The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for August, 2009

The Season of Fruit

Jesus offers us another parable in today’s Gospel (Mt 21:33-43). Rather than pointing to the final reckoning, as many of them do, this is more of a historical parable, perhaps even an allegory.  It refers to the past as well as to Jesus’ immediate future, that is, his crucifixion and death.  It is sort of a brief overview of salvation history, which means it’s about what God has done for his people and how poorly his people have responded.  This theme occurs several times in the psalms and often in the prophets as well.  Since it’s about the goodness of God and the badness of his people, we ought to pay attention, since it is not irrelevant to the present day, because little has changed on that point over the centuries.

The parable is about a vineyard and those who were entrusted with it.  This image is common in the Old Testament, and we’ll get back to that later.  For now let us note that the owner of the vineyardgrape-vineyard sought to collect his share of the produce by sending his representatives, that is, his servants, to the tenants of the vineyard.  But they beat or killed or otherwise shamefully treated the owner’s servants.  Finally, the owner sent his son, hoping that this would inspire a little respect and obedience in the tenants, but they killed his son, too, casting him out of the vineyard.  So the only thing left for the owner to do was to punish the tenants and give the vineyard to those who would faithfully care for it and give the owner his due.

The elements of the allegory are fairly clear.  God is the owner of the vineyard, which represents Israel as such, and the tenants are the religious and political leaders of the nation.  The Lord sent prophets to them to require of them the fruits of their stewardship, but as we know from history, most of the prophets were rejected and/or killed.  So God sent his Son in the flesh as a last resort, to see if He could still salvage some fruit from his vineyard.  But the leaders would have none of it and they rejected Christ, too, and killed Him.  Jesus suddenly changes the metaphor by quoting from Psalm 117(118): “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Finally, Jesus makes the application to his listeners (of whom it is said a few verses later that “they perceived he was speaking about them”): “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”  It’s unavoidable in this case to acknowledge that those who had been guardians of the Lord’s vineyard for many centuries were suddenly going to be relieved of their duties and hence their privileges.  Jesus didn’t intentionally come to take away the vineyard from the Jews—rather the opposite: He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets in Himself and inaugurate a new and everlasting covenant, one which not only would confirm and bless the chosen people as such, but that would also expand the People of God to include anyone who would believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.

But what in fact happened was that the contemporary tenants of the vineyard rejected the Son and killed Him.  In his mercy, He still offered forgiveness and a chance at salvation through faith and grace.  Many of the Jews believed, but many more didn’t.  So it would henceforth be the followers of Christ who were entrusted with producing the fruits of the vineyard.  This is the thing the Lord did that was marvelous in our eyes: the one who was rejected turned out to be the One on whom hinged the entire divine plan of salvation.

Now let’s take a look at the image of the vine and the vineyard, and by extension, the fruit tree as well.  These images abound in the Scriptures, often with various shades of meaning.  There’s a song in the prophet Isaiah about the vine that God planted, which was his chosen people (5:1-7). Here, despite all that God had done for it (as we heard also in today’s parable), it yielded sour grapes instead of sweet.  “What more could I have done,” lamented the Lord, “that I had not done?”  And so this vineyard too, was destroyed, but in the prophet it referred to invasions and havoc wrought by foreign nations.

In that case God was blaming the people for failing to do his will.  In Psalm 79(80), the vineyard is in trouble again, only this time the psalmist, as he is wont to do at times, is reproaching God for not protecting his vineyard, which is being ravaged by enemies.  The psalmist gives a bit of salvation history himself and begs God to make good on all his promises to bless and protect his people.

In the Gospel of John, it is not the people but Jesus Himself who is the vine, and we are the branches, yet the Lord still seems to want to keep that image of the vine and its fruit alive.

Finally (all this is just a sampling), there’s an incident with a fig tree that bears upon all we are talking about concerning vines and vineyards.  It happened just before Jesus told the parable of the tenants of the vineyard, so perhaps St Matthew is trying to get us to notice the connection.  Jesus came up to a fig tree on his path shortly before he returned to the temple.  He found no fruit on it, only leaves, so He cursed it so that it would never bear fruit again.  Now Jesus didn’t have anything against fig trees, but he did it as a warning.  He was teaching them first about the power of faith—since He said his disciples could do the same if they had enough of it—but the power of faith was precisely that which differentiated the crusty old tenants of the vineyard from those to whom the vineyard would eventually be given.

What are we to make of all these images of vines and trees, since they seem to be an important metaphor God has used to communicate his will?  In a practical sense, it all comes down to this: we have to bear spiritual fruit (see Gal. 5:22-23), and if we don’t, there will be severe consequences.  In Isaiah fruitlessness was rewarded with destruction; the fig tree was cursed and rendered permanently barren; the branches of the vine that do not bear fruit are cut off and burned; the vineyard is taken away from those to whom it was entrusted and given to others.

It’s easy enough for us to look back and say, “Well, the Lord has taken away the vineyard from the unfaithful Jews and given it to the Christians, who are now his chosen people.”  But let’s not get complacent or overconfident.  Even a cursory look at the history of the Church will reveal manifest infidelity and evildoing on the part of many of those who were (and are) entrusted with the Lord’s vineyard.  Even though there will be no more new covenants, there’s no guarantee that the Church will not be ravaged by enemies as a punishment for her lack of sufficient fruit to please the Lord.

We ought to remember what St Paul said about that very issue.  He used the image of an olive tree instead of a grapevine, but the message is still the same: “If some of the branches were broken off [that is, those Jews who did not accept Christ as Messiah], and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast… Remember, it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you… They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith.  So do not become proud, but stand in fear.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you” (Rom. 11:17-21).

