Caring for the Poor: Lending to God

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Romans 5:17-21)

Adam, Eve and Jesus
Adam, Eve and Jesus

In Western Christianity there has been endless debate about justification, especially between Reformers and the Roman Catholics but also between various Protestant denominations.  Righteousness and justice are grouped as synonymous terms, often interpreted in a juridical way.  But righteousness can also mean holiness more than legal justice, which seems to me how it is interpreted more in the Orthodox tradition.  Righteousness can also be equated with salvation.  When the first generation of Lutheran Reformers approached Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias to discuss theology, they changed the language in their documents to read “salvation by faith” rather than “justification by faith.”  They were savvy enough to realize this would sound more theological correct to the Orthodox.

Apparently at one time in Judaism, righteousness/ justice was also  used to mean almsgiving/ charity.  Certainly if one reads the New Testament substituting almsgiving for righteousness  we get a totally different view of God and salvation [Try it in the quote above from Romans 5:17-21)].  Biblical scholar Nathan Eubank writes:

“The Ancient rabbis used to tell the story of King Munbaz of Adiabene, a first-century C.E. convert to Judaism, who emptied his storehouses to feed the hungry during a time of famine.  The king’s brothers were outraged and demanded that the king explain why he would throw away the family’s great wealth.  In response, the king argued that by feeding the hungry he had acquired a greater, longer-lasting fortune.  He cited Psalm 89:15 to prove his point: ‘Justice (tsedeq) and judgment are the foundation of  your throne.’  The rabbis commonly understood ‘righteousness’ when it appears in the Hebrew bible to mean ‘almsgiving.’ Read in this light, the psalm seemed to promise that possessions given to the poor would earn treasure in heaven, under the very throne of God.

Jesus speaking with the rabbis
Jesus speaking with the rabbis

 King Munbaz explained: ‘My ancestors stored up treasures below, but I have stored up treasurers above . . . in a place where the hand cannot reach’ (Tosefta Peah 4.18).  According to the rabbis who recorded the tale, this Gentile king learned that the best way to prepare for the future is to give to the needy and be rewarded by God, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.  The belief that God faithfully repays good deeds has deep roots in the biblical tradition, going back well before the birth of Christianity.  As Proverbs 19:17 puts it, ‘Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full.‘”  (“The Repayment of Good Deeds in Matthew’s Sermon”, THE BIBLE TODAY, January/February 2017)

The notion that God receives every gift of alms we give to the poor and stores it up for us in heaven was widely believed and taught in the early church and is common sermon fare among the Cappodician fathers.   Whether or not they were familiar with this Jewish tradition, I don’t know, but obviously they came to the same interpretive conclusions about what the Scriptures taught about the importance of charity.

Sometimes philosophers work so hard to get a word to mean  only one thing, so that they can use that word in one and only one way.  Sometimes, to understand the Word of God, we have to move in a different direction, realizing the depth and layers of meaning found in a word or phrase.  Read again St. Paul in the text below putting in almsgiving/ charity where the text says righteous/righteousness.  We begin to hear another message about God which is consistent with the theology that God is love.

Jesus and Moses
Jesus and Moses

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.  (Romans 3:21-26)

Christmas: Becoming Truly Human

When we did the Vespers of Christmas on Friday evening (December 23), the very first hymn from the “Lord I call upon You…” verses really caught my ear as it seemed to capture so many of the theological lessons of the Feast of the Nativity.

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord,
as we sing of this present mystery:
the wall that divided God from man has been destroyed;

[In Ephesians 2:13-16, St. Paul refers to the “dividing wall”: “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.   But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” (Emphasis is mine and not in the text)  

2nd Temple

 For St. Paul, we Gentiles especially were separated from God – we did not have the Law and we fell under the power the demons whom we spiritually served.  But Jesus Christ ended that separation and we in Christ have been made part of God’s people.  Certainly if one studies the layout of Herod’s Jerusalem temple, we get the visible, physical sense that there was a wall (several!) separating the Gentiles from God.  St. Paul says, and the hymn certainly picks up this theme, that any “wall” which had separated us from God is abolished.  Whatever wall had been built to divide Gentiles from Jews or humanity from God is destroyed by Jesus Christ.  In its place, we have been built into a living temple.   So new construction took place – the dividing wall was demolished and now we are built as the walls of the temple – nothing separates us from God for God abides in us His temple.  In St. Paul’s day, he would have known of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  Christ Himself replaces that demolished temple.  Christmas celebrates the removal of all walls and divisions between God and humanity!   We have access to God, to God’s Kingdom, to heaven where God abides. (Sadly, at times in Orthodox thinking the “dividing wall” gets rebuilt and seems to be preferred – iconostases and doors and curtains are built some say to make us feel our exile from God.  Laity are separated from clergy by such walls.  We recreate walls separating Orthodox from Jews and non-Orthodox Christians.  Men and women are separated, as are monks from the rest of the laity.  We would do well to consider what our Nativity hymns tell us about the complete elimination of such walls.)   Almost all of our Feasts of Christ and the Theotokos have in one form or another a theme of the dividing wall being torn down  – heaven is opened to us, the Holy of Holies is opened to us, Paradise is opened to us.  God is united to humanity, heaven and earth are joined together.  If theosis is true, there are no walls separating us from God, nor would any baptized Christian be separated from any other.]

the flaming sword withdraws from Eden’s gate;
the Cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life;

[In Genesis 3:24, as a result of the sinful disobedience of Adam and Eve, God expels them from Paradise and creates the dividing which prevents our immediate return to Paradise.  “God drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”   According to our theology, in Christ the gate to Eden is opened to us again – the Cherubim no longer prevent us from accessing the Tree of Life.  Christ’s cross is the Tree of Life and all baptized believers have complete access to Paradise and eternal life.  No walls of any kind separate us from God, the Holy of Holies , Paradise or Heaven.  Neither should we rebuild what God destroyed!]

and I, who had been cast out through my disobedience,
now feast on the delights of Paradise:
for today the Father’s perfect Image,
marked with the stamp of His eternity,
has taken the form of a servant.

[Christmas is the “today” on which “I” and every “Adam” and every Christian experiences the Paradise which had been denied us because of sin.  The Law just ended up building a bigger wall between humanity and God, since humans proved incapable of keeping the Law.  It is the Word of God becoming incarnate, taking on human flesh, in Jesus Christ which unites us to Heaven.  It is not our doing – we can’t attain Heaven by perfectly keeping Torah or Tradition.  It is not a matter of our trying harder – pray more, fast stricter, repent more deeply, attend more and longer services.  It is Christ in His person who heals and saves us.  We are gifted with salvation – we put on Christ in baptism and thus receive union with God.  We continue to experience that salvation in and through the sacramental and liturgical life which inspires us to the moral life.  Nothing separates us from God, there is no more exile.]

Without undergoing change He is born from an unwedded mother;
He was true God, and He remains the same,
but through His love for mankind,
He has become what He never was: true man.
Come, O faithful, let us cry to Him:
“O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us!”

[As the early Christians said it, “God became human so that humans might become God.”  The first part of this is the Nativity of Christ!  The incarnation makes theosis possible.  The Theotokos is the true sign of this salvation.  God became that which is “not God” – God became human to lift humanity up to union with divinity.  This is what God has wished and worked for throughout history since the time of the sin of Eve and Adam.]

A Brief History of the Feast of the Nativity

“The Feast of Christmas on 25th December developed in the West at the beginning of the fourth century. The Christian celebration of the birth of the Sun of Righteousness (cf. Malachi 4:2) soon spread from Rome and was well established in the Eastern empire by the late fourth century, although it was not until the sixth century that the Feast was fully accepted in Palestine. This celebration of the Nativity of the Lord owes much to the fact that major theological questions about the divinity of Christ had been resolved at the Council of Nicea in 325, and the liturgical texts strongly emphasize Christ’s divinity.

In the historical event of Christ’s birthday, the Lord’s humanity is quite obvious, but the Feast is not only about a human birth; it is about the human birth of the second Person of the Holy Trinity and the implications of the Incarnation for the salvation of the world. There is constant interplay in the texts between the visible details of the event and the invisible reality of what is taking place as God the Son, the eternal Word, takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and is born at Bethlehem.” (John Baggley, Festal Icons of the Christian Year, p 31)

Thinking About What Is True

St. Paul can write to the Philippians,

‘Whatever is true,

whatever is honorable,

whatever is just,

whatever is pure,

whatever is lovely,

6610275955_be682b1052

whatever is gracious,

if there is any excellence,

if there is anything worthy of praise,

think about these things’

(Phil. 4:8).

