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The True Icon

Who is Paul referring to in Colossians 1:15? Jesus Christ, of course: ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως. He is the icon – that’s the Greek word translated as image – of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus we see God. Not physically, for there is no physicality to God. God is spirit, Jesus told the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the true icon/image of God in the sense that Jesus is everything God is. He represents God to us. He is the Word of God, the wisdom and power of God.

But an icon or image is meant to have a viewer or witness; someone to receive and see the image – just as you are receiving and seeing the image that is attached to this email. We are the witnesses, the recipients of the “image”! When we honor him, when we listen to him, when we follow him as disciples, we are recognizing that he is the image of the invisible God. God who is invisible chose to become visible to us through Jesus Christ. Can you understand the profundity of that statement? For us and for our salvation, God became visible.

Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation,” proclaims this verse. Does that mean that Jesus Christ was merely the first to be created by God? Would that mean that Jesus is none other than Adam? After all, Adam was the first man created by God, according to the archetypal language of Genesis chapters 1 & 2. And Adam and Eve were created “in the image and likeness” of God. So is Jesus Adam? It would have been very weird indeed if Paul meant anything like that. After all, he clearly differentiated between Adam and Christ in his other letters:

Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:14 – the one to come is Jesus Christ, and Adam was a “type” of Christ, someone who foreshadowed Christ. Typology is a topic on its own.)

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:45)

Clearly Paul is not equating Jesus to Adam, nor is he implying that Jesus was the first of God’s created beings. Translating πρωτότοκος as the English word “firstborn” is misleading if we don’t go on to include the remainder of what Paul wrote: for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17) This is a big statement that can sustain a separate email exposition.

Not only is Jesus the one in whom everything was created (remember John 1:3?), he is also the Savior. Note how he links the theology of who Christ is to what Christ has done. It’s brilliant: He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:18-20)

Just as in yesterday’s extraordinary paragraph in Colossians 3:12-17, so also here he sees the church as the place where everything finds its purpose. In chapter 3, the church is the body of Christ, where our discipleship has its true home, and from where we learn how to go out into the world as disciples and messengers of Christ. In the chapter 1 passage, Jesus Christ’s works of creation, re-creation and reconciliation (which is another word for cosmic salvation) all find their culmination and focus in the church.

The church is all-important to Christ’s work. The church is the home of God’s purposes to save the world and bring us to glory. Is the church important to you? If yes, then how is it important to you? And how do you express that importance in your life and your participation in the life of the church? 


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Matters of Language

At last Sunday’s Matins I was shocked by the language in the Doxastikon of the Praises. The text refers to the Resurrection Gospel that was read earlier in the Matins service and which described the encounter of Mary Magdalene with the resurrected Jesus. Here is a translation of the Doxastikon:

Verily, the fervid tears of Mary were not shed in vain; for behold she was found worthy to learn from the angels, and to look at your face, O Jesus. But since she was a weak woman she was still thinking of earthly things. Therefore, she was turned away from touching you, O Christ. But she was sent to proclaim to your Disciples, and to tell them the glad tidings of your ascent to the heavenly heritage. With her, therefore, make us worthy of your appearance, O Lord. 

So Mary Magdalene was “a weak woman”, γυνὴ ἀσθενής? Maybe in the mind of the anonymous monk who composed this hymn, but certainly not in the Gospels, where the women, including Mary Magdalene, were the only disciples who stayed with Jesus to the end; except for John, who was the only male disciple at Golgotha.

In Christian traditional language, women are rarely more than weak; after all, they are descendants of Eve, who led Adam to sin by her own weakness in the face of the serpent’s temptation. Even men who know nothing about the Bible or theology – and don’t care to know anything – do not hesitate to blame Eve and women in general for everything that they don’t like. It’s only a short hop from the Doxastikon last Sunday to the hatred of women that we see in our society today.

