Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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“You should never be a bystander”

While all the American “news channels” spent the morning covering the non-blizzard of New York-New Jersey, BBC World News immersed the viewer in complete live coverage of the Auschwitz ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of that awful death camp by the Soviet army.

Several survivors spoke, including Roman Kent who spoke passionately against anti-Semitism and all racism. “We don’t want our past to be our children’s future,” he said with tears.

As he came to the end of his remarks, he proposed the addition of an Eleventh Commandment: “You should never, never, be a bystander!”


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Going for broke

Did Jesus have serious concerns about wealth and the wealthy? Clearly yes. But let’s not forget that Jesus had many wealthy people among his followers: Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, several wealthy women that supported him and his disciples financially and materially… and in his parables he often used images of rich people to represent God and the kingdom of heaven: the man who loaned out the talents, the man who gave a banquet, etc.

Zacchaeus_callingBut Jesus also had several negative images of rich people in his parables and in his encounters. As a matter of fact, our Gospel reading today comes in the middle of a series of parables and incidents in Luke’s Gospel that are very instructive.

Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector  Undoubtedly the tax collector was much richer than the Pharisee, but he comes out positively. In a sense, the tax collector in the parable prepares us for the encounter with Zacchaeus today.

Encounter with the rich ruler  Peter is shocked by Jesus’ comment that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. But Jesus leaves the door open: with God all things are possible… meaning a camel can go through the eye of a needle and a rich man can enter heaven! There is hope.

Zacchaeus incident (our Gospel reading today)  Zacchaeus does what the rich ruler in the previous chapter could not do. Zacchaeus is proof that God can touch the heart of the most unlikely candidates.

Parable of the ten pounds (ten minas)  Despite the brutality of the rich man, his actions nevertheless are used as an image of the kingdom of God!

We don’t need to look any further. In these two chapters we see enough variety in the attitudes Jesus held about wealth and the wealthy.

What I find most interesting in today’s reading is the commitments Zacchaeus made. He would pay back everyone he cheated four times over! And he would give half of his possessions (ὑπαρχόντων) to the poor. I have news for Zacchaeus, by the time he did all this he would be totally poor. He’d have nothing left!

Ierihon_Zakhey

But here is something even more interesting. Jewish law demanded only a 20% penalty when paying back someone you cheated (Leviticus 6:1-5). Zacchaeus pledged to paying back four times what he took! That’s much more than what Jewish law demanded. Now Roman law demanded a double restitution, and perhaps even fourfold. So Zacchaeus used the standards of Roman law in paying back his fellow Jews that he had defrauded. There’s poetic justice here. Since he worked for the Romans, he judged himself according to Roman law. I find that fascinating, and it helps lift this incident above the everyday.

It’s not just about money. It’s about going outside the prescriptions of religion. It’s about being honest with oneself, even if that honesty breaks your bank account. His response was maximal rather than minimal. The normal human way is to get away with as little as we can. Zacchaeus could have gotten away with paying people back with the added one-fifth prescribed by Leviticus. But he didn’t, and there’s a lesson for us in that.

Jewish law likewise prescribed giving 10% of one’s income to the poor. This is the concept of tzedakah (charity) in Jewish tradition. Zacchaeus committed to giving half – again, way beyond the expectations of his religious upbringing; and half not only of his income, but of all his possessions! As I said already, this commitment would break him.

One reliable website of Jewish teaching, describes levels of tzedakah (charity), from the least meritorious to the most meritorious, are:
  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

And you wonder why Jews are always at the forefront of charitable giving and philanthropy? It’s in their blood, in their religious genes and upbringing.

But Zacchaeus went beyond tradition, beyond upbringing, beyond religious law. He did not settle for the least he could get away with. He went for broke – and he most likely ended up broke after this. Did he continue working for the Romans? Perhaps, perhaps not – but he was a changed man. He was now a true “son of Abraham.” It’s the spirit that makes one a member of God’s family, rather than what’s written on one’s birth certificate or one’s baptism certificate.

