Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Rom. 13:1-7
Matt. 8:1-13

From the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth chapter, is this lesson that is appointed for today, read by those who also attend Morning Prayer:

Moses said to the children of Israel:

Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons' sons; Specially the day that thou stoodest before the LORD thy God in Horeb, when the LORD said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. (Deut. 5:5-10)

Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the LORD he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else. Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, for ever. (Deut. 5:39,40)

How well balanced the scriptures for this Sunday are. In the Old Testament Lesson, part of which I have just read, we are told that it is for our good that God gives us His commandments. In the Epistle we are told that He provides for us governments in this world, that even among fallen men, in a state of sin and death, we may have some order. And, yet, in the Gospel we see Jesus doing what could be seen as breaking the rules, both of God and of the authorities, at least of the religious authorities. For, in the first story He actually touches the unclean leper, and in the second He gives mercy to a Gentile. In fact, He says that He is willing to enter the house of a Gentile (notice the Centurion did not feel worthy of such a visit, and expresses humility that is quite touching. Also, the Centurion did not want to create a scandal for the Lord).

But, there is no contradiction here. Jesus is not breaking the rules and being a revolutionary. The Revolutionary Jesus was the popular fiction of the 1960s, and we heard that particular Jesus preached about from many trendy pulpits. But, something much deeper is going on in these two stories, far deeper than the shallow theology of the 60s (or of today), and it has to do with the words that the Lord spoke many years before to the prophet Samuel: A Man looks on the outward appearance; but the Lord looks on the heart.

If we understand what God was saying through Moses in the Old Testament lesson, it is not so much that God will punish the evil doer (which is part of the message, don't misunderstand), but rather that God's commandments are a gift to us, a lamp for our feet. If we obey His word, it brings us peace, though not the peace of this world. It preserves us from eternal dangers, and from the consequences of our own foolishness. It is a gift so great that we must pass it on to our children; we must teach it to them for their good, and the good of their children forever (in fact we are not given a choice. Failure to bring up our children in the true Faith is a sin. It is not the mark of an enlightened couple that their children are not raised in the Church, but a terrifying form of neglect and dereliction).

If we understand St. Paul's words, he is telling us that governments exist among men for our good, even though they can often be used by evil men, that is by tyrants. The Romans were tyrants, and they persecuted the Church. But, the purpose of rulers is to enforce laws against wickedness and vice, and to protect society from anarchy and chaos. In a land such as ours, where the law is king, we see that, even in the best of circumstances, perfect justice cannot be found, and that the enforcers of human law allow many evils. Nonetheless, that same law provides order without which we would find it very hard to stand in the winds that would blow -- to allude to Sr. Thomas More's words to his son in law, Roper.

And, with all of this about order and the rules by which order is maintained, we see what could so easily be misunderstood as disorder. The Law of God made it clear that to touch a leper was to make oneself unclean, lo tahor. To avoid uncleanness the priest and the Levite, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, walked on the other side of the road in order to keep safe distance from a man who, for what little they could see, might be dead. And, to associate with Gentiles, that is to be willing to go into the home even of a worthy Gentile who had built a synagogue for the Jews at his own expense, was strictly forbidden. Not by any actual commandment of God mind you, but rather by the consensus of the Rabbis. It represented disorder for a Jewish man to say to this Roman Centurion, I will come and heal your servant.

To see this properly, however, we must have the correct understanding of two things:

1) The true meaning of the rules, and
2) Who Jesus is.

First let us understand the case of the leper. Leprosy was a state of uncleanness in itself. The leper had to keep his distance from all other people, and cry out with a warning when he entered a place that might be populated: He had to cry "Unclean, unclean!" This was his warning label, a verbal invitation to everyone within earshot to keep away from him. We could see leprosy in this case as being a condition that renders one actually guilty of sin, for he is perpetually unclean. He can never enter the temple, or even a mere synagogue to pray with his fellow Jews. That may seem very strange indeed; but we must think of it the same way this poor leper did.

In one sense, his coming up to Jesus would have been seen by witnesses as a presumptuous breaking of God's commandments on top of, or to add to, his unclean state. He was failing in his duty to present a verbal warning label to Christ and the disciples. By what right did he do this?

Yet, Jesus was even worse, for He actually touched this unclean man.

