The Sunday of the Loving Father

A connoisseur of fine wine pays attention to the details of the texture and flavor of the wine.  Because Jesus teaches us using parables, we have to become connoisseurs of the stories, noting the various hints and contours of what Christ has created for us in order for us to fully savor what He is revealing to us.  His parables are not meant to be guzzled or gulped down but rather are to be slowly imbibed in order to experience and enjoy the complex and deep lessons.

Though the Gospel text Luke 15:11-32 is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it probably is better termed the Parable of the Loving Father.  Note how Christ starts the parable:  “A certain man had two sons..” – the “man” of the parable, the father of the two sons, really is the central character in the story.  Christ doesn’t begin by saying  there were two brothers or that there was a man who had a father and an older brother.  Christ is telling a parable about the man, the father, the character who holds the whole parable together.  The story is like an icon triptych with the two brothers being the side panels, but the father being the central panel and the main focus of the triptych.

There are many details in the parable we could focus on to understand either of the two brothers, and in Orthodoxy the most frequent reference point is the younger brother coming to his senses and deciding to return to his father – an image of repentance in these pre-Lenten days.

One thing we might explore is how what the younger son asks from his father compares with the Lord’s prayer – both are addressed to the Father.  The younger son says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”  Contrast this with the Lord’s prayer in which we say:   “Our Father … thy will be done … give us this day our daily bread.”  In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for enough bread for the day not for everything our Father might give us in a lifetime in one day!   The Prodigal is not interested in his father’s will and certainly he is not concerned about having his needs met for the day, he just wants to self-indulge right now.

When the younger son returns to his father, he says:    ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy (Greek: axios) to be called your son.’  The Prodigal Son acknowledges his own unworthiness to be called a son.  He uses the word “Axios” which is used of the candidate at an ordination service in the Orthodox Church.    We also see in this the son defining in his mind the nature of “sonship” – it is about worthiness, about earning the position (this actually is also going to be the same attitude as the older brother – both brothers misunderstand their father and his love and the nature of sonship!  They don’t see the father giving them his love, they see themselves as earning their way and thus deserving  his  gifts – they really both are hired servants).   The Prodigal realizes as a result of his own behavior,  he is not a very worthy child, certainly not worthy of his father’s favor.  He thinks that at least maybe he can be a hired employee of his father.  But he has a very distorted view of what it is to be child of his father.  He sees his father as the big daddy with the big bucks – the man who has all the power and he is trying to wrest some of that power to his own advantage.  This by the way is what many ancient people thought was how to approach the many gods who infested their world – manipulate them to get things from them.  They didn’t love their gods, they used them to get what they wanted from them, and so too the gods used the people for their own purposes and needs.  No love in that religion.

But note that the younger son does not ask for forgiveness from his father nor does he do anything to seek reconciliation with his father.  In his mind there is no way he can earn sonship back so he skips seeking reconciliation and looks to get hired on which is how he basically sees his father; besides he has already taken all the property and wealth that he could claim.   He fails to understand what it means to be a child.  What he still doesn’t understand is his father’s love is given freely, it is not earned, it is not deserved.  In the whole parable, the father has not run out of love for his son.  The son may have taken away half his father’s property and all the wealth he, the son, is entitled to, but he has not taken away all the father’s love nor could he ever squander all the love his father has.  The father is still full of love which he eagerly gives to the son.  That should be obvious in the parable. The father continues to treat the son as son and shows that for the father sonship is a relationship of love that can’t be lost or taken away.  If being a child is defined in terms of inheritable property this young man is in trouble, but this father has little concern for the property value which has been lost.  That is nothing compared to the relationship he has with his child.

Quite literally: The father has nothing but love for his child.  He has nothing but love to give to his child.

When the father talks to the slaves (Greek: doulos), he commands them as slaves (doulos) to dress the son and adorn him and prepare a feast for the son.  The father has plenty of slaves who have to obey him, but he is not interested in another obedient slave.  He wants a son, a child not another hired servant.  The father loves his son and the father clearly treats his slaves like slaves.  But the father wants this child to be his child, not just a hired servant.