And notice something else: In the middle of these two chapters in Luke, right before he enters Jericho and meets Zacchaeus, Jesus heals a blind man who calls out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Yet, when addressing Zacchaeus and people around him, Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man” – or perhaps we might choose as a translation that would be closer to the Hebrew that Jesus spoke, “Son of Adam.” Remember that whereas Matthew started his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham, but Luke carried the genealogy of Jesus not to David or Abraham, but all the way back to Adam!

holy-father-st-gregory-nazianzen-1-aidan-hartJesus preferred “Son of Man (Adam)” to “Son of David.” Zacchaeus went beyond all human and religious laws. The teaching of Jesus illumines the human conscience to surpass all ethnic, religious and socio-economic boundaries. This is the message that comes through loud and clear in the story of Zacchaeus. And it’s also the message of this beautiful quote from St. Gregory of Nazianzus, whose feast day is celebrated by the Orthodox Church today:

“Human beings have accumulated in their coffers gold and silver, clothes more sumptuous than useful, diamonds and other objects that are evidence of war and tyranny; then a foolish arrogance hardens their hearts; for their brothers in distress, they have no pity. What utter blindness! . . . Attend not to the law of the strong but to the law of the Creator. Help nature to the best of your ability, honor the freedom of creation, protect your species from dishonor, come to its aids in sickness, rescue it from poverty ….   Seek to distinguish yourself from others only in your generosity. Be like gods to the poor, imitating God’s mercy. Humanity has nothing so much in common with God as the ability to do good.”


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Simple words that make life possible

 

The lesson of our Gospel reading this morning is very simple: Say “thank you”!

The lesson is simple, but the consequences are profound. Our failure in this simple but essential act is at the root of so much of our woes. Consider only the news of the past week or so.

  • Fact: 2014 was the hottest year on record!
  • Fact: whole species of life are becoming extinct every day because of human activities.
  • Fact: terrorist attacks are now an everyday reality in most parts of the world.

And I can go on and on. But let these suffice from the headlines of the past week as a taste of our reality today.

Why are we destroying the planet? Why? Because we do not give thanks. Because we are not grateful for this marvelous gift that God has given us: Life on this amazing planet. We are not grateful, we take things for granted, we believe that we have the right to destroy whatever we want. And we destroy our interpersonal relationships because we take each other for granted. We are not grateful for each other. And that’s a sin. All failures to give thanks are SIN.

Have you noticed? Science fiction films are increasingly dystopian – the opposite of utopian, analogous to dysfunctional. The prefix dys– in Greek serves to destroy the good sense of a word or increase its bad sense. outopos as opposed to dystopos, etc.

Metropolis perhaps was the original film representation of a dystopian, bleak future. But think of most popular sci-fi or futuristic films.

  • Time Machine
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Terminator films
  • Matrix trilogy
  • The Hunger Games trilogy
  • Avatar
  • Oblivion
  • Ender’s Game
  • World War Z
  • Interstellar
  • And TV shows: The Walking Dead, for starters

All paint bleak pictures of the future. What is their message? Pessimism.

And yet, Christianity has a different view, though depending who you talk to and how you interpret certain passages of the Bible. There are Christians who believe the world is going to be destroyed, so it doesn’t matter to them whether we kill all life and whether we pollute or destroy the atmosphere. But many other Christians – including the Orthodox – believe something else.

“The whole earth is full of his glory,” Isaiah tells us. Jesus will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, Paul tells us in his letter to Philippians. He is the first-born of all creation and the head of a new humanity, Paul again tells us in his letter to Colossians. Even that most violent book, the Book of Revelation, so full of destruction and threats, reaches its climax not with a violent image but a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem descending to the transfigured, renewed earth, and with it God makes his eternal home among human beings on earth!! As the great Rumanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae said it, “The world is the work of God’s love and is destined to be deified.”

When Orthodox speak of deification/theosis, we don’t just mean an achievement of individuals. We mean more than that; we mean cosmic deification. Human beings cannot be separated from nature, from the cosmos. Saint Paul again, in Romans 8, tells us that all creation – all of nature, the cosmos – waits with anticipation for the liberation of the human children of God and will share the same glory as we!

Dear friends, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. What do we bring to the table? Faith, hope and love, those three great virtues that Paul names in 1 Corinthians. And the greatest of these is love, he tells us. But what is it that enables us to live by faith, hope and love? The ability to give thanks. How can you have faith, if you can’t say thanks to God for the gift of life and salvation? How can you have hope, if you can’t give thanks for the present? And how can you have love, if you can’t appreciate the importance of people in your life?

Martin-Luther-King-Day-Love-Quotes-1Words are important. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. I love the graphic of his image that is put together from words that he spoke or wrote. It’s brilliant, and it illustrates how important words are. Our words form the image that others have of us. Let words of thanks compose the image we present to the world.

Learn from the tenth leper and give thanks. It’s very simple, yet so profound and it affects everything. Imagine if 6 or 7 billion people in the world every day practiced the art of giving thanks! Who would kill? Who would abuse or take advantage of others? Who would be pessimistic about the future of humankind and the planet? Jesus lamented, why did only one return to give thanks? Where were the other nine? Let us pray that those words are not spoken about us too.


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The Heart is the Mediator

(Apologies for some sound glitches on this audio file)

 

Our Gospel reading this morning takes us to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After his baptism, he was tested in the desert by three temptations. It was only after he overcame these three temptations that he began preaching that the kingdom of God had arrived. And Matthew quotes a messianic prophecy from the 9th chapter of Isaiah: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

Metropolisposter

We see in this prophecy a juxtaposition of Light and Dark. And I see the same juxtaposition in the classic 1927 film, METROPOLIS, which was on TV again last night. There are two levels of existence in the city: the workers in the lower levels and the masters of the city who live in the upper reaches of the city in magnificent skyscrapers and gardens of delight.

Metropolis-1926

 

2034

molochFreder, the son of the Master of Metropolis witnesses an explosion in the machine that runs the city and immediately he has a vision of MOLOCH. In his vision, the machine turns into the gaping mouth of Moloch receiving workers as sacrifices. Moloch was a god of the Canaanites and Phoenicians, to whom parents sacrificed their children. The vision is Freder’s moment of transformation and decision. He saw the darkness underneath the city and decided to fight it from within. He went directly against his father!

Likewise, the temptations were the experience of transformation and decision for Jesus! He saw the darkness at work in the world and rejected its power. It was the moment when he chose what the purpose of his life would be.

In one scene, the story of the Tower of Babel is illustrated: “And on the top of the tower we will write the words: Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!” Workers slaved to build the tower that minds conceived: “One man’s hymns of praise became other men’s curses.”

The primary message of the film shows up in the inter-titles (remember, this is a silent film) a few times, including the very end: Head and hands need a mediator. The mediator between head and hands is the heart. Wait for him, he will surely come!

Marias-Sermon

And-then-I-threw-up.

 

Freder becomes the mediator! You’ll have to see the rest of the film to find out how it unfolds. It is full of biblical references and images, especially from the Book of Revelation.

I couldn’t help but see parallels with our gospel reading today. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light is Jesus. He is the mediator. He is the heart that has been missing from the world.

The mind behind the universe is God. And humans have proved to be very capable hands in handling what the mind of God willed into existence. Sometimes the hands have done good, sometimes evil. But the hands have been very busy.

The mediator is the heart of the world. Without the heart, God and humans are disjointed, out of sync. This is the reason why human hands do evil in the name of God. We saw it again last week in Paris. Those murderers saw themselves as the hands of a vindictive God. They believe they know the mind of this vindictive God. That’s how all acts of evil are committed in the name of religion.

Charlie Hebdo was targeted because it dared to expose and to mock what is hypocritical and evil when religion has no heart. The world needs more like Charlie Hebdo. Blasphemous? Then we need more blasphemy!! What is blasphemous is religion that has no heart, that has no room for the mediator because it presumes to know the mind of God. We need more “blasphemy” like Charlie Hebdo to expose the darkness!