When women are not “weak” in the medieval traditions of the church, they are sinners or prostitutes. No wonder that the only women that can become “saints” are either virgin martyrs or nuns; or repentant prostitutes who become nuns! Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza published a landmark book in 1983, In Memory of Her. The title of her book comes from the episode in Mark’s Gospel where an unnamed woman anointed Jesus. Immediately there was an uproar among the men against this act under the pretext that it was a waste of money. But Jesus’ response was memorable: “Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). The Greek is even more pointed: ἀμὴν δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅπου ἐὰν κηρυχθῇ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον εἰς ὅλον τὸν κόσμον, καὶ ὃ ἐποίησεν αὕτη λαληθήσεται εἰς μνημόσυνον αὐτῆς. Because of that conjunction καὶ in the middle of this sentence, I would translate it more like this: “Truly I say to you, wherever in all the world the gospel is proclaimed, this also, what she has done, will be shouted out as a memorial to her.” This act is her memorial for all eternity. But it also becomes part of the gospel, part of the good news of Jesus Christ. Because of that conjunction καὶ! For no other person, man or woman, does Jesus say such a thing. Perhaps the only other saying of Jesus that could be considered as similarly remarkable is what Jesus said to the thief on the cross.

Matthew’s Gospel has the exact same incident almost word-for-word as in Mark (see Matthew 26:6-13). There is a similar incident recounted in Luke 7:36-50, and there it is a sinful woman (presumably a prostitute or an adulteress) who anoints the feet of Jesus and receives forgiveness. But the Luke incident is clearly a different event and a different woman. There is NO similarity with the woman in Mark and Matthew. And yet much of Byzantine and medieval tradition merged both incidents into one: It’s a sinful woman who anointed Jesus!

Schüssler Fiorenza also points out something else that is deeply important and perceptive. In Luke’s narrative the woman washes the feet of Jesus and then anoints his feet with the ointment. It was normal in that society to wash the feet of a visitor; but even there the men make a big deal in Luke’s narrative because the woman was “a sinner.” How could Jesus allow a woman to wash his feet? Shocking! But the woman in Mark and Matthew pours the ointment over Jesus’ head, not his feet. Schüssler Fiorenza goes on to point out:

Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus’ head must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. According to the tradition [accurately reflected by Mark and Matthew] it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophetic sign-action. It was a politically dangerous story.

Politically dangerous indeed; as in today’s political climate as well. Far from the world of “weak” women to which much of the Christian tradition has reduced women, here we have a woman who acted as a prophet in the Old Testament sense and proclaimed, by anointing his head, Jesus to be Messiah, the Anointed. Whether she was conscious of this or not, it is enough to say that God intended this woman to be the prophetess for Jesus. Just as another woman, Anna, was prophetess when she and Simeon recognized and blessed the 40-day old infant Jesus.

The language of church tradition needs a major overhaul, so we don’t resort to labels like “a weak woman” to describe one of the strongest and most remarkable persons in the life of Christ. And so we don’t turn every woman who went to Jesus into a prostitute or sinner. I’m not advocating political correctness of any sort. The label “politically correct” becomes a convenient way out for men in power. This is not about political correctness – it’s about linguistic correctness and accurate exegesis! But then that last sentence is probably beyond the vocabulary of many men in our society, including men in positions of power.

But what about Mary, the mother of Jesus, the most visible woman in the New Testament? She is the highest of all the saints in the church’s estimation. She is held as a model of purity, humility, faith and faithfulness, devotion, and everything positive that can be said about a person of faith. Surely she doesn’t need any “politically correct” help. Think again. In the most commonly used hymn devoted to her we sing these words:

More honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you.

A beautiful hymn to be sure, that properly elevates Mary beyond even the highest angels. But maybe she’s elevated too high, so she ceases to be a woman? Note how the hymn describe her birth-giving of Jesus: “without defilement” or “uncorruptedly” – αδιαφθόρως. Why is her birth-giving without defilement, without corruption? Is it a defilement to give birth? Is it corruption? Is her birth-giving “without defilement” because it was a virgin birth? So every other human birth is a defilement? Do I have to be politically correct to say that there is a problem with the anthropology behind such language? I prefer to believe that this is not the authentic language of the church! And yet there it is, in one of the most frequently sung hymns. I prefer to think it is the language of male monks. It is indeed a tragedy that once monasticism became an organ of the imperial church instead of what it was at the beginning – an act of resistance against the state church and the empire – the church allowed monks to become the primary hymn composers. And that is still the case today. And it’s a mistake, in my opinion; a weakness in our otherwise rich liturgical tradition.

A fellow church member was rejoicing that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the US Supreme Court. He looks forward to the Supreme Court now overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion in the United States over 40 years ago. I told him that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, there will be revolution and women will rise up. That’s okay, was his reply, we’ll put them right back in their place.

I don’t expect anything from politicians and Supreme Court justices. But the church listens to another teacher, the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t we start by taking an honest look at our language and how we interpret the Bible? It would be a good start toward healing our attitude to women – and to men, for that matter.


