Obedience to the Priest
Earlier this week, I was asked once again asked whether or not the laity are to be obedient to their parish priest. And, once again, I told the person no, the laity doesn’t owe their parish priest obedience. Priests who expect obedience, much less those who require it, are dangerously misguided and frankly should be avoided.
At least as it pertains to the overall life of the parish, I do think the priest should be afforded deference. What I mean by this is that–absence evidence to the contrary–the parish should follow the pastor’s lead.
My reasoning here is purely practical. Given two or more equally valid options, the priest is one most likely to have a better overview of the life of the parish. And if things go wrong, it is likely the priest’s phone that will ring. While negative outcomes affect the whole community, as a practical matter it is the priest who likely has to deal with the fallout.
The personal life of the laity, however, this is a different matter altogether.
While the priest can credibly claim to have a better grasp of the whole parish, he can make no such claim to the daily life of his parishioner. Added to this is that most of the clergy have no specialized training in spiritual formation, pastoral counseling or psychotherapy.
This lack of expert knowledge doesn’t mean that the priest’s advice is untrustworthy; it isn’t at least not usually. But it does mean that the priest doesn’t necessarily bring any special insight to bear on the person’s life.
Like our friends or co-workers, the priest can–and often is–a good sounding board for our problems. And most priests are willing and able to help us think through our concerns. Older, more experienced priests especially often have gained a fair amount of hard-earned wisdom that we should respect.
None of this, however, requires that we be obedient to our parish priest.
Unfortunately, there are priests who either out of pride or (more likely) immaturity expect and may even demand obedience. Even when they aren’t directly challenged, they will be offended when th the laity don’t follow their advice.
These clergy are often short-tempered. Frankly, they can be mean when they don’t get the respect they think they are due (but which they haven’t earned). Like I said above, these are clergy that we should avoid if we at all can.
The standard I use for my own life–and which I give to the people who come to speak to me–is simple. Imagine for a moment I wasn’t your priest and you weren’t my parishioner. Would you actually listen to me?
“Because I’m the priest and I said so” is something I should avoid saying at all costs. Saying this, or even thinking this, poisons my relationship with my parishioner. Such appeals to power degrade both the priest and his parishioner.
So, to go back to the original question, no, the laity doesn’t owe obedience to the priest.
Regrets? I’ve Had A Few
Recently, I was asked if I had any regrets about being a priest.
To the questioner’s surprise, I said yes I did. I went on to explain that while I had regrets that didn’t mean I was unhappy being a priest. Quite the contrary in fact.
My regrets make clear to me how much I value my vocation. When I call to mind the things I could have done, reflect on their value and the satisfaction that I would have come from doing them and I realize that the rewards of being a priest are more than worth the sacrifice.
But to imagine that I didn’t make any sacrifices, that I didn’t give up some good things to receive the good thing of the priesthood, would be to lie to myself. Actually, it would be to lie to myself about myself and about the importance I place of the work I do as a priest.
None of this, I should say, is unique to the priesthood. It is simply part of being faithful to our vocation. Trade offs in life are inescapable and sacrifice isn’t sacrifice–as Fr Chris told me in college–unless it hurts.
Think of the sacrifice of Abraham (Genesis 22:1-19). When God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, the patriarch has a choice to make. Does he value obedience to God more than the fulfillment of God’s promise and his own most deeply held hopes for his future? In other words, does he love God more than the promises and things of God?
For many, the Gospel is less about picking up the cross and following Jesus and more a coping mechanism. Yes, I can use the Gospel to protect myself from the bumps and bruises (and worse) of life. Doing so, however, means that I prefer the things of God more than God Himself.
And it means that I’m not following God or making the sacrifices that come my way. Instead, I’m trying (futility) to lead God, to make Him follow me.
How easily I turn to God and flip Ruth’s words to Naomi: “I will go where you go. I will live where you live. Your people will be my people” (Ruth 1:16).
The irony here is that I don’t need to compel Him to follow me. He does this already. He is always with me, leading the way, clearing the path before me to the Kingdom.
All the sacrifices we make are not simply ours. They all share in the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
The thing is this: Before I pick up my cross and follow Him, He picked up His Cross as part of joining Himself to us. Before we are His companions, Jesus is ours. Before we sacrifice for Him, He has sacrificed for us.
So yes, I have regrets about being a priest. But the cost of the priesthood pales in comparison to the myriad rewards of the priesthood. And again, this isn’t unique to the priesthood.
If we are faithful to our personal vocation, the rewards will outweigh the costs. This doesn’t mean there won’t be moments when we will wonder, or even doubt, whether this is the case.
Painful as they are, these moments of doubts are moments of grace; they are invitations to renew and deepen our vocational commitments. They are our personal experience of climbing the mountain like Abraham with Isaac following along wondering if, when the moment comes, we can be obedient to the terrible thing God asks of us.
What is Freedom For?
Wednesday, April 04 (O.S., March 22), 2018: Great Wednesday; Hieromartyr Basil of Ancyra († 363); Martyr Drosis the Daughter of the Emperor Trajan (104-117); Venerable Isaac the Founder of the Dalmatian Monastery at Constantinople († 383); Martyrs Callinica and Basilissa of Rome; Venerable Martyr Euthymius of Constantinople; Hieromartyr Euthymius of Prodromou on Mt Athos († 1814).
Matins: John 12.17-50
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 2.3-3.3
Vespers: Exodus 2.11-22
Vespers: Job 2.1-10
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 26.6-16
The choice before me is laid out in stark terms.
Like the Harlot, I can come “in tears” and cry out to God “In Your compassion and love for mankind, deliver me from the filth of my evil deeds!”
Alternatively, I can imitate “deceitful Judas” and allow my greed to draw me away “from intimate companionship with Christ.”
When, as Orthodox Christians, we emphasize the importance of human freedom (and all the rights and privileges that we have come to expect as Americans) our concern is in defending is the ability of the soul to imitate either the Harlot or Judas. Human freedom is not for us an end in itself. It is rather for something.
Immediately, freedom is for repentance. I must be free to examine myself, to know myself not simply in terms set by the culture but by Holy Tradition. Our freedom in the first instance is in the service of accurate self-knowledge.
As I grow to know myself, I am confronted with a choice.
Recognizing my vices as well as my virtues, what will I do? Will I struggle against my sins through the cultivation of virtue? Or will I, again like Judas, give myself over to despair?
A despairing soul will only infrequently commit suicide like Judas (Matthew 27:5). More often despair hides under the guise of another sin. Again, Judas is instructive.
The fallen apostle is mentioned nine times in today’s Matin service. In order, he is called “deceitful” and “burning with love of money” He is a man who “drunkenly runs” to betray his Friend (Kathisma 15).
He is called “envious,” “ignorant and evil.” A “miserable man,” a “traitor” blinded by “greedy avarice” into becoming a “traitor.” (Ode 9).
Judas is “scheming” and “enslaved to the Enemy” by his “terrible … slothfulness.” Twice we hear of “the wretchedness of Judas” (Praises).
Despair cloaks itself in all these seemingly lesser sins.
This, however, raises a question. If freedom is for repentance, what is repentance for? Again Judas is instructive.
Judas stands in bold contrast to the Harlot. While she spreads “out her hair” to dry the feet of Jesus that she has washed with her tears (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8), Judas spreads “out his hands to lawless men.” What the Harlot does, she does “in order to receive forgiveness,” she is repentant. And Judas? He only puts out his hand “to receive some silver” (Matthew 26:14-16, Luke 22:1-6).
As freedom is for repentance, repentance is for forgiveness. And not just forgiveness in a formal, juridical sense. But, as we hear in the service, the forgiveness that “raised Lazarus from the tomb after four days” (Aposticha).
All of this is expressed in the Hymn of Kassiane that we sing toward the end of Matins:
..accept the fountain of my tears,
O You, Who gathered the waters of the sea into clouds!
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
O You, Who bowed the heavens in Your ineffable condescension!
Once Eve heard Your footsteps in Paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul?
Do not despise Your servant in Your immeasurable mercy!”
God stands ready to accept our repentance. He stands ready to receive us who run to Him and extend to us His “immeasurable mercy.”
So, then, what is freedom for? It is so that we can receive the mercy of God and then offer that mercy to others.
Respecting Human Freedom
Tuesday, April 03, (O.S., March 21), 2018: Great Tuesday; Venerable James the Confessor and Bishop of Catania (8th-9th C); Venerable Seraphim Vyritsky († 1949); New Hieromartyr Priest Vladimir († 1931); Holy Hierarch Cyrill, Bishop of Catania (1st-2nd C); Holy Hierarch Thomas, Patriarch of Constantinople († 610); Venerable Serapion, Bishop of Tmuissa; Venerable Serapion of Neitria
Matins: Matthew 22:15-23:39
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 1:21-2:1
Vespers: Exodus 2:5-10
Vespers: Job 1:13-22
Presanctified Liturgy: Matthew 24:36-26:2
Once again, the Church’s hymnography reminds me that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26):
Realizing the hour of reckoning, O my soul, and fear the cutting down of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22), work diligently with the talent that has been given you O wretched one (Matthew 25:14-30). Watch and pray that we may not remain outside the bridal chamber of Christ Matthew 25:1-13).
It isn’t enough to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, “for the demons do as such and tremble” (James 2:19). Salvation requires that I be a “profitable” servant, that I “hear the word of God and keep it,” and that I “do the works” God has given me to do.
This emphasis on tangible works is the necessary corrective to the tendency to confuse my thoughts and feelings about God and neighbor with the love “that seeks not its own reward” (1 Corinthians 13:5) and the “faith that moves mountains” (Matthew 21:21).
As we’ve seen throughout the Great Fast, so much of what Jesus says about salvation presupposes that we understand what it means to make a profit. For the fathers of the Church, while the meaning of Scripture is never limited to the literal (i.e., historical) meaning, this meaning can’t be ignored or violated. We must understand the ordinary meaning of profit if we wish to understand Jesus’ word to us that we be “profitable servants.”
Profit is not, as in Marxism, the surplus value created by labor and stolen by owners. Besides being wrong economically, this view of profit would paint Jesus as an unjust business owner who exploits His workers. Nothing could be further from the truth!
In fact, profit is only earned by the free collaboration of multiple parties. Yes, the worker invests his labor. But his investment is only possible because of the initial and ongoing investment of capital and expertise by the business owner.
These investments, however, are not profitable unless the worker and business owner together create a product or service of value to the consumer. Only then will the consumer exchange her money for what capital and labor together have created.
To be a “profitable” servant for Jesus presuppose the investment and ongoing presence of His grace in me (and indeed, everyone) and my willing collaboration with Him. Or, as St Paul says, we must be “co-labors” with God (1 Corinthians 3:9).
My obedience to divine grace, however, is not sufficient.
A “profitable” servant must also be of service to others. I must create value in the lives of neighbors. Just as in the marketplace, this means respecting their freedom. A profitable servant can’t compel others to accept his or her service. What is freely given, must be freely received (see, Matthew 10:5-8). This, in turn, requires that I offer my service to you freely (that is without coercion) that you freely received (or not) the offered service I would do for you.
The cooperation of divine and human freedom is at the heart of Holy Week. How these work together is the great mystery of salvation (Ephesians 5:32). But God respects and waits on human freedom. God waits for our response to His invitation (Revelation 3:20).
The moral message of this week is similar. Just as God respects my freedom, I must likewise respect yours. Anything less is unworthy of divine grace.
Be A Good Wife
Friday, March 30 (O.S., March 17), 2018: Friday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Venerable Alexis the Man of God († 411); Venerable Macarius, Abbot of Kaliazin, wonderworker († 1483); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexander († 1919); New Hieromartyr Priest Victor († 1942); Martyr Marinus; Venerable Paul of Cyprus; St. Patrick, Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland († 461).
Sixth Hour: Isaiah 66:10-24
Vespers: Genesis 49:33-50:26
Vespers: Proverbs 31:8-31
Tomorrow is Lazarus Saturday and the beginning of Holy Week. So today is the last day of the Great Fast. Given where we are liturgically, today’s Old Testament readings the Church are odd.
Well, actually, not all the readings.
The selections from Isaiah and Genesis make sense. Once again, Isaiah reminds us of the impending judgment in which, to borrow from Jesus’ words in Matthew, God will separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:32).
The reading for Genesis is likewise a sensible choice.
With the death of Jacob and Joseph, the patriarchal age comes to an end. There will soon arise “a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8, NKJV). His rule will bring a dark and tragic change. Sin’s hold over humanity will become institutionalized as the Hebrew children find themselves enslaved. It is from this, sin’s “anti-church,” that Jesus comes to save us.
But what are we to make the third reading? Why do we hear about “a good wife” who is “far more precious than jewels”?
Solomon’s description of the good wife isn’t limited to her moral virtues important though they are. No for the King whose “wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the men of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:30, NKJV), the good wife isn’t simply a morally good woman, she is a successful entrepreneur. She not only excels in managing the household but in business. Far from being a passive participant in her own life, “she girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong” through her domestic and commercial industry.
The Fathers see in the good wife a type of the Church. St Gregory Nazianzen alludes to this in his funeral oration for his sister Gorgonia.
Solomon … praises the woman who looks to her household and loves her husband, contrasting her with one who roams abroad, and is uncontrolled and dishonourable, and hunts for precious souls with wanton words and ways, while she manages well at home and bravely sets about her woman’s duties.
For marriage to be, as St Paul says, a revelation of Christ’s love for the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32) requires not simply virtuous and entrepreneurial women but men who are worthy husbands of such wives. Men who are worthy of women like those Solomon describes.
With His death on the Cross, the reign of sin and death comes to an end. Though composed of sinners, the Church is also “a city on a hill” and a “light to the nations” (Matthew 5:4). The Church is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God and a “sign contradiction” (see Luke 2:34, Acts 28:22) to the kingdom of sin and death (Mark 1:14-15).
For the Church to fulfill her vocation requires that, like the good wife, Christians learn to be not only virtuous but practical. As we’ve seen throughout our mediations, wealth and power are blessings given to us by God for His glory and the salvation of the world. If we take seriously the “good wife” as a revelation of the Church, we must all–men and women–imitate both her virtue and her industry.
Having been freed from sin by Christ’s death and resurrection, fortified by the sacraments, and trained by the ascetical life, what Solomon presents as an ideal for some, is now a possibility for all.
Let us all of us then become a “good wife” by being a “good and faithful servant” who by our fidelity “over a few things” in the practical order, prove ourselves to be able to rule “over many things” and able to enter “into the joy of [our] Lord” (Matthew 25:23) in the Kingdom to come.
The Lifelong Task
Thursday, March 29 (O.S., March 16), 2018: Thursday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Martyr Sabinus of Egypt († 287); ✺ Martyr Papas of Lyconia († 305-311); Apostle Aristobulus of the Seventy, Bishop of Britain (1st C); Hieromartyr Alexander, Pope of Rome († 119); Martyr Julian of Anazarbus (4th C); St. Serapion the Archbishop of Novgorod († 1516); Hieromartyrs Trophimus and Thallus, Priests of Laodicea († c. 300); Venerable Christodoulus the Wonderworker.
Sixth Hour: Isaiah 65:8-16
Vespers: Genesis 46:1-7
Vespers: Proverbs 23:15-24:5
Sometimes I’m tempted to confuse the Gospel with a fairy tale in which “they all lived happily ever after.” Like the blessings of wealth and power, judgment and condemnation are part of God’s economy. To be sure, these are not the central elements of the Christian life. But neither can they be ignored much less dismissed.
Taking Isaiah at his word, some will be saved but not all.
Thus says the LORD: “As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all. I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains; my chosen shall inherit it, and my servants shall dwell there.
Compounding my embarrassment about the Gospel–and let’s be clear, that’s what it is, I am at time tempted to be ashamed of the Christ and His Word (see, Mark 8:38 and Luke 9:26),–there is the unabashed materiality with which God describes salvation and condemnation.
…thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, my servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; behold, my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; behold, my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart,…
Throughout the Great Fast, God reveals Himself to us as a God Who saves not just the soul but the body as well. And how could He do otherwise?
To be human means to have a body and to be a member of a community. When God saves Joseph, He also saves “his father Isaac.” And not only Isaac but his whole family. their households and all their worldly goods.
…Jacob set out from Beersheba; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. They also took their cattle and their goods, which they had gained in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters; all his offspring he brought with him into Egypt.
God saves not simply the individual but the community. This means He also saves the material and social goods that communities need to thrive.
Likewise, God doesn’t just reward our good deeds, He also punishes our wicked ones. He calls us to Heaven but He allows us to choose Hell. And none of this is reserved for the life to come. It begins in this life.
Sin, as Solomon reminds us, is anything that cuts us off from the larger community. In today’s reading from Proverbs, two sins are singled out: Drunkenness and sexual immorality. Both these sins offer the illusion of salvation. Drunkenness offers a counterfeit joy; sexual immorality, a false communion.
And both these sins are their own punishment.
For a harlot is a deep pit; an adventuress is a narrow well. She lies in wait like a robber and increases the faithless among men. … Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder.
The challenge we all face in our Christian life is this: How do we balance the different elements of the Gospel?
