Sunday, February 19, 2017

Feed the Goats

At other times, Jesus says he does not come to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17; 12:47). The word is κρίνω, to separate, or to judge. He did not come to judge us. But here today he comes in his glory with all his angels and sitting on his glorious throne before all the nations and he separates us into two groups (Matt 25:31-33). It seems he's making a judgment – a κρίσις, a separation – and that this is his coming "day of judgment" (Mat 12:36).

In the parable, he is separating sheep from goats as would a shepherd (25:32). And much is often made of the difference in character between a sheep and a goat. I have to admit I have pretty limited experience with farm animals, but I have encountered both sheep and goats. I once held a lamb, and I found it to be the most receptive, docile, and pleasant creature I've ever touched. And then once in a petting zoo, I encountered a goat. I became particularly well acquainted with its horns as it butted me, trying – successfully – to get me to drop the feed I was carrying and run. So my own experiences prejudice me against the goat and in favor of the sheep. And I'm therefore tempted to go along with the usual narrative that we ought to be more like sheep and less like goats.

But I want to challenge this narrative just a bit. I'm not sure that the Lord really has anything against goats. God made them too, you know. And a goat can't help being a goat any more than a lamb can help being a lamb. They are as God made them, and God did not make us for damnation. He made us for himself, out of love.

So, pushing the metaphor too far, you might end up with something rather like Calvin's heretical doctrine of double predestination, wherein God creates some for salvation and others for damnation – wherein the theological virtue of hope is rendered really rather pointless.

So I think we should see this separation of animals rather as a simple image of judgment than as a commentary on the character and destiny of goats. And this is important because it affects how we regard one another. We might be tempted to regard our enemies as hopeless, irreformable goats, but this is not a Christian attitude toward anyone. Certainly, it’s not our job to judge the goats. And our attitude toward others, our regard for others, and our relationship with others is really the heart of this parable.  

The light of Christ illumines every relationship. When all the nations gather before the glorious throne of our King and our God and his light shines upon us, the reality of all our deeds toward others will be brought into his light. It isn't that Jesus is condemning anyone, but rather that some condemn themselves by living without love of others.

Fr. Thomas Hopko says that “it’s important to see that the judgment is simply the presence of Christ.” This is like a judgment with no judge. If we love Christ in the least of his brethren, to be in his presence is our salvation. To be in the presence of Christ is also judgment.

God is love. If we come into the presence of love himself unlovingly, our own hearts stand in judgment against us. In his presence, what we do in secret, which our Father sees in secret, is brought into his light and our own actions judge us (cf. Matt 6:3-6).  Christ does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to welcome the stranger, even if the stranger is a foreigner or of a different race or follows a false religion, even if we’re a bit afraid of him. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to visit the sick, even if they’re irascible, and the imprisoned, even if their crimes are heinous. We condemn ourselves every time we fail to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, even if they seem like goats to us (Matt 25:42-43).

This is what the judgment comes down to: How do we treat each other? Do we love each other? I've been teaching our first graders about this greatest commandment. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself - as yourself. This is remarkable. The command is not to love your neighbor as you love yourself, as it is sometimes rendered. Rather, it is to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Mark 12:31: Luke 10:27).

It's true that we should love ourselves, but it's all wrong and unhealthy to imagine that this means that we should have a preferential love for ourselves over and against our neighbors. In fact, this doesn’t make any sense and the very opposite is the case. It is in our neighbors – our enemies and our friends – that we find our very selves. You won't find yourself in the mirror. It's just cold glass - an illusion. We find ourselves in our spouses, in our brethren, in our friends, and even in our enemies.

Love your neighbor as being your very own self. If you are hungry, what do you do? You go get something to eat. If your neighbor is hungry, what should you do? Go and get him something to eat. This is how we can find ourselves and come to know ourselves – in other people. The other kind of self-love is a sin condemned by the fathers because we, like God, are essentially relational. That is, totally cut off from others, we have no selves. Our selves exist in relationship – even in relationship to the least of Christ’s brethren.

Who are the least of Christ's brethren? This is an important question because Jesus says that it is on how we treat these that we are judged. I think that the least of Christ's brethren are whoever we love the least. Who is your worst enemy? Who do you dislike most? It is based on how you treat that person or group of people that you are judged. The love we have for the Lord and his Christ is equal to the love that we have for the person or persons we love the least.

We’re not to worry about whether or not a person is a goat or a sheep – and therefore worthy of our love – before we decide to love them. Judgment is not our job, thank Christ. The presence of Christ is the judgment. And Christ chooses to identify himself with the least of his brethren. What we do to those we love the least we actually do to Christ.

He also gives us a new commandment to love each other as he has loved us. We are to love as Christ loves. We are to be as Christ to others. This puts Christ on both sides of the equation – both in the self and in the other. So, as Christ, we are to love the least of his brethren – as Christ. Christ is all, and in all (Col 3:11). Glory to Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Do what they say, not what they do.

One Sunday morning, two men came to our parish church to pray and attend liturgy.

One was a pious and learned Byzantine Catholic gentleman. He had studied and knew our faith well. He rigorously observed the traditional fasts as described in the Typikon – even fasting twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year.  He always knew the tone of the week and often made well-informed comments on Facebook. He prayed the Divine Praises daily with his family. And, more than this, he really was an upright man. That is, he did not drink too much nor did he eat too much. He did not look at pornography, or look at others lustfully. He gave a full 10% of his income to the parish before taxes. He was honest with his employer and faithful to his wife.

The other man was a drug dealer from the neighborhood.

What if Jesus's parable of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) began this way? I retell it this way to help us hear what Jesus is really saying.

In this day and age, when we hear the word "Pharisee," we think immediately of hypocrisy. Its second definition in the dictionary is, “a self-righteous person; a hypocrite.” When we hear the word "Pharisee," the admonition of Jesus – “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" – is always ringing in our ears. To call someone a Pharisee is to insult them.  

But this is not how those listening to Jesus would have heard that word. By "Pharisee," was meant someone who belonged to a group of Jews who rigorously observed the law, the Torah, and the tradition, who revered the scripture, and believed the prophets, who believed in the resurrection of the dead, and that the greatest law was to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In short, they were pious and upright men, rather like the pious and upright Byzantine Catholic I've just described. And seemingly rather like Jesus himself.

I once attended a talk by a local rabbi in Pittsburgh and a man asked him during the Q&A section at the end what he thought of Jesus. And he said that Jesus was a Pharisee. This is shocking to our Christian ears, but that is very much how the original audience of this parable might have understood things.

When we hear that a publican and a Pharisee go up to the temple to pray, we already know who the bad guy is – the Pharisee! Jesus’ hearers, on the other hand, would have been shocked by the notion that the publican would be justified and that the Pharisee would not – that the Lord would receive the repentance of the tax collector, but shun the self-glorification of the pious and observant man.

But maybe if we hear that a drug dealer and a pious and learned Byzantine Catholic attend church together, we'll tend to suspect the drug dealer of being the bad guy. But if that drug dealer comes here to pray with a repentant heart, he will be justified. And if that pious Byzantine Catholic comes here pridefully and exalts himself rather than God, he will not be justified. And that’s what this parable is supposed to do. It's to turn our assumptions on their head – especially our assumptions about ourselves.

Jesus isn't saying that it's all alright to defraud people of their income, or that it's alright to sell illegal drugs or any other sin. "Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!" (Rom 6:15).

The Pharisee was not an extortioner. He was not unjust. He was not an adulterer. He fasted twice a week and paid his full tithe to the temple. Jesus elsewhere praises these things by his words and his actions.

Just last week, when the tax collector Zacchaeus repents before Jesus of defrauding people of their income, Jesus responds, saying "Today salvation has come to this house." Jesus is no friend of extortion or fraud. It is repentance from these things that brings salvation. And to repent means to turn away from evil – not just to say we’re sorry, but to go and sin no more.

Regarding adultery, Jesus teaches us that "who looks at a woman with lust - or covetousness – has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). He condemns this adultery, even as he does not condemn the adulterous woman.
Jesus himself fasts and prays.

So no, Jesus is not telling us that it's all right to sin, nor is he telling us not to tithe and fast and pray. Far from it.

The Pharisee’s avoidance of certain sins and his prayer and fasting and tithing are good things. We should imitate the Pharisee in these things, but never in his self-exaltation. Jesus teaches us elsewhere that “the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice…. They do all their deeds to be seen by men…. [Remember,] whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:2-12). This is an important warning for us as we prepare to enter the Great Fast. Do not make a show of your fasting.

With this parable, Jesus is teaching us, as St. John Chrysostom would later put it, that " “Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall he saved.”

We pray repeatedly in our liturgies that we may spend the rest of our lives in peace and repentance. Repentance is a way of life, not just a moment, and we must embrace it if we are to go away from the temple justified.

Today, we begin the Triodion. We begin preparing for the great fast. And this first week of preparation, we are forbidden to fast. Some say that this is so we will not be able to boast of our weekly fasting like the Pharisee. We must pray, but we must not pray like the Pharisee, pridefully comparing ourselves to others. Soon, we will often pray the prayer of St. Ephrem: "O Lord and King, let me see my own sins and not judge my brothers and sisters." Like the publican, let us see and confess our own sins and not the sins of our neighbors, our families and friends, or our enemies.

"Oh faithful, let us not pray as the Pharisee, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Let us humble ourselves before God with the publican and let us say: Lord have mercy on me a sinner."[i]

[i] First Sticheron of Vespers for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

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