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The Blessing of Abundance

I was struck by one phrase in the Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 9:6-11. Τοῦτο δέ, ὁ σπείρων φειδομένως φειδομένως καὶ θερίσει, καὶ ὁ σπείρων ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις καὶ θερίσει. That opening phrase, Τοῦτο δέ, is a call to attention: So now, this…this, pay attention, very important teaching about to follow. “He who sows sparingly – that is, with limits – will also reap sparingly.” Don’t think that by counting every penny, dollar, or every minute that you spend on something or someone you will achieve anything – whether love or a relationship or work to change society or helping someone in need.

How deep is your investment in someone’s life or in a principle you claim to care for? Are you counting pennies or minutes? Or are you invested abundantly, without comfortable limits? ὁ σπείρων ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις καὶ θερίσει – “but he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Wow, that’s the phrase that hit me when I read this passage in the original language. It’s the mirror image of the first half of this sentence. The verbs are the same – σπείρω (speiro) and θερίζω (therizo), and the syntax is the same. But here we have the opposite of sparingly, φειδομένως (pheidomenos). Here we have ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις (ep’ eulogiais) – translated as abundantly, the opposite of sparingly. That struck me. εὐλογία (eulogia) usually means blessing. Here it means abundantly?

I went to my lexicons for some help. We know that εὖ λέγειν in ancient Greek meant “to speak well,” either in the sense of “to speak finely” or “to speak well of someone.” But this good speech is related to deeper aspects of a person’s character and disposition. Consider this passage from Plato’s Republic, Πολιτεία, Book 3, 400d:

‘As for speaking style and language,’ I said, ‘they depend on a person’s character, don’t they?’

‘Of course.’

‘And everything else depends on speaking style?’

‘Yes.’

‘It follows, then, that good use of language, harmony, grace, and rhythm all depend on goodness of character. I’m not talking about the state which is actually stupidity, but which we gloss as goodness of character; I’m talking about when the mind really has equipped the character with moral goodness and excellence.’  (Republic, Robin Waterfield, translator, Oxford University Press)

Plato here lists εὐλογία with εὐαρμοστία (good, harmonious temper), εὐσχημοσύνη (gracefulness), εὐρυθμία (good rhythm) and culminates at εὐηθείᾳ (goodness of heart, good nature, guilelessness, simplicity, honesty), a word whose root is ἦθος, from which we get ethics, but which is also the English word ethos: the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations; but also the characteristic spirit of a person, as well.

But notice, Plato writes εὐηθείᾳ ἀκολουθεῖ. The good ethos follows from the abundance of εὖ words. I should point out that at the end of this section in the Republic Plato lists the opposites of the εὖ words: καὶ ἡ μὲν ἀσχημοσύνη καὶ ἀρρυθμία καὶ ἀναρμοστία κακολογίας καὶ κακοηθείας ἀδελφά: “gracelessness and evil rhythm and disharmony are brothers to evil speaking and the evil ethos.” So either you have an abundance of εὖ qualities or the opposites.

ncientanswersdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/plato.png”> A modern statue of Plato graces the entrance to the University of Athens[/caption]So the

So the phrase ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις derives from this abundance of εὖ words in classical Greek. Even in modern Greek we often say, Ευλογία είναι. The garden produced an abundance of tomatoes this summer? Ευλογία είναι. I have one parishioner, a very generous parishioner, who gives so abundantly and each time tells me Ευλογία είναι. And here is where the abundance blends with the blessing. God has given abundantly to this person who then gives abundantly. It’s all a blessing, all ευλογία. But it’s abundance. God does not count the blessings he pours. He pours blessings. Some we receive, some we don’t receive – either because we’re not paying attention, or we’re too wrapped up in our negativities to catch the blessings. In two weeks we will read the Parable of the Sower and the Seed that shows us how God pours out blessings.

But notice how Paul goes on in the passage from 2 Corinthians:

Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.

As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever.”

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

Note how it works with God’s abundance: You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, or unto great generosity – εἰς πᾶσαν ἁπλότητα – generosity without reserve, without counting pennies or minutes of your time. 

I’ve used the RSV translation here, which is still the standard translation used in our Archdiocese  The NRSV translation, which has become almost the new standard among many Christian writers and theologians because of its gender-inclusiveness (have we gone too far with political correctness?), is very wrong in how it renders the concluding sentence in the passage above. It writes: “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity…” This rendering communicates something very different from the original text. The RSV and all other English translations understand the text correctly; the NRSV gets it wrong. Why? It implies what we today call the gospel of health and wealth; the false gospel preached in many evangelical and TV versions of Christianity. Namely, that God will enrich you if you are generous – which, of course in today’s evangelical culture usually means generous to the ministry that is preaching this message. This is blatant heresy, and I never imagined that the NRSV, which has become a favourite of liberal Christians, would communicate such a message, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The error is very simple, and it makes all the difference: There is no “your” in the Greek text. God is not going to enrich you because of your generosity. God is going to enrich you so that you will continue in generosity. Even the RSV is not totally correct. The Greek, εἰς πᾶσαν ἁπλότητα, is best translated as “to great generosity” not “for great generosity.”

Dear friends, the vision today is one of abundance. God’s abundance, our abundance – for the health of our lives, of our souls, for the goodness of our character. You don’t need the Senate or the FBI to establish your character. Start by speaking well, eulogia, and continue by thinking of your life in terms of abundance, ep’ eulogiais. Do not think in terms of lack or scarcity. Do not compare your blessings to anyone else’s. Open your heart, your soul, to see the blessings all around you.

Do not compare yourself to anyone. Then you will see that there are no enemies. The key to loving your enemy, that seemingly impossible commandment of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, is to stop thinking in terms of enemies, that someone is better than you or stronger than you and means you harm. We are all in this together. Guide your mind – as Plato would say – and then guide the people in your life. Think in eulogiais. Every day, Ευλογία είναι. And then you will see more clearly how abundantly God has blessed you.


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Why I love the Bible

Today’s Gospel reading is the last in a series of Gospel readings from Matthew that dazzle me with their judgmentalism and violence. 

Three weeks ago we heard the parable of the unforgiving servant and how the master in the parable threw him and his wife and children into prison for the rest of their lives – an act clearly meant to symbolize eternal damnation. Last week we heard the parable of the wicked tenants with its violent content. Today is the latest in this series of brutal Gospel readings. Brutal because of its violence and because it goes beyond what is needed to tell us about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Luke also has this parable, but without the conclusion where one of the men is thrown out into “the outer darkness” – a symbol of eternal hell. And here is something that needs pointing out. We read Luke’s version every year on the second Sunday before Christmas. Did you hear the last sentence of our reading today: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew has that; Luke does not. But the church added Matthew’s last sentence to Luke’s version that we read in December! (Compare Luke 14:16-24 to Gospel reading of the 11th Sunday of Luke, two Sundays before Christmas, which this year will fall on December 16th.)

Do people like violence and exclusion? Why did the Church add Matthew’s punchline to Luke’s version, where Luke wrote no such thing? Which version is right, Matthew’s version, where a man is thrown out to eternal hell, or Luke’s version, which ends with the gathering of as many people as possible to enter the dinner? Which do you prefer? Would you draw pleasure to see some people thrown out of the Kingdom into eternal damnation? It’s an honest question, and I know many Christians who want to see people in hell! They get eternal life for themselves; and too bad for those others who end up in hell – whatever hell might be.

I’m not trying to re-write the Bible. I don’t need to re-write the Bible, because I take the Bible as it is. It contains words that are inspired by human beings listening to God. But it also contains words inspired by our having to live with people like us – people who often have hateful, violent thoughts right next to thoughts of love and spirit. Have you ever read Psalm 139? It’s beautiful; a long series of life-celebrating affirmations. But something happens along the way. See if you can catch it.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
    and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
    and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
    I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Did you catch that, what happened between verses 18 and 19? But that’s human nature, that’s the human heart. We can speak beautifully to God one moment and then turn with hatred and violence toward our fellow human beings. The Bible is not just God’s words to us; it’s also our words to God! And sometimes our words and our thoughts are not so beautiful. Did Matthew embellish the parable with that epilogue? Why doesn’t Luke have it? I asked similar questions about our other recent Gospel readings. And why did the church take Matthew’s “many are called, few are chosen,” and stick it to the end of Luke’s version, when Luke did not write that sentence?

Now if you are a fundamentalist and you believe that every word in the Bible came straight from the mouth of God, you will recoil that I’m even asking such questions. How dare I?

But here’s a little secret. This is one of the reasons I love the Bible. There are passages I don’t like, but then there are days and things in my life that I don’t like. Life is sometimes ugly, and painful, and life many times brings out the worst in us. So when I turn to Psalm 139 and I come to those words near the end, I take comfort that David wasn’t all that different from me. He also had his days, and the Bible says that God loved him. So perhaps God can love me, even in my worst days. I can be miserable, I can be negative, and still God can love me. Because God’s love is infinitely greater than my offenses.

In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the Feast of the Cross. And then we go back to the beginning, but this time with Luke’s Gospel – a Gospel that seems to be more focused on showing us the ways of compassion and forgiveness. We can only turn to Luke after the Cross; and the Church showed great wisdom in going to readings from Luke after the Elevation of the Cross. The cross of Jesus Christ is where forgiveness came into the world; where the compassion of God was most starkly revealed; where God’s love transcends all the hatred in the world. God is amazing, and the Bible is his amazing book – and our amazing, honest book!


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What about the Ten Commandments?

The incident of Jesus and the rich young man (or ‘ruler’ in one version) poses some questions worth discussing. The man in question asks Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus goes on to quote five of the “Ten Commandments” that Moses received on Mount Sinai.

Here are the commandments as they are given in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus:

And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them….

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain….

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work….

“Honor your father and your mother….

“You shall not kill.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

In responding to the young man (Matthew 19:16-19), Jesus quotes the 6-9th commandments, then the 5th commandment, and then caps it off with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which is not one of the ten “words” (commandments) given to Moses. Where did that come from? 

In Matthew 22 we read: A lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” And here too, Jesus quoted two passages from the Books of Moses and combined them together as the sum of everything the Bible commands!

Here is what I find most interesting about the dialogue with the young man. In quoting the Ten commandments, Jesus completely ignored the first four commandments which have to do with our obligations toward God and only quoted commandments that have to do with how we relate to other people! And to cap it all off, Jesus concluded with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – but here too he ignored the first of the two commandments that sum up all the law and the prophets: “you shall love the Lord your God”. So Jesus’ answer is completely about the man’s relationship to the neighbor! He leaves God out of the equation.

The man claims he’s okay with all those commandments, but Jesus knows better. So he throws the challenge to him: If you want to be perfect…. The young man goes away disappointed. And Jesus speaks those terrible words about how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. But is it then easier for the poor to enter heaven? Many, including myself, have often drawn that conclusion. It’s also a standard tenet of liberation theology. But perhaps it’s good to remember Dostoyevsky’s parable of the old woman and the onion that I shared in my previous post as a corrective to that simplistic idea.

Really, if you look at the actual commandments Jesus used in his response to the man, you see that money is not really the issue, but how we relate to each other. There is no point in talking about love of God if we don’t first talk about love of the neighbor. As John wrote in his first epistle:  If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother (=neighbor), he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother (=neighbor) whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20). Our sins go beyond money. Our sins are always against the neighbor.

But let’s go back to the so-called Ten Commandments. The Book of Exodus refers to them as “words” rather than commandments; but commandments they are for our purposes. For many years now there have been constant and relentless efforts by right-wing fundamentalist Christians to have the Ten Commandments placed in public buildings, especially courthouses. The discredited extremist Roy Moore was one of the biggest promoters of that campaign. I can still remember writing a letter to the editor of our local newspaper many years ago in opposition to the efforts by Moore and others like him to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings and courthouses. I’m against all such efforts even more strongly today, as we face the relentless war for “religious freedom” being waged by the Christian Right against all other religions and anything that stands in their efforts to impose a theocracy on American society. Religious freedom for them means freedom only for their religion!

My objection to these right-wing efforts rests on those first four “words”/commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai, and which Jesus did not invoke in his dialogue with the rich young man. Yes, the Lord is my God, but he did not bring me out of Egypt. And neither can any other American – religious or not – relate to the preamble of the Ten Commandments, unless he or she is a recent refugee from Egypt! I should have “no other gods” in my life – so I guess I’m fine with the first commandment. But in a pluralist society such as ours, what right do I have to impose that commandment on anyone else? Especially anyone who might not even know where Egypt is? (And we know how little geography is taught in American schools!)

The second commandment is about images and idolatry. This is a touchy one for us Orthodox who have images in all our churches and in our homes. We of course deny the allegation that we are breaking the Second Commandments, but the allegations are regularly made against us by Protestant fundamentalists and Evangelicals – in other words, by the same crowd that wants to impose the Ten Commandments. I wonder how much “religious freedom” we Orthodox would have in a right-wing theocracy.

And let’s carry the argument further. What is an idol anyway? When these same Christians who oppose icons and images begin their church services with the Pledge of Allegiance, are they not treating the American flag with the same respect and devotion that we Orthodox show to our icons? I’m not against the Pledge or the flag, they are part of American civil life. And if some Christians want to begin their worship services with the pledge to the flag, that is their business and their freedom to do so. But let’s not allow them to impose their narrow understanding of images and idolatry on the rest of us. So the Second Commandments is problematic in a pluralist society such as ours.

What about the Third Commandment? Oh my God, what a farce we have made of that – we “Christians” first of all, as I just did in the way I opened this sentence and the way most of us open countless sentences and exclamations. Or the way we toss out “Jesus Christ” as a swear word. We Christians treat the names of God with no respect or mindfulness; so what right do we have to impose respect for the name of God on others who do not recognize the validity of the Ten Commandments?

And finally there is the Fourth Commandment, the wonderful Fourth Commandment, loaded with such beautiful theology, even more important in our our ecologically disastrous age than it was in Moses’ time. When is the last time any of us honored the sabbath? When is the last time Roy Moore honored the sabbath? Or any of his right-wing fundamentalist cohorts?

But isn’t Sunday now the sabbath for Christians? Yes, the new Moses of Byzantium changed the sabbath to Sunday. Okay, so when is the last time you honored Sunday by not working, by not going to the Mall, by not taking your child, grandchild or niece to hockey practice, or soccer practice? Need I go on?

Do you see how hypocritical we are when we talk about the Ten Commandments? And how obscene are the efforts by a large segment of right-wing Christians to impose the Ten Commandments on our society? These same right-wing Christians constantly raise alarms about Moslems, that they are intent on imposing Sharia law on us. But they don’t see their own efforts at theocracy as the more immediate and more plausible evil.

The Ten Commandments themselves have become an idol in the hands of many Christians, so it is refreshing to consider how creatively Jesus used the Ten Commandments in his dialogue with the rich young man. Perhaps I can be excused for concluding with a couple of cartoons as a small act of deflating the idolatry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A different version of the above, without the extended reflections on the Ten Commandments, was given as a sermon on August 19th.

 


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Did Jesus Really Say…?

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church presented some serious conundrums – serious at least to me, but perhaps not to anyone else. Here is the Gospel passage as it was read at Liturgy:

The Lord said this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the torturers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

Did Jesus really say what Matthew wrote at the end of this passage? Did Jesus really speak that very heavy, very final threat? And is that threat consistent with the message of the parable? And is the message of the parable clear the way it was read at the Liturgy in Orthodox churches? These are my conundrums – at least for starters.

The first problem that arises from the way it was read at the Liturgy is that the context is missing! And that’s a recurring problem in the Gospel readings of our Lectionary. According to the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus did not utter this parable out of the blue. It was prompted by a question from his disciple Peter:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Note that I didn’t close the quotation, because Jesus did not stop at that point, and Matthew did not write The Lord said this parable, as our Gospel reading began yesterday. As a matter of fact, this is what Matthew wrote:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants….”

Do you see how the parable came about? It was directly prompted by Peter’s question. Jesus immediately answered Peter’s question and immediately went on to further illustrate an answer to Peter with the parable: Therefore… Διὰ τοῦτο ὡμοιώθη….= For this reason/in this manner the kingdom of heaven may be compared….

To separate the parable from its context in Peter’s question is to do huge damage – and is a further step in making it a parable of insurmountable threat. But the first step in making it a parable of threat was taken by Matthew himself in the way he drafted this passage. The church merely took it further by removing the context and making it an absolute threat!

The only way I can make sense of this parable as written by Matthew, with its context (and not as it was read without the context!), is to assume that the threat was added by Matthew and was not spoken by Jesus. In other words, I’m saying that Matthew put the threat in Jesus’ mouth. Only a fundamentalist would be shocked by such a statement. Scholars have demonstrated beyond any doubt that the writers of the Gospels injected their own understanding in how they represented the words and actions of Jesus. That is why the four Gospels often differ and even contradict each other in many specifics. That is why John stands almost completely alone in how he represents Jesus – and is the reason why the Orthodox Church gave him, alone among the New Testament writers, the epithet “Theologian”. And even though the other three Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – share more similarities than differences – which is the reason they are called Synoptic Gospels – nevertheless, each of them chose to emphasise different aspects of the multi-dimensional impression that Jesus made to first-century Judeans and continues to make to 21st-century global citizens.

Close-up of writing in the Codex Sinaiticus (click on the image to enlarge)

Am I being anti-fundamentalist, liberal, politically correct in attributing the threat to Matthew rather than Jesus? It might not even have been Matthew; it could have been an early redactor somewhere in the Mediterranean when the Gospel began to be copied and distributed among the early churches. After all, the earliest manuscript that contains the full text of Matthew is the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which is kept secure in the British Library in London. This manuscript dates from the fourth century, about 300 years after Matthew wrote his Gospel. A lot can happen to a written text in 300 years, as the various papyrus fragments and manuscripts clearly show. (The page of Codex Sinaiticus that contains the parable can be viewed by clicking here.)

The Codex Sinaiticus on protected display at the British Library in London, England

Jesus often spoke about forgiveness – both God’s forgiveness of our sins and our need to forgive each other. But it seems that only Matthew included a statement of threat: here, in verse 35 of chapter 18; and in verse 15 of chapter 6…“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) The fact that only Matthew includes such threats is one reason to believe that he put the words of the threat in Jesus’ mouth in our Gospel reading.

Furthermore, the threat is inconsistent with the message and context of the parable. Peter’s question came from a mindset of placing limits to forgiveness. “How often should I forgive, seven times?” Jesus’ answer – seventy times seven – was not meant to place a higher limit, 490 times, to forgiveness, but to eliminate the thought of limits altogether! He was telling Peter to not count the times he would forgive.

Therefore… Διὰ τοῦτο, Jesus goes on to give a parable, an illustration of what God is like and what man is like. The lord in the parable is an image of God. His forgiveness is limitless. The servant receives limitless forgiveness, but cannot reciprocate even minimal forgiveness on his fellow servant. Here lies the answer to Peter’s question. With this parable Jesus is telling Peter that the minute he starts counting how often he should forgive his brother, he comes close to resembling the servant who cannot forgive. The parable is addressed to Peter!

The parable is addressed to Peter and in response to Peter’s question. But it is also addressed to every one of us, because we all have a hard time forgiving. We find it difficult to forgive once – never mind seven times or seventy times seven! But because the parable is addressed to every one of us, removing the context of Peter’s question removes also from the discourse our own human preference for limits. And then when Matthew throws in the threat at the end we end up with a parable that is overbearingly threatening.

And here is the crux of the matter and why it is so wrong to ignore the context. Peter’s question is meant to put limits to forgiveness. The parable shows the contrast between God’s limitless forgiveness and man’s/Peter’s limited forgiveness or even complete inability to forgive. If the lord in the parable is meant to illustrate God’s limitless forgiveness, how is it logical for this lord to consign the wicked servant to total and final punishment? Why doesn’t he at least decide to forgive the wicked servant the rhetorical “seventy times seven” that Jesus spoke to Peter? How is God’s limitless forgiveness consistent with the treatment of the wicked servant and with the threat that concludes the parable?

Perhaps Jesus concluded the parable with some statement contrasting the limitless forgiveness of God and the limited forgiveness that human beings can barely manage. And perhaps Jesus rounded out his answer to Peter by encouraging Peter to act like the lord in the parable instead of the wicked servant. Because the minute you start counting, Peter, you run the risk of not forgiving at all. Perhaps Jesus concluded the parable with something like that – and something got lost in translation from Aramaic to Greek when Matthew put his Gospel together. Or, perhaps Jesus concluded the parable without any moral message to Peter. Perhaps he threw out the parable like a Zen koan; just to show two extremes and let Peter draw his own conclusion – and for us to do likewise. 

In Dostoyevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, there is another parable about forgiveness, with a similar message about limits. This is the story of the old woman and the onion.

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”

The message of Dostoyevsky’s parable is different from Jesus’ parable, but the contrast is the same, between God’s limitless forgiveness and mercy and man’s selfish, limited ability to be merciful. That one onion represented the only good deed the woman had ever done in her life, and it could have been the means of saving not only her, but countless, maybe a million, others. God was allowing it. But the woman’s selfishness overcame even God’s limitless mercy. The only obstacle to God’s limitless forgiveness and mercy is man’s selfish small mindedness. The woman was so absorbed in her selfishness, she could not trust in God who held out the onion to her!

Perhaps, in the final analysis, forgiveness is about trusting God. 


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The φρόνημα of the Cross

 

One of seventeen crosses representing the seventeen who were shot and killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla., are arranged in the Pine Trails Park during a candlelight vigil, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The cross is the stumbling block for most people who turn away from Christianity or refuse to accept its vision of God. How could God be so cruel as to demand such a thing? How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death? Of course to even ask a question such as, How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death, does put our own questions in perspective: How could God allow the shooting at the Parkland high school, or at Sandy Hook? How can God allow thousands of refugees to drown every year in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to flee war and starvation?

Well, before we get to the God question, let’s answer these questions with one single word: Evil. Evil men shot to death those students at Parkland and Sandy Hook. Evil governments and human traffickers are responsible for those refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. And of course it was evil men who put Jesus to death on the cross.

But where is God in all this? To invoke free will, as we Orthodox usually do, is a cop-out. We Orthodox like to get to resurrection, to Easter, so we try to get through talk of cross as quickly as possible. We even boast that we are the resurrection church – while the western churches talk too much about the cross and the blood of Jesus. The blood of the western churches does get to be rather much; but too much resurrection and theosis talk in the Orthodox Church also falls short of any answers we can offer to the God question.

Attendees pass a wooden cross as they arrive at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

We can’t rush to the resurrection. We have to go through the cross first. Jesus tells us today that if we want to follow him we must pick up our cross and follow him. What is this cross? Is it some catastrophe that falls to us in our home? Is it a deadly illness we have to go through? Some struggle that overwhelms us? “This is my cross… This is your cross…” we casually speak about our problems and each other. Maybe something might be “my cross” or “your cross,” but not necessarily the cross Jesus has in mind.

 

Paul said it very clearly in a great passage in his letter to the Philippians:

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (Philippians 2:5)

φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220)

But in ancient Greek these words all had to do with attitude, mindset, attitude to life

Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.

That simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in his letters in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. So when Paul says in Philippians, Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, he is basically saying be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls very short.

The cross is not some particular problem or sickness we have to bear; or something God sends to test us – another very popular idea – and in my opinion thoroughly pagan. The cross is not a problem or an instrument of death. The cross is a way of life. That’s what Paul is saying when he wrote to the Philippians to have the same mind, the same mindset, the same approach to life, that was also in Christ Jesus.

This is what the two disciples walking to Emmaus could not wrap their heads around. They didn’t have the φρόνημα of the Holy Spirit in them until Jesus opened their minds on the road and then their hearts when he broke bread with them at the dinner table. And there, their minds and their hearts were united and they understood; they saw Jesus. They understood what was at the very heart of the universe. Stephen Hawking and his fellow physicists will hopefully some day discover a theory of everything. But for us and for all eternity, from the very beginning of time, the Cross is at the heart of the universe. It reveals God without the need for religion.

Jesus did not take the shortcut – Hey, guys, it’s me, I’m risen, forget about the cross and everything else that happened in Jerusalem these past few days. No, he had to take them through the whole history of God’s ways; he had to educate them in the φρόνημα of the Spirit before they could understand the resurrection, before they could see him as the resurrected one.

So, to return to the God question, we cannot even begin to ask the question unless we have the φρόνημα of the Spirit. But we can answer some questions. Where was God at Parkland or Sandy Hook or the Mediterranean crossings? How could he allow such horrible deaths and killings? Where was God at Auschwitz? He died in the gas chambers, some Jewish writers have asserted. Where is Jesus when those refugees are drowning? He is drowning with them. Where was he when those students were gunned down? He was killed with them. That is the φρόνημα of the Spirit – to see life through the lens of the cross; which is the lens of reality, rather than some make-believe fantasy. We are to see life – all life – as completely wrapped up ἐν Χριστῷ, “in Christ”. He tells us in today’s Gospel reading to pick up our cross and follow him; but in fact it is he who is still bearing the cross.

The cross IS the core truth of Christianity. Other religions have resurrection. The Moslems believe in a resurrection and a judgment. But they don’t have the cross. And I don’t mean as an ornament, a symbol, a slogan.

The cross is a way of life – the way of life that unites us with Christ. How that life unfolds will be unique for every one of us. Carry your cross and follow Christ – means accept the calling, accept the φρόνημα of the Spirit.