Monday, July 10, 2006

Fourth Sunday after Trinity

(Lam. 3:22-33 and Psalm 91)
The Epistle. Rom. viii. 18f The Gospel. St. Luke vi. 36f

I have something in common with the Pope over in Rome. When I want to relax I play classical music on my piano. And, I was once a church organist near Baltimore. I recall one night about thirty years ago that a few friends and I were speaking with the great organist, Virgil Fox. He told us about how Pablo Casals, although he was a cellist, and no matter what the music was that he would be performing, would play from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier on a piano before every concert, “so that” as Virgil Fox put it, “he would be thinking like a musician.” I remember those words clearly- “so that he would be thinking like a musician.” This was particularly significant coming from Virgil Fox, because many of his contemporaries (including less talented organists) accused him of being too much the romantic when he played Bach. People who have never played difficult music may think that a musician is simply in an emotional state, perhaps even of emotional instability, when performing.

But, in fact, he is in a state of concentration. Deep feeling should come across; but it cannot come across by abandoning oneself to waves of emotion. Once the highest level of discipline in musical performance is learned, self-control and deep concentration actually serve to free the feelings so that they can be expressed. I believe that athletes understand this too; they are not simply exercising physical strength, or great reflexes, or some isolated skill such as throwing or jumping or batting. They must be concentrating- thinking. When I was a kid, and a Baltimore Orioles fan, my favorite baseball player was Frank Robinson. After watching him play for a few years, what began to impress my young mind the most was not his many homeruns, and spectacular catches in the outfield; it was that he was so concentrating on the game that he could be counted on to turn defeat into victory by seizing an opportunity to do just the right thing at the right time.

There is a lesson for us in this: As much as our religion appeals to deep feeling, it can only truly be felt when it is also the subject of our thinking. When I read or hear the words of scripture, including those we have heard today, I am moved very deeply, far more than would be possible had I not spent decades learning the richness of these passages.

“It is of the LORD's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.”

“Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the most High : shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”

Too often these days, churches go in for trendy services, meant to make everybody feel good and smile, even if in order to feel good they must abandon reason; even if the emotion is shallow.

Much emphasis is placed upon an artificial distinction between the head and the heart, just as emphasis is placed as well upon a false dichotomy between Faith and Science. Even worse, a totally false dichotomy is thought to exist between Reason and Faith, as if faith is supposed to be an effort to believe the unbelievable. I want us to understand very clearly that our Faith is something to think about. It should occupy our thoughts; it should be the subject of good amounts of reading, especially the reading of the Bible. In addition, I recommend reading the Fathers, and great Christian thinkers and, for those who dare, sound theologians. I really do recommend that you read writers like C.S. Lewis and G.K Chesterton. The Book of Proverbs tells us to love wisdom, which is what the word philosopher actually means- one who loves wisdom. The most powerful source of wisdom is the Bible when read in the light of the Church’s teaching about the meaning of its content.

Today’s Gospel forces us to think. What is meant by “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged?” Does it mean that we abandon any distinction between right and wrong? Does it mean that we look the other way, or wink at immorality? Does it mean that we are not to consider any behavior to be wrong?

Or, are we to take it in light of the first sentence? “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” The person who is quick to condemn others may be legally right, but he is morally wrong. The merciful person can be just as ready to judge between right and wrong, but always with a heart of compassion. The difference is that one is content to disapprove, often to form a whole picture from a half-truth about another’s alleged offense. But the merciful man wants to help, even if that help is limited only to the offering of prayer, with no opportunity to do more. The one who is ready to condemn feels superior; but the merciful says, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The merciful person remembers that he is a sinner too, and wants the same forgiveness that he has come to know in Christ, to be extended to his neighbor.

Remember my sermon a few weeks ago: God never told us to love mankind: Rather He tells us “love thy neighbor as thyself”- which is a lot more of a challenge. Loving mankind is a big project, big enough for the self-deception of both Nazis and Communists, and any other kind of ideologue who may justify terrorism and mass murder, prison camps and “re-education” programs, all for the supposed good of mankind, the betterment of the human race. The one who judges, in this way, judges that “it is better for one man to die rather than that the whole nation should perish.” He judges that his neighbor’s life may not be worthy to be lived, and all for the improvement of mankind- which he thinks he loves. So, that in order to love mankind he must hate his neighbor. But, God tells us to love that one- our neighbor. The cause of bettering the human race is not justification for harming our neighbor. And, what we do to one of the least of these, His brethren, we do to Christ.

The merciful person is becoming ever more and more like our Father in heaven, and like our Master, our Teacher, Jesus Christ. And, as I have demonstrated, in order to feel what Christians must feel, we must think like Christians. We must not isolate the words “judge not” as a catch phrase, separated from Christ’s words about being merciful, and about giving the good measure. He gave the good measure, He gave His life for the sins of the world to reconcile us to God. And, in the power of His resurrection we can become like Him, ready to forgive and to give.