Because in thinking about these things, Paul says, our minds are on Jesus Christ. In the next chapter of the same letter he says, ‘Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true’ (Eph. 5:8-9, emphasis added).

Conversely,

anywhere there is deceit or distortion of truth;

where there is a degree of denial on however a deep a level;

game-of-thrones

where we are dishonest- out of convenience or out of the need for power or gratification or out of misinformation or ignorance – or if we are ‘living a lie’;

there is a distance from Christ himself.”

(Peter Bouteneff, Sweeter Than Honey, p 33)

 

 

Adam’s Death And God’s Mercy

One aspect found in Patristic writings is that the authors always viewed God through the lens of “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).   This was considered to be an unvarying, non-negotiable truth, never up for interpretation or revision.  So all the passages in Scripture in which God appears to be only just or even cruel or capricious were viewed by them through the lens that God is love.  They felt the problem was not God appearing to be different in different bible passages, but our inability to understand God or to read the Scriptures correctly.  We are limited, one-sided creatures, and so we write about God and interpret Scripture to mean that God is something other than love.  We even have a need for this at times to justify our own actions.  These Patristic writers, however, felt we had to hold to the truth that God is love even when that truth seems to conflict with what the Scriptures literally say.  The very fact that God is Trinity, testified to them all that God is love, for the Three Persons of the Trinity abide in a unity of love.  They felt the literal reading of the text was the problem, God remained love no matter how we read the text.  So we see St. Gregory the Theologian (d. 389AD) reading the passage in Genesis 3 where Adam is expelled from Paradise and in which death becomes part of human existence.  While reading the words of the passage, he still sees the text as bearing witness to the love and mercy of God.  He does not see this as a passage about God’s justice and anger, but rather how God limits evil in our lives.  Death prevents us from sinning eternally.  Death prevents us from moving away from God forever.  Death prevents sin and evil from becoming eternal powers in our lives.  Thus for St. Gregory, even when God appears to punish, it turns out to be another form of God’s love and mercy.

“This being (man) He placed in Paradise, having honored him with the gift of free will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of choice); naked in his simplicity. Also He gave him a law, as a material for his Free Will to act upon. This Law, was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the The Tree of Knowledge. But when the Devil’s malice and the woman’s caprice, to which she succumbed as the more tender, brought to bear on the man, he forgot the commandments which had been given him, he yielded; and for his sin he was banished, at once from The Tree of Life, and from Paradise. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death, and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus punishment is changed into a mercy; for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.”  (Gregory of Nazianzos, On the Birthday of Christ, p 7)

Seeing the Lord

“We are now able to discern the great difference between seeing the Lord and having the Lord appear to us. Seeing the Lord indicates what man may discover of divine attributes in proportion to his abilities and saintliness. In this sense, man can never attain a perfect vision of God. As for the Lord appearing to us, in this he unveils his own self to us according to the abundance of his love, mercy and goodwill. In his appearance, God reveals himself in all his depth to man. He takes upon himself the task of sanctifying man and offering him all the power by which he may discover God’s glory: ‘For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10). With this distinction between vision that results from endeavor and saintliness and vision that results from the gratuitous appearance of the Lord, we may understand the difference between the verses occurring in the Old and New Testaments that confirm at one time the impossibility of seeing God and at another time the possibility of seeing him.

On the impossibility of seeing God, we find God saying to Moses, ‘Man may not see me and live’ (Ex. 33:20). We find the Spirit saying, ‘No one has ever seen God’ (Jn 1:18). St. Paul, moreover, says, ‘I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen’ (1 Tim. 6:14-16).

