4th post in a blog series reflecting on Hart’s book.  The previous post is An Eternal Hell?

For Hart, “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is”   (That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2386-2386).   What is also true is that all humans grow up in the world of the fall, and therefore never are fully free, but rather are tainted by all the effects that sin has on the world.  For God to hold us fully accountable for our choices would require that each of us really starts life in a fully potential position where we are not yet influenced by the world.  Since none of us can have that perfect potential, we are at a disadvantage from the moment we are conceived.   Hart believes God takes that into account when God judges us.   God does not hold against us what we cannot control or what we inherited, and recognizes that none of us is perfectly free.  God’s patience with us and mercy toward us is thus perfectly just.  God’s mercy is based both in God’s perfect love and God’s perfect justice.

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It is our imperfect condition which makes it impossible for us to fully and freely reject God.  Our understanding of God and our experience of God is already colored and distorted by our experience of the fallen world.  So we never reject God as God is, but always our image of God, which is distorted by our experience of the sinful world.  St Paul appeals to ignorance and unbelief in 1 Timothy 1:13 to explain why he rejected Christ – his understanding was incomplete and God did not hold this against him.  The same is true when Christ dying on the cross forgives his murderers because they didn’t know what they were doing.  St Paul in 1 Cor 2:8 says the rulers killed the King of Glory exactly because they didn’t understand who He was. He really is providing a defense for them that they are not guilty of deicide (though some Orthodox hymns say otherwise ignoring Christ’s forgiveness of them in the Gospel).

You can reject a glass of wine absolutely; you can even reject evil in its (insubstantial) totality without any remainder of intentionality. Neither of these things possesses more than a finite allure in itself. But you cannot reject God except defectively, by having failed to recognize him as the primordial object of all your deepest longings, the very source of their activity. We cannot choose between him and some other end in an absolute sense; we can choose only between better or worse approaches to his transcendence.  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2562-2565)

Hart feels this in itself makes an eternal hell as punishment for unbelievers as an injustice.  He believes if we really knew God, we would not reject God.  What we reject is our false ideas about God.   We can only attain a perfect understanding of God when we are able to set aside the effects of the fall on ourselves.   St. Peter Damaskos says:

“We are punished for our lack of repentance, and not because we had to struggle against temptation; otherwise most of us could not receive forgiveness until we had attained total dispassion. But as St John Klimakos again observes, ‘It is not possible for all to achieve dispassion, yet all can be saved and reconciled with God’”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30139-43).  [St. John Climacus  (d. 649AD) wrote: “That all should attain to complete detachment is impossible.  But it is not impossible that all should be saved and reconciled to God ” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 304). 

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Everyone could attain salvation, but what we cannot attain is that perfect state in which we could completely, freely choose to accept or reject God.  We are  born into the world of the fall, so our thinking is distorted by sin from the moment we are born.  God is just and so does not hold that against us but rather recognizes we are never free of the effects of the fall, of sin and evil.

There is another issue which Hart raises and that is our ideas about God treat God as one among many things in the universe rather than as the source of all things.

…certain modern Anglophone Christian philosophers, formed in the analytic tradition, to abandon the metaphysics of classical theism that Christian intellectual tradition has unanimously presumed from its early centuries, in favor of a frankly mythological picture of God: God conceived, that is, not as Being itself—the source and end of all reality, in which all things live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28)—but merely as one more being alongside all the beings who are, grander and older and more powerful than all the rest, but still merely a thing or a discrete entity. (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2506-2510)

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Because God is being itself, we can never fully separate ourselves from God or completely reject God.  A belief that we have such power to reject God is based in a false idea of God to begin with.   It is not as if we can leave God’s presence or enter into God’s presence.  All we can do is make ourselves more or less aware of our relationship to the Creator.   We all live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28) – this is the very world in which we live, the atmosphere we breathe.   This is why even the old division between Jew and Gentile, between those who keep Torah and those who don’t fails to grasp what the human dilemma is.

Paul’s Adam as first human, who introduced universal sin and death, supports his contention that Jew and gentile are on the same footing and in need of the same Savior.  …  The resurrection of Christ showed that the real problem was Adam and the universal problem of the reigning power of sin and its nefarious partner, death. These were at work long before the law (Rom. 5:12–14), and so Christ’s resurrection—death’s reversal—was clearly a solution to a much deeper problem than the law. To say that the law is neither the real problem nor the solution is in effect saying that Israel’s story is not God’s sole focus. The main drama began with the first Adam and ended with the last Adam. That is why being a Jew or gentile is no longer the primary distinction among humans, but rather being or not being “in Christ” is. The heart of Jewish identity is therefore marginalized, and the God of Israel and his salvation are denationalized. Jews and gentiles share the same plight, and Jesus came to solve it. And all of this stems from Paul’s rereading of his Scripture in light of the central and prior conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead.   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3055-56, 3066-73)

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All humans suffer from the same plight of growing up in a fallen world which distorts our experience or lack of experience of God.   Christ comes to heal that which is lacking in all of us.  Christ comes to unite all of us to God so that we will lacking nothing in our lives and God will become all in all (Ephesians 1:23).  Hart asks rhetorically,

Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature?   (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2673-2675)

Hart does not think that is possible for it represents a contradiction in terms.  If the end of all things is God in all then how could there be an eternal hell in which God is absent?  How could anyone be someplace where God is not if God is all in all?    This can only happen if in fact God’s goal for creation is never fulfilled – and that for the omnipotent God is not possible.

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The existence of an eternal hell of torment for sinners, raises a question:  Is hell good or evil?  On the one hand, if hell is evil and accursed, then we should avoid it.  If it is evil, God could not have created it for God is not the source of evil.  So, if it is evil, it has no real existence but exists only in some parasitical form coming into existence only as the good creation was corrupted, and therefore itself is temporary, not eternal.  If God didn’t create it, then it has no eternal value.  If it is accursed, it will be done away with when Christ comes in His kingdom.    On the other hand, if hell is good because it is created by God, then to be sent there by God is to do God’s will.   One will not be punished for doing God’s will.   It will have some benefit and good value to it.  It will bring about God’s will, and God will fill it with Himself as well and make it a place where God is encountered and we are united to God.

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The notion of an eternal hell calls into question a basic idea in theology which Orthodoxy has treated as absolute and non-negotiable: God is love.  Everything God does is love.  Everything Christ did as the incarnate God, a human person, is for our salvation.  Everything including judgment!  These two aspects of dogmatic theology question whether God would from all eternity have planned an eternal hell or whether, rather, God’s eternal plan always is the same: love.  God’s plan is God’s action toward creation, not God’s reaction to creation.  Death, Hades, hell, all come into being only as part of creation (and the fallen world) – they are not eternal but serve a purpose of purging everyone from sin.  They too will accomplish their purpose.  God’s plan from the beginning has never changed – to unite all that God created to divinity, to share God’s love and life with all God creates.   As God heals creation and makes all things new and becomes all in all, those things which are not part of God’s eternal plan will disappear.   God’s plan will be realized.

Next: Salvation

The Restorative Justice of God

Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom

“If you want to understand God’s justice in an unjust world, says the prophet Isaiah, this is where you must look. God’s justice is not simply a blind dispersing of rewards for the virtuous and punishments for the wicked, though plenty of those are to be found on the way. God’s justice is a saving, healing, restorative justice, because the God to whom justice belongs is the Creator God who has yet to complete his original plan for creation and whose justice is designed not simply to restore balance to a world out of kilter but to bring glorious completion and fruition the creation, teeming with life and possibility, that he made in the first place. And he remains implacably determined to complete this project through his image-bearing human creatures and, more specifically, through the family of Abraham. […] The Old Testament never tries to give us the sort of picture the philosophers want, that of a static world order with everything explained tidily. At no point does the picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order. What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice. This project is a matter of setting the existing creation to rights rather than scrapping it and doing something else instead. God decides, for that reason, to work through human beings as they are – even though their hearts think only of evil – and through Israel, even though from Abraham onward they make as many mistakes as they do acts of obedience. Both in the grand narrative itself, and in many smaller moments within it, we observe a pattern of divine action, to judge and punish evil and to set bounds to it without destroying the responsibility and agency of human beings themselves; and both to promise and to bring about new moments of grace, events which constitute new creation, however much they are themselves necessarily shot through with ambiguity.” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, pgs. 64 & 73)

Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman

Revealing Temptations

SerpentEden“Those Christians who truly love God prove their love by bearing temptations and are strengthened in love: they are tested, like gold in fire, and by this testing become friends of God. On the contrary, those who do not love God ‘fall away as dross, since giving way to the enemy they leave the field of battle laden with guilt, either because of the laxity of their mind or because of their pride. They were not worthy to receive the power that the saints had working with them…’ In this way, temptations reveal who is a friend and who is an enemy of God, who is faithful and who is not. Temptations are therefore that ‘crisis’, a judgment before the Last Judgment, where the separation of the sheep from the goats takes place.” (Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pgs. 98-99)

Mercy for All

There is always a challenge to following Christ and living according to His teachings.  We are to be holy as God is holy, and yet we are taught to practice hospitality, forgiveness, patience  and mercy with the sinner.

St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) writes:

“A very clear proof of the fact that a soul has not yet cut loose from the corruption of sin is when it feels no sympathizing pity for the wrongdoing of others but holds instead to the strict censoriousness of a judge. For how can someone attain perfection of heart if he does not possess what the apostle described as the Law’s consummation when he said, ‘Carry one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2)? How can he do so if he does not possess that virtue of charity ‘which is not annoyed, is not boastful, which does not think evil, which endures everything and is a support for everything’ (1 Cor. 13:4-7). For ‘the just man has compassion for the live of his beasts, but there is not pity in the hearts of the unjust’ (Prv. 12:19). And therefore it is most certain that he yields to the very sins which he condemns in someone else with unmerciful and inhuman severity. ‘The stern king will tumble into evil’ (Prv. 13:17). ‘He who shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will himself call out, and there will be none to listen to him’ (Prv. 21:13).” (Conferences, pg. 149)

Romans 12: Challenging Christian and Atheist America

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

St. Paul Preaching Christ Crucified

Christianity often is a challenge to Christians.  Just consider the words above from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:14).   For those who claim religion is a crutch, try supporting yourself on those words.  See if they make life easier in some way.

How many blessings have American Christians composed for their current enemies?

How many Christian politicians would dare compose such blessings?

How many Christians would vote for those who did?

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

(Romans 12:17-19)

What was St. Paul thinking when he wrote the words above?  Are we to allow ourselves to be persecuted?  What does it mean to treat with nobility those who do evil to us?

Are we to let Hitlers and Stalins and bin Ladens run rampant on the earth?   Murdering millions including children?

Certainly these teachings are not crutches for the weak.  They are rather hurdles and traps that give us little comfort in our decisions.  They do not support ideas of humans demanding retribution or revenge.

Christians will have to look elsewhere for that morality.  St. Paul allows for Christian martyrdom – the imitation of Christ, voluntary suffering – not Islamic fundamentalist “martrydom” which murders innocents and children.  There is no justice based on “an eye for an eye” here.  No just war theory.  No “holy” war.   There is an ethic here and a logic which is not a human demand for justice.  It is based in the logic of the Cross and of the Crucified God.

St. Paul sees in Christ God’s love which is unfathomable deep.   This is not human justice, but divine love.

Can we trust God to exact justice and retribution on enemies?  Are we willing to hand such justice over to Him and accept whatever He chooses to do?

No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them;

if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;

for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

(Romans 12:20-21)

Christ taught us to give food and drink to the least of His brothers and sisters.  St. Paul says we should do the same to our enemies.

This is no crutch for believers to lean on.   It is a challenge to the very ground on which we stand.  We are not to heap fiery coals upon the heads of our enemies, but rather food and drink.  Or reversing the thought we are to heap food and drink on them.  Such love according to St. Paul will be experienced by them as being burned alive.

Replace armies with generous foreign aid to repay our enemies?   Will believers believe this will really work?

St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:14-21 do not make believers comfortable, do not make life more palatable for Christians, do not prop us up by making life easier.

They no doubt for some place burning coals on our own heads.   How many biblical literalists want these words of St. Paul posted in every courthouse or read by military chaplains to the troops or pronounced by our presidents in response to terrorist attacks?