The tenants of the vineyard will always have a great responsibility, and God will always have the right to expect us to bear much fruit.  For as He said about the vine in Isaiah, He has done his part, all that could be done for the Church, for us.  The grace necessary for bearing fruit has been given; it is up to us to respond wholeheartedly, to labor diligently, to produce that which God desires and expects from us.

He will send his messengers from time to time, to check on the progress of the vines.  Here I’m not talking so much about the Church as such but each of us as individual members of Christ, as individual vines, as it were, in the vineyard.  For we don’t all have responsibility for the whole Church, but we do have responsibility for ourselves and for whomever the Lord has entrusted to our care and our prayer.  Anyway, these “messengers” are his words from the Scriptures, the voice of our conscience, the persons and events that form the context and experience of our lives.  We have to be listening for the word of God; we have to be willing to let Him make an inspection of our little vineyard from time to time, in whatever way He chooses.  We don’t want to be another statistic in that lamentable recounting of the history of God’s dealing with his people which all too often consists, as I said at the beginning, of God’s faithfulness and his people’s unfaithfulness.

There will at last come a time when it is, in a definitive way, the “season of fruit,” and God will send not messengers but his only Son, for the final harvest.  This will be the last and definitive sending of the Son to the vineyard.  The angels who accompany him cannot be beaten or killed like the prophets of old, and no one will any longer be able to plot the death of the Son, the Heir.  For He will come in all the power and glory of the Father, and He will gather to Himself all those who were faithful to Him, even at great cost.  To these He will give the Kingdom of Heaven, which they will tend in joy, drinking the spiritual wine of gladness forever.  Those who are unfaithful will be banished from this joyful vineyard, and they can have their sour grapes as they reflect forever on the folly of their rebellion and disobedience.

So, whether the image be grapevine or fig tree or olive tree, let us strive to bear much fruit for God and thus prepare ourselves well for the Kingdom of Heaven. As Jesus said when talking about the vine and the branches: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.  As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love… These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn. 15:8-11).


Porneia is the Greek word for “fornication.”  Now why would I want to write about fornication?  Well, I don’t really want to, but as you’ll see, there’s a specific use of the term that applies to a problem that is widespread today, and which could only be so widespread in the present day.  Some people say that the Church is too focused on sexual issues and sins, while the New Testament doesn’t give them much attention.  First of all, the New Testament does, even though there are other important matters of divine revelation to be preached.  In one or another of its forms, porneia appears over 50 times in the New Testament.  And second of all, it is not the Church that is obsessed with sexual issues, but the world.  The Church has a few clear and simple rules about what is acceptable and unacceptable for maintaining the human dignity and spiritual integrity of men and women created in the image of God.  Whenever the Church reiterates her teaching in the face of some contrary assertions, the secular press goes apoplectic.  But methinks the press protesteth too much.

Anyway, this reflection is not about the whole issue of sexual morality as such, or the conflict overimage1 it that exists between the Church and the world.  It’s simply about “fornication-writing,” that is, pornography.  This is something that I think is generally deplored, at least by the Christian population, though it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of moral outrage among Christians (perhaps because there is evidence that there are quite a few secret users).  The Church rightly gives more energy to fighting abortion, for example, since nothing is worse than the wanton murder of innocent human beings.  But pornography encourages all manner of sexual immorality, and the narcissism of promiscuity only feeds the mentality that accidental pregnancies must be terminated.  The establishment of abortion as a “right,” as well as active homosexuality becoming more “mainstream”—along with unbridled concupiscence in general—keep the porn industry flourishing.  The last time I saw any figures, which was about a year ago, there were over four million porn websites running, in addition to all the usual printed publications.  This is the reason I said this could only happen today.  Millions more people, and young people, have access to pornography solely because of the internet, which is a lot easier to approach than an “adult” bookstore.  So even though pornography is deplored by Christians, it seems to be embraced wholeheartedly by the world at large.

Probably the main prohibition in the New Testament comes from Christ Himself (see Mt 5:27-30), when He said, “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Pornography is all about looking at others lustfully.  Jesus immediately says that if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.  I suppose if everyone took Him literally, half the world would be blind by now.  He doesn’t really expect or desire us to gouge our eyes out, but his point is that “it is better to lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”  He’s trying to tell us that sin must be avoided at all costs.  Now the next point may be rather indelicate, but it follows immediately what Jesus said about looking lustfully, and I can’t help but think this was not a random choice of words: “and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…”  Read this paragraph again and see how it applies to those who view pornography.  Who says the Gospel doesn’t speak to the issues of today?

Perhaps another scriptural prohibition is the general condemnation of idolatry that is found throughout the Bible.  Idols are images made to represent something that is not the one true God, but to which people submit and offer their time, attention, and homage, in one form or another.  It’s not hard to see how pornography can become an idol, and how the more time one spends on it, the more it moves to the center of one’s life, and hence God cannot occupy (or no longer occupies) that central position.

Even if not considered as a spiritual or moral problem, pornography is a threat to the psychological and emotional health of people—since it easily becomes addictive—and is even a threat to the stability and integrity of marriages.  The issue of internet porn addiction comes up occasionally in the confessional (I suppose it would come up more if I lived in an urban area), and there’s one thing I find that people usually aren’t sufficiently aware of: the permanent imprint of images on the mind.

I think people often underestimate the power of images and the capacity of the brain to store them.  First of all, the image is used to create a sort of alternate reality, a fantasy world that is geared solely to providing pleasure.  The proliferation of porn sites is testimony to just how effective images are in creating this deceptive, illusory world—one in which the user increasingly wants to live, especially if the real world of ordinary human interactions seems dull, painful, or otherwise unsatisfying.  A porn addiction can be as hard to overcome as an addiction to alcohol or drugs.  It is not a “substance abuse,” but neither is the addiction merely psychological.  The mind-body interaction is intense in sexual fantasy, and the brain quickly creates its own neuronal pathways through which sense impressions and mental activity trigger a desired bodily response.

