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.


Moosh said...

" ... passes it through the prism of Christ." I'm going to be thinking of that for a long time. :D

Anonymous said...

"Unfortunately for most English speaking people, “spiritual” implies “nonmaterial.” This is a grave problem in our language and cultures."

I definately agree with this. I think alot of people, especially in the western world, divide life into 'spiritual' and 'material' or 'sacred' and 'secular'. I've seen this in the church at large, and I admit to struggling with it myself. But this is faulty thinking, as if I can seperate myself from Christ who dwells in me for a moment to go off and do some activity without him..

Paul said...

Unfortunately I have been getting a lot of "businessman" interpretations of the gospel parables about money lately.... I definitely appreciate this post and the reminder that there is the Church's interpretation which--surprise!--doesn't come off as cheesy and commercialized as other Christian interpretations, and properly reflects the depth one would expect to come from the mouth of God.