There is divine mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, on one side, divine justice, judgment, and condemnation on the other.
On the one hand, the blessings of wealth and power, on the other the need to living simply and in humility.
The exact balance will is different for each of us. It will even be different at different times in your life as your circumstances change. Finding the balance is a lifelong task.
When we come to understand this, the Christian life becomes daunting. Living this out is what makes the Christian life exhilarating.
A Preparation For Love
Wednesday, March 28 (O.S., March 15), 2018: Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Holy Martyrs Agapius, Publius, Timolaus, Romulus, Alexander, Alexander, Dionysius and Dionysius of Palestine († 303); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexis († 1938); New Hieromartyr Priest Michael († 1940); Hieromartyr Alexander of Side, in Pamphylia († 270-275); Martyr Nicander of Egypt († c. 302); New Martyr Manuel of Crete; Venerable Nicander of Gorodnoezersk.
Sixth Hour: Isaiah 58:1-11
Vespers: Genesis 43:26-31; 45:1-16
Vespers: Proverbs 21:23-22:4
As we come to the end of the Great Fast, God’s words in Isaiah can feel like a slap in the face. God doesn’t care about how strictly I fast. What matters to God is that whether I “loose the bonds of wickedness” that grip my heart and oppress my neighbor.
Have I undone the “thongs of the yoke … to let the oppressed go free”? Have I shared my “bread with the hungry,” brought the homeless into my home, clothed the naked and all while also caring for my family? Have I, in other words, fulfilled the commandments Jesus gave me at the beginning of Great Fast on the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)?
Mother Maria of Paris writes that Christians are “called to organize a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for the children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness.” Whether we do this “on an individual or social level” what we do must “be based on love” for our neighbor. Such love, the saint concludes, is demanding and requires from us an “ascetic ministry to his material needs, attentive and responsible work, a sober and unsentimental awareness of our strength” and an accurate and truthful evaluation of the “true usefulness” of our efforts on behalf of others.
Fasting, and indeed all our asceticism, is but a preparation for love.
Our ascetical efforts throughout the Great Fast have been at the service of removing from our own hearts anything the would limit our willingness to love sacrificially. This why, after Isaiah’s stern words on fasting, the Church puts before us the example of the Patriarch Joseph.
Betrayed by his brothers, he is sold into slavery, and is falsely accused of attempted rape. Still he eventually rises to be the second most powerful man in the most powerful kingdom of earth: Egypt. By the time of today’s reading, whatever resentment and bitterness he may have had as a young man, has been washed away.
Joseph was healed by prayer, fasting, and work.
Throughout his time in Egypt, he never forgot his God. To keep the Law, he abstained from the rich food and drink enjoyed by the Egyptians. And he worked to make himself a profitable servant even to those who mistreated him. In this way, to return momentarily to Isaiah, he anticipates the God’s promise to Israel that will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ:
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.”
Joseph stands in stark contrast to the wicked man in Proverbs. He also represents for each of us a choice as we now being to shift our focus from the Great Fast to the events of Great and Holy Week.
In the days leading up to the Resurrection, will I be revealed as a “scoffer,” a “haughty man who acts with arrogant pride”? Or will I, like Joseph, forgive my enemies? Will I “do good to those who hate” me, “bless those who curse” me, “and pray for those who spitefully use” me (Luke 6:27-28, NKJV)?
The sign that I have taken the role of the scoffer is this: My asceticism has become an end in itself. When this happens, Mother Maria writes, “All the ugliness of this world, its sores and its pain, are pushed to one side and obscured so that they will not disturb” me. To the scoffer “even the suffering and death of the Lord himself, his human exhaustion, acquires an aura of beauty, inviting admiration and delight” but is emptied of any power to transform me into one who loves as God loves.
What about love? It “is a very dangerous thing. At times it must reach down into the fathomless lower levels of the human spirit, it must expose itself to ugliness, to the violation of harmony. There is no room for it where beauty, when once discovered and sanctioned, reigns forever.”
Our asceticism, our wealth, our power these are all just for this one thing: That we become willing and able to receive and to give God’s love.
Neither With Fear Nor Contempt
Tuesday, March 27 (O.S., March 14), 2018: Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Venerable Benedict of Nursia († 543); New Hieromartyr Priest Basil († 1943); Holy Hierarch Theognostus, Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia († 1353); Right-believing Great Prince Rostislav-Michael of Kiev († 1167); St. Euschemon the Confessor and Bishop of Lampsacus (9th C); Theodore – Kostroma Icon of the Mother of God (1613).