We learn from Christ’s words that a merciful person can, indeed, notice a fault in another, and try to help his neighbor repent from sin. It is funny to imagine the man who notices a mere speck in his brother’s eye, but does not see the log protruding from his own eye. If we stop with this image our lives can be easy; we can always say that we are not “judging.” But, the Lord makes it hard for us. He goes on to say this: “Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye.” In other words, part of our duty to our neighbor involves cleaning up our own lives. Not only do we owe it to God, and ourselves, to try to live a holy life. We owe it to our neighbor also. If we love our neighbor we have to remove the log from our own eyes, that is, repent of our own sins, and therefore be able to help by example, or word if occasion permits. It is far easier to leave a log in our own eyes, and let our neighbor perish as well.

This brings us to more of what the Lord said in today’s Gospel: “Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” Neither the man with the speck in his eye, nor the man with the log, can open his eyes to see where he is going. Both must shut their eyes and keep the light out. They must stumble and feel their way along. They cannot walk in the light of learning and understanding. They can feel the road beneath their feet, until they fall into a ditch. It is not enough to feel your way along, and certainly not enough to be led along by others who operate on the same level of blind feeling. The light must be allowed in; the speck must come out in order to open the eyes and see; as must the beam, or the log. When the Lord speaks of blind leaders of the blind, as he does in other passages of the Gospels besides this one, make no mistake. He is speaking of false religious leaders. They teach error because they live in error.

I hope that what emerges from the Gospel for today will provoke clear thinking. To reduce it all down to a very unprincipled and libertine catch phrase- “judge not”- robs us of the true meaning. It takes away the challenge, and is a lot easier to live with then what the Lord is really teaching here.

What we are taught is to be merciful, and above all to be made perfect in the virtue of charity. We are told a lot more than simply not to judge: we are told to love our neighbor to the point where we live holy lives, free of sin and hypocrisy. It is very easy simply to say we will not judge, and mentally to erase the context, the rest of the passage; it takes away all responsibility to God, to our neighbor, and to our own souls. But, to learn what Christ actually taught we must see that what we are not to do is to “deal out death in judgment;” the judgment of condemnation; we are not to write off our neighbor and say he is lost, wash our hands, and let him die in sin. That is the judgement that condemns him, that says he is hopeless. We are, rather, to be merciful, so merciful that we are able, if permitted, to help our neighbor remove the speck from his eye; so that part of why we repent and remove the log from our own eye is our duty to our brother, in addition to the need of our own souls.

And, in all of this I see no hope that we can feel what a Christian ought to feel, by way of compassion and charity, unless we think as Christians. Remove the log, let the light in, and then you can begin to love your neighbor as yourself.


Continuing Home said...

"But, in fact, he is in a state of concentration. Deep feeling should come across; but it cannot come across by abandoning oneself to waves of emotion."

Amazing! I am not about to compare myself to one who "plays classical music on the piano" (as a piper I have not yet achieved the classical music of the Highland Bagpipe, of which few outside the genre have even ever heard) -- but this was a critical element my formative piping teacher stressed, and in competition I always did well in expression. (In competition piping the *only* variable is timing; volume/notes/gracenotes&runs are all rigidly fixed.)

But I have a larger question here, one that has been on me for some time. You wrote: "The merciful person is becoming ever more and more like our Father in heaven, and like our Master, our Teacher, Jesus Christ."

Over the past couple years or so I've had on-again/off-again discussions with a Greek Orthodox friend. And through him I have learned the concept of "theosis" (English "deification"?). On initial statement I rejected it outright, "we become like God."

I have learned since that that is not the case; it's more an effort to draw nearer to God -- in my mind exemplified by two things: the book (title) "The Imitation of Christ", and the image of one of the Ghosts in Lewis' "The Great Divorce" where one of the Ghosts is being asked to start on the hard journey (across the painfully sharp grass) toward the Sunrise.

You have touched upon it in my mind here: "The merciful person is becoming ever more and more like our Father in heaven, and like our Master, our Teacher, Jesus Christ."

As I have put it all together, what seems logical (to this engineer), is that our duty in this life is to *attune* ourselves to God -- not to merely to meet certain pass/fail requirements of the law; we attune ourselves to Heaven, or we do not. And if we are not attuned, we cannot endure it...?

I also realize there is little of mercy in this image I have athered from my Orthodox friend. Can you elaborate -- publicly or privately?

Anonymous said...

Fr. Hart,

I was anxiously awaiting for your remarks on this pericope, and I did not wait in vain. The same thoughts apply in poetry. Raw emotion doesn't make a good poem. Poetry certainly flows with emotion, but if there is no content to be carried in that river, the poem is vain, containing no nourishