Friday, August 21, 2009

Spiritual Interpretations

In the epistle for this Sunday, (I Cor. 9:2-12), St. Paul asks the rhetorical question: “Who works as a soldier at his own expense?” That is, he asserts the obligation of a community to financially support those who “sow spiritual good” among them, an obligation that St. Paul had not pressed upon them, “rather than put an obstacle in the way of the Gospel of Christ.” On the one hand the Corinthians were obligated to provide “material benefits” to St. Paul and his fellow “plowmen”; but on the other hand he and Barnabas rather worked to support themselves while they ministered to the Corinthians so that the Gospel of Christ might face fewer obstacles. May God grant that all clergy would learn from St. Paul’s example and all laity from his illustration: “Don’t muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.”

St. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4, a verse which in its context is clearly referring to literal oxen grinding out literal grain; yet St. Paul says that it is not at all the oxen that God is concerned about. Rather, this verse speaks “entirely for our sake.” In typical Christian fashion (at least typical for the holy Fathers of the Church), St. Paul takes what has literal, material meaning under the Old Covenant, passes it through the prism of Christ, and provides a new, deeper, spiritual meaning for the Church. The oxen are the ministers of Christ who are to eat freely (but moderately following St. Paul’s example) of the grain that they are transforming into flour.

This exegetical principle of finding deeper meaning is crucial if one is to understand the teaching of Jesus. Jesus has some pretty harsh words to say about wealth and rich men, yet about half of his parables deal with wise use of money or other forms of wealth. This is not a contradiction, if we read the parables of Christ with the mind of the Church rather than with the mind of business men. Jesus is no more concerned about money and wealth than God in the Law of Moses was concerned about oxen. But just as a law commanding kindness to animals has a deeper meaning, so Christ’s parables about wealth and money have a deeper meaning too.

Please note that I could say “spiritual” meaning (instead of “deeper” meaning), but I don’t. Unfortunately for most English speaking people, “spiritual” implies “nonmaterial.” This is a grave problem in our language and cultures. Spirituality often has almost nothing to do with how Americans, Canadians and Europeans live their material lives. However, consider for a moment St. Paul’s “spiritualization” of the Law of Moses. He moves from cattle to apostles and from grain to “material benefits.” A spiritual interpretation for St. Paul (or for any holy Father of the Church) is not nonmaterial, it is more than material. Once we accept Christ’s teaching that man’s behavior comes from what is inside him, then we can begin to grasp the hermeneutical principle of spiritual interpretation. Spiritual interpretation takes the matter deeper: from the material and outward behavior to the “thoughts and intents of the heart,” that which produces the material. Far from being nonmaterial, true spiritual life and understanding is more than material: it is material-plus.

And of course, this is the point of Jesus’ parable of wicked servant who would not forgive his fellow servant a debt (Matthew 18:23-35). Forgiving our brothers and sisters their relatively small trespasses against us means nothing if it is merely a mental matter. If we say that we forgive, yet act in ways that “imprison” our brother, we are not rightly understanding Christ’s teaching. The “spiritual” interpretation of forgiving a debt as forgiving any offence does not stop in our minds. It must also be reflected in our actions.

I am the first to admit that real forgiveness, forgiveness that translates into behavior, is very difficult. It may take years of work in the heart before the triumphs of letting go of resentments and past injuries trickles out in behavior. And the reverse is also true. I may force myself to act kindly and as though I had completely forgiven someone even though the work in my heart is going slowly. That is, sometimes I must just do what is right and good, I must love my enemies, even though I don’t feel like it. Both are necessary, both are the “spiritual” teaching of Christ’s parable.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Making Solomon King, Twice

In 1 Chronicles 29:22b-24, we read: “And they made Solomon the son of David King a second time…and all Israel listened to him. All the leaders and the mighty men as well as all the sons of King David his father, were subject to him.” A second time? Why had I never seen that before? The note in the OSB says that the two enthronements prefigure the two comings of Christ. What are these two enthronements?

The first enthronement is reported in 3 Kingdoms (aka 1 Kings) 1: 38-40. This enthronement follows the civil war incited by the rebellion of Absalom and David’s subsequent return to the throne, and takes place while another of David’s sons, Adonijah, is making a go for the kingdom. Adonijah gets Joab, the commander of the Army, and Abiathar the priest to conspire with him to throw a party (“sacrificed sheep, calves, and lambs by the stone of the Serpent” v. 9) and invites “all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the men of Judah,” and together they proclaim him king (“’long live King Adonijah’” v.25).

A few are not invited to the party, Nathan the prophet, Benaiah, David’s counselor and commander of the Cherethites and Pelethites (Philistine forces loyal to David) and Solomon. When David finds out about this, he sends Zadok the priest, Nathan and Benaiah along with the Cherethites and the Pelethites to anoint Solomon and proclaim him king. Zadok anoints Solomon at a spring named Gihon (just outside the eastern wall of Jerusalem) and they lead Solomon into the city riding on the king’s mule. The people of the city rejoice, but the kings sons (or “sons of the kingdom,” see Matthew 8:2) and most of the religious and political leaders are not there to see it. They are eating the feast of the false king, sacrificed at the Serpent’s stone (BTW, that is the only mention of such a place in the Bible). Missing the coronation of the real king, the guests of the false king have no recourse but to melt away in fear (v.49).

Like the first coming of Christ our Saviour, the king’s sons (the Jews) by in large missed it. The religious and political leaders, except for a few (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea and others [see John 12:43]), missed out, beguiled by the serpent. Jesus is proclaimed God’s beloved Son at the water of the Jordon, and similarly Solomon is anointed at the spring of Gihon. And as the poor of the city of Jerusalem rejoiced when Solomon (riding on a mule) is proclaimed king, so the children and the poor rejoiced as the King of Glory enters Jerusalem, meek and riding on a donkey. Just as David was betrayed by close friends (Joab and Abiathar), so is Jesus betrayed by a disciple. Just as Solomon was proclaimed king by the foreigners (the Cherethites and Pelethites), so Christ’s first coming is proclaimed by the Gentiles.

The second time Solomon is made king is not recorded in the history of the books of the Kingdoms. It is recorded in the Chronicles which, while telling us that this is the second time Solomon is made king, do not mention the first time. The second time Solomon is made king is nothing like the first. It takes place just before King David’s death, in the context of passing on to Solomon the plans and all of the materials for the temple that David had planned to build for the Lord. The context (chs. 28 and 29) reads like the apocalyptic passages of Ezekiel and Revelation which talk of the heavenly temple. Huge amounts of gold and silver and precious stones of various colors and building materials of all kinds are mentioned. Details of rooms and serving utensils and of the Ark and of the cherubim and more gold and more silver are mentioned. It is in this “heavenly” setting that Solomon is made king a second time. Here “all the leaders and mighty men as well as the sons of King David his father are subject to him.” Here he receives “the glory of a king” (29:25).

When Christ comes again with glory, no one will be left out. Unlike the first coming in humility and hidden glory, the second coming will be such that no one can deny His lordship (“every knee will bow”). The heavens will open and the heavenly Temple will be manifest, the Bride of Christ, His Body, the Place where Christ dwells.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

50 Years And Not Much Like a Saint

Today is my birthday—big 5-0. Am I an adult yet?

Bonnie and I were talking this morning over oatmeal and blueberries (the blueberries this year are awesome) about the bishops and the scandals and the various responses. She said, “I wonder what St. Nektarios would do?” That was a word to my heart. St. Nektarios didn’t fight, he bore and prayed—and became holy. May God grant us wisdom to speak our conscience, but not to fight. May we, through the prayers of St. Nektarios, learn how to bear and pray and become holy.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Me and Elder Prophyrios

No, I have never physically met Elder Prophyrios. My relationship with the Elder began the first time his book, Wounded by Love came into my house. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about it, so I got a copy. I jumped right in when my copy arrived and was quickly disturbed by what I read.

Obedience is the theme of the Elder’s monastic training, and I found that disturbing. It was disturbing not because God uses obedience to free us from ourselves (of which, Elder Prophyrios is an excellent example). It was disturbing because I have had not a little trouble in my life trying to understand and apply obedience. The first few pages of Wounded by Love brought many confusing thoughts and unpleasant memories to mind. I quickly lent the book to someone else who wanted to read it and haven’t seen it since.

That was about a year ago. Recently, several people whom I respect have suggested that I read it. They did not know about my first attempt. Nevertheless, “out of the mouth of two or three witnesses…” I decided to give it a go again. And behold, what should appear in the mail today, even before I had a chance to order a copy? My beloved oldest daughter sent Bonnie and me a copy of Wounded by Love as an anniversary gift (30th on Tuesday!).

I began reading again, and this time read far enough to come to this passage: “I can’t give you an example of what real obedience is. It’s not that we have a discussion about the virtue of obedience and then I say to you, ‘go and do a somersault,’ and you obey. That’s not obedience. You need to be entirely carefree and not thinking at all about the matter of obedience, and then suddenly you are asked to do something and you are ready to do it joyfully” (p.19).

Well, if that is obedience, I have not tasted much of it. In my early days of learning about obedience, it was much like what Elder Prophyrios says it’s not. We would talk about obedience, then an opportunity to obey would come along (usually in the form of a confrontation of some sort). Then, in the light of the teaching about obedience, I would chose to obey, believing that the act of my will to obey would somehow demonstrate that I loved God and would release Grace. Today when I think about it, that sounds almost like magic; but the truth is that despite my convoluted understanding of obedience, God did pour out quite a lot of Grace on our community: enough Grace to lead us to the Holy Orthodox Church.

But where I went wrong, I think, was that I reduced love to obedience. For Elder Prophyrios, love preceded obedience. Love was the foundation, or you might even say the fountain head out of which proceeded joy and freedom and obedience. Obedience, for the Elder, was not something to talk about because it flowed naturally out of his love for his elders.

I loved my spiritual father, certainly I did, though it was nothing like the love Elder Prophyrios describes. And therein, perhaps, was the source of my problems. Because of my inability to love with joy and freedom, my attempts at obedience were encumbered with fears and doubts and a good deal of confusion. But here is an amazing thing, in spite of my weaknesses and the weaknesses of our community, God was able to bring us into the Church, and lead us to the Saints (both glorified and still in the flesh) who show us what healthy human beings look like. Through Elder Prophyrios I can see what a healthy relationship with a spiritual father looks like: a “carefree” love full of joy. Although we may, for convenience, talk about obedience (or any virtue) as a distinct virtue, it cannot be experienced in isolation. Love, eros, is the fountain out of which virtue flows. We may force ourselves to do good, to obey or be kind or be generous, and certainly this is a start, an approximation. But in the life of Elder Prophyrios and other saints, we see that the transformative power of virtue is fully at work only when those virtues flow naturally out of a loving relationship.

I want to add here at the end that I do not regret my past approximations of obedience. We spend our lives trying our best to become who we are called to be. We see through a glass darkly, sometimes very darkly. We try and fail, sometimes totally, sometimes only partially. We are hurt by those who try to love and help us, and in turn we hurt those we are trying to love and help. In fits and starts we approximate ourselves closer to our goal, forgiving those who injure us along the way and begging forgiveness of those whom we injure.

“And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.’”