There are still people who walk in darkness – and very often they carry religious identities. Very often they think they are the hands that are doing the will of the head that they call god. We also are hands, but only if we search the mind of God through the mediator, the heart that is Jesus.


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The Scoop on “Orthodox Christmas”

You undoubtedly heard or read at least one reference today to this being “Orthodox Christmas.” One of my cousins posted this article on his Facebook page; it’s typical of the misunderstanding that exists about January 7th being “Orthodox Christmas.”

Orthodox Christmas 2015: Russian, Greek and Other Eastern Churches Begin Celebrations

Some of the information in this article is correct. However, the following statements are grossly incorrect:

Most Orthodox traditions, including the Russian and Greek Orthodox and Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic churches, celebrate the Christmas holiday on Jan. 6 and 7. These dates are known as “Old Christmas Day” because of its original designation as the day of Jesus’ birth by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine in 325 A.D., according to the Jerusalem Post. After Pope Gregory XIII switched the earlier Julian Calendar to the new date system in 1582, which became known as the Gregorian Calendar, the Catholic church moved its Christmas celebrations 13 days ahead to Dec. 25, a shift that was not adopted by much of the Eastern Church, which never recognized the primacy of the pope.

While many Orthodox churches eventually adopted the Gregorian calendar, they kept Jan. 6 as the date of their Christmas Eve celebrations.

First of all, the Jerusalem Post is not exactly a reliable source of information about Orthodox practice. I wouldn’t even trust the Jerusalem Post for information on Orthodox Judaism, never mind Orthodox Christianity! The reference to the emperor Constantine arises from confusion about what exactly was celebrated as Epiphany on January 6th in the early centuries of the Church. Was it a celebration of the baptism of Jesus or also an observance of the birth of Christ? There are various interpretations of the evidence. But when St. Gregory Nazianzus preached his Homily on the Theophany around the year 380, it seems almost certain that Dec. 25th had been established as the celebration of Christ’s birth. The article is COMPLETELY WRONG in stating that the Catholic Church moved Christmas to Dec. 25th after the calendar reform of Pope Gregory in 1582! Neither the Catholic nor any Orthodox Church changed the date of Christmas to Dec. 25th in the 16th century. It was always Dec. 25th, at least as far back as the 4th century.

The usual theory is that Dec. 25th was chosen as the date of the Christmas celebration in order to counter the pagan celebration of the solar feast, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). When the Christian faith  increasingly became the religion of the Roman Empire, there began a campaign to eradicate pagan worship and practices. Converting pagan celebrations and buildings to Christian usage became standard practice. So if Christmas was ever moved from January to December 25th, it happened more than 1,000 years before Pope Gregory!

The further point that the article makes – “While many Orthodox churches eventually adopted the Gregorian calendar, they kept Jan. 6 as the date of their Christmas Eve celebrations” – is laughable. There is no Orthodox church that fits that description! The newspaper that printed this article, the International Business Times, should stick to reporting business.

Until Pope Gregory’s time, all Christian countries and churches followed the calendar that had existed since the time of Julius Caesar – hence the name Julian Calendar. The Julian Calendar was based on a year of 365 days, with a leap day in February every four years. The problem is that the actual, astronomical solar year is a few minutes shorter than the calendar year. As a result, the calendar slowly grew out of sync with the solar year. Pope Gregory, in consultation with astronomers, made a correction in the calendar to account for this discrepancy. Most European countries adopted the reformed calendar (which became known as the Gregorian Calendar) and so did the western churches. Orthodox churches refused to adopt the reformed calendar and stuck to using the Julian Calendar, partly because of anti-Catholic sentiments.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Greek-speaking churches started to adopt the Gregorian Calendar and a few others followed. However, the Russian and many other Orthodox churches refused to follow the move and stayed with the Julian Calendar. Hence the reason for Russians celebrating Christmas on January 7th. Even in Greece, many people refused the reformed calendar and continued to worship in churches that followed the Julian Calendar – hence the schism in Greece between the New Calendar and the Old Calendar. Have I confused you even more?