Sixth Hour: Isaiah 49:6-10
Vespers: Genesis 31:3-16
Vespers: Proverbs 21:3-21
We have throughout our reflections on the Lenten readings seen that the Old Testament values wealth and power as morally good. This makes some Christians uncomfortable. They see the acquisition of wealth as tantamount to avarice and the pursuit of power as exploiting the weak.
These and other temptations are real and should be guarded against. At the same time, we can’t be indifferent to the harm by those who don’t understand the uses and limitations of wealth and power and so think Christians should have nothing to do with either.
Isaiah reminds us the blessings God has given the Jewish people are so that they can fulfill their vocation to be “a light to the nations.” God’s material blessings as much as His spiritual blessings are bestowed on Israel so that “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
We can’t pursue wealth and power for their own sake. When we do, they become idols. The Old Testament is clear on this point. When we situate the Old Testament’s teaching on wealth and power within this context, we see that the right use of wealth and power preparations for the Gospel.
We can’t simply dismiss wealth and power as if they had no positive role to play in salvation. How much harm has been done, how much good has been left undone, by well-meaning Christians who simply didn’t understand how to use money or to exercise authority?
Look at the example of Jacob. God teaches him how to deal with his dishonest father-in-law.
Laban is frankly a cheat. He is willing to harm Jacob and so his own daughters in pursuit of wealth. Rather than having Jacob deliver a sermon, or stand passively and be cheated, God engages in a little sharp dealing.
Every time Laban changes which goats Jacob will receive as his wages, God changes the outcome. When Laban tells Jacob, “’The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. Thus God has taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me.”
God impoverishes Laban as punishment for trying to cheat Jacob.
Solomon is clear. The wise man knows how to use wealth and exercise authority not simply for his own sake but for the sake of others. “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin. … He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard. … He who pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor” both in the eyes of God and neighbor.
Christians can’t be either afraid or contemptuous of wealth and power. We must rather learn to acquire and use them in ways that are pleasing to God and to advance the Gospel.
Destroyers of Grace
Monday, March 26 (O.S., March 13), 2018: Monday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Translation of the relics of St Nicephorus the Patriarch of Constantinople (846); New Hieromartyr Priest Nicholas († 1919); New Hieromartyr Priest Gregory († 1921); New Hieromartyr Priest Michael († 1938); Martyr Sabinus (Abibus) of Egypt († 287); Martyrs Africanus, Publius and Terence at Carthage (3rd C); Martyr Alexander of Macedonia (305-311); Martyr Christina of Persia (4th C); Venerable Aninas, hieromonk of the Euphrates; Hieromartyr Puplius, Bishop of Athens.
Sixth Hour: Isaiah 48:17-49:4
Vespers: Genesis 27:1-41
Vespers: Proverbs 19:16-25
The Old Testament is unapologetic in praising the moral goodness of wealth in all its forms. As God says through the Prophet Isaiah
I am the LORD your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go. O that you had hearkened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me.
Wealth, peace, children and a good reputation that last through the ages. These are the tangible blessings of keeping the commandments of God and living a life of moral righteousness. Taking Isaiah as our guide, we do well by doing good.
For those who fail to keep the commandments, “for the wicked,” there “is no peace.” In every generation, God raises up prophets to condemn the unrighteous. He calls them to repentance not with a gentleness but with a word spoken from a “mouth like a sharp sword.”
This call to reform always takes the wicked by surprise. Though God calls His prophets “from the womb,” He conceals them “in the shadow” of His hand. They are like a “polished arrow in His quiver,” hidden away until the moment when they are to strike.
God does this because when the wicked hear a prophet has arisen, they respond with violence. Look at Herod. To avoid being called to account for his sins by the Christ, he orders the murder of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under” (see Matthew 2:16-18).
Divine condemnation doesn’t keep people from profiting from wickedness. This is one of King David’s great complaints. “I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men nor are they plagued like other men (Psalm 73:-5, NKJV).
Through cunning and a bold lie, Jacob steals Isaac’s blessing for Esau. When the older brother discovers the younger crime he responds “with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father!’” But his father has nothing for him. “Your brother came with guile, and he has taken away your blessing.”
The real sin of the wicked isn’t greed or pride. It is rather their willingness to rob others of grace. The wicked “steal” a blessing by “guile” as Jacob does from Esau.