Scriptures often do comfort the afflicted, but they also afflict the comfortable.

If we take St. Paul’s words in Romans 12 to heart, who are the sinners and who are the righteous?  Agreeing to be a Christian, taking up the cross of Christ is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with weak knees, nor for the spineless.

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;  

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away.  

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;  

for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

(My note:  normally, 3 mornings each week I do Matins during which we read the Scripture assigned for the day according to the Orthodox lectionary.   Following the reading of the Scripture, we have a few minutes of silent meditation.   Romans 12 was the Epistle for today, and what I wrote above is the meditation I had while contemplating the words of St. Paul.) 

The Wise Thief

The Wise Thief

 “The Wise Thief,

You made worthy of Paradise,

in a single moment, O Lord.

By the wood of Your Cross

illumine me as well, and save me.”

St. John Chrysostom wrote:

“Master, did you bring a thief into paradise?  Did your Father send Adam out of paradise for a single sin, and did you bring in the thief who was guilty of countless crimes and ten thousand acts?  Did you bring him in with such ease and with a single word?  And Christ says, “Yes, I did. But my Father did not oust Adam by himself and without me, nor did I bring the thief into paradise by myself and without my Father.”   (St. John Chrysostom, ON THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE NATURE OF GOD, p 240)

Holy Friday - The Crucifixion of our Savior


The Prophet Moses

Christ and Moses

Through Great Lent and Holy Week, excerpts from two books of Moses from the Torah are read: Genesis during the week days of Great Lent and Exodus during Holy Week.  Moses is portrayed in the Scriptures as God’s chosen servant, but He also serves as an intercessor for the chosen people before the Lord God.  He advocates for the people – despite their rebellious sinfulness, Moses intercedes with God that He will not judge and destroy them in His wrath but rather that He will save them from evil.  Even when God is wrathfully angry with the people, Moses intercedes for them.   Moses prefigures Christ, and is an advocate on earth for Israel.  Christ ascended into heaven as high priest and is once and for all our heavenly intercessor.  Christ reconciles us to God eternally.  So Christ indeed not only fulfills the prophecy that God will raise up for His people a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:22), but one who exceeds what Moses was able to do.   Christ leads us not to an earthly promised land as Moses led the people, but as we sing at Pascha Christ leads us “from death to life and from earth to heaven.”

“Moses clearly perceives the seriousness of the situation, both the gravity of Israel’s sin and the burning rage of divine wrath. Yet as God’s chosen prophet he does no simply acquiesce to the script that lies before him. He does not kneel in obedience to the whims of the deity. He stands in the breach between God and his people and attempts to make amends. “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people,” he begins, echoing the words of God himself, “whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” These are not my people, Moses counters, they are yours, those you led out of Egypt. Moses does not stop there; this is not a matter of linguistic precision about the status of the elected nation. He launches a frontal attack on the very character of God. “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains…’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind,…Remember Abraham, Issac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land I have promised I will give to your descendants and they shall inherit it forever.’” With this Moses rests his case. And the verdict? “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”” (Gary A. Anderson, In Dominco Eloquio – In Lordly Eloquence, pg.22)  

Moses refuses to be saved apart from God’s people.  He does not want to be saved himself if God is not going to save all of His people.  In identifying himself so closely with the people, Moses wins God’s favor for the people because God is not willing to destroy His chosen servant Moses.  If Moses is choosing to identify himself with the people of God, then God will save the people in order to save Moses.

Christ too though He is God identifies with God’s people for our salvation.   Christ descends from heaven and becomes incarnate as a human to completely identify Himself with us in order to save us from sin and death.  He identifies Himself with us to save us from any impending judgment against us – through His life, death, resurrection and intercession, He cancels all of our debt to God and all the righteous judgment which could have been visited upon us.  He restores us to God, ending all enmity between us and making us again an object of God’s love by canceling the debt of our sin.


The Prophet Job

During Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, excerpts from the Book of Job are read.   The Prophet Job is seen as a prototype of a righteous man who suffers at the instigation of Satan.

