Ancient Answers

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A Burning Love for Christ


And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. (Acts 6:5)

These were the first deacons of the church. Stephen was a deacon in the original sense of the word. He served, he ministered – διάκονος comes from the word διακονία. As a matter of fact the original purpose of the deacons was to serve food! The twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4)

The apostles felt that serving food was beneath them, so they chose Stephen and a few others to do it. But Stephen was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” and so his story involved more than serving food. He was “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Not only grace and power, but a holy, burning love for Christ. But certain groups became envious of him and started spreading false allegations against him and brought him to the Jewish council, and “all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

When the chief priest asked him if the allegations were true, Stephen proceeded to give the religious leaders a lesson in Bible history (Acts 7). He starts with Abraham, moves on to Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. Then he comes to Moses and reminds the council of the burning bush and the exodus. He reminds them of the people’s apostasy when they turned against Moses and worshipped the golden calf. He reminds them of the tent Moses built in the desert, which became the model for the temple Solomon built in Jerusalem 300 years later.

Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands; as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’ (Acts 7:48-50)

Do you see what Stephen was doing? In essence he was telling them the temple was another act of rebellion against God, just like the golden calf! So he went on to call them, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.”

The conclusion of all this is remarkable:

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)

Before dying, Stephen experienced an ecstatic vision of the heavenly Christ. He was inflamed by divine love. But there is a short epilogue: And Saul was consenting to his death…Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison (Acts 8:1-3) This is the Saul who also received a vision of Jesus – “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) This is the Saul who after this vision became Paul, the great apostle.

Stephen's martyrdom. Saul (later to be Saint Paul) is shown approving the stoning of Stephen. Unfortunately the icon is rather bland and does not capture the intensity of Stephen's visionary experience.

Stephen’s martyrdom. Saul (later to be Saint Paul) is shown approving the stoning of Stephen. Unfortunately the icon is rather bland and does not capture the intensity of Stephen’s visionary experience.

Paul’s own heart was animated by the same divine love that filled Stephen. Agape is the word that Paul himself uses for love in his letters. But the love that filled Stephen and Paul perhaps is better described by another ancient Greek word, έρως. There are four words for love: έρως (eros), φιλία (philia), στοργή (storge), αγάπη (agape). The Fathers of the Church habitually used the word έρως in addition to αγάπη. Αγάπη is a wonderful word to describe that unique form of Christian love that is self-giving and works for the good of others, and describes God’s own love in sending Jesus to us. But έρως connotes something different, an intense, ecstatic love of personal devotion, infatuation even, that I believe describes both Stephen and Paul. Listen to how Chrysostom describes Paul: “the red-hot lover of Christ” (ο διάπυρος εραστής του Χριστού). Chrysostom himself came under the spell of Paul. Chrysostom, who lived 300 years after Paul, believed that his own love for Saint Paul would be added to Saint Paul’s burning love for Christ and God.

Today, December 27th, is the feast day of Saint Stephen, and he invites us to share his ecstatic vision and love of Christ. This is why we love the saints – especially saints like Stephen and Paul. We want their burning love for Christ to spill over unto us. We want our love for Christ and for each other to be added to their love, their έρως and αγάπη and φιλία and στοργή. In these four words perhaps we can sum up the good news of Jesus Christ, for which St. Stephen lived and died and lives again.

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The Divine Child

A sermon by my beloved professor of liturgical theology, Father Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory: The Divine Child.

Fr. Schmemann was a remarkable teacher, a true visionary, an advocate of genuine Orthodoxy rather than the false, pretentious versions that are on the increase, especially in North America. He worked tirelessly for ecclesiastical unity, but his vision died with him: the Orthodox world today is far more divided than it has ever been since the era of the ancient ecumenical councils. Petty politics, rivalries, mindless traditionalism, and overt misanthropy are destroying the Orthodox Church from within. Fr. Schmemann in this sermon, spoke of the child within each of us. Too bad the church is run by old men who do not know their inner child.


The Difference a Sigma Makes

I got a bit of a shock tonight during the Liturgy of December 24th. The Gospel reading was the nativity narrative from Luke 2:1-20. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has been using the Revised Standard Version of the Bible for several decades now, and so do several other Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. Usually that’s not a problem, and I myself quote the RSV (or the New RSV) in these blog posts. But there is a serious problem with how verse 14 is translated. Consider a few versions of this verse:

King James Version: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

RSV: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!

NRSV: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!

Phillips New Testament: Glory to God in the highest Heaven! Peace upon earth among men of goodwill!

Most of us grew up hearing the King James Version. Countless children’s pageants told us “good will toward men.” And Linus quotes this wording in A Charlie Brown Christmas that none of us ever gets tired of watching. It’s the wording we hear in Handel’s great oratorio popular at Christmas time, The Messiah. “On earth peace, good will toward men” is the wonderful message that God pours out his goodness on all people of the earth, without any distinctions.

But the RSV wording communicates something different. Here, peace seems to be limited to only those human beings with whom God is pleased. And the NRSV is even more radical. Here we have a God who plays favorites, literally! “… on earth peace among those whom he favors!” A far cry from the old King James Version which tells us that God’s peace and good will are for all people. The new versions of the Bible limit God’s good will to only some people. But note how the Phillips translation avoids the impression we get from the RSV and NRSV.

How to explain these different translations of a single verse? It’s all because of a single letter, the Greek letter sigma, ς. The Orthodox Church has always used the Byzantine text, also known as the Majority Text. This is the Greek text of the New Testament that is found in the majority of ancient manuscripts.

Here is verse 14 in the Majority (Byzantine) Test: Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ, καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη· ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία.

But in a small number of ancient manuscripts we read: Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.

Do you see the difference? It’s that sigma at the end of the sentence. A few ancient manuscripts have it, but the majority of manuscripts don’t have it. Why do modern scholars and Bible translations give preference to the version that has the sigma?

Modern translations of the Bible have a bias toward manuscripts that disagree with the wording or grammar of the Majority Text. There are complex reasons for this, but perhaps it’s a matter of scholarly arrogance and the thrill of going against established tradition. Scholars have criteria that they use to prefer one manuscript over another. For example, scholars generally prefer manuscripts that have the shorter text, with the belief that manuscripts with longer text may have embellished the original shorter text. But here it is the opposite; they don’t prefer the shorter εὐδοκία, without the ς. So in essence, it comes down to prejudice and arbitrary preference. After all, they are smarter and know more than the King James translators knew 400 years ago, or the Church Fathers knew more than a thousand years ago!

Usually the differences don’t result in important theological problems. But I feel verse 14 here in chapter 2 of Luke creates an important theological problem. Does God show good will for all people, or for only a select few? Some Protestant theologians and denominations prefer the limited good will; but the Church historically has preferred the unlimited good will. After all, Jesus spoke very clearly on this matter. Without any ambiguity, he said that God sends rain and sunshine equally to good and bad people alike, without any preference for one over the other. And it’s because of God’s unlimited goodness, that Jesus then teaches us to forgive and even love our enemies. God is like that; so we must act likewise:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjustFor if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5:44-46)

The highlighted words agree with the message we get from Luke 2:14 without the sigma! But it seems that modern translations of the Bible want to limit God’s benefits, as if God does not have enough good will to pour out on all of his creation. I’m not talking about universal salvation; that’s a different matter. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” John 3:16 tells us. God loves the world, the whole world, all humans, good and evil. He sends his Son to the world so that those who believe in him will receive eternal life. If God’s good will is limited, then God’s love is not for the world but only for some.

So I prefer Luke 2:14 without the sigma! And that’s the reading the Orthodox Church has also preferred. It’s the Greek text posted in the Archdiocese website! But when it comes to the English text, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has shown a careless, even indifferent attitude by simply adopting the RSV wording. Does anyone care? Is there no PhD person in New York or at Brookline to notice such cavalier treatment of the Gospel reading at one of the most significant holy days of the year?

I’m not a traditionalist. I have a total aversion to the forms of Orthodox fundamentalism that are spreading today and are doing great harm to Orthodox people and families in this country. I feel at home with biblical scholarship and modern translations of the Bible. But the instance of Luke 2:14 creates a unique problem because of its familiarity and its frequent use in the church’s hymnography. Consider the opening of the Great Doxology that we sing (or read) at the end of every Matins:

Δόξα σοι τῷ δείξαντι τὸ φῶς, Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις Θεῷ, καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη, ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκία.

