The Sabbath is a Rest from Sin not from Love

According to Luke 13:10-17, Jesus confronted by a synagogue ruler regarding Sabbath laws, confronts the ruler with what the Sabbath is meant to be.

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Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.

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But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound – think of it – for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

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Jean Danielou notes Jesus taught a very particular understanding of Sabbath rules and rejected common ideas about the Sabbath held by Jewish leaders.

The other element in the Sabbath is the idea of rest (anapausis). Here also we find a primary typology in the Old Testament, consisting in a spiritualization of this idea of rest. In the prophets, and especially in Isaias, we find the statement repeated by the Fathers of the Church, that the true Sabbath, the true anapausis, is not to cease from physical work, but to cease from sinning. “The new moons and the Sabbaths and other festivals I will not abide, your assemblies are wicked…cease to do perversely, learn to do well…” (Is. 1:13-19). And this passage is the more important because, as we shall see presently, the teaching of Christ is its exact extension. This spiritualization of the idea of the Sabbath rest, which does not, obviously, exclude the idea of the actual practice of the Sabbath, is found again in Philo, transformed by its platonic setting, when he sees in the Sabbath the symbol of the soul “that rests in God and gives itself no more to any mortal work.”

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The Jews of the time of Christ, in their exaltation of the Sabbath, thought that God Himself was subject to it. We find such an idea expressed in the Book of Jubilees (II, 16). The word of Christ formally condemns the application to God of the Sabbath rest understood as idleness. In God there is no idleness; but His activity which, as St. Clement of Alexandria says, is identical with His love, is exercised without ceasing. And this is of great importance: the idleness, otium, of the Sabbath appears henceforth as a literal and inferior notion, giving room for seeking its spiritual meaning. The Fathers of the Church used this text to condemn the Sabbath rest by showing that it is not the law of the universe and that Christianity is the reality of which this idleness is the figure. Origen, using the same text of St. John, writes: “He shows by this that God does not cease to order the world on any Sabbath of this world. The true Sabbath, in which God will rest from all His works, will, therefore be the world to come. The working of Christ is seen to be the reality which comes to replace the figurative idleness of the Sabbath.”   (The Bible and the Liturgy, pp. 224 & 227)

 

The Perpetual Light of the Eternal Christ

“And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light,

to cause the lamp to burn continually.

In the tabernacle of meeting, outside the veil which is before the Testimony,

Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening until morning before the LORD.

It shall be a statute forever to their generations on behalf of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 27:20-21)

The Beginning and the End of History

“Because Jews have always understood their God to be a God who acts, their beliefs about him were expressed in the form of narratives. The story of Israel came to be seen as part of an even bigger story, which began at the beginning of time, when YHWH created the world, and everything he made had been good.   […]  The end of this story still lies in the future, but it will arrive only when God once again established his rule on earth. When rebellion is finally crushed, and all creation is obedient to God, then Paradise will be restored. The change envisaged by the biblical writers was so dramatic that it could be described as the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.” (Morna D. Hooker, Paul: Beginners Guide, pgs. 36-37)

Temple, Torah & Wisdom: Jesus Christ

“For the devout first-century Jew, the Torah wasn’t the arbitrary decree of a distant deity, but the covenant character which bound Israel to YHWH. It was the pathway along which one might discover what genuine humanness was all about. If all Israel managed to keep the Torah for a single day, declared some Jewish teachers, the Age to Come would have begun. The Torah was the road into God’s future. Of course it was; because, like the Temple, it was a place where heaven and earth overlapped, where you might glimpse what it would be like when they became completely one. The same was true of Wisdom, the blueprint for creation and also the blueprint for genuine human living.

Yes, replied the early Christians: and Temple, Torah, and Wisdom have come together in and as Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, God’s second self, his ‘Son’ in that full sense. And, with that, God’s future has arrived in the present, has arrived in the person of Jesus. In arriving, it has confronted and defeated the forces of evil and opened the way for God’s new world, for heaven and earth to be joined forever.”   

(N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, pgs. 221-222)

Evangelism: Bringing Joy Not Imposing a Yoke

On those mornings when we do Matins in my parish, we read the prescribed daily Epistle and Gospel readings.   This morning, as we are in the Post-Paschal period the Apostolos reading was  Acts 15:5-34.  Portions of the lesson struck me for various reasons as being very apropos to life in the Church today.

 [5] But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.”

Pharisees to this day continue to rise up and make such demands that religion be treated as law and the law be exactly followed.  Pharisaism is alive and well in the Church.  Issues like these continue despite the fact that the Apostles once ruled on such thinking, rejecting it.  As wearisome as this is, one has to acknowledge it is biblical, even New Testamental.