Job has three friends who show up to sit with him during his sufferings, and they advocate that Job drop the “self-” righteous attitude and admit that his suffering is just due to his personal sins and obviously is from God.   The Book of Job though offers a challenge to that notion of righteousness which demands that all suffering is the result of sin and shows God’s disapproval of the suffering person.  Jesus who is the suffering servant and messiah, like Job is blameless before God and yet suffers – not because He sinned but in fulfillment of God’s will.

“The three friends lecture Job directly and never speak to God. Job responds to them, but significantly he turns from them often in order to address God (the Almighty, or El Shaddai). It is here that the author is once again true to life. Job oscillates between despair and ardent faith. He argues with God, and even if he cannot find God (23:8-9), he never stops yearning for a confrontation (9:32-35; 13:3; 16, 22; 16:18-22; 31:35-37). This is the stuff of spiritual conflict, the dark night of the soul, which countless people have experienced.” (Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life – An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, pg.38)

Publican and Pharisee (1994)

   Sermon Notes:     PUBLICAN AND PHARISEE            February 20, 1994

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men; extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’  “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’  “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”   (Luke 18:9-15)

For those of us Orthodox who have travelled many years on the road to God’s Kingdom, the Parable of the Publican & Pharisee is as familiar as the most common street sign. This is one reading we hear every year as we prepare ourselves to enter in to the Great Fast. We know the message of the Parable – God does accept those who repent and those who are humble. And in turn God turns a deaf ear to those pride filled persons who give themselves high marks for every deed and who harshly judge their neighbors. We are asked to remember this message, not just so we can be better people, but because we believe the goal of all behavior is salvation itself.

The Parables of Jesus give us a glimpse into the very mind of God, a God of judgement and mercy, of righteousness and forgiveness, of perfection and love. This is the God who says, (Isaiah 55:8) “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.

As shocking as anything in the parable is the presence of the Tax collector in the temple – the people of Jesus’ day would assume him to be an unclean sinner, not a temple goer. Not only would they assume that he did not go to the temple, but they would assume it quite proper for him to stay out of the temple. He is after all a sinner, and God is a God of rigtheousness. And the temple is the place of the Holy – the Holy God and God’s holy people. Surely a sinful tax gatherer has not place in the holy temple. Those listening to the Lord would indeed be surprised that such a sinner would dare come into the temple.

But this is part of the spiritual problem that God’s people are often tempted with. Apparently, God’s people at the time of Christ, expected the Messiah to come in order to usher in a new age of righteousness, where God would condemn sinners and judge the ungodly, and destroy all that is not in agreement with their commonly held views of what is good. They looked to God and the Messiah to be the executioners of pure justice on the world. And they saw themselves as being spared this justice and judgement as if any faults they had were merely the results of themselves being victims of the evils of the world.

But the view of many of these people was mistaken. For in their rejection of the world around them, in their hatred for all that was wrong with the world, in their righteous anger against sin and sinners, they forgot that God is love.

There is a truth about the God of love which is paradoxical.

The justice of God is based upon love and mercy. The justice of God can accept the unjust and the ungodly and can judge the virtuous.

Justice is not the highest good. Love is the highest good. Love is God’s greatest strength. In love He is willing to set aside justice in order to forgive, to show mercy, to be patient, to be kind, and even to suffer for us.

The Righteous Man in the Parable is the Pharisee. He rightfully can boast about not sinning, of praying, fasting and tithing. All the people who heard Jesus would have known this. But his righteousness is born out of a harsh judgementalism of himself and his neighbor. Because He believes in the God of justice and judgment, He harshly condemns himself for his own faults. And so feels he can also properly condemn everyone else who does not live up to his standard of piety. He comes to believe He speaks with the authority of God Himself in judging his neighbor.

The unholy and ugly man of the Parable is the Publican, that tax collector who does not even apologize for his sins or offer to make reparations for the wrongs he has done as Zacchaeus did. He stands afar off and calls himself a sinner and begs God’s mercy. And rightfully so, because he doesn’t stand a chance in you know what of laying any claim to heaven. He is a rotten sinner, a theiving, cheating, tax collector, who has gotten rich at the expense and suffering of others. And as St. John Chrysostom says, there is no particular virtue in his calling himself a sinner when in fact he is one!

