Thursday, April 26, 2018

But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment


"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire.  Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny."

- Matthew 5:21-26

We are currently reading through the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7 of Matthew's Gospel (beginning with Monday's reading).  In yesterday's reading, Jesus taught: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'  But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.  And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council.  But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire."   Jesus cites the statutes in the Law against murder (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17).  But His purpose here is regarding what He has called the fulfillment of the Law, and a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (see yesterday's reading, above).  There is a repeated formula He uses here, in saying "but I say to you."  My study bible calls it a statement of total, divine authority (7:29).   It notes that as the Creator of man and the Author of the Law, Christ can speak with this authority.  There is an anger that is not sinful (Psalm 4:4, Mark 3:5), but Jesus here speaks of what is a sinful anger, forbidding it and identifying it with murder.   The council is the supreme legal body of the Jews.  Hell (Gehenna in the Greek) is the final condition of those who resist God's grace.  Its image comes from the Valley of Hinnom, which was a place of forbidden religious practices (2 Chronicles 28:3, Jeremiah 32:35), which King Josiah ended (2 Kings 23:10).  By the time of Christ, this place had become a garbage dump which smoldered ceaselessly.  The word Raca is most likely Aramaic meaning "empty-headed," an insult.  Fool comes from a word in Greek that is the root of the English word "moron."  Both demean a person fundamentally.

"Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."  To have peace with other believers is a requirement for worship (Mark 11:25).  There is a liturgical "kiss of peace" at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer (often called fellowship), which is a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness.  It is meant to prepare the faithful to offer the holy gifts at the altar (1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Peter 5:14).

"Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny."  In Luke's Gospel, this teaching is found in the context of the end of the age (Luke 12:57-59).  Here it's in the context of reconciliation surrounding the Liturgy.  My study bible notes that delay in reconciliation allows for the spread of animosity and other evils (Ephesians 4:26-27).

Ultimately, Jesus is speaking here of a kind of righteousness that is all about right-relatedness.  He cites name-calling as akin to murder.  The particular insults Jesus cites here are those which verbally cut a person down, in effect the meaning of these words is simply to deny the full stature of personhood.  They're not a kind of communication that effectively describes disagreement nor complaint.  They don't even describe a defect of character or personality.   An offense like this is one that constitutes a breach of righteousness or right-relatedness.  We are encouraged by Christ to take up our own responsibility for reconciliation in such circumstances.  We're reminded that Christ Himself has plenty to say that is critical of the leadership.  He will also drive out the money-changers and animal sellers from the temple.  He doesn't hesitate to correct His disciples when necessary, even repeatedly (see Mark 9:33-37, 10:35-45), and even in ways that are stark in their expression of wrong-headedness (16:23).  But on no occasion does Jesus fully demean what it means to be a person when He challenges even the most malicious or mean-spirited attacks upon Him or His disciples.  We'd all do well to understand that a truthful confrontation aimed at reconciliation or an honest airing of grievances is something which must be separated from a demeaning insult.  Moreover, the greatest orator known to history, the Logos or Word Himself, is teaching us about the importance of words.  There is crucial significance to our communication.   If we choose to communicate in a certain way, Jesus teaches here, then we commit something akin to murder with our words.  Modern psychology enforces this perspective when we grow to understand the harsh effects of verbal abuse, longer-lasting and more deeply harmful in ways than even physical abuse.  (See, for example, this article or this one.)  Jesus' wisdom enforces for us the fact that verbal abuse cuts through fellowship and community.  It damages relationships by reducing or truncating peace, and is harmful to the community He desires among His faithful.  It is an important statement about peace that is couched in today's teaching by Jesus.  If we are to be peacemakers, we must consider seriously how we learn to communicate with others.  "Peace" is not something simple and it's not meant to be a facile band aid that covers up real problems.  To be a peacemaker is to learn how to reconcile in the faith of Christ, it is to move toward His peace, not to hide from problems that need resolving.  He teaches us, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."  The Creator is Logos, or Word, One who creates with a word, and teaches us the appropriate use of the gift and power of language, of words.  The power of His peace is found in participation in the life He offers us, and our own discipleship and growth in just what that means in the fullness of our expression of His light.  It's not simple to learn His way, but we have Christ as our example of one who communicates in love and seeks what is best for us.  It is there we find the key to His peace.





Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill


 "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

- Matthew 5:17-20

 We are reading through the Sermon on the Mount, which began with Monday's reading.  Yesterday, we read that Jesus taught, "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.  You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."

 "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill."  Jesus fulfills the Law in Himself, in His words, and in His actions, my study bible tells us.  He does so by first of all, performing God's will in all its fullness (3:15); secondly, transgressing none of the precepts of the Law (John 8:46, 14:30); by declaring the perfect fulfillment of the Law, which He is about to deliver to those He addresses; and finally, by granting righteousness -- which is the goal of the Law -- to us (Romans 3:31, 8:3-4, 10:4). 

"For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled."  It is the word amen/ἀμήν (Greek borrowed from Hebrew) which is translated here as assuredly.  It means "truly" or "confirmed" or "so be it."  Jesus uses it as a kind of oath or a solemn affirmation of truth.  My study bible calls Jesus use of this word at the beginning of certain proclamations (rather than at the end) unique and authoritative.  He's declaring His words to be affirmed even before they're spoken.  It is a way of telling us to pay special attention to what He's about to declare.  A jot (iota in the Greek) is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet.  A tittle is the smallest stroke in certain Hebrew letters.  Therefore, Jesus says that the whole of the Law is affirmed as the foundation of His new teaching.  All is fulfilled, my study bible says, refers to Christ's Passion and Resurrection.

"Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."  Righteousness according to the Law is a unified whole.  In that sense, the observance of all the least commandments means to observe the whole Law, while the violation of the least commandment is considered a violation of the whole Law.

Jesus is leading us to a fuller, more whole sense of the Law, which He will subsequently extend to an internal awareness of what righteousness is.  Thus, He will give us a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  Here, He reassures His disciples that He is not breaking away from Jewish spiritual history but rather comes in fulfillment of the same.  The Law is not something He will do away with but rather will fulfill.  The Prophets also are fulfilled in Him.  As Christians and believers in Christ, it is our tradition that He, as Son, is the Lord of the Old Testament.  He is, in this divine sense, the giver of the Law.  As Incarnate human being, He is the fulfillment of the Law.  It is He who told Moses "I AM" (Exodus 3:14), just as Jesus will echo these words to the leadership in John's Gospel with another "amen" statement like that in today's reading  ("Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" - John 8:58).   Therefore as the Word Incarnate it is entirely appropriate that Jesus fulfill all righteousness (3:15).  In today's part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has just given the Beatitudes, or the blessedness of the Kingdom, and He is beginning to address the Law as it is understood and practiced.  He is leading into what it is to live a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.  What we know as good and true remains good and true.  But Christ has come to reveal a deeper truth, to fulfill, to give us a righteousness that exceeds what we know, to illuminate what is there but hidden until it is time to reveal it.  The early Christians who would turn from various pagan religions would find their own truth, goodness, and beauty fulfilled in Christ in a similar fashion.  As Logos, Christ is the Person who is Truth; thereby what was true and good and beautiful remained so, but in service to the teachings of Christ.  Greek philosophy was rendered in service to the Church, and thereby gave us theology.  Even the very word Logos became fleshed out, more deeply understood by the revelation of Christ -- as would other words known to the Greek philosophers but transformed through Christian faith.  None of this is accidental nor fanciful. The Truth comes into the world in the flesh to more fully flesh out and reveal deeper realities hidden to us in the truths already revealed, if we can but grasp hold of that.  Let us consider the depth to which He is leading and leads us, even in our very lives and prayers in the here and now, as we follow on the path of His faith.




Tuesday, April 24, 2018

You are the light of the world


Easter liturgy, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.

"You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."

- Matthew 5:11-16

Yesterday we read that, seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.   Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  These blessings, which Jesus continues to express in today's reading, are known as the Beatitudes, and Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount, which will continue through chapter 7.