At the same time, we find verses that prove that God actually revealed himself to Moses, Isaiah, Job, and others in the Old Testament. As for the New Testament, ‘all flesh have seen him’ (cf. Is. 40:5; Lk. 3:6) in accordance with prophecy. According to St. John ‘the life was made manifest’ (1 Jn. 1:2). Christ says, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn. 14:9), also promising that ‘he who loves me….I will love him and manifest myself to him’ (Jn. 14:21). Again St. Paul also preaches, ‘For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10). From all this, it becomes clear that what had been impossible for man to reach by effort of worthiness, that is, to see the Lord, has become possible with the appearance of the Lord. The appearance of the Lord is an act of love and a gratuitous work of grace, for the attempt to see the Lord is impossible for man to realize except for a small part. This part is proportionate to man’s chastity, love, and obedience to God’s commandments. As for the appearance of the Lord, it is granted to man unconditionally and without any effort or worthiness on his part. For God grants ability and saintliness to man by which he may see God as he is, that is, as God may wish to reveal himself at will.” (Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, pp 86-87)

Revealing Adam: The Transfiguration

Although the events of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) fit so well into Orthodox incarnational theology and salvation as theosis, the Feast of the Transfiguration became universally celebrated throughout the Orthodox world relatively late in history.  It was celebrated in certain parts of Orthodoxy, but the fact that it ended up in the middle of the Dormition Fast is one sign that it became popular universally later than other feasts and fasts of the Church.

Be that as it may, the Feast of the Transfiguration does fit nicely into Orthodox theology, bringing together so many elements from the story of creation, the fall and salvation in Christ.  The festal Apostikha hymns especially reveal how the feast reveals the theology of salvation.  First we note in the hymns the claim that it is the pre-incarnate Christ who speaks to both Moses and Elijah.  There is an assumption in Orthodoxy that all of the anthropomorphic encounters with God in the Old Testament are encounters with the pre-Incarnate Christ.

HE WHO ONCE SPOKE THROUGH SYMBOLS TO MOSES ON MOUNT SINAI  SAYING: I AM HE WHO IS!   WAS TRANSFIGURED TODAY UPON MOUNT TABOR BEFORE THE DISCIPLES.
IN HIS OWN PERSON HE SHOWED THEM THE NATURE OF MANKIND ARRAYED IN THE ORIGINAL BEAUTY OF THE IMAGE.

Humans are said in Genesis 1 to be created in God’s image and likeness.  It is assumed in Orthodoxy that it is Christ, the real image of God the Father, in whose image we are made.  Jesus Christ, God incarnate, reveals the original beauty of the image of God in us.  At the transfiguration the three disciples’ eyes were open, and suddenly they saw the image of God in us, but now in all its glory.  Adam and Eve were gloriously created in God’s image and likeness and glorious arrayed in garments provided them by God.

YOU WERE TRANSFIGURED, O CHRIST,  AND MADE ADAM’S DARKENED IMAGE TO SHINE AGAIN AS LIGHTNING,
TRANSFORMING IT INTO THE GLORY AND SPLENDOR OF YOUR OWN DIVINITY.  THEREFORE WE CRY ALOUD TO YOU:
LORD AND CREATOR OF ALL THINGS, GLORY TO YOU!

The image of God in Adam and Eve was glorious – like lightening, and that is what the three apostles saw.  They saw how a human is in God’s glorious image, how humanity is supposed to reveal divinity.   This doesn’t denigrate God, but is revealed in a lightening flash where humanity is as bright as the sun.

LORD, TODAY ON MOUNT TABOR,  YOU HAVE REVEALED THE GLORY OF YOUR DIVINE IMAGE TO YOUR CHOSEN DISCIPLES, PETER, JAMES AND JOHN.  FOR THEY LOOKED UPON YOUR GARMENTS THAT GLEAMED AS THE LIGHT, AND AT YOUR FACE THAT SHONE MORE THAN THE SUN!

Christ’s garments shown with this divine light – brighter than the sun.  This revelation comes not in the darkness of the night but at mid-day, the sun is shining brightly.  Yet the divine light in Christ shines even more brightly.  Christ’s very garments are shining with this divine light, just as Adam and Eve’s did in the Garden of Delight.  Christ is showing to the disciples not only what humanity was like in the beginning, in Paradise, but what creation itself was like.

UNABLE TO ENDURE THE VISION OF YOUR BRIGHTNESS WHICH NONE CAN BEAR, THEY FELL TO THE EARTH, POWERLESS TO LIFT UP THEIR GAZE, FOR THEY HEARD A VOICE THAT SPOKE FROM ABOVE: THIS IS MY BELOVED SON
WHO HAS COME INTO THE WORLD TO SAVE MANKIND!

The apostles saw what Adam and Eve had lost through sin and being expelled from Eden.  The saw even the importance of the original garments worn by the first humans and restored by Christ. They saw what the physical creation was capable and what it was meant to be.  They saw the material world once again in communion with divinity as it was intended by God to be.  In Christ, at the Transfiguration, they saw the spiritual world and the physical world reunited, and the material world fulfilling all God created it to be.

God as Lord of our Lives

We do speak, metaphorically, about feeling or being closer to God or further away from God.  The imagery does describe an awareness we may have at times, but cannot really describe our relationship to God since God is not limited to any one place in the entirety of existence, for God is everywhere present and fills all things.

The Creator always relates to all creation.

It is also true that we live and move and have our being in God.  As the Fathers often note there is no front and back to God, no closer or further away.  Such ways of referring to our relationship with God are purely human attempts to describe what we experience, but do not in any way describe our relationship to God who exists beyond space and time.  Language is the way we communicate our ideas and feelings, but language is sometimes inadequate to the text of describing reality, especially when it comes to portraying our relationship to God.   Fr. Meletios Webber notes:

“One of the paradoxes of human existence is that there is nowhere where God is not. Even though we naturally assume that He is more concerned with certain parts of our lives than with others, God is not nearly as restrictive as we are.” ( Steps of Transformation, p 147)

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall* on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

(Psalm 139:7-12)

How God Speaks to Us in Scripture

EphremSt. Ephrem of Syria offers us some insight regarding how Scriptures might be the Word of God.  The question is how can God who is invisible, incomprehensible, inconceivable and ineffable still be able to communicate with us creatures? Isn’t God so transcendent as to be beyond our capabilities for communicating with the Divine?  For Ephrem the answer is that “God speaks to humanity through the biblical text, allowing himself, as it were, to become incarnated into human language.”  As the Evangelist John tells, “The Word became flesh” (J0hn 1:14). The incarnation of God is the key – creation is capable of bearing God, thus God can become incarnate in ways which make divinity accessible to us.  The biblical text is one such way in which God chooses to reveal Himself to us.

“God, stirred by love for his creation, has himself crossed this gap and entered the created world, allowing himself to be described in human terms and in human language in the Bible. Thus, before becoming incarnate in the human body, he first became incarnate in human language, or, in Ephrem’s own homely metaphor or clothing, God put on names.’ or metaphors, in the Old Testament, just as subsequently he ‘put on a body’ at the incarnation. Of great importance for Ephrem in all this is the fact that God is not forcing himself on humanity; rather, he is deliberately encouraging the use of his gift to humanity of free will. …

Christ the Wisdom of God

The very fact that the biblical text moves from on metaphor for God to another should be a sufficient warning against any such misconception. Thus, instead of fixing one’s mind on the literal meaning of the metaphors, one should allow these metaphors to act as pointers upwards, as it were, towards the hiddenness of God, whose true nature cannot be described by, let alone contained in, human language.” (Sebastian Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, pp 16-17) 

 

Theology is Based in History

Christian theology is based in history, not in abstract theorizing about God.  When we  honor our Church Fathers, we honor them for their work in interpreting God revealing Himself in history, in actual events. We read the Scriptures to enter into the revelation of God, not to make the book sacred, but because they reveal history to us.

“For whereas the Aristotelian notion suggests that knowledge of God is attained as we withdraw from temporal reality and ascend higher and higher in the scale of being, the Judaeo-Christian tradition directs us to what has happened, to temporal reality, and indeed to a particular sequence of events within temporal reality – the history of Israel culminating in the history of God Incarnate – as the locus for our knowledge of God.[…]  Theology in fact – whatever the theory – concerned itself with texts and their meaning, that is, with what men had said and thought. It gave to history a dignity that perhaps it otherwise would not have had: the raw material of theology was not simply abstract thought, or even myths, but things that have happened. Much theology indeed, perhaps even the most important part of it so far as influence and an impact went, concerned itself with what had happened and was happening: with God’s dealing with Israel, and with the New Israel – as a whole, in Church history, and with particular individuals, in the lives of the saints.” (Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery, pp 46-47)