The older brother also has trouble understanding what it is to be a child of his father.   First, I would note that the slaves in the parable do understand there is a difference between themselves and the brothers.   The slaves say, “your brother has returned”.  Your father is celebrating the return of your brother.  The servants know they are servants, but this missing child of the father, the prodigal, he still is his father’s son.  The slaves know there is a difference between themselves as servants and a child of the master, but the father’s own children don’t understand this distinction.  They act as if they are nothing more than hirelings themselves.

When the elder brother hears the party for his brother in full swing,he refuses to go into the father to talk to him but  rather, makes the father come out to him (In effect, he treats his father like his servant!  Come here, I want to talk to you!) (Note the father also went out to greet the prodigal on his return – the father is willing to leave his home, to leave everything behind, in order to maintain or restore the relationship with his children).  The elder brother says “these many years I have served (douleuo) you, I have never transgressed one of your commandments.”  The elder brother sees his years of living with his father as nothing more than servitude.  The elder brother whines that for all these years I have been your slave and totally obeyed you, though I resent it.   He has not been a son acting in love but a slave.  And it bears repeating, the father doesn’t want another obedient slave, he has plenty of those.   He wants a son, a child, one who shares his life, his love and all his earthly goods.   [St Symeon the New Theologian, in one of his poems has God saying this: “… ‹to learn› precisely that I am God creator of all things, (Sir 24.8) to know and understand that the person sitting in the deepest pit has been reconciled to Me, (Ps 87.7) and converses with Me without mediation like a friend to a friend, (Ex 33.11) having passed beyond the rank of hired servant and the fear of slavery, serving Me tirelessly, attending Me with love, associating with Me by obedience to the commandments. I do not mean those who serve Me as employees, nor again those who come to Me as slaves, but I speak of those who are my friends, familiars, and my sons by their actions.”   (Divine Eros, Kindle Location 9096-9108)   A very similar theme to what we see of the loving Father in the ‘Prodigal’ parable.]

The Elder brother harshly accuses the younger brother of consorting with prostitutes (15:30) yet early on (15:13) all the text says is that the younger son lived as a prodigal (wasteful, extravagant, excessive, self-indulgent) life.  The text doesn’t list any sins of the intemperate younger brother.  The older brother is sure that his younger brother is not merely foolish but a sinner and evil.

The father accepts his lost son back, but the elder son sounds just like the Pharisees at the beginning of this chapter in  Luke 15:1-6  –

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’

The elder brother is a Pharisee – he accuses his father of receiving sinners and eating with them.  The father is the good shepherd who goes out to seek and find the lost and celebrate being reconciled with them, no matter why they left to begin with.

The father says to his elder son:  Child (teknon, child, but this time doesn’t call him  my son!), you are always with me and own everything  (note in vs 12 the father divided the proper and gave it to them (autois in the plural, not just to the younger son but to both sons!).  The father is saying,  you are my son, not my slave!   Be merry and rejoice!   I don’t want your obedience I want your love and joy.  I want to be with you.  The father says, by law all that I have is yours – but what he wants his son to have is love and joy which no law could make him accept or do!  The father wants a relationship with his child that is based in love not law.  The father is quite willing to do whatever the law requires, but his heart is in loving his children.

There are many lessons for us to learn from this parable and we can like wine connoisseurs savor the many lessons offered to us.   We might also think about applying the lessons to ourselves.  Which of three people in Christ’s parable are you?

The prodigal child – initially wasteful and foolish, who repents and begs mercy but who doesn’t believe he could ever be a child of the father because he is unworthy.  The father loves him anyway and embraces him despite his faults and despite the fact that he can’t buy or earn the father’s favor.