Glory to you who have shown us the light. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to people.

The Church has clearly opted for the reading without the sigma. I opt for it also, not necessarily because I prefer the traditional Majority Text of the New Testament, but also because our theology lines up more easily with the reading that has εὐδοκία, without the sigma. The Phillips translation adopts the minority version (with the sigma), but translates it in a way that avoids limiting God’s good will. It’s a compromise solution, but I prefer the traditional translation we all grew up with. One letter, one sigma, makes a big difference, don’t you agree?

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Our Genealogy


Every year on the Sunday Before Christmas we read the genealogy of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s our annual exercise in getting through a long list of tongue-twisting names, but I look forward to it. I love reading these names. And, as the great Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown asserted, this genealogy contains the essential theology of the Old and New Testaments, and of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches! An exaggeration? Perhaps. But it depends on whether you see theology as just a bunch of statements about God in big words that you need a PhD to understand.

Theology is speech about God. Theos-logos. But logos became man. God became a human being, took on human flesh and pitched his tent among us. Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν (John 1:14). So theos-logos is also about human existence. Theology is not just big words about God, theology is also about the small things of human existence. This genealogy is indeed theology in its simplest, most human form.

Human beings have genealogies. So Jesus had a genealogy. Matthew gives us a genealogy that goes back to Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac – no mention of that ill-begotten elder son Ishmael, born to Abraham by the slave Hagar, banished from the sight of Abraham and Sarah once Isaac was born.

Then Isaac begets Jacob – no mention of the elder son Esau, whose birthright Jacob stole by deceit. Jacob begets Judah. Why single out Judah and not the good and noble Joseph, who was sold to slavery by Judah out of sheer jealousy?

It sounds unfair, it even sounds biased…. but throughout the Hebrew Bible, God does not always select the noblest men and women. He chose Jacob who cheated his way to the inheritance and prominent role in God’s unfolding purpose. God chose David, who stole a man’s wife and had him killed.

There are women in this genealogy. No Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel, the great matriarchs of the people. Rather, we get Tamar, a pagan woman who disguised herself as a prostitute and gave two sons to Judah, Perez and Zerah, both named in this genealogy. There’s Rahab, another pagan woman, a real prostitute. There’s Ruth, a Moabite, another outsider, but one who became a devoted follower of God. And there’s Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon – named only as wife of Uriah, the man whom David arranged to be killed so he could have his wife, Bathsheba.

This doesn’t sound like theology, you might say, this sounds more like a soap opera. Perhaps. But who did Jesus like to spend most of his time with? Tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, outcasts, foreigners even! He came not for the righteous, the ones who had the religion all wrapped up. The gospel message is wrapped up in this genealogy, with all its imperfect characters – imperfect, just like us.

And there’s that last group of names that are totally unknown – Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar. And who was this Matthan, the great grandfather of Jesus? We know nothing about these men. Maybe they were just names made up by Matthew, just to fill in a dozen generations.

And this is where we come in. God can use us like he used the imperfect and the unknowns of those centuries before Jesus. None of us is too small to have a place in God’s purposes. No two among us will have the same flaws or the same talents and abilities, and hence the same purpose! You see, it’s that mystical, sublime mixture of flaw and giftedness that makes each of us an agent of God’s purposes. The men and women in the genealogy of Jesus are not the only men and women in the Bible; they simply were the ones that fit this line by birth that led to Jesus.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, one of the so-called Apostolic Fathers (click to enlarge)

A new genealogy began with Jesus – a genealogy not by birth, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” as John put it in his Gospel (1:13). A genealogy with MANY branches! The genealogy that began with Jesus is a genealogy of logos: Jesus spoke to Andrew, Andrew spoke to Peter, likewise Philip and Nathanael (John 1:40-45)… the exalted Jesus appeared to Saul (Acts 9:1-8)….Saul became Paul and spoke to Priscilla and Aquila, a wife-and-husband team (Acts 18)…. Priscilla and Aquila spoke to Apollos (Acts 18:26)…. Jesus spoke to John (Mark 1:19-20)… John spoke to Ignatius, who became bishop of Antioch in that first century and whose memory we commemorate today, Dec. 20th… And on down the centuries, to us…. Markus Bockmuehl spoke to me in 1978… I speak to you…. you must speak to someone else. You and I become theology! Raymond Brown was right about the genealogy – it contains the essential theology, the essential gospel in the form of tongue-twisting names. And we are part of this theology, because theology is not just about God, it’s about human beings, because God became man!

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The Rules of the Game


As almost always when reading the Gospels, context is everything! It is easy to take today’s Gospel reading, the Parable of the Great Banquet, as a moralistic lesson about getting into heaven; or as a rejection of the Jewish people, in that racist and anti-Semitic interpretation that has been popular through most of Christian history and continues to endure in many segments of the Christian population.

But let’s not settle for the usual interpretations. Let’s look at the all-important context. The entire chapter 14 of Luke takes place in the home of a Pharisee, where Jesus has been invited to dinner. It is a Sabbath. As the chapter opens, a man with edema (dropsy) comes to Jesus and is healed. Unlike other occasions of Sabbath healing, Jesus does the questioning here and is met with silence. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

As he is sitting at dinner, he notices how guests compete for the places of honor. He then advises the host to invite the poor, the injured, the lame, the blind, instead of his friends or rich neighbors. Clearly, that advice did not fall on receptive ears, as one of the guests tried to change the subject with a little spiritual interjection: “Blessed is everyone who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” A little spiritual outburst is always a convenient way to change the subject when the subject becomes uncomfortable. But Jesus refused to let the subject change so easily. And it is here, after that guest’s outburst that Jesus told the parable we heard today.

A man gave a great banquet. Clearly he was a rich man, a prominent man in the city – like the Pharisee at whose house was dining when he spoke this parable. Like the Pharisee at whose house Jesus was dining, the man in the parable invited his friends and rich neighbors. You can tell from the excuses that they were men of some wealth.

Among the elites of the ancient world no one goes to a dinner unless he is confident that the others at the table will be “the right kind of guests” The flimsy excuses offered here are an indirect but traditional Middle Eastern way of signaling disapproval of the dinner arrangements. The first person offering an excuse is an absentee landowner living in the city. The second has bought oxen sufficient to plow about 110 acres. No Middle Easterner would have bought either land or oxen without thorough inspection ahead of time. The first two excuses are thus transparently absurd. (Bruce Malina, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels)

I could use the parable as an opportunity to talk about excuses and how we use excuses in our Christian lives, but not today. Today something deeper and even darker is going on in this parable.

9781597528276Is it conceivable that the guests used the excuses as a cover for shunning this man? After all, the man went on to invite, and even compel, people that were well outside the circle of the elite. By doing so, the man broke with the system; he could no longer be trusted to protect the social arrangement. (I owe this insight to a wonderful book, The New Testament in Cross-Cultural Perspective, by Richard Rohrbaugh.)

But you will object, that was after the invited guests refused to come! Yes, but what if the man had already shown signs of breaking the boundaries, of ignoring the rules of his social network? One of the greatest films ever made, La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) by Jean Renoir, depicts such a closed society with definite rules.


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)










Perhaps the man in the parable had already brought into his home some beggar or unsavory character? Perhaps this man had shown courtesy to a “Lazarus” – unlike the rich man in that other parable that Jesus spoke (Luke 16:19-31). Perhaps he was already suspected of not playing by the rules. And his behavior in this parable simply confirmed their suspicions. As a result, he placed himself outside the circle. But he now placed himself in the bigger, wider circle of God’s own making.

Immediately after this parable, Jesus is followed by many people, and he tells them that unless they turn their back on families and relationships and possessions, they cannot be his disciples. We hear Jesus say such things several times in our Gospel readings during the year. We should understand these sayings in the context of this parable. To be a disciple of Jesus you have to move outside the narrow circle you’ve been accustomed to. You must move into the new community that Jesus creates – which he creates daily, constantly! As Paul tells us in today’s reading from Colossians, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, barbarian, Scythian, etc., but Christ is all and in all.”

The Liturgy is the place where this new community begins. Notice how often Jesus used images of dinners and banquets. Here the walls are broken. There are no divisions, no first and last places. Liturgy is our teacher, our inspiration. Though I decided not to talk about excuses today, think carefully about your own reasons for not participating in Liturgy.

A great banquet hall, but still not big enough for all God's people.

A great banquet hall, but never big enough for God’s idea of a banquet.