Here is the bottom-line: There are two calendars, the Julian and the Gregorian. For reasons of astronomy, the two calendars are about 13 days out of sync. Christmas is observed on December 25th in ALL Orthodox churches (except the Armenian Church, which continues to celebrate Christmas on the date of Epiphany, Jan. 6th=Jan. 19th). If you look in the liturgical books of the Russian Church, you won’t see Christmas on Jan. 7th. Christmas in the Russian Church is on December 25th. But because the Russian Church follows the Julian Calendar, which right now is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, Russian Christmas appears to be on January 7th.

The day that is December 25th in the Julian Calendar happens to be January 7th in the Gregorian Calendar. That’s all there is to it. A hundred years from now, December 25th in the Julian Calendar will be on January 8th in the Gregorian Calendar. So, a hundred years from now, are people going to be saying January 8th is “Orthodox Christmas”? Do you see how ludicrous the whole thing is? And why God has probably given up on our foolishness?

Jesus was not born on Dec. 25th or Jan. 7th. Neither the Julian nor the Gregorian calendar has any divine sanction. The date of Christmas is secular, even pagan, in origin; and the calendar has more to do with astronomy than a virgin birth. So get real – that’s what I want to say to those individuals and churches who make an issue of the calendar and the date of Christmas!


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When did the good news become a gospel?

 

 

 

800px-Gospel_of_Mark_Chapter_1-8_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)

Today’s Gospel reading is the first eight verses of the Gospel written by Mark. Here’s how it begins: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…

The Greek word translated as “gospel” is evangelion = “good news.” So how did “good news” become “gospel”? Or, to put it more pointedly, how did the good news become a gospel – in this instance, the gospel written by Mark? And to take things further along in history, how did the good news of Jesus Christ become a Gospel book? A book kept on the altar table? A book with fancy covers and padlocks on the side? How indeed did the good news become a padlocked book? Can you see the development? Good news = gospel = Gospel book.

6506-10_Embossed_Vine_Design_Stones_Gospel_Cover_Side_Nioras

Here’s a story that will help us understand: The children were lined up in a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nuns had made a note and posted it on the apple tray: “Take only ONE, God is watching.” Moving further along the lunch line at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. A child had written a note, “take all you want. . . God is watching the apples.”

That is the difference between good news and religion! Religion tries to limit God and God’s goodness. The good news knows no limits!

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet… You’d say, appropriate words at the beginning of a book. Right? No.

Let’s try this instead: The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with something Isaiah the prophet wrote….

The word “Christ” comes from Χριστός, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “messiah.” Both the Greek and the Hebrew mean the same thing: “the anointed one.” We should also note that “Son of God” is missing from most of the best early manuscripts, and some modern translations omit the phrase altogether. Perhaps the words were added by a later scribe, when evangelion had ceased to be good news and had become a book; perhaps with the good intention of making the opening sentence a true introduction of a book.

Consider what Luke wrote near the beginning of his book. And again a quote from Isaiah is involved:

Luke 4:16-21 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Verse 19 could be translated more meaningfully as “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s amnesty.” That’s not a literal translation, but that’s what it means. Clearly Isaiah’s reference is to the Old Testament practice of the Jubilee year, when debts were forgiven and all prisoners and slaves were set free. It was a general amnesty. Isaiah was proclaiming such a year. And Jesus came as the fulfillment of the promise.

And here is something else that’s interesting. In reading from Isaiah, Jesus stopped at a key moment. Here is what Isaiah (61:1-2) wrote:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God… 

Did you see that? Jesus left out the day of vengeance! Clearly, vengeance did not fit the good news.

So the bigger question today is: When did good news become good news for some and bad news for everyone else? When did the message of liberty become a message of fear-mongering and threats of eternal punishment? Don’t settle for ONE apple; go for the chocolate chip cookies, and take all you want!