Second, the brain is in some ways like a huge computer hard drive, with an enormous amount of memory in which to store things like images.  Here is where the unenlightened penitents often fail to grasp the seriousness of viewing pornographic images.  Aside from the serious problem of that “alternate reality” actually shaping one’s world-view and state of soul, those images just aren’t going to go away!  They’re all recorded, even if many are stored below the usual level of waking consciousness.  The brain doesn’t have enough “random access memory” to be able to have immediate access to every image it has ever recorded, but they will resurface in various ways and times, which will be (I warn the penitents) much to their chagrin when they thought that a simple act of repentance would “delete the files” forever.  Repentance does indeed invite forgiveness, and forgiveness clears the soul of guilt, but forgiveness does not delete the images.  On the level of brain function, both of memory and the attraction that the images have power to produce in mind and body, one is not free and clear.

I don’t know if I’m just saying things here that everybody already knows, but it occurs to me, when coming across porneia in the Scriptures—and quite unexpectedly when searching Google images for pictures for this blog (even with “safe search” on, you’d be surprised what comes up from perfectly innocent key words)—that pornography seems to be an ubiquitous evil, yet it is one of those things that is simply tolerated, even if not approved.  Somehow pornography seems to pass all “free speech” challenges, while speaking about God or asserting the teachings of Bible and Church are routinely clobbered in the public square.  Maybe it’s time that more protests are made, especially in the light of evidence linking pornography with sexual abuse and assault, and other violent crimes.  But it seems that sexual license is too important for many different industries with lots of money and influence, and none of them wants to see anything happen that will even begin to turn public opinion away from that which makes them rich.  It’s like the issue of “partial-birth” abortion: even some who find it repugnant on moral grounds still want to keep it legal, because to outlaw it would be the first step toward outlawing a woman’s “right” to abortion at earlier stages of pregnancy.

Sometimes it may seem that the Beast is bigger than all of us, and that some (or many) evils are here to stay.  But the Lord will still work through the faithfulness of the “remnant” who would rather pluck out an eye than commit even an interior act of fornication or adultery.  He has his own plan for the cleansing and salvation of the world, and though I hope He doesn’t have to use the most extreme version of it, I’m still confident that his will is going to be accomplished, and that the truth will never be extinguished or made inaccessible to any who seek it.  Some hard lessons will have to be learned as our society is increasingly crushed beneath the weight of its own degradation and sinful folly, but it’s not for nothing that the Lord is called the Savior.

The media and the internet, like almost anything, have potential both for good and for evil.  We ought to strive to use all things for good, respecting both the word of God and our human dignity, for we are created in the image of God.  Let the power of that image shape our life and world-view, and may it ever be foremost among what is recorded in our minds and hearts.

The F-word

No, not that f-word!  The one I’m thinking of is not even a four-letter word.  It’s actually a seven-letter word.  You might wonder why I would call “freedom” the f-word, but that’s what I mean to reflect upon here.

Freedom is actually a very good word, and in its political and social contexts it’s something we in America ought to be grateful for (at least while we still have it), since it is lacking in many other places in the world.  It’s in the spiritual and theological contexts that the term can be downright frustrating, for it sometimes seems to mean something so different that what we ordinarily think it means that I’d like at times just to find a different word for it.  But that’s my problem, and I’ll have to wrestle with it on my own.

I did take a stab at this issue a couple years ago, and you can read about it here if you wish, to gain a little more understanding, in case you too have some difficulty with the concept of freedom in the context of a life in which hundreds of things are forbidden by an apparently rather forbidding moral code.  Not that I advocate moral anarchy or anything of the sort. It’s just that the “thou shalt not… or else” approach (which is what the idea of eternal consequences for sin seems to boil down to) tends to make one think that one’s choices really are rather severely limited, even if for the very best of reasons.

What freedom doesn’t mean, as I understand it (though this seems to be the obvious meaning to freemost people), is the simple absence of restraint, the ability and opportunity to do whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, with whomever you want, for the sake of fun or profit, without any unpleasant consequences.  That is a sort of freedom, though a kind of fantastic and hence mostly-unrealizable kind, but it has nothing to do with a biblical or theological understanding of the term.  I guess this is where some of the confusion or conflicts arise: we think “freedom” means (or should mean) unrestrained self-seeking.  So when we are told that in Christ we are made free, and then told all the things we are no longer allowed to do, or say, or think, we suspect a different lexicon has just been published without our knowledge or consent.

I confess I’m rather ill-equipped to write coherently on this topic, but a passage I just read in Scripture made me think about it again (Jn. 8:31-36).  I thought I had pretty much given up trying to understand it, but since that hasn’t stopped me from writing in the past, I guess I’ll still say a few words about it.

I’m going to prescind from all the colloquial and political understandings of the term and look at one that is primarily biblical.  But first I should say that freedom in this sense is primarily interior and has little to do with the force of law or external constraint upon behavior.  The human being comes equipped with free will, so in that sense everyone is free, more or less (but ask any moral theologian about impediments to free will in moral acts).  This kind of freedom, or ability to choose freely, is something no one can take from us.  Even under the most stifling or oppressive political regime or prison, the faculty of free will remains, and this is sometimes all that one can retain of one’s human dignity when living in such intolerable conditions.  But it is part of what constitutes the image of God in us and as such is inviolable.

