Homily: Natural Law & the Christian Life

Sunday, August 16, 2015: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost & Eleventh Sunday of Matthew; After-feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos; Recovery from Edessa of the Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands: ‘The Holy Napkin’

EPISTLE: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
GOSPEL: Matthew 18:23-35

Some Christians, even some Orthodox Christians, will reject out of hand the objective character of moral life. Some base their rejection of natural law on an appeal to our freedom in Christ. In doing this they that our liberty is not license to do as want but so that we can do God’s will (see 1 Peter 2:16; Galatians 5:13).

Others will point out that Christians are called to participate in the divine natural (2 Peter 1:4). Here again, though, we need to be careful that we not overlook what the Apostle Peter actually says. Yes in Christ, we have “escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust”—including the tendency to use morality to control others or exalt ourselves—but this is “for this very reason” that in “all diligence” we foster the life of real virtue (v. 5) to which we must add “knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (vv. 6-7).  Echoing a theme that we hear not only in Paul this morning but also James (2:8-26), St Peter goes so far as to say that “he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:8).

While he doesn’t use the language of natural law, the Apostle Paul certainly affirms the notion. This natural moral law—while not sufficient for our life in Christ—does exist and obedience to it prepares the human heart to receive Christ (see Romans 1:18-32). In today’s epistle the Apostle goes beyond what he says in Romans.  As does Jesus in the Gospel, Paul appeals directly to this natural moral sense not simply as a preparation for the Gospel but as normative for the life of the Church. He says that he and Barnabas have a “right to our food and drink” and, like the other Apostles, “the right to be accompanied by a wife.” His argument though isn’t just based on the Gospel or his apostolic office. As he makes clear in the subsequent verses, these are rights that we know not only from revelation but also human experience.

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?  Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?  Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?  Do I say this on human authority?  Does not the law say the same?  For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.”

There is a harmony between natural law and the moral teaching of Scripture. Contrary to what we might think, the latter—revealed morality—doesn’t minimize or negate what we know from natural law. Rather they are related analogically. What I mean by this is that while there are differences between them, they also share a striking similarity.

We can understand something of the Kingdom of God by looking at everyday experience. To be sure, everyday life isn’t  sufficient—we are always dependent on divine grace poured out in the sacraments, the Scriptures and Holy Tradition—but we ought not make the perfect the enemy of the good. And an understanding and obedience to the “laws of nature and nature’s God” dependent not on revelation but reason is a good, if imperfect, thing.

Turning to the Gospel, Jesus draws a parallel between an earthly kingdom and the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t dismiss or negate the demands of earthly justice—a debt owed is a debit that must be re-paid. He also makes clear that, in the affairs of men, justice is not the only concern.

Even among the powerful of this life justice can, and often is, tempered by mercy. Forgiveness is not unheard among the children of men. Justice, mercy and forgiveness are available in sufficient measure in this life so that we can see in them if not “the very image of the things to come” at least “a shadow” (see Hebrews 10:1).  Again in all this it is important to remember that natural morality points beyond itself to Christ Who is Himself the “substance” of the things to come (Colossians 2:17).

So what does this mean for our own spiritual lives?

There is a tendency among some Orthodox Christians, and let me be frank it is a Gnostic tendency, to dismiss or minimize everything that happens on the other side of walls of the church as unimportant, a distraction and even sinful. Concretely this takes the form of reducing the Christian life to attending liturgical services. Now the Church’s liturgy is essential to our life in Christ. So too however, are the Scriptures, the Fathers, philanthropy and evangelism. And all these must be found in us together with prayer and ascetical struggle. These are the essential elements of a fully developed Christian spiritual life. None of these, however, can come at the expense of the rest of life. The spiritual life in not an escape from this world; it is rather about our personal transformation and the redemption of the world.

As we are transformed, we are able to transform the world around us. Marriage and family life, the life of commerce and work, the arts and sciences, and every single human encounter becomes, for the heart transfigured by grace, a sacrament of God’s presence, a revelation of His grace and of His love for mankind.

The words of the ever memorable Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh about the person are equally applicable to natural law. He writes

One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty.

To embrace the natural law, to be faithful to it personally and in the life of the Church, is to do nothing more or less than to embrace with joy those often obscure glimpse of beauty in the world of persons, events and things. Seeing this natural beauty is to live as God meant us to live, it is a preparation for faith in Christ and, most importantly, for the life of the world to come. Amen.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory