Isaiah’s Parable

The Lenten reading for the 2nd Monday of Great Lent from the Prophecy of Isaiah 5:1-7:

 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.   He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?  When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?  

I find Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard to be for me, deep in my heart, a most troubling and unnerving story.

 For God is asking us to answer the very question so many of us ask Him, WHY?  

Why does Israel yield wild grapes instead of good ones? 

Why are there such problems in the Church?

Why does evil so often seem to prevail?

Why, asks God, after all that I did, did you fail to bear fruit?

Doesn’t HE know?  Does He really think we should know?

Why doesn’t God do something about what’s wrong with the church – with hypocritical Christians and failed leaders and those who are aggressively ambitious and those who are in the church but are just plain evil?

And God is troubled about the same things we are and He asks us to explain why, to give account for ourselves and our church.

He is not at all pleased and demands an accounting of us.  We are equally displeased and wonder why doesn’t He correct the problems and deal with the malefactors?

Synergy versus stalemate.  God is not going to do for us what we need to do for ourselves.  As the Lord tells Moses when Moses believing he is following God’s will leads the people out of Egypt into the entrapment between Pharoah’s army and the Sea of Reeds:  “Why do you cry out to me? YOU tell the Israelites to go forward”  (Exodus 14:15).   God has high expectations for His people. 

Isaiah continues:

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

Oh Lord, remember how to be merciful to us, as you headed the plea of the murderer Cain  who complained his punishment was too harsh and you put your mark on him to protect him.  Lord, save us from your wrath and from ourselves.  God asks us why we, the vine which He planted and so meticulously cultivated, have failed Him?   It is Lent, this has to break our hearts.  We cannot answer, but we can weep for the state of affairs we are in.

“O Lord GOD, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

The LORD relented concerning this; “It shall not be,” said the LORD.

This is what the Lord GOD showed me: the Lord GOD was calling for a shower of fire, and it devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.  Then I said,

“O Lord GOD, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

 The LORD relented concerning this; “This also shall not be,” said the Lord GOD.

 (Amos 7:2-6)

The Expulsion of Adam & Eve from Paradise (Hymns)

The book of Genesis as a whole, and Genesis 1-3, holds a special interest to me in studying theology.  You can search my blog to see how often I comment on a theme from Genesis, and I wrote a long series of reflection on Genesis 1-3 in my book, QUESTIONING GOD.  Currently I am reproducing on my blog a series of reflections I wrote on Genesis 4-11.  I hope one day to continue by writing reflections on the rest of Genesis beginning with chapter 12. 

 In this series of blogs I will be quoting and commenting on hymns from the Sunday before Great Lent begins which commemorates the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.   It is a wonderful theme but in Orthodoxy today seems to take a back burner to “Cheesefare” and “Forgiveness Sunday.”   The fact is that the Sunday themes of Great Lent reflect several layers of development, with the newer layers being monastic themes, while the oldest layers are catechetical themes.  This reflects the historical development which took place in Orthodoxy where Great Lent was originally a time of preparing catechumens for baptism, but as the empires and nations which embraced Orthodoxy lost this more missionary and outreach emphasis, they eventually turned Great Lent inward toward the existing Christians and  into  a discipline aimed at encouraging Christians to embrace monastic ideals which were often viewed as more fully keeping a Christian way of life.  One can readily see this in the Sunday Epistle and Gospel readings where there are Scripture readings which do have a catechetical nature to them mostly from the Gospel According to St. Mark and then there are the newer set of readings which have monastic themes (Sts. John Climacus, Gregory Palamas, and Mary of Egypt).  Palamas lived in the 14th Century, which gives us the clear sense that his memory a Sunday theme of Great Lent is relatively recent on the Orthodox scale of time).  

The hymns for Vespers on the eve of the Sunday before Great Lent are totally dedicated to the theme of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise.  So too the Canon from Matins is dedicated to this theme.   I thought it worth reproducing these texts throughout Great Lent as well, and offering a few comments on them because they are so important to our understanding of Great Lent, repentance and salvation in Jesus Christ. 

 Genesis is a book of theology – it is theology in narrative form or as St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, the book of Genesis is “not so much history as ‘doctrines in the guise of narrative.’”  God chooses to reveal what we receive as the doctrines and dogmas about Himself in the form of narrative.  Those who reduce Genesis 1-3 to literal lessons in history or try to make it to be science lose the depth and riches of the revelation found in the text. 

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”   (Romans 11:33)

St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) reports one discussion he has with the monks in Egypt regarding the heresy of the Anthropomorphites whose absolute literal reading of Genesis had led them into theological heresy as they took every word deed and action of God described in Genesis 2-3 to be absolute historical fact and thus ended up understanding God in totally human terms.   A sympathetic view is offered of the Anthropomorphites whose literalism was seen as resulting from their simplicity – they simply were not able to think in abstract terms so their literalism caused the meaning of Genesis to be hidden from them which led them into theological error.  They brought one learned monk to attempt to help these monks out of their heretical reading of the Scriptures.

“He asked him how the Catholic churches of the East interpreted the words in Genesis, ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness’ (Gn 1:26).  Photinus explained how all the leaders of the churches were unanimous in teaching that the image and likeness of God should be understood not in an earthly, literal sense but spiritually.  He himself demonstrated the truth of this in a lengthy discourse and with abundant scriptural evidence.”   (CONFERENCES, p 126)

Cassian’s discourse goes on to explain that the problem with the simple, literalist interpretation of the Scriptures doesn’t come from demonic deception but rather from paganism.  Paganism gave human form to the gods they worshipped, and when these people converted to Christianity they brought this same simplistic understanding of their gods as humans to the God of Genesis.  He says no one reared in the Catholic Tradition of Christianity would make this same mistake.

So as we read Genesis 1-3, we need to recognize the theological import of the text and not overly simplify the text because it is more comfortable to read them in a literal fashion.  We Orthodox have the Tradition of the Church in which to read, listen to, comprehend and interpret the Scriptures.  The Orthodox hymns commemorating the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise are part of the Tradition in which we interpret the Scriptures.

Next:  Vesper Texts of The Expulsion of Adam & Eve (1)

God Questions His Creation

God Questions His Creation:  A Look at Genesis 4-11

In the autumn of 2007 I decided to continue a project I had begun earlier in the year – writing a series of reflections on the Book of Genesis.  During Great Lent of 2007, I wrote daily reflections on Genesis 1-3, which I emailed to my parishioners at St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church, Dayton, Ohio.  That effort resulted in those reflections being collected and published as the book QUESTIONING GOD: A LOOK AT GENESIS 1-3

The response from those who read the reflections was positive and some encouraged me to continue writing such meditations.  I took up that work deciding to write daily reflections on Genesis 4-11 and emailed them to my parishioners each day of the Nativity Fast in 2007.  This is a collection of those reflections which I am now reproducing in this series of blogs.  Since during Great Lent, we Orthodox read through Genesis, I thought this an appropriate time to release these meditations.

These reflections are not a dogmatic treatise.  I did not set out to write an exposition of the Orthodox Faith.  Rather, the ideas expressed herein are my reflections that arose from repeatedly reading and praying through Genesis 4-11 during a 4 month period.  As in the earlier work, sometimes I provide no answers but recorded questions that came to my mind about the text.   That is for me part of the reflection process – forming questions that the text suggests.  As I studied the text I recorded ideas that I found in books I was reading about Genesis.  I scoured Patristic commentaries, and liturgical texts for references to the events and people recorded in these scriptural chapters.  Some of what occurred to me is simply word and theme associations to other Scripture passages or liturgical texts which I added to my reflections.

Consequently the meditations which follow the scripture passages are a collection of ideas, not a continuous thread.  Each paragraph following the quoted scripture verse is a separate thought and not meant to be read continuously like the paragraphs of a novel.  My hope is that you the reader might also find reason to pause and think about the scripture to which each reflection refers.  While I hope these reflections do touch upon issues of contemporary concern and will help the reader wrestle with living the Christian life, it is also my intention that you will be inspired to ask questions about the scriptures and to further reflect on them yourself.