Let’s get back to the Bible, or I’ll start tripping over myself trying to explain the faculties of the soul, which is not really what this is about anyway.  Jesus famously said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  He doesn’t explain precisely how the truth makes us free, but we do get an insight into what freedom here means.  Truth, as it turns out, is intimately related to righteousness, so much so that if truth makes you free, a lack of freedom would actually have to come from a lack of righteousness, that is, from sin.  Jesus indicates this when He says a couple verses later: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”  So we’re getting a hint here about what freedom means in Jesus’ thought.  He goes on to say: “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” Here, then, freedom is no more and no less than deliverance from sin and the maintenance of that happy condition.

It seems that Jesus is not too interested in promoting freedom as an absence of restraint, irresponsible self-indulgence, or a do-it-yourself morality, and it also seems that genuine freedom comes only from Him.  True freedom is experienced, He said, when the Son makes you free.  He kind of gets off the subject in his continued dialogue with his opponents, but a couple points do come out that have a bearing on this topic.  (Even though Jesus doesn’t say in this place exactly how the Son makes people free, we know from the rest of Scripture that it has something to do with faith in Him and obedience to God’s will.)  Jesus was trying to preach the Good News and all He got in return was a bunch of self-serving arguments.  Finally He seems to have become a bit exasperated, and so He let loose on them: “Why do you not understand what I say?  It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.  You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires… If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?  He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (8:43-47).

Boy, if Jesus had said that to me, I would have withered instantly like that fig tree He once cursed!  But perhaps if I don’t “get it” about what freedom really is, or worse, if I rebel against the commandments that are meant to keep me from becoming a slave to sin, it’s because I can’t bear to hear the word of God.  I don’t understand because I’m listening to the father of lies—but it is only the truth that will make me free!  If you’ve ever heard people who actually are of their “father the devil,” that is, those who practice Satanism, they will usually say that it’s not really about devil worship, but about freedom, about free indulgence in whatever they please, as a kind of rebellion against all traditional moral and religious restraints.  But this “freedom” promoted by the father of lies is designed to make them slaves of sin.  The Son has to make them free by speaking the truth to them and liberating them from the ever-tightening bonds that they unwittingly accepted when they threw off all restraints!

So the first thing we have to do if we want to be free is to ask Jesus to speak the truth to us.  If He doesn’t just appear to you and do so (which is unlikely), then He will probably do so through the Scriptures, or perhaps through a trusted friend or spiritual advisor who knows you well.  We have to get out from under the influence of the father of lies whose idea of freedom is mere licentiousness—but who has had much success in selling his ideas to the world.  The freedom Jesus promises is a freedom from the bondage to sin, a bondage which will remain even after death and bind us more tightly for all eternity if we are not liberated in this life by God’s grace and truth.

St Paul makes the ironic comment which I’ll paraphrase thus: “Yeah, when you gave yourself over to sin you were exercising your freedom, alright—freedom from righteousness!  So what did your ‘freedom’ get you?  Only things you end up being ashamed of, which land you in the place of eternal death.  Why don’t you get free of sin instead and attach yourself to God?  Freedom from sin will get you sanctification and eternal life.  So what will it be?  Payback for sin or a free gift of everlasting happiness?” (see Rom. 6:20-23).

Well, there’s at least a little something to chew on, even if it’s only part of the picture.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully resolve this complex issue in my own thought or experience.  But if we get something solid to hang on to, even if it doesn’t answer all questions, at least we have some access to the saving grace we seek.  We know that Jesus is the Answer, even if we don’t quite know how to frame the questions, and so continuing in his word as his disciples, we will know more and more of the truth, and thus we will become more and more free—as God defines freedom, which ultimately is the only definition that matters or even works.  Maybe, then, I won’t have to call “freedom” the “f-word” after all.

Tempted as We Are

Throughout the history of the Church there has been a kind of pendulum-swing concerning the way of approach to the Incarnate Son of God.  While obvious heresies have always been rejected, there have been times when it seems that in practice Jesus has been regarded as mostly God and partly man, or mostly man and partly God.  The challenge is to try to understand always and in all things that Christ is fully divine and fully human.  One of the more challenging areas of our understanding is in the fact that Jesus was tempted as we are, yet never sinned.

Now I’m not going to try to analyze the divine and human natures as such but only try to seejesus-desert what this means: Jesus is not one “who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb. 4:15).  A corollary to this is: “Because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18).

I think it is important for us that the Lord is not only able to “sympathize with our weaknesses,” but also that He is able to “help those who are tempted.”  His humanity and divinity are expressed in those two aspects of this issue.

One thing that is probably hard for us to grasp, or even to believe, is that Jesus was not only tempted, but tempted as we are, in every respect.  Before we look more closely at that, we have to remember that a temptation can only be such if there is something in us that is attracted to or somehow vulnerable or susceptible to what the devil suggests.  If the devil would suggest, for example, that I wade through a foul-smelling and crocodile-infested swamp, or that I eat a steaming plate of cow manure, or give a donation to Planned Parenthood, these would not be temptations at all, for I haven’t the slightest inclination to do any of them.  So when we say Christ was tempted, it wasn’t something that He lightly dismissed as something unreal, or something he couldn’t care less about (e.g. he really would have liked a loaf of bread after fasting 40 days in the desert!).  In fact, the Letter to the Hebrews says he prayed “with loud cries and tears” (5:7), which makes it clear He was not faking anything or simply breezing through life, with his humanity being nothing more than an instrument of divine power.  He really did take on the weakness and vulnerability of human nature—but without sinning.