But, man looks only on the outward appearance. Jesus looked upon the heart of a man wanting to be clean, wanting to be able to go into the temple of God with boldness. He saw faith, not presumption. The true meaning of God's laws always was to teach us that we are sinners, and to be, as St. Paul tells us, a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. Christ, far from being a law breaker, is the Law Giver Himself. He knows that His Law is written by the Holy Ghost on the heart of anyone who has faith, and so it was written on the heart of this man who wanted to be a leper no more.

Some might be preaching this very Sunday about how today’s Gospel reading teaches us to accept all sorts of unsavory people, who have no intention whatsoever of repenting of their sins. In fact, they want us to accept their sins as good things. And, not only to accept those sins, but perhaps even to applaud them. Jesus said of His mission to sinners, not simply that he was sent to call them, but that He was sent to call them to repentance. This man wanted not only to be healed, but to be clean; clean of leprosy which he saw as being itself a sinful state. Jesus not only heals him, but gives him the great restoration he desires. He sends him to the priests in the temple, and reminds him to offer to God the gift ordered in the Torah for the cleansing of a leper. He restores him to obedience to the Law, giving him the commandment to follow, right out of its pages. This was more than a mere ritual; the man was being given back his place in the religion of the God of his fathers, the people of Israel. More than his body, his heart was healed that day. And of course, this story reminds us that Christ the Man is also the Lord from heaven, able to make clean, which no earthly power can do.

The Gentile, the Centurion, is not only a Gentile, but a Roman. He is what is called a God-fearer, not a convert to Judaism, but a worshiper of the true God nonetheless. However, he is not circumcised; and so, to enter his home is to make oneself unclean (again, by the rules of the rabbis of that time. The Torah really says no such thing). You may recall, from the Book of Acts, how many years later St. Peter would enter the home of another Centurion and God-fearer named Cornelius, and would say upon entering what difficulty he had doing so, for he was not supposed to enter the home of a man who is unclean.

It is the Centurion who begs Jesus not to come, and then proceeds to reveal the depth of his faith by saying "only speak the word." Jesus, again looked upon a heart of faith. He knew that the true children of Abraham were those who believe, a teaching that would later be written down so eloquently by St. Paul. He knew that His own Divine presence carries with it the power to cleanse and to heal wherever He goes. His actions are never disorder, but the very essence of order; it is He Who made the heavens and the earth, and set them in their perfect course. He has come into the world to save us from sin and death, to bring order out of disorder, life out of death; to bring light into darkness, to make all things right. He alone has this power; though He has come and is a man who sees the outward appearance, He is also the Lord Who looks upon the heart.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed as is most justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, glory and power, henceforth world without end. Amen.


welshmann said...

Fr. Hart:

Re your observation, "Not by any actual commandment of God mind you, but rather by the consensus of the Rabbis."

Compare Matthew 23:1-2, "Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat; All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.'"

Isn't there an important distinction to be made between true rabbinical consensus as a function of their teaching authority, as opposed to the entrenched rabbinical establishment? I get the sense that the Lord's criticisms are premised on the idea that as pastors they should have known better.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

The balance is clear in the Gospels. Jesus did say, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not." (Matt. 23:2,3) And yet, earlier he had said: " 'Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees'...Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." (Matt.16:6,12)

He made a distinction between teaching that was truly from the Torah, and teaching that was simply their own concoctions. We may say, in modern times, that the parallel concerns those who teach the Word of God with authority, and their own doctrines feigning the same authority.

Canon Tallis said...

From the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth chapter, is this lesson that is appointed for today, that we would have read if we were also doing Morning Prayer:

And why would you not also have read Morning Prayer before the first celebration of the Eucharist as every one of the classical and orthodox prayer books have intended? Isn't it time that we observe the whole of Acts 2:42?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Actually, we have been doing it here. This was written in 2006 for a church that was very difficult to deal with, and the congregation only showed up for one service. I think I will rewrite the line.

Canon Tallis said...

Thank you Father. I learned when I was very young that the offices had to be said and it was best if they were said publicaly even if there was only myself in the space used for the gathering of the Church. The surprise is that you are generally not alone for very long. The gathering may be slow but just as the words of the office are an outpouring of love and adoration of the Father, so is the very saying of them a changing of our own heart.

They are among the work which we signed on for when we became deacons and we neglect them at the risk of our very souls as well as the soul and the faith of the Church. They are the setting for the most precious jewel of the Eucharist and it shines the brighter when we have prepared for it with love.

Adam said...

This was a wonderful sermon that preached Christ crucified for unclean sinners. Thank you, Fr. Hart.