[6] The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

How many hours have been consumed and how many miles traveled by clergy to debate such issues?  Yet, the matter is never resolved, there will always be some new issues for people to get upset over and “point the finger” of accusation against others (Isaiah 58:9).  “Others” never live up to those aspects of religious law we think important.   But think St. Ephrem:  Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, or sister.

[7] And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. [8] And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; [9] and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.

And to this day, some in the church love to make distinctions between people, separating and dividing.  In St. Peter’s day it was Jew and Gentile.  Now, despite the fact that we are each baptized and have received the Holy Spirit, and that all of us in the Church have heard the Gospel and had our hearts cleansed by faith, some continue to want to make similar distinctions between bishops and believing members, between clergy and laity, between men and women.  Yet like Peter’s Gentiles whom he defended as having been blessed by God, all Orthodox – clergy and laity, men and women – have heard the Gospel, received the Holy Spirit and been cleansed through repentance and faith in and through the Sacraments of the one Church.

[10] Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? [11] But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Imposing burdens and “a yoke upon the neck of the disciples” is still being done today.  The yoke may change, but some see a need to burden others with rules and regulations which have been and are hard to bear.  St. Peter said not to do this.  His successors don’t always pay attention to that particular teaching of his.

[12] And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Many new believers come into the Church – it is a miracle that people hear the Gospel and embrace the faith.  It happens all the time.  People who experience the joy of the Gospel and believe, receive the Holy Spirit, and they don’t have to know all of the rules and regulations of past generations.  This was a mystery for those first Torah-bound Christians.  How is it possible that God can act in people who don’t know or follow the Law of God?  And note that the assembly of apostles and elders is silent as they think about the growth God is giving the nascent Church.  They marvel at what God is doing rather than machinate about how to impose rules on those newly being born into Christ.

[13] After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brethren, listen to me. [14] Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. [15] And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written, [16] ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, [17] that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, [18] says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old.’ [19] Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, [20] but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. [21] For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”

St. James many scholars believe was even more Torah-bound than St. Peter.  Yet, he recognizes that God works through the Gospel to change the hearts of non-believers.  St. James advised that we not trouble the new converts with all manners of laws, rules and regulations, even if we believe they are from God.

[22] Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, [23] with the following letter: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. [24] Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, [25] it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, [26] men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. [27] We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. [28] For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: [29] that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

So few rules.  Amazing.  Not 613 laws of Torah, not years of Tradition of the elders.  Four simple rules is all that was required of those new converts to Christianity.  And the Apostles believed this was in agreement with the Holy Spirit!  Just these few things and you do well.  What a blessing!

[30] So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. [31] And when they read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. [32] And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them. [33] And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brethren to those who had sent them.

And such a simple demand from the Apostles is met with rejoicing, not with dejection and despondency.   So little is required, so much is given.  And even with so few requirements, these new Christians are embraced as full members of the Body of Christ.

It is wisely said that there is nothing new under the sun.  Pharisees still rise up to this day to trouble the Church.  The Apostolic wisdom is still needed to recognize that though some of us may have accepted and lived by many religious rules, they are not mandatory for every generation.  They can in fact be a yoke and burden that makes discipleship and salvation impossible.  The Apostles did not drive out of the Church those newly believing members whom God had chosen and inspired with the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.  They did not impose upon the new converts any heavy yoke, but they brought joy to the new faithful.

The Apostles rejected the concerns and fears of the Pharisaical members of the Church, and offered the hand of fellowship to those upon whom they as Christ’s chosen leaders chose not to yoke with Pharisaism.  It is the wisdom of the Apostolic Tradition as recorded in our Scriptures.

God Dwells in His Word: The New Revelation of an Ancient Truth

The notion of the incarnation of the Word of God (John 1) is for Christians the revelation of God’s own mystery to the world.  It was at the time of Christ a new and startling revelation, unprecedented in Israel’s history, and yet it has its own prophetic and prototypical  precedence in the Jewish Scriptures (one thinks of Jewish thinking concerning Wisdom and Torah for example or even the city of Jerusalem as God’s dwelling place).  Fr. Paul Tarazi, for example in commenting on the Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel notes that there is a message to the people of God that they have misunderstood Him when they remain so overly focused on the temple and the city of Jerusalem.  Tarazi writes:

“Moreover, not only are the kings of Jerusalem banned from God’s new abode described in Ezekiel 40-48, but also the name of Jerusalem itself does not appear at all in these chapters.  Since God is essentially a shepherd, his new abode is an open land of pasture, and not a walled city.  His ‘open’ city (Ezek 48:15-48) is wherever he chooses to be: ‘And the name of the city henceforth shall be, The lord is there.’ (Ezek 48:35b)  This God has forsaken Jerusalem and its temple, and established himself in Chebar, not in a new temple building, but within a written scroll.  He is contained within the dabar (= ‘word’)  spoken by the prophet Ezekiel (chs 1-3).  In other words,  God’s prophet becomes himself God’s new chosen residence and is in contradistinction and even opposition to an inimical Jerusalem and Judah, as the book of Jeremiah clearly confirms… (Jer 1:16-19).”  (quoted in SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION, Theodore Stylianopoulos (ed), p 9)

God mysteriously dwells in and is contained in (but not by!) His Word.  God is encountered in and through His Word.  God is not bound to or limited by the temple or the city of Jerusalem.  Rather God transcends time or place and thus both moves the prophet and moves with the prophet.  The prophet and the prophetic voice are much more related to both the notion of shepherd and his flock as well as with the people of God sojourning on earth.

Thus in the Old Testament God is shown to dwell in His Word.  First God dwells in Torah.  Torah travels with the people of God wherever they go.  God is also portrayed as dwelling in the Jerusalem Temple, and in the prophets.

Then comes the new messianic revelation: God dwells in Jesus Christ, His incarnate Word.  Though this is a new revelation, it is also a continuation of what God revealed from the beginning.  Christianity thus receives and continues to remain faithful to the traditional concept of God dwelling in His Word and of God in His word being shepherd to His people.

Being Neighborly as the Path to Salvation

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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 given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, 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 while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

A lawyer wishing to show his willingness to follow the Torah’s commandments, including the command to love his neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) tries to limit the law by asking for an exact definition of the word “neighbor.”   He is willing to love his neighbor as long as the definition of who one’s neighbor is fits his own limits of whom he is willing to love.   When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus answers with the story of the good Samaritan and then himself asks a question of the lawyer: Who was neighbor to the man in need?

The neighbor turns out to be anyone to whom we can be neighborly.

 “Anthony the Great, father of the desert monks, said, ‘Our life and our death are with our neighbor. If we do good to our neighbor, we do good to God; if we cause our neighbors to stumble, we sin against Christ.’ Poemen, Achillas, and Ammonas could see the divine image in people they met, both those who imitated God’s virtues and those who sinned. So, like God, they acted toward their neighbors with dignity and kindness. Like the brothers in the desert, people today know others who have served as mentors. These may be parents, teachers, grandparents, pastors, or good neighbors and friends. By word or example, they provide models of how best to live. Remembering their example can protect us from going astray. Let us each give thanks for those we have been privileged to know, because through them we can see God present in his image and likeness.” (Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image, pg. 62)

The Crucifixion of Christ – You Don’t Have to Pay for Your Sins

Galatians 2:16-20

We know that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. “But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!  “For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.  “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.   “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

St. John Chrysostom comments that because of the death and resurrection of Christ, we are no longer under the judgment of the Law.

“And so he establishes three distinguishing features of the new covenant: one, that it wasn’t given on stone tablets but that it was given on tablets of flesh, our hearts; second, that the Word raced with ease and lit up everyone’s mind; third, that, when the law was dissolved, no one demanded payment for sins but each received forgiveness for their wrongdoings.” (St. John Chrysostom, The Cult of the Saints, pg. 131)

Because of Christ, God no longer requites from each of us payment for our sins/debts.  Instead the Law has been set aside and we are given forgiveness for our sins, not the punishment we deserve.

Christ Fulfills Isaiah 58 through Signs and Wonders

This is the conclusion to the blog which began with Hearing Isaiah 58 in the Gospel.  We are considering ways in which the Gospel tradition fulfills Isaiah 58, or how Isaiah 58 is echoed in the Gospel tradition.

[5] This is not the fast that I have chosen, even a day for a person to humble himself; not even if you bend your neck like a ring, and spread under you sackcloth and ashes – not even so shall you call it an accepted fast.   [6] I have not chosen such a fast, says the Lord; rather loose every bond of injustice, undo the knots of contracts made by force; let the oppressed go free, and tear up every unjust note. [7]   Break your bread with the one who is hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; if you see one naked, clothe him, and you shall not neglect any of the relatives of your seed. [8] Then your light shall break forth early in the morning, and your healings shall rise quickly; your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall cover you. [9] Then you shall cry out, and God will listen to you; while you are still speaking, he will say, here I am. If you remove from you a bond and a stretching of the hand and a murmuring word, [10] and give to one who is hungry bread from your soul and satisfy the soul that has been humbled, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like the noonday.