We have to take this further, however, if He is really to be able to sympathize with our weaknesses.  Now the three temptations we read about in the Gospels are sometimes said to express in general the types of temptations we all experience, the “threefold concupiscence” of 1Jn. 2:16, the temptations to any sort of physical gratification, self-aggrandizement, power, wealth, etc.  Perhaps that is so, but I wonder if that understanding is sufficient for us in a practical sense.  We can understand how Jesus could be tempted by food when He was hungry, but what some people are hungry for may be something really base or unclean, so how can Jesus’ temptation with bread be seen as sympathy for such weaknesses, and how can it fulfill the biblical assertion that He was tempted in every respect, as we are?

We can say, of course, that as God, Jesus knows what we experience, since He knows everything and can easily read our hearts and minds.  But to know and understand what we go through is still not the same as actually going through it, knowing it “from inside,” feeling the actual pull of it, and, as the case may be, the torment and anguish of it.  So, the question is, even though as God He knows, did He, as man, know temptation as we know it, and did He experience the very same temptations we experience, from inside?  It seems this would have to be true, if that passage from Hebrews is true, which it must be, since it is the word of God.

It may be objected that Christ could not be tempted with, say, sexual perversions, since He wasn’t a sexual pervert.  Or that He could not be tempted to do anything cruel or malicious, could not be tempted to lie or steal or do anything evil, simply because He was so good that there was nothing in Him that could be attracted to any of those things, so they couldn’t be called temptations.  I agree in principle, but what about the perverts, liars, and crooks and other evildoers who, wishing to repent, see in the Bible that Jesus was tempted as they are and so can sympathize with their weaknesses and thus help them?

I have a little theory about this, which you can take or leave as you wish, but which does help answer the question.  There are three places in the Gospels that mention Jesus’ temptations in the desert.  Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ encounter with the devil in some detail.  Mark just barely mentions it in passing, giving no details at all about this encounter.  But the answer to our problem comes precisely from Mark.

Matthew and Luke give the clear impression that Jesus fasted for 40 days, and at the end of that time the devil came and tempted Him.  Mark’s brief summary invites an additional perspective: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” (or, in another translation, “tempted the while by Satan”).  Forty days, tempted by Satan. That’s the whole of what Mark says about it, but it is plenty.  Why?  Because the implication in Mark is that Jesus was tempted the whole time by the devil, 40 days, perhaps even non-stop.  This means that his temptations were not limited to three, not even three that could be said to represent all manner of temptations, for in practical reality and experience, they don’t.

My theory is this: to do justice to the text in Hebrews that Jesus was tempted in every respect as we are, we must entertain the possibility that, for the sake of our salvation and for the complete solidarity with us by which alone He could be honestly said to sympathize with our weaknesses, during those 40 days Jesus underwent every temptation known to man.  And this not as if viewing them on a screen to familiarize Himself with our weaknesses, but as real, actual temptations, experiencing those same weaknesses and the feelings they generate exactly as if they were his own—yet without sin.  It was part of his kenosis, his freely-willed self-emptying of his transcendent glory, to choose to feel precisely what it feels like to be drawn to what is base and evil and crooked, and He felt it within his own human nature—yet without sin.  Even though He did not ever commit the sins we commit, we cannot say to Him: You don’t what it feels like to be tempted like this.  He does.

I’ve thought about all this off and on, but recently it came to the fore when in my re-reading of the Gospel of John I came to the episode of the woman taken in adultery.  Those who wished to stone her had various reasons for doing so.  Ostensibly they were fulfilling the righteous demands of the Law, but more likely they were using her as a scapegoat, projecting their own sins on to her and stoning them in her, because they couldn’t get rid of them by strength of will or moral courage.  When Jesus offered the criterion for being eligible to stone her—that is, being without sin—the truth came out and they all left.  Jesus, being the only one who met his own criterion, refused to condemn her.

It may be helpful to try to picture this scene as the Gospel gives it.  (In the film The Passion of the Christ it is done a different way, with the woman on the ground before Jesus, who stands over her and reaches down his hand to her—a legitimate dramatization of the spiritual reality of sin and forgiveness, but not an accurate presentation of the Gospel scene.)  As recorded in the Gospel, Jesus is still crouching on the ground, where He was writing something in the dust (the sins of the would-be stoners?).  The Gospel says that the woman was standing before Him.  “Jesus looked up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’  She said, ‘No one, Lord.’  And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again’” (Jn. 8:10-11).

Not only did Jesus not use his righteous authority and personal sinlessness as a basis for justly condemning her, He put Himself in a position in which He had to look up just to speak to her!  It is as if He were saying: I choose not to stand above you at such a moment as this. I know what your temptations are, because I have felt them in my own flesh.  I do not condemn you, for I sympathize with your weakness and, having been tempted myself, I am here to help you, since you have succumbed to your temptations.

Of course, He couldn’t leave it at the point of sympathy for (“suffering with”) her weakness.  So He admonished her: go, and do not sin again.  The fact that Jesus knows by experience what our temptations are does not mean He will ever condone or permit sin.  He still must forbid it. This is because He loves us and knows the damage that sin does to our souls, a damage that can become so pervasive that we end up forever excluded from eternal life with Him in his Kingdom.  And He will do all in his power not to lose us.  He’s already done and suffered a lot just to get Himself into that position of experiential sympathy for our weaknesses.  He’s already endured what the holy God should never have had to endure.

Perhaps we should give this some reflection, in case we are ever tempted to think that the Lord doesn’t know what we go through, that He could never have felt what we have felt, never have been tempted by that which causes our own shame.  Maybe He does know exactly how you feel, for He has felt it Himself.  Maybe He knows your weakness, not simply from an infinite divine knowledge of everything, but from having experienced it in the flesh, and so He can sympathize, can help you to avoid sin.  Maybe He did experience your temptations in those 40 long days in the desert.

Maybe He really did.

Die with a Smile

The brother of one of our monks sent us the picture below, which is quite remarkable.  It is the face of a monk of Mt Athos, the Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, as he lay in his coffin shortly after he died.  Traditionally, monks are not embalmed or in any way cosmetically touched up, but are simply dressed in their monastic habits (or in a portion of their priestly vestments if they were ordained) and returned to the earth, so that’s how he actually looked when he departed this life!

joseph of vatopedi

The beatific joy on the face of this deceased monk gives some evidence that, as it says in the Book of Wisdom, “his soul was well-pleasing to God.”  What a blessing to be able to die with a smile!  I’m afraid that when I go hence I will be found with my face frozen into a mask of terror, and they will have to inject it with muscle-relaxers to make me presentable for my funeral!  But let us hope for better things…

One can only die with a smile if one has lived life in such a way as to prepare oneself for a happy death.  The monks of Mt Athos live a strict and rigorous monastic life, yet the very rigor of it is meant to help one focus wholly on the One Thing Necessary, to abandon the myriad distractions of the world and spend their time in prayer and worship and the repentance that is a constant renewal of spirit, an ever-deeper turning away from the narrow selfishness of sin and toward the endless horizon of the Mystery of God.

It is a happy coincidence that we are at this time reading in the refectory the Paterikon of the Kievan Caves monastery, that is, the stories of the holy fathers of that monastery which was at the source of monasticism in the land which is now Ukraine and which has influenced much of Slavic monasticism for centuries.  The founders were the great monastic fathers Anthony and Theodosius of the Caves.

(There’s a bit of dark humor, probably unintentional, in the Paterikon, and I can’t resist mentioning one little incident in the early life of Theodosius, before he entered the monastery.  He wanted to be a monk, but his over-possessive mother would not let him leave her.  So in his zeal for asceticism, he obtained an iron chain and wrapped it tightly about his waist, till it cut into his skin.  When his mother discovered this, she was so upset that he would thus harm himself that she beat him senseless and commanded him to take better care of himself!  But in the end, grace conquered, for after Theodosius entered the monastery—with his mother in hot pursuit—he eventually convinced her to renounce the world and join a nearby convent, which she did, and ended her years in peace.)

I suppose that the Paterikon will be written off by many as one more example of traditional hagiography, embellished with numerous miracles and exaggerated tales of the ascetical feats of the fathers.  That may be true to some extent, but let us be clear that even if some of their spiritual exploits have been somewhat embellished, they are still out of our league as spiritual giants—and their total love for God, charity for their brethren, and sacrificial lives put us to shame.  I sense something of the same spirit of the ancient fathers in the peaceful repose of the elder of Mt Athos.

At our monastery we too strive to live the monastic life, in the spirit of the Gospel and the ancient traditions, though I must confess it is in a somewhat diluted form.  Some people have told us that our way of life is more rigorous than the vast majority of religious orders in America today (which perhaps isn’t saying very much), yet we still can’t hold a candle to the holy fathers.  They were simply made of sterner stuff, as were most of the ancients, monks or not.  I don’t have the stamina for the level of vigils and fasting they practiced, or even for the length of services.  (There’s a story told of a monk of Mt Athos who himself thought some of their services were a little too long.  He said: “Those 15-hour services are just too long.  Now, 12 hours is reasonable, but 15?  That’s just too much!”)

It’s obvious that I also have a computer and internet access (not to mention fax and cell phone). So we are more engaged with the modern world—and perhaps damaged by its toxins, both physical and psychological, which were largely unknown to the ancients—and hence taxed in certain ways that do not allow us to live the kind of lives the early fathers did.  Perhaps, though, that’s just an excuse. Sometimes I sigh as I feel like the rich young man who walked away sad when he discovered the high price the Lord demanded of him, and I wonder what will become of me. But I hope that somehow we in this monastery are still able to live relatively God-pleasing lives and will still be found worthy to die with a smile.

I think that picture above is surely worth a thousand words (even though I only managed 992 for this post), and worthy of much reflection.  Wouldn’t we all like to die with that expression?  What did he see as he was leaving this world?  Did he hear the Lord say: “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter your Master’s joy”?  We won’t know unless and until we ourselves get to meet that venerable monk in the Kingdom of Heaven.   The best way to die well is to live well, and if we want to rest in peace, we must labor in hope. If we want to know joy in the hereafter, we must learn love in the here and now.  Dying with a smile expresses a life well-lived, and a Lord well-loved.

Impossible becomes Possible (Part 2)

We have to ask also: why is it that this man could not let go of his riches in order to follow Christ?  And why did inheriting eternal life seem to be the most pressing thing on his mind at that time?  Well, I think that there are basically two reasons, and this applies to all the wealthy.  I think that most wealthy people do not seek wealth just because they love opulence—some people do, but not all.  I think that wealth is a kind of a symbol and a means of security for people.  When you have money, you think: I’ll never have to go hungry; I’ll always have a nice place to live; I’ll always have the things that I want and need (or think I need).  So it’s a kind of security, or perhaps a kind of freedom, too: to do things and go places that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.  It kind of boils down to security.

But the problem is that it’s a false security, and that’s the thing that Jesus wants to unmask, as He moneymandid in another parable about the rich man who was filling his barns with crops and patting his belly, saying, “Eat, drink and be merry, I’ve got stuff for years to come.” But God said, “You fool!  Tonight you stand before the Judgment Seat of God!  So where’s your security now?”  That’s what He was getting at, with this rich man: that security is not in riches, and it is not in anything less than what God says you need for eternal life.