The elder son – diligent and hardworking, faithful, but lacking in mercy, love and forgiveness, but who also thinks the father’s love must be earned.  He too doesn’t s believe the father freely gives his love.  Thus he is angry that the father shows himself to be loving, merciful, forgiving and generous to both his undeserving brother and to himself.  He doesn’t believe in the father’s grace or love.  He won’t forgive his brother or his father or himself.  Really he rejects his father freely giving him or his brother good things.  The elder brother is saying, “I earned your favor, you aren’t giving me anything, I worked for it.”

The father –  full of hope, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness who is ever striving to bring about reconciliation and unity and to uphold what he values so dearly for his family?  He gives freely and generously to those who are his children, and he holds no grudges, and he forgives all debts.

Jesus tells us to love one another as He has loved us.  He has loved us like the father in the parable loves his children.  Are we willing to do the same?

Feeling the Sting of the Good Samaritan Parable

Many people have noted that Jesus was not crucified because he tried to please the powers that be or because He told stories that were too hard to understand.   He was executed exactly because his actions caused apprehension to the people in power, and his teachings and parables clearly stung those who held positions of authority.

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Perhaps as one way of understanding the sting of the parables we Americans might consider the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) retold in a way that we feel what Christ’s listeners would have felt.  To do so we may have to tell the parable in two versions so that the opposite pole antagonists in America can hear the parable with the same burning bite Christ’s audience would have felt. [And note, I kept the story in the “he” just to be consistent, but you can tell the story in the “she” for the same effect for the point of my retelling lies not in the gender of any of the people involved.]

Version 1

A Republican went down from a red state to a blue state, and fell among illegal immigrant thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain Orthodox priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a successful business person arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Democrat, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, brought him to the emergency room, and staid up with him all night making sure he was cared for. On the next day, when he departed, he took out his credit card and told the hospital billing department, ‘Take care of him; and since they stole his wallet and he doesn’t have any money, or an ID, or an insurance card, whatever  you spend, charge it to my account.’ “So,” Jesus asks, “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And we said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said,, “Go and do likewise.”

Version 2

“A Democrat went down from a blue state to a red state, and fell among gun toting thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain Orthodox priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a community organizer arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Republican, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, brought him to the emergency room, and staid up with him all night making sure he was cared for. On the next day, when he departed, he took out his credit card and told the hospital billing department, ‘Take care of him; and since they stole his wallet and he doesn’t have any money, or an ID, or an insurance card, whatever  you spend, charge it to my account.’ “So,” Jesus asks, “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And we said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said,, “Go and do likewise.”

In America today, we seem totally divided as Democrats vs Republicans – every bit as divided as were Jews against Samaritans. But we claim to be a Christian nation.  So are we going to stop beating each other up like a bunch of thieves, leaving the others for dead?  These thieves are not the heroes in Christ’s parable.  Are we instead going to understand that what makes America great, what has been a strength sparking our ingenuity is our very diverse population?   The melting pot forged an American alloy which has proven quite strong and resilient in a world of adversity.

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We don’t have to agree on every issue, and in fact that is going to be impossible in a diverse culture.  But what makes our nation strong and great is that we have found ways to unite ourselves as a people despite our disagreements.  We were able to unite very diverse peoples in our Revolutionary War and we defeated the most powerful empire of that day.  Our Founding Fathers found the way to get people who disagreed on a great many things, and who had greater loyalty to their state than to a country, to work together as one nation under God to form these united states, a more perfect union.  The lessons and examples are there to be learned.

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand…”  (Matthew 12:25)

Our Focus on and Love for God

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The Lord Jesus spoke this parable:  Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

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But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?   (Matthew 21:33-42)

This is yet another of the parables found in Matthew’s Gospel in which a king/ master/ landowner attempts to settle accounts with his workers.  In all of them the ‘master’ of the parable is looking to get what is his due.  The master is not portrayed as being unfair, overbearing or wrathful, but wants to receive what is rightfully his.  In the above parable, we see the landowner enters into an agreement with some workers who are leasing the land to gain some profit for the labor.  However, when the landowner attempts to get what is rightfully his, the workers abuse and kill the landowner’s servants.  Amazingly the landowner shows no sign of wrath for this rebellion.  First, he sends more servants who are also abused or murdered, then he sends his own son imagining that the workers who don’t respect his servants will respect his won.  Instead the workers murder the son as well under the total delusion that the inheritance will be theirs once the son is dead.  But note in the parable it is not Jesus who says the landowner will come in wrath to destroy the rebellious workers.  That is the statement of those listening to Jesus, and the Gospel lesson suggests it is the answer of those who oppose Jesus.   Jesus suggests to them that if you really think God is wrathful and will destroy those who disobey Him or kill His prophets, then why aren’t you following your own vision of God and repenting?  Instead Christ’s opponents are plotting to kill Him, even though they believe God is vengeful and wrathful towards those who disobey Him and maltreat His servants.  Jesus is challenging them – are you willing to deny that I am serving God?  It is a question they are loathsome to answer because they know the masses believe Jesus’ miracles and teachings are a sure sign that He is from God (Matthew 21:46).

We see a similar image of God being portrayed as patient and merciful in several other of the parables in Matthews Gospel:

In Matt 13:24-30, The parable of  the man who sowed good seed in his fields but then an  enemy came at night and sowed weeds in his fields.   Despite the stunning evil done to him,  the man does not want his servants to uproot the weeds immediately, lest in so-doing they damage the good plants.  The weeds will be destroyed later, but nothing more is said about the enemy who did the evil.

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In Matt 18:21-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant.  The master at the beginning seeks only what is rightfully his, but is unimaginably forgiving and merciful, canceling a ginormous debt.  He is no wrathful judge.  He only shows anger when the forgiven servant refuses himself to forgive.

In Matt 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers and the vineyard – the master generously pays even those hired at the 11th hour the same as those hired from the first hour.   The master never show any sign of wrath, but those hired first are very angry and  [perhaps ‘rightfully’] resent the master’s generosity to the late comers.

The parable in Matt 22:1-14, the King’s wedding banquet, starts off in a similar way to the above parables.  The king’s servants are abused and killed though they are out inviting people to a wedding banquet!  The people’s reaction is totally outrageous, yet the king sends more servants to invite the guests, but only when the second round of servants are murdered and abused does the King become angry at how his servants are treated and he destroys the rebels, but then brings in all kinds of ‘undesirables’ to join his feast.

Even in Matt 25:31-46, the parable of the last judgment, the Son of man does not display unwarranted wrath toward those who are deemed fit for hell.  He actually speaks with them and answers their question, and states that though hell wasn’t intended for them, since they refused to show mercy and compassion toward Him, they would now received their just reward.  As they gave (or failed to give!), so they got what was their due.   Judgment is not based on their sins but only on their failure to be merciful.

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Still overall, the parables if they are portraying God to us do not give us the image of sinners in the hands of an angry God.  They do not portray a God of wrath who treats His subjects as He wishes because He has power over them.    God is plenty merciful and patient, giving everyone plenty of opportunities to show themselves merciful, forgiving, generous, grateful and willing to do His will.

In the writings of the Church Fathers, we encounter a clear idea that the difference between Christians and unbelievers is we Christians are to focus on God in our daily lives and demonstrate our love for God.  We keep God before us at all times and aim to please God.  When we take our eyes off God to look at the world or what others are doing, then we behave like unbelievers.

The  4th Century (?) monastic and patristic author now called Pseudo-Macarius   (‘Pseudo’ because for a long time the writings were credited to St Macarius of Egypt, but it is clear in the writings that the author is from Syria, not Egypt.  So now most people believe they are attributed to the wrong person) uses clear imagery about what he thinks non-believers are like.  He said those who do not focus on God and who are not concerned with pleasing God are like flour put on a big sieve and shaken and tossed all about.  He says when we don’t have God as a focus we become easily shaken by whatever is happening in the world.   Just think about all the people who are forever checking their cell phones, computers, and cable news to hear the latest political scandal sound bite from their political enemies.  They can’t wait to hear what trash is being dug up, and get totally upset by what they hear.  And since they get riled up by every bit of news, they are exactly being shaken and tossed about by the news and the world.  Pseudo-Macarius says that is how Satan works.  He constantly wants to rile us up and get us distracted and upset by what is going on so that we never pay attention to God.

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We believers see the same world as everyone else – including the non-believers.  The difference should be that we Christians are permeated by the peace of Christ and by the love of the Holy Spirit.  We should live as if we have already passed from death to life (John 5:24) and so aren’t distracted by every little bit of news.  We should not be tossed about like flour in a sieve, unable to focus on God because we allow ourselves to be distracted by everything around us.

St. Paul says as much in his epistle to the Corinthians:

Brothers and sisters, Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.  (1 Corinthians 16:13)

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We are to be vigilant, with our eyes on God.  That will allow us to stand firm in the faith and not be tossed about by every distraction.   Then we have to be courageous and strong to do God’s will, rather than allow ourselves to be moved by every distraction which captures our attention or upsets us.  “Play the man” is what Paul tells us all.  Man up.  And he combines that thought with the words, “let all you do be done with love.”  We don’t always associate courage with love.   It takes courage to hold to one’s moral values, when the world opposes those values.   It takes courage and strength to love God and to love neighbor despite all we hear on the news.   It takes courage and strength to stand against what the world (and our own mind!) says and to do what Christ tells us – love your enemies.  It takes courage and strength in today’s world to do what Christ tells us at the Last Judgment –  feed the hungry, welcome the homeless and shelter them, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison.

Parables: Many Faceted Stories

6248333844_fff10d033f_mThere was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ 

 

8270092319_af5d79afc2_mBut Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”   Luke 16:19-31

Through the 2000 year history of Orthodoxy, many sermons have been preached on the Gospel parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  The sermons have taken into account the time and place in which the sermon is given – using the Gospel lesson to shape a pertinent message to those listening to the Gospel.  We encounter one such interpretation of the parable in a hymn from the last Wednesday of Great Lent.  It is a message meant for monks in a monastery – people who have given up all claims to personal possession and sot social status.  The parable is interpreted allegorically – it is not about opposing the rich to the poor but rather it is about “me”.  For each monk is called upon to see themselves like the rich man – rich in the gifts from Christ – but poor like Lazarus, not in money but in spiritual understanding.  I made reference to this interpretation of the Gospel lesson in a previous blog, Rich in Passions or Poor in Sin? .  The Gospel is being proclaimed as the living Word of God, so it speaks to everyone who hears it, even those communities which have no distinction between rich and poor.

We could also see in the Gospel lesson how our blessings can blind us.  The rich man is satisfied with his life, fat and happy.  He feels blessed but because of this he sees little need to pay attention to the world beyond his household, or even beyond the table at which he sits eating sumptuously.  The poor Lazarus is right at his door step, but the rich man has no reason to take notice of him.  he is blinded by his blessings.  It is something we Americans might want to think about.  We too can be blinded by our prosperity, good fortune, possessions and blessings, thinking we are favored by God.  In fact, we sing: America, God she His grace on thee.  Exactly like the rich man, blind to the bigger picture of the world around him, or the smaller picture of the insignificant beggar lying neglected at his gate.