Jesus did not simply claim to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, He did signs and wonders to prove He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah.   God promised healings would occur in Israel when they did the right kind of fasting and indeed Jesus heals the sick.  God promises to listen to the prayers and appeals of Israel if they fast correctly, and it is clear at numerous points in the Gospels that God the Father is with Jesus, fulfills His requests and speaks to Him.  Isaiah says light will come to Israel if they fast as God approves of fasting, and Jesus is presented in Scripture as the Light of the world.

And John, calling to him two of his disciples, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight.  And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”   ( Luke 7:19-23)

Christ is doing what God associates with the kind of fasting of which He approves. And so He is empowered to heal the sick.  Because Jesus fasts as God commands, we can understand Jesus’ own words about why His disciples do not fast – they do not fast in the way the Jews of the Old Testament fasted.   They are not to follow these ritualistic rules of self denial, but rather are to rejoice in the Lord who empowers them to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah.  They are to do the type of fasting which results in salvation; fasting liberates all who are oppressed by Satan.  Fasting from the corrupt practices of the world, liberates God’s people from the oppression of Satan and from slavery to sin and death.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  (Matthew 9:14-15)

Christ the Word of God in His teaching perfectly embraces and embodies the Word which Isaiah received from God.  Christ teaches a form of fasting which is exactly in line with Isaiah’s vision of the fast which is pleasing to God.

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.   (Matthew 6:16-18)

Godly fasting is done in the heart where one repents and comes to love those who are oppressed and in need.   Zacchaeus the repentant tax collector fulfills the expectation of Isaiah 58 for he stops oppressing the poor through fraud and threat and instead stretches out his hand to help them.  Zacchaeus repents of unjust contracts and those made by force that oppress people and financially crush them.  He repents at getting ahead and getting wealthy at the expense of those who cannot defend themselves from him.

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.   Luke 19:8-9)

Zacchaeus practices the self denying fasting which God proclaimed in Isaiah 58.  In the Slavic Orthodox tradition, Zacchaeus’ story is the prelude to beginning Great Lent.

There are some echoes that I hear that may be a bit more obscure.  For example, I think the miracles which Jesus does on the Sabbath which liberates one of God’s chosen people from the oppression of sin and disease is the kind of fast that God advocates in Isaiah.  So too were the acts which fed the hungry disciples on the Sabbath day (see Matthew 12; Luke 6, Luke 13-14; John 5, John 9).  While the reaction of the Jewish leadership is to take offense at Jesus breaking the Sabbath laws of the Torah, God is clear in Isaiah 58 that the fast He has in mind releases people from injustice and bondage and slavery of all kinds.  The ritualized fast which results in acts of self deprecation – ashes, sackcloth, tears, kowtowing and prostrations – none of these has God’s approval.  God’s fast liberates His people from all forms of oppression including poverty, hunger and homelessness.

Throughout the Gospels are scattered stories which show Jesus fulfilling the conditions and terms which God said through Isaiah would be pleasing to Him.   Jesus in his merciful teachings and miracles reveals the justice of God and the true nature of fasting which liberates others from oppression.  Fasting is thus related to our business dealings, our politics, how we treat our neighbors, and how we treat the poor.

Christ the Wisdom and Word of God

In my blog for Mid-Pentecost, Christ the Rock Which is the Fountain of Life, I wrote about the connection the ancient Jewish interpreters of their Scriptures drew between the image of the deep well and the Torah.  Digging a well became a metaphorical understanding of searching the Torah for its deepest meaning.  This ancient interpretive tradition is preserved in Orthodox Tradition as well.   Take a look at one of the hymns from Matins of the 5th Week of Pascha (from the Pentecostarion):

THE SAMARITAN WOMAN, AS WAS HER CUSTOM,

CAME TO DRAW WATER FROM AN EARTHLY AND PERISHABLE WELL.

INSTEAD, SHE DREW LIVING WATER,

FOR SHE DISCOVERED THE WELL OF LIFE!

HE WAS RESTING WHERE JACOB DUG HIS WELL OF OLD.

THE NOONDAY HEAT FATIGUED HIM, //

THOUGH HE MADE THE FIERY SUN TO LIGHT THE WORLD!

Where Jacob dug his well is a metaphorical way of referring to the Jews seeking Wisdom from the Torah.   The Samaritan Woman comes to that well.   This is another metaphor of the non-Jew, the convert, coming to the Torah.  But the Torah, the deep well, leads her to Christ, to the New Covenant which replaces the Torah.  The old well, the Torah, could only give her water for this life – how to live in this world.  The new well, Christ the Wisdom of God, gives living water that bestows eternal life.