The other thing besides security is a simple kind of attachment, which may come from the first element, because if you see riches as security, you see the loss of them as insecurity, and as a source of anxiety and fear.  Many people who are wealthy spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make sure that they stay wealthy, protecting themselves against other people who would better profit from a little bit of generosity on their part. There’s an anxiety about that, and that’s where the attachment comes from:  that they have to have it and can’t be without it.  So, to be attached to possessions and wealth, and to see in them a sense of security, are the things that make riches and wealth an obstacle to communion with God, and an obstacle to the inheritance of eternal life.

The apostles, when Jesus made that announcement, were flabbergasted.  They said, “Who then can be saved?”  Now why did they say that?  They were still stuck in an Old Testament mentality that comes from, at base, not believing in the resurrection of the dead. It was probably only in the last couple centuries before Christ that a general belief in some sort of resurrection at the end of time was circulating among the Jews, and so it wasn’t too hard for Jesus to preach the resurrection—though they didn’t expect it to happen in front of their eyes, in Jesus Christ.  But many centuries before that, in the history of the Israelites from the beginning, you read in the Bible that this life is basically all that there is, all you have, and there was no real hope for a continuing of life.  When you die, you die, and so having wealth and property were considered God’s blessings, because this life is all you have, and if you can be comfortable and happy and wealthy and fat, then OK,  that’s great!  That’s God’s blessing upon you.

Even so, by the time of the apostles, there was in fact a belief in the resurrection.  But somehow, this idea that wealth was a divine blessing remained from the older beliefs from the time when people didn’t believe in the resurrection.  So Jesus had to correct that and say, in effect, “Drop that!  We’ve gotten beyond that already, because the resurrection is where the heavenly treasures open up to you.”  Then He said, this thing may seem to be impossible to you, but it’s not to God.  He was calling them to a radical shift in the way they thought and regarded things: life, God, and all the rest.

This is where we come in, because for all of us, most likely, if not at this moment then at some time in our lives, we are confronted with some impossible situation that we have to face and deal with, and we have to believe that God can make possible some good resolution of this.  It may be something that we have to be healed of, whether it’s a physical illness, or an emotional problem, or a moral or spiritual issue, say, we’re holding a grudge against somebody; or we have some attachments, or there’s something that we want that is not coming to us; or something that we don’t want that is coming to us, or whatever.  We have to be able to look at the situation first and see where our attachments and our sense of security lie, and see if that is in God or not, if it’s in something else.  And maybe we can heal our anxiety that way: we have hope that it is possible for things to turn out well, and in a blessed and fruitful and happy way for us.

We see in what Jesus told the rich man that there are two levels in our approach to God and to our search and hope for inheriting eternal life.  The first belongs to everybody, without exception: that’s obedience to the commandments—nobody’s exempt from that, you’ve got to start there.  So when we ask the question, the first thing we’re going to see is the commandments: that belongs to all of us; that’s the first and general stage.  But then the specific and personal one is something that each of us has to go into our heart and find, because Jesus is going to tell us, “There’s still something you lack.”  It may be one thing, it may be two things, it may be three things, but let’s just start with one, so that we don’t get overwhelmed.  “There’s one thing that you lack.”  This is something that, when we come to pray, we may say like the rich man that we keep all the commandments and live a decent life.  But go into prayer, and ask the Lord—if you dare, but you should—“What is the thing that I lack?  What is the thing that I have to either let go of or embrace to make my life more like yours, to put me in right relationship with my rich heavenly Father, from whom I want to inherit everlasting life?”

We have to ask Him to show us what is it that we still lack, what we need, and He will—if we’re willing to follow, and not just go away sad.  For it might make us sad, to find out whatever that is.  Be sad, that’s OK for the time being; just don’t go away sad!  That’s the thing, because if you go away, the Lord may say, as He did for the rich man, “See?  Look how hard it is.” And then He will turn his attention to somebody else.  So we can’t go away sad.  We have to face the situation, whatever it is; accept God’s judgment or assessment of our situation as to what we really need to be faithful to Him, and to be eligible to inherit eternal life.  It’s very important that we learn that, that we discover the thing that is our attachment, that is our false security, that might stand in the way of our deeper relationship with God, and even our salvation.

Let us approach God, not be afraid to ask the questions; also, not shrink from getting the answers from God, because He’ll tell us, and He’s not going to beat around the bush.  He’s going to put His finger on the sore spot, and we’re going to feel it, but at least we’ll know.  And once we know, it’s time to go into action, to begin to follow, to start making deposits in that heavenly account, and to follow Jesus in whatever way He calls us.

It’s going to be different for each one of us.  You know, there are different vocations, not only different exterior vocations; we all have a different interior life.  I mean that each one’s way to God, while it has to be within certain parameters of what God has revealed, still, each way to God is unique and different and personal.  No one can walk that way but you.

We have to discover, inside our own hearts, that unique and personal walk with God:  the things that go beyond just the commandments that are for everybody; the things that you still have to do, that I still have to do.  Then we can simply say, “Yes, Lord.  I’ll do what it takes.”  And things will start opening up.  Soon we’ll see what it means to have our security and our treasure in Heaven, and we won’t be anxious and worried about the things that happen down here, that seem to be impossible situations or obstacles to our own happiness here below.  We have to learn to release our anxieties and fears and concerns into the providence and mercy of God and to trust that all things will work for the good of those who love Him.  Hard?  Yes.  Impossible?  No. Don’t forget Luke 18:27. “Things that are impossible for man are possible for God.”  Possible for God, working in and through us.

Impossible becomes Possible (Part 1)

[The following is a homily I gave some years ago.  I’ve posted something on this Gospel passage before, but there are usually several approaches and emphases that can be used to interpret and understand it.  If that weren’t so, I would only have to preach once on each Gospel passage and then retire!  Anyway, since my brain is drying up again, I thought I’d drag out another “oldie but goodie.” It’s around 3000 words, so I’ve divided it into two parts.]