Grace is stolen not by injuring God but by spreading mistrust, hatred, and violence. Grace is stolen by wounding the heart of the innocent and plunging the guileless into despair. This is the sin of those who Solomon calls a “man of great wrath” who repay forgiveness by once again falling into the sin from which they were only recently delivered.
God raises up prophets in every generation to save us from these individuals, from these destroyers of grace. When individuals such as are allowed free rein in civil society or the Church–or worse, are allowed to rule–they rob others of God’s blessing.
Solomon compares these people to the “sluggard” who keeps others by eating by burying “his hand in the dish” and “not even bring it back to his mouth.” The wicked neither partake of grace nor step aside to allow others to do so.
Or, as Jesus says of them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).
The Forgetful Human Heart
Friday, March 23 (O.S., March 10), 2018: Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent; Martyr Quadratus and those with him at Corinth († 250-258): Cyprian, Dionysius, Anectus, Paul, Criscentus, another Dionysius, Victorinus, Victor, Niciphorus, Claudius, Diodorus, Serapion, Papius, Leonidus, and the holy women Chariessa, Nunechia, Basilissa, Nica, Calisa, Gala, Galina, Theodora, and many others; New Hieromartyr Priest Demetrius († 1938); Holy Martyrs Quadratus of Nicomedia, Satorinus, Rufinus and others (3rd C); Venerable Anastasia the Patrician, of Alexandria († 567-568); Venerable George Arselaitus, Brother of Venerable John Climacus; New Martyr Michael of Thessalonica.
Sixth Hour: Isaiah 45:11-17
Vespers: Genesis 22:1-18
Vespers: Proverbs 17:17-18:5
To say, as we did yesterday, that God is holy is to affirm that relative to His creation God is wholly and absolutely free.
In Isaiah God asks “Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?” He immediately answers His Own question by pointing out that as the Creator He can do as He sees fit.
When like Israel is Isaiah, I am the immediate beneficiary of God’s will, I’m happy. It’s hard not to rejoice when (seemingly at least) God punishes my enemies the way He punishes “Egypt … Ethiopia and the Sabeans.”
If I’m not careful, I can easily get lost in a self-satisfied revery in which I imagine that I’m different from those who annoy or harm me. I can easily lose sight of the fact that I too am a creature and so subject to God’s will. It is a false comfort to think that God reserves His harder and harsher decisions for other people, that I’m exempt from being asked to do painful things.
Did Abraham think as I often do, that God punishes his enemies but would never ask anything hard of him? If he did, the events in today’s reading bring this line of thought to an abrupt and painful end.
God gives Abraham in his old age a son, Isaac. He sees in this child the fulfillment of God’s promise to make him a mighty nation. Imagine then the conflict–to saying nothing of the horror–when God tells him “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Today, and not unreasonably, someone planning to sacrifice a child to God would be arrested and likely medicated. Child sacrifice is as much an abomination to us as it was to Abraham. And yet, this is what God asks from the Patriarch.
So in obedience Abraham sets out to sacrifice Isaac. The fathers of the Church see in these events–and especially in Isaac carrying “the wood of the burnt offering”–a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
Unlike us, Abraham hadn’t received the grace to understand God’s request as a prophecy of the “good things to come” (see Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 9:11, 10:1). Nor did he have any way of knowing that at the last moment “the angel of the Lord” would call to him from heaven and tell him to not kill his son.
All Abraham knew was that God has asked him to do the unimaginable. To kill his son and to offer his child as a “whole burnt offering” (see Leviticus 1-17).
Truth be told, I find passages like today’s reading from Genesis troubling.
I much prefer the gentle, prudential wisdom of Solomon in Proverbs to the unbending demands of God’s holiness. How much easier it is for me to hear “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” than it is to think that God demands of me all that I love.
Important as human freedom is, and we shouldn’t deny or minimize freedom’s importance, we only exercise our freedom in response to God. Always and everywhere, God has both the first and the last word. In between these words, we exercise our freedom though even here we do so because we are sustained by His Word. It is, after all, God Who by His grace and in His great love that upholds “all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3, NKJV).
The folly of this world, and of my heart, is the ease with which God’s holiness is forgotten. True wisdom doesn’t forget the heart’s tendency to this forgetfulness.
How easy it is for me to turn even the things of God into occasions of forgetfulness of His holiness and sovereignty. Like Solomon says “He who is estranged seeks pretexts to break out against all sound judgment. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”