So if he is such a sinner, which he himself admits, and if he is overly bold to dare to show up in the temple, kind of like Howard Stern showing up at Liturgy one day, how come the Lord says this man is the one whom God accepts?

I believe Archbishop Anthony Bloom got it quite right in his book, BEGINNING TO PRAY, when he said that unlike the harsh Pharisee, the Publican understood mercy. As a man who continually took money from others, and no doubt saw many beg him for mercy, as a man who thrived in a world of competition, cruelty, and heartlessness, he also knew what it was to unexplanably pardon a debtor, to show compassion to a desparate person, to unexpectedly and completely illogically extend a kindness to some poor, hopeless wretch. He the tax gather knew what it is to collect debts, he understood what it was to be in the power of someone else and to have nothing left to do but beg mercy. It is that man, that tax collecting sinner, who could believe in and hope for a God who is merciful, kind, and forgiving. A God who for no deserved reason, pardons all debts, purely because He is love. It is the man who understands mercy because he has granted it to some undeserving wretch, who is able to believe in the God of the Bible. Such a man can understand the great power wielded by one who is able to forgive a debt. Such a person is able to pray to God, and to go forth and show love and mercy to others because he knows God loves and forgives him for no deserving reason.

My friends, let us flee the pride of the Pharisee and let us embrace the tears and humility of the Publican. Let us truly love one another. Remember, Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety. Prayer is your relationship with God. How you pray and what you pray for reveals that relationship. If prayer is merely self assertion before God, then one is not in need of God’s mercy, grace, salvation. If one does not need anything from God, there is nothing to be received.

There are others who need your love and forgiveness even though they don’t deserve it. You need to give your love and forgiveness to them in order to open yourselves to God. As we move toward the celebration of Pascha and the complete forgiveness of our sins, the cancelling of all of our debts, the removal of all punishment for wrong doing, let us understand the great mercy and love of God, and so let us go forth and love and forgive each other, and show mercy to every person we meet. Amen.

The doors were closed in fear…

In the days after the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the apostles went into hiding, according to John’s Gospel (20:19).   They were afraid of the Jews.  Behind closed doors, Jesus met with those to whom He had entrusted His mission and ministry.  He wished them His peace and then showed them his wounds (20:20).

This cheered the fearful apostles a little (20:20).

But Jesus gave them little time for comfort, for his next words were these: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (20:21).

In other words, he expected His disciples to overcome their fears and secrecy and to leave their hiding place and go into the world as apostles – carry God’s Good News to all humanity – just as He had done through His life, death and resurrection. 

He had just showed them His wounds, His message was clear:  Go into the world, in love as I have done, and love the world.  Suffer and die for the salvation of the world.  Don’t be afraid, this is the way of glory for God’s people.  He wished them peace as He told them to go into the world to suffer as He had suffered for the sins of the world and for its salvation.

Last week, the OCA’s synod of bishops also met behind closed doors, in closed session.  It is possible like the apostles in whose succession they are, they too have fears which is why they close the doors.  They have much to discuss, as they have many problems and issues to deal with.  They seem to have much to fear as well – lawyers, allegations, lawsuits, scandal, the Internet, their flock, declining membership, clergy sexual misconduct, clergy abuse, financial mismanagement, the press, public opinion, secularism, democracy, crises, inadequacies, transparency, the past, the present and the future.  These are “the Jews” whom the successors to the apostles fear today and so stay behind closed doors.  A week after they meet, their deliberations remain locked behind those doors, for fear of their “Jews.”

We can pray that Christ will appear to them the next time they assemble behind closed doors, in closed session.  Perhaps He will give them peace, certainly He will tell them to leave the confines of their hiding place, to open the doors and go into the world to teach all that He commanded.  This time around though I think he needs to show not just the mark of the nails and the place where the spear pierced his side – still open and yet transfigured wounds.  He needs to show that He is still bleeding from these wounds, He needs to show the tears on His cheeks as He weeps for His Church, for its wounded members, for the leadership which imagines it can lead from behind doors which are closed in fear of the …

The only things we really need to fear is God and His judgment, and that we can fail as disciples to be His Church.