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The Gospel lesson reminds us that life in this world is not all there is to our human life.  There is the world which is to come.  Abraham speaks even fondly to the rich man suffering in Hades:  ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.’  Abraham tells the rich man, you had a blessed life on earth, but guess what that isn’t all there is to life.  Life on earth is only a small part of the big picture.  We like the rich man can be so absorbed with this life that we totally ignore that we will continue life in the world to come, and that life is not going to be merely a continuation of this life – that life involves answering for this life.  The two lives are related, but connected by a judgment.  This world alone is not the total story of humanity.  There is life in the world to come, which is shaped by our life in this world.  Like the rich man we can decide we have enough or we want more of this life, so no need to think about any life beyond the grave.  However, life is more than one’s possessions.  If we have been paying attention, we’ve heard Jesus say:  (Luke 12:23)  –  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.   If we live for this world alone, we will wake up one day and realize we are some place we don’t want to be, and the chance to change that condition lies in the past, back on earth which we no longer can access.  

I’ve heard it said that there is a saying attributed to the monks of Mt Athos  which says,   to enter into eternity, you must be able to see eternity in the eyes of another human – your neighbor, brother or sister, or in the eyes of a stranger.   This of course requires that we have the eyes to see our neighbors, family members, fellow parishioners, or strangers. And not only do we have to take notice of them, but we have to look into their eyes, to really see who they are and how heaven is visible in their eyes.    Otherwise, we are just the rich man of the parable, self absorbed in our own good enough lives, basking in what we think are our riches, enjoying our life while ignoring the chance to see eternity because we blind ourselves to others all around us.  Ignoring the salvation which God is revealing to us in the people around us, we are the rich man satisfied with our own life and so cut ourselves off from others and their sorrows, needs and suffering.  To see eternity in the eyes of another, we have to notice others exist and be open to seeing eternity in them.  The rich man was oblivious to eternity laying at his door step – the beggar Lazarus.  How often God puts people in our lives for no reason but to give us opportunity to see eternity in their eyes.  If we don’t want to be bothered by them, we lose the gift God has laid at our doorsteps.

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Remember, St. John says in his epistle:  If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.  (1 John 4:20-21)

The life of every Christian is both defined by the Gospel, and is also a retelling of the Gospel.   The people of the world often have no access to the Gospel other than how it is narrated through our lives.  They aren’t going to pick up a bible to see what’s in it.  They are going to look at us and are going to read us to know what our God is like.

The poor Lazarus looks to the rich man to see if God is real, good and kind.  The rich man can live Torah, can care for his fellow human and show that poor man that despite his poverty and suffering, God is good and God is real.

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The world looks to us to see what God is like, to encounter the Gospel.  That Word of God has to be written on our hearts, and our lives are the voice enhanced ereaders, narrating to others what is written on our hearts.  God has called us to be a light to the world, to show the Gospel to others by how we live.

Telling the Secrets of the Kingdom

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”  Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  (Luke 8:10)

In the 4 Gospel accounts, the word “Kingdom” (of heaven or of God) appears some 115 times.  The Evangelist Matthew uses “Kingdom” the most – 52 times, while the Evangelist John only mentions it twice.  Depending how you count the sayings, Matthew uses parables, metaphors or pithy statements thirteen times (25%) to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to something more familiar to his listeners: a sower of seeds, good seeds, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a fishing net, a householder and his treasure, a king settling accounts with his servants, a householder hiring laborers for his fields, a king and the marriage feast for his son, wise and foolish maidens and their lamps, a man entrusting his property to  variously talented servants, and the separating of sheep from goats.

These comparisons give us a sense that the Kingdom may be different than we imagine – for all parables require some interpretation, but Jesus does not tell us exactly how the Kingdom is like these many different common scenarios.  The Lord leaves their interpretation open ended, for his disciples to hear and and grasp the hidden meaning.  Yet, He says the secrets of the Kingdom are given to them. The meaning of the ambiguous parables and enigmatic aphorisms are the secrets of the Kingdom of God which Christ is gifting to us.  The parables, metaphors and apothegms often defy common logic or our sense of “justice” causing us to have to lay aside an earthly sense of correctness in order to see or hear the hidden meaning.  They are like photos of a common object, taken from an unusual perspective – it can take us a long time before we realize what we are looking at, if we ever figure it out.

By describing the Kingdom in terms of parables, Christ moves us away from thinking about the Kingdom purely in terms of commandments, rules, regulations, or rubrics.  Christ uses the comparisons paradoxically – the Kingdom of heaven is like… – to give us a sense that it is like nothing we can imagine.  The parables and metaphors of the Kingdom turn out to be an apophatic way of thinking about the Kingdom exactly because Christ doesn’t explain how the things mentioned are able to enlighten us  about the Kingdom.

The parables of the Kingdom have been proclaimed by Christians for nearly 2000 years.  They are the true teachings of Christ, timely in every generation and situation, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not itself changing.  Whether the Faith is prospering or being persecuted, whether the listener is rejoicing in blessings or surviving through suffering, the Kingdom of God remains the same.  It is a reality not affected by our times or by our mental state.

St. Paul whom God chooses to proclaim the Kingdom, discovers that being faithful to God can leave one in perplexing circumstances.  If one believes faithfulness to God is going to automatically yield prosperity, just read 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9, in which Paul describes soldiers hunting him down to arrest and kill him, and then also suffering personally some “thorn in the flesh” – an affliction he attributes to Satan, perhaps a serious, disfiguring illness which God will not take away from him.  Despite these setbacks, he remains faithful to that Kingdom which can be compared to seeds and sowers, talented servants as well as sheep and goats.

Even in the face of such terrible recent disasters – hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, wild fires in California, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas – the Kingdom of God remains the same reality revealed to us in the Gospel lessons.  Despite our worries about health care, and divisive politics, policy turmoil, soaring drug related deaths, the Church calls us to remember the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we can remain properly oriented in an uncertain world.   The mystery of the Kingdom, helps us to keep our feet on firm ground, even as the sands shift and the water rises against the house.

The Gospel does give us an answer to current worries – it gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God.  It is just that this insight is not necessarily the answer we think we need to solve all our problems.

The Lord Jesus taught 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!”  (Luke 8:5-9)

Understanding Seeds and Parables

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  (Matthew 13:8-10)

“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).

The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?

If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?”  (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)

St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Sower of Seeds

In Luke 8:5-15, the Lord Jesus tells the following 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.

 

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes about the types of persons represented by the three types of ground upon which the seed of the word fell. Concerning those of the first kind he says:

No sacred or divine word will be able to enter those who have minds that are hard and unyielding, for it is by the aid of such words that the joyful fruit of virtue can grow. Men of this kind are highways that are trodden by unclean spirits, and by Satan himself, and they shall never be producers of holy fruit, because their hearts are sterile and unfaithful. (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 41)

The second kind have

a religion without roots…when this kind of person goes out of the church, he immediately forgets the holy teachings he has heard there. And as long as Christians are left in peace, he keeps the faith, but as soon as persecution arises, he will be ready to take to flight in search of safety.

This holy Father finally exhorts us not to allow the cares of this world to choke the tender shoots of faith and commitment as soon as they sprout from the soil of our hearts and minds. We must not be deceived, thinking that thorns and new shoots can exist side by side.” (Archbishop Dmitri, The Parables, p. 14)

The Parable of the Vineyard: Let’s See Results

The Gospel Lesson: Matthew 21:33-42

The Lord Jesus spoke this parable:

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

Fr. William C. Mills comments:

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

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

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)

 

Hope for the Rich Young Man

The Gospel Lesson of Luke 18:18-27 describes a rich, young man coming to talk to the Lord Jesus.

At that time, a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” 

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. 

And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?”

But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

Fr. Lev Gillet comments:

 “There are those who refuse to follow Jesus; such was the young man who ‘became sorrowful, for he was very rich.’ What became of this young man?

We would like to think that later he came back to Jesus, giving everything. We are permitted to cling to such a hope by the very fact that when going away, he ‘became sorrowful.’ Not incensed or (not of)  bitter, but sorrowful.

Therefore he was repenting of it… Grief bears fertile seeds.

If I refuse, at least let me be sad about it!”

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue With the Savior, p 59)