That was an impossible reading that we just heard! (Lk. 18:18-27). As a matter of fact, practically the entire Gospel is impossible—from our perspective, of course.  But the message of Jesus in today’s impossible Gospel is that things that are impossible for us, are possible for God, and for God to do in and through us.  So, there’s still hope for us:  the impossible things don’t have to remain such.

Let us look at what was going on here.  The Gospel starts out with a question.  Now, we all have lots rich young manof questions for God, and most of them seem to start with, “Why?”  Well, this is a different question—it starts with “What?” But it’s a very fundamental question, a question that should be a very important one to anyone who’s hoping for a happy ending, a happy afterlife, and that question is:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now it’s interesting that the man phrased it in that way, because it already shows that he has some understanding about the kind of relationship between us and God, and how this salvation works, because he said inherit eternal life.  Now how does an inheritance come to us?  Do we work for it?   An inheritance is something that is just given to us, that we don’t deserve, but it’s handed to us by some rich uncle or eccentric grandmother or somebody who has taken a fancy to us and would like to leave something of their wealth to us.  In that sense, it’s just a gift, it comes out of nowhere.  But on the other hand, there still is something to do, because he asked, “What must I do, to inherit…?”

Basically, what you have to do to inherit something, at a minimum anyway, is to stay in the good graces of the one you want to inherit something from.  Don’t annoy or provoke your old uncle, or he’ll decide not to include you in his will and you won’t get any inheritance.  So, there is something that has to be done to keep a good relationship with the one whom you hope to inherit something from.

This man asks about the most important thing: eternal life.  Of course, he didn’t need anything else, obviously; he’s rich.  But still, being a pious Jew, he was interested in eternal life.  So, he asks Jesus what to do to inherit eternal life.  And Jesus did not actually give him a straight answer.  He starts off by saying, “Well, you know the commandments, right?”  And He listed a few of them.  That was his answer.

To certain other people who asked a similar question, Jesus listed the commandments and said, “Do this, and you will live,” and that was the end of it, though they’d keep asking questions and get into trouble later on.  But Jesus didn’t say that this time.  He didn’t say, “Do this and you will live.”  He just said, “Here are the commandments.”

Now there must have been something sort of eating away at this rich man, because he could’ve gotten off scot-free at that moment.  He could’ve said, “OK”—because, as he said, he’d kept all those commandments ever since his youth.  So he could’ve said, “OK, here I asked the Lord what to do that I might have eternal life, and He says: here, keep the commandments.” The rich man could have said, “Well, I do that, so it’s already set!”  And he could have taken off, right at that moment, glorifying and praising God, having no other questions or problems, for the rest of his life.

But something made him hang around a little longer and get the hard word from Jesus.  Something made him think that maybe this is just not that simple, because Jesus didn’t give him the “Go in peace and you shall live.”  He just said, “Here are the commandments.”  So he said, “OK, I did them, I’ve always done them,” kind of cringing, waiting for what’s coming next.  It is important, how Jesus responds to him.  This is also a different response than we read in the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s likely, I suppose, though we don’t know for sure, that in the three years of Jesus’ ministry more than one person came up to him and asked him “What can I do to gain eternal life?”

So, in this case, Jesus does not say, “If you would be perfect…”—as we find in the account in Matthew—“…then do this.”  It’s just the opposite.  He says, “There’s something that you lack; there’s something still missing, even though you obeyed all the commandments.”  That’s when Jesus put the ax to the root of the tree, and said, “Go, sell everything that you have.”

The guy didn’t let on at that moment that he was wealthy; but of course, Jesus knew.  “Go and sell everything that you have, and store up treasure in heaven…” Set up a bank account in heaven, of heavenly treasures—the heavenly account is really a high-interest, no-penalty account, you know.  It’s very secure; it doesn’t depend on the plummeting Dow Jones or anything like that.  It’s something that you can rely on. Jesus says, “Do that, and then come, follow Me.”

Jesus pressed that sore spot in the guy’s life, and revealed his attachment. So the man became sad and walked away.  It’s important to also notice that this was a very personal kind of encounter here, because the message that Jesus gives here He doesn’t give to everybody.  He deals with different people in different ways. It’s not the call to every Christian without exception, to sell every single thing that you have, and give to the poor, and follow Him.  Some people (maybe not too many, but some people) can have wealth and still be followers of Jesus, and still use their wealth to be generous to other people, and not be attached to their wealth.

You know, it’s actually good that there are some wealthy Christians, somewhere in the world, otherwise Mt. Tabor Monastery could not write grant proposals to Catholic foundations and expect to get money to do massive repairs on our church!  So it’s good that some Christians, somewhere, have some money to give.

In any case, Jesus knew that this particular man was attached to his wealth. For that man, wealth was an obstacle to his salvation, an obstacle to his union with God, and so Jesus had to say, “You’ve got to get rid of it.”  He goes on to say, “How hard it is, then,” just by seeing what happened, “for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  And He gives his famous comparison:  “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

As an interesting little aside, the word for “camel” (gamla in Aramaic), also means “rope”, so it’s actually possible, and even likely, that Jesus was saying—since there’s some sort of comparison between a thread and a rope—that it’s easier to put a rope through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

That may be so, and I don’t think it even weakens the comparison, because He could have said it’s easier for the Temple to pass through the eye of a needle, or the Empire State Building, or something like that.  But it doesn’t really matter, because if it’s impossible, it’s impossible!  If it’s impossible for a rope to go through, it’s impossible for the Empire State Building to go through, no matter how much bigger it is; impossible equals impossible. In any case, Jesus is saying that this is a serious matter.

To be continued…

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