It is neither wrong nor necessarily bad that the writings of the Bible trouble us, or challenge our thinking, or cause us to seek further clarification and understanding.  All of these things can be part of healthy spiritual growth and maturation of faith.   I hope that you will come to see the Scriptures as a rich and abundant garden which one enters to enjoy the variety of scents, colors and tastes, and to become nourished by the life-giving fruit.

I do welcome your thoughts and comments in the next months as I produce this series of blogs.  I intend eventually to make the entire series of blogs electronically available in a PDF format.  If at some point you think you would like to purchase a copy of these blogs as a book – let me know.  I would consider self -publishing them as a book if enough people are interested in purchasing a copy.

A Glossary of Terms for GOD QUESTIONS HIS CREATION is at

The bibliography I used for GOD QUESTIONS HIS CREATION is at

Next:  Introduction (A)

Truth and Meaning, Science and Theology

questioning-genesisIn the Christian world there is much discussion about what the Scientific Theory of Evolution represents to theology:  a challenge, a denial, disproof of God, bad science, truth, or an alternative way of seeing the universe.  For my part having read a fair amount of literature on the topic I place myself in the realm of scientific theism or theistic science.  I believe in God but I do not read the Bible as a scientific text.   I think of science and theology looking at the origins of humanity in the same way that I think of a botanist or chemist considering a rose as versus a poet or lover.   The scientists can give us an exact and absolutely true analysis of creation from a materialist point of view.  However, their truthful analysis does not tell us at all what a rose means to people, or that a rose can have great symbolic meaning, or that there can be a truth behind how the rose is used (a sign of love, appreciation, victory, remembrance), or that beauty itself has value.

As for those Orthodox who like to point out that the Patristic writers tended to read Genesis 1-3 rather literally, I also point out they were not materialistic scientists like we have today.  If we want to read the Patristic fathers as scientists then we have to embrace the science that everything in the universe is composed of fire, water, air and earth and that the human body consists of the four humors, for that is exactly what the Patristic writers believed scientifically – they accepted uncritically the ideas of science, all derived from pagan sources, as absolute truth.  I have to think that they would have equally accepted the ideas of modern science as uncritically because they weren’t writing as scientists but as theologians.

The limits of modern science – since it is based in atheistic materialism – have been noted by many different writers.   One such comment I read recently comes from Mark Schwehn  in his book  EXILES FROM EDEN subtitled “Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.”    Schwehn writes:

atomicbomb“The natural sciences can teach us what we must do if we wish to master life technically, but they cannot and hence should not consider the question of whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.  Jurisprudence can teach us which legal rule or procedure is best for attaining a given purpose but it cannot and should not consider whether there should be such purposes and procedures.  The historical and cultural sciences teach us to understand and interpret literary and social phenomenon but they dare not ask whether any given phenomena is worthwhile.  In sum academicians may clarify values but they dare not promulgate them within the walls of the academy.  They may teach you that if you believe x you must believe y and that if you want a given end you must also want certain inevitable means to it but they may never engage in ultimate questions of meaning without violating their vocational obligations.” 

doublehelixHuman reason can carry us only so far in gaining an understanding of the universe.  At some point pure facts and pure reason fail us in that they cannot convey with absolute certainty meaning, value, right and wrong, or good and bad.  Then humans have to turn their reason to other considerations in how to measure and evaluate the universe.   Some embrace religion.  Of course some then confuse religion with science.  They are not he same thing and do not give us the same sense of true, good and right.   DNA is factual and true but cannot be measured in and of itself in terms of right or wrong, good or evil.  Genetic engineering on the other hand raises questions about the meaning of life, good and evil, right and wrong for now we are using the facts for purposes and these purposes and uses are not mere facts and are not value neutral.  They have implications for all of life, for the future of humanity, for who survives and who doesn’t, for who rules and who is made subject, of who is valued and who isn’t. 

For me the bottom line is that God is true whether or not the Theory of Evolution is true.  Evolution cannot undo the truth about God.   Conversely if Evolution is true it is true whether or not there is a God.  God’s existence cannot undo the truth about the created world.   Science can tell us many things about what we can do in this world, but it cannot tell us whether or not we should do them.  That requires understanding the meaning of life and the truth about good and evil, right or wrong.   We cannot learn that solely from science.