 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."   Jesus  is speaking to His disciples.  What He's indicating is that those who suffer persecution for faith in His Kingdom are walking the road of the prophets, saints, and martyrs.  In Greek, the word translated as be exceedingly glad means literally to "leap exceedingly with joy,"  indicating tremendous exaltation.  (See Acts 5:40-41.) 

 "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?  It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men."  Jesus sets out a comparison of His followers to two elements of the world:  salt and light.  They illustrate the role of disciples in society.  Salt's preservative powers, necessity for life, and ability to give flavor meant it had both religious and sacrificial significance (Leviticus 2:13; see also Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5).  To eat salt with someone meant to be bound together in loyalty.  My study bible says that as the salt of the earth, Christians are preservers of God's covenant and give true flavor to the world.

"You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."  God is the true and uncreated Light.  In the Old Testament, light is symbolic of God (Isaiah 60:1-3), the divine Law (Psalms 119:105), and Israel in contrast to all other nations.  In the New Testament, the Son of God is called "light" (John 1:4-9, 8:12; 1 John 1:5).  My study bible explains that light is necessary both for clear vision and for life itself.  Faith relies on this divine light, and believers become "sons of light" (John 12:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:5) who shine in a perverse world (Philippians 2:15).   In many Orthodox parishes, the Easter liturgy begins with a candle presented and the invitation in a Paschal hymn to "come receive the Light which is never overtaken by night."  Through the virtues Jesus extols in this sermon, faith has both a personal and public function.  Our virtue, my study bible notes, can bring others to glorify the Father

Salt and light give us images of preservative power, something that fixes another substance in the world, gives flavor, and enhances everything -- and that which fills the world with its energy, giving life to all things which are dependent upon those life-giving energies.  Light is importantly, in the Scriptures, also a metaphor for truth.  It is a conveyance of reality, of what truly is -- and even more deeply of spiritual truth.  Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (John 8:12).  In that context, light is not only truth and the reality of what truly is; it is also the very thing that gives life.  But even life is more than existence and the fact of our conscious awareness of ourselves as living beings.  Life and light are the true energies of God, which create from nothing, and which convey to us the something so-much-more than merely surviving or existing.  Salt and light, then, become the very elements that make life worth living -- that give life flavor, warmth, glowing values that radiate goodness and joy.  These are gifts that come from God, but by becoming salt and light ourselves, we become those things for the world.  We may radiate the qualities given to us through participation in the life of Christ, and so become beings who carry those gifts to the world.  Are human beings capable of great joy?  Are they capable of transcendence?  Can they give value to the world that elevates human life to something invaluable?  All of these questions come from the record of faith that tells us that we are so much more than intelligent animals -- that we as bearers of the image of our Creator also have creative gifts with which we are endowed to illuminate and beautify the world.  To become salt and light is to bear divine realities into the world, to radiate an incomparable value around oneself.  We learn through Christ that human beings are meant to be bearers of a divine light, that each one is capable or has the potential to be a child of light, "sons of God" (see yesterday's reading, above).  We are not meant for mere existence, but for something infinitely beyond the sense of that kind of life in which we only survive.  "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).  Don't let anyone tell you different; we become full of this life through participation and discipleship. 






Monday, April 23, 2018

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven


 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.   Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

 - Matthew 5:1-10

On Saturday we read that Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets.  He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.  And Jesus went about all Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.  Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them.  Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.

 And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.   Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: . . .  In the Old Testament, my study bible notes, only a select few were chosen to hear God directly (see Exodus 19:3-13).  Here God Incarnate speaks to the multitudes face to face.  The mountain is a place where divine action enters human history, the place where God reveals Himself to man, a note tells us (17:1; Genesis 22:2; Exodus 3:1, 19:2; 1 Kings 18:20).  To be seated is the traditional Jewish position of teaching with authority.  There are early Christian preachers, such as St. John Chrysostom, who sat while the people stood.  Matthew writes that Jesus opened His mouth, emphasizing a kind of declarative speech here, of Jesus speaking with authority (7:29).  The disciples who hear Him are not there for discussion or debate, but rather to listen.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  To be blessed in this context refers to what my study bible calls a heavenly, spiritual exaltation, as opposed to earthly happiness or prosperity. As indicated by this first statement of Jesus, it is a state related to dwelling in the Kingdom.  In Hebrew, "poor" means both materially poor and also the faithful among God's people.  The poor in spirit are those with the heart of the poor, the same attitude of humility, and are totally dependent upon God.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."  My study bible says that those who mourn sorrow over the sufferings of this life (9:23), the sufferings of others (John 11:35), the state of the world (Luke 19:41), and their own sins (Luke 7:36-38).  All these who mourn are comforted by the power of God both in this world and in the age to come.  Holy sorrow is something that is part of repentance, conversion, and virtuous action.  My study bible adds that it is the firstfruit of infinite joy.  This is distinguished from ungodly sorrow, a sadness that leads to despair (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).  Mourning indicates loss; Jesus' declaration of comfort gives us an indication of His Gospel of the Kingdom:  a sort of exchange of one type of life for another.

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."  Meekness, my study bible notes, is an attitude of being content with both honor and dishonor.  It's an imitation of Christ, who taught, "Learn from Me, for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart" (11:29).  Those who are meek in this sense are God-controlled.  They have mastery over their passions, especially anger, and are not merely slaves to whatever they feel.  Meekness is described here in contrast to passive weakness; it is rather strength directed and under control.  The earth that the meek will inherit is not power or possession in this world, but rather the new earth, which is everlasting (Revelation 21:1).

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who see the presence of God and God's Kingdom as the most important, most highly cherished and prized thing in life.  It is a deep desire and impulse for what is right before God, which my study bible compares to a starving person's craving for food (see 6:33).

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."   Mercy, my study bible says, is love set in motion.  It is love expressed in action.  God's mercy in taking our sufferings on Himself in order to grant us His Kingdom sets us free from captivity or slavery to the evil one, to what is outside of this Kingdom.  In view of Christ's supreme example of mercy, love in action, we are in turn to be merciful to all.  As we live the life of the Kingdom, so the Kingdom dwells in us.  See also 6:15.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."  To be "pure" in the context of Scripture is to be unmixed with anything else.  The pure in heart are those who are completely devoted to the worship and service of God and accept no compromises, my study bible says.  That is, without mixed motives or pretenses.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, the ones who achieve this sort of purity practice all virtue, have no conscious evil in themselves, and live in temperance -- a kind of regulation through spiritual discipline.  According to my study bible, few attain this level of spirituality, but everyone may strive for it.  It notes that when the soul's only desire is God, and one holds this desire, the one may truly see God everywhere. 

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."  As Christ was the source of peace, He found no sacrifice sufficient for absolute peace other than shedding His own blood, my study bible notes.   He thereby reveals Himself to us as the Reconciler, the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6; Ephesians 2:14-16).  The Holy Spirit in turn gives peace to those who imitate Christ.  Therefore, peacemakers share God's peace with those around them, and imitate Christ's sacrificial love and participate in His work.  By God's grace, peacemakers become sons of God as well.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  Children of God, my study bible says, uphold truth, refuse to compromise with the ways of the world, and give themselves to no other (6:24, 33; see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Like Jesus these will be persecuted for righteousness' sake (see John 15:18-20).  By living this way they belong to the Kingdom and are members of it; my study bible calls Christ's kingdom the crown awaiting the righteous.

Christ speaks of a blessed way of life.  To dwell in the kingdom of heaven is here not an idea about an afterlife at all, but about participation in that Kingdom through discipleship, even in the here and the now.  How do we participate in and live in that Kingdom?  How do we bear it within us and into the world?  The Beatitudes give us this idea of exchange, one way of life for another.  We practice the life of the Kingdom:  we practice mercy, we risk forms of persecution for righteousness' sake, seek to live by purity of heart, live by humility, are comforted through God's love, seek God's peace in all things, and honor and recognize the deep desire within for righteousness.  All of these things are ways in which we may live in the Kingdom and grow in its influence and work in us.  The life Christ presents isn't one of fulfilling certain rules or creating an image for others.  It is rather life itself, a living reality that works and dwells and uses its energies in us to grow that life.  Just as Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is an indication of the exchange of one kind of life for another, so we also live to Him and accept the life He offers us.  In this sense, reconciliation becomes the act of becoming, so to speak; God indwelling in us unites us to the reality of God's kingdom and it grows in us and through us with holy power.  As Jesus puts it here, the Kingdom is one of participation.  As we seek to participate, so it grows in us through this mysterious power of heaven and holiness.  All the parables Christ will present of the Kingdom give us this mysterious understanding of growth that is not attained by understanding, but rather by living something, being something.  He asks us to take the initiative, take the risk, the chance, to be like Him.  In turn He dwells in us and makes His home within our hearts, through a mysterious process growing the Kingdom within us.  Note the condition of purity of heart:  this is all about what we truly desire and how we honor a pure need within for the righteousness He offers.  We may find all kinds of impulses and desires and temptations that get in the way of that desire, but the key is to honor it, cherish it, love it among the rest of the choices we might find.  This blessed way of life is the true treasure of the heart.  Who we are becomes a question of what it is we really desire.




Saturday, April 21, 2018

Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men


 And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets.  He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.

And Jesus went about all Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.  Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them.  Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.

- Matthew 4:18-25

Yesterday we read that when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:  "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles:  The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned."  From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets.  He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.  These first disciples, the brothers Simon and Andrew, and James and John Zebedee, had already heard the preaching of John the Baptist, and they were prepared to accept Christ immediately.  Although they were illiterate and unlearned in religion, my study bible tells us, these "people of the land" whom Jesus calls will be revealed at Pentecost to be the wisest of all.

And Jesus went about all Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.  Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them.  Great multitudes followed Him -- from Galilee, and from Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan.  When Jesus had begun to preach repentance ("Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," a repetition of the words of the Baptist -- see the final verse in yesterday's reading, above), the crowds did not swarm Him.  It was only when He began to heal and work miracles (today's reading) that this phenomenon of immediate public interest and fame occurred.  My study bible says that this fact shows that the people misunderstand the true nature of the Kingdom.  It is also showing that Christ made concessions "to give credibility to what He teaches" (in the words of Theophan) among the fickle multitudes.

Jesus' fame quickly grows and spreads.  These first disciples respond to His call immediately.  As Jesus begins His public ministry, things happen quickly.  People do not respond so wildly to the call for repentance, but the manifestation of holy power is compelling.  And, of course, it is the fulfillment of traditional expectations of the Messiah, one who will heal and work miracles.  My study bible says that it shows that people misunderstand the true nature of the Kingdom.  What is that true nature?  In yesterday's reading, we considered this question, pondering on the notion that the Kingdom is present wherever Christ is.  Maybe there is a hint in the immediate response of these first disciples when they are called.  They are prepared for Him; it's understood that they have heard and known the preaching of John the Baptist and were most likely his disciples first (see John 1:35-42, in which the unnamed disciple is most likely John Zebedee himself).  But what is the call?  They are called to become fishers of men.  It's noteworthy that these men are not pre-qualified for this job, although they are prepared to respond to His call.  In the language of the Gospel, Jesus says, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."   The word used for "make" both here and in the same command found in Mark's Gospel is the Greek word ποιήσω/poieso, a verb akin to "create."  It gives us the root for the word "poem," a manifestation of what it is to create.  It is, in effect, an extension of His power as Creator.  It is His holy power that will "make" these men fishers of men.  It's not a simple call to take on a role or to fill a job.  It's rather a call to mission for which only Christ's holy power is capable of rendering them what they will become.  Hence, "follow Me" is more than a command.  It's a kind of qualifier.  By following Him, in faith and in keeping His word, we become something more than what we started out and can be on our own.  In John 14, in His final sermon to the disciples at the Last Supper, He makes this promise twice.  He first tells them, "If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you" (John 14:15-18).  And then promises again, in response to a question as to how this can happen, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me" (John 14:23-24).  Living in His word, keeping His commandments, loving Christ, means that both the Helper, the Holy Spirit, and the Father, will dwell forever with that person, creating ongoing discipleship, making of us what is necessary for that living Kingdom, which is clearly a synergy of holy power and human beings.  To live in His word -- true repentance -- is an ongoing process of being made into something, of this holy power to create at work in our lives.  As my study bible noted when these illiterate and unlearned men were called, they "will be revealed at Pentecost to be the wisest of all" because of this ongoing creative work of God within them.  Where one member of the Trinity is, as we noted in yesterday's reading, so are all three, as promised by Christ in John 14.  What we look to, then, is this transformational and creative reality, making us into something that we can't make of ourselves, fashioning us for  a purpose and for participation in something beyond ourselves and greater than we can know.  It is a creative power in which we are invited to participate, growing closer in this indwelling "home" where Father, Son, and Spirit may live forever with us.  It's an awesome thing to ponder, but one for which we simply need to accept what is, and allow ourselves to accept where He leads when we follow.   More powerfully than we can know, the work of God is, after all, to believe in Him whom He sent (John 6:29).




Friday, April 20, 2018

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned


 Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:
"The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles:
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death
Light has dawned."
From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

- Matthew 4:12-17

Yesterday we read that after His Baptism by John the Baptist,  Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.  Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But He answered and said, "It is written,  'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"  Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written:  'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"'  Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"  Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."  Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.'"  Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

 Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee.  And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:  "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, / By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: . . ."  John has been put into prison, and this is the spur for Jesus to go to Galilee.  The text quotes from the prophecy of Isaiah regarding the government of the promised Son (Isaiah 9:1-2).  My study bible explains here that the term Galilee of the Gentiles indicates that many non-Jews lived in the region.  As it had a mixed population, it wasn't considered to be a genuinely Jewish land, although many Gentile residents had converted to Judaism during the Maccabean period.  In addition, many of the Jews of the region had been influenced by Greek culture and customs, and so they were generally considered to be second-class citizens by the Jews of Judea.

"The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, / And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death / Light has dawned."  Darkness means ungodliness.  Here it is a term denoting the Gentiles' unawareness of God and also the Jews under the shadow of the Old Covenant, an incomplete revelation to be fulfilled by the Son.  To sit in darkness, my study bible explains, means to be overcome by spiritual ignorance.  The great light is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."  Jesus begins His open public ministry with the words of John the Baptist.  His first word is "Repent" (3:1-3). The kingdom of heaven, my study bible reminds us (as does the quotation from Isaiah's prophecy) is present wherever Christ is. 

What is the kingdom of heaven?  Why is it "at hand"?  When Jesus sends out His chosen twelve disciples, He will instruct them to do as He does, and as John did, to preach everywhere they go, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand" (10:5-7).  This passing off of a kind of baton from John of the Old Covenant, to Jesus who is the Christ, to the disciples who preach His gospel, the good message, makes us understand the centrality of Christ to this "awaited" spiritual event, the coming of the Kingdom.  As my study bible explains, the kingdom of heaven is present wherever Christ is.  It indicates a living reality, which dwells both within us and among us (Luke 17:20-21).   The words of Christ Himself  indicate that Christ's presence is an eternal one, intersecting time within us, and living among us through faith (18:20).  Jesus begins His ministry in today's reading, by going to Galilee.  But His kingdom is something that lives as a present reality.  Throughout the books of the Old Testament and Jewish spiritual history, the prophets have written of this Kingdom.  It is the purpose of the coming of the Messiah to manifest that Kingdom.  But our Messiah isn't merely a glorified or superhuman being.  He is also eternal, the Son, the Lord who was always with the people throughout the events of the Old Testament, sending help, guiding, and revealing spiritual reality.  Immanuel as revealed through Isaiah and reminded by Matthew (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23) is "God with us," the ever-present reality of this Kingdom.  It permeates our lives, dwells among the faithful both where they are gathered and where He makes His home in the heart (Revelation 3:20).  Where any Person of the Trinity is present, so are the others; this Kingdom lives as the presence of Father, Son, and Spirit -- and thereby all those gathered within their living presence, the communion of saints and the angels of uncountable rank and number who minister.  The connection is faith, the presence of this reality is truth.  The light of Christ is His connection and the Kingdom's presence and work in all of us.  Let us listen to His message if we truly have ears to hear it.




Thursday, April 19, 2018

It is written, "You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve"


 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.  Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But He answered and said, "It is written,  'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written:
'He shall give His angels charge over you,'
and,
'In their hands they shall bear you up, 
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"'
Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."  Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.'"  Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

- Matthew 4:1-11
Yesterday we read that Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tied to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"  But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he allowed Him.  When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  My study bible tells us that to be tempted means to be tested in fundamental areas of faith.  As in Mark's Gospel, the Spirit leads Christ (in Mark's Gospel, it is written effectively in the Greek that the Spirit "throws" Him) into the wilderness after He is baptized, to be tested by a struggle with the devil.  My study bible notes that we who are baptized in Christ need not be defeated by temptations because we are also aided by the Holy Spirit.  It says, "The wilderness is a battleground, an image of the world, both the dwelling place of demons and a source of divine tranquility and victory."

And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.  The subject of today's entire reading is a focus in which Jesus reverses Israel's falling to temptation in the wilderness.  What we note clearly is that temptation or testing is that which seeks to deviate us from loving and serving God, from sincerely seeking and doing God's will in all things.  The Israelites were tested forty years in the wilderness and proved both disobedient and disloyal.  God humbled them by first letting them go hungry and then feeding them with manna to help them learn to be dependent on God (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).  Here in this passage Jesus is tested with hunger for forty days, but He does not sin.  His answers to Satan are from Deuteronomy, and all call for loyalty to God.  My study bible tells us that Jesus fasted to overcome temptation, thereby giving to us an example of our own power and limitations in the face of temptation.   The hunger of His flesh doesn't control Him; instead He controls His flesh.  Our Lord's forty days-long fast is the foundation of the tradition of the Church's forty-day Lenten fast before Holy Week, and also in Church tradition a fast before Christmas.

Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."   In this temptation, we observe that the devil challenges Christ's relationship to the Father.  If You are the Son of God is a direct calling into question what has just been declared by the Father at Jesus' Baptism (see yesterday's reading, above, in which the voice of the Father declares, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."  The devil desires that Jesus should act independently and detach Himself from the will of the Father.   In His divine nature, we say that Christ shares one will with the Father and the Holy Spirit; He has said that He can do nothing of Himself (John 5:30) apart from the Father.  But in His humanity, He possesses free will and at all times must choose to remain obedient to the divine will of the Father.

But He answered and said, "It is written,  'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"  My study bible says that by rejecting the first temptation, Jesus rejects an earthly kingdom and shows us not to pursue earthly comfort in the "food which perishes" (John 6:27).  Adam disregarded the divine word in order to pursue the passions of the body (Genesis 3).  But the New Adam, who is Christ, conquers all temptation by the divine word, which gives human nature the power to conquer Satan.

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written:  'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, 
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"'  Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"  The holy city is Jerusalem, center of Jewish life, and the temple is the splendid temple of Jesus' time, which had been rebuilt and added to by Herod (called also "Herod the Builder" for his splendid projects of which the temple was the grandest and most beautiful), known in its time as one of the architectural wonders of the world.  Note that having seen how Christ had defeated him through the power of the Scriptures, Satan vainly tries to use the Scriptures to put God's power of protection to the test.  (See also 2 Peter 1:19-21.)

Jesus said to him, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"  Trials and temptations come on their own, my study bible says.  We should never intentionally expose ourselves to danger in order to test or prove God's protection.  To do so is to tempt the Lord

 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."  Then Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.'"  Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.  According to my study bible,  God's Kingdom isn't one of earthly power and possessions.  In the test of the devil, Jesus was being asked to choose worldly power over the Kingdom of God.  The devil is the "ruler of this world" (John 12:31), "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4), because the whole world is in his power (1 John 5:19).  Jesus refuses this tempting road of earthly glory, which would in fact have led Him away from His suffering and death for the redemption of the world.  (See also 16:21-23.)   The angels came and ministered to Him, as we too, perhaps unknowingly, are ministered to by angels.

We note that at the end of this series of temptations, the text tells us that the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.  As in a comment above, we note that we also -- although perhaps unbeknownst to us directly -- are ministered to by angels.  This image of Christ being tempted in the wilderness is a great message to us, because it gives us a mirror to our own lives.  We're constantly tempted by all kinds of "worldly" demands, whether they be from the flesh (that is, as something we experience as distinguished from our communion with God) such as Jesus' temptation to satisfy His hunger by using His power in a way that is not in accordance with true holiness nor serving God the Father.  Other worldly demands here mirror our desperate need for control, our own selfishness,  a temptation to worldly aggrandizement and power as reflection of who we are, a temptation even to tempt God and prove ourselves powerful indeed, and a whole host of recognizable worldly images in which we may find ourselves mirrored in tempting visions of what might be.  We are frequently caught up in our anxieties about what we have, about what we might miss, what we might need somehow, and our real fears for safety and security.  Jesus teaches about a kind of temptation of excess anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount, when He says that "sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (6:34).  Our own image in the eyes of others frequently serves as a springboard to temptation of thoughts about needs we don't really have, the desire to impress, and social ambition -- even a social "guilt" that we are "less than" others.  All of these things form temptations because they truly separate us from God, whom we know values humility, sincerity, genuineness, a willingness to love and dwell in communion with God's love.  But what we also have in today's reading is a reminder that there is all kinds of help provided to us should we choose, and truly desire, to find God's way for us through life, and thereby reject the temptations that come so fast and furiously in our lives.  We're bombarded by media images of what we "should" have, "should" look like, "should" attain or achieve or keep as worldly goals and exclusive focus in ways that shut God out of the picture in making a contribution to what are truly good goals for us.  There's now an established understanding that depression is widespread as a result of social media, in which we're showered with images of the great lives others seem to be having, particularly growing among the young (see for example this article, or this one).  These forms of temptation clearly mirror some of the temptations offered by the devil to Jesus.  But the story in today's reading also gives us an understanding that we, too, have help to combat what's not really good for us to dwell upon, the paths we're led down when such temptations become more important than a grounding in true reality.  We have the Holy Spirit also ministering to us and teaching us, Who is "everywhere present and filling all things," according to a traditional Orthodox prayer which is used at the beginning of all religious services or ceremonies (see this page of my blog).  And the angels are indeed ministering to all of us, even though our connection and perception of such things remains in the spiritual bedrock of life, something whose effects we know but may not recognize.  We have help in the Scriptures and in the Church, in the lives of the saints and their living prayers with us -- but especially in anything connecting us to living faith which we may find through literature or directly through friends, a pastor, the prayers of those who will help us.  These we turn to as a very present help indeed (Psalm 46:1).  The Psalms themselves remain through all time such a present help to us, for instance.  All of these sources root us in something more real than the images of fantasy, of what "could be" and the false images that seem to teach us that we are either this or nothing, or failure.  Better to be grounded in what surpasses time in the wisdom of its simplicity and transcendence, that emphasizes the inner heart and true values that form our treasures in heaven (6:19-21), those which give substance to the soul, and comfort and provide us with truth that does not desert us.  Above all, each temptation seeks to take us away from communion with God, from the true source of love, our ultimate confidence and grounding in what makes life good and gives peace.  Let us wish this for ourselves, and seek and find that which may turn away temptation to less satisfying goals, and keep us on the road to what is of more value and stays true to us in the long run and through our lives.  It all comes down to who and what we choose to worship.  It's not that we are always asked to choose to do without, but to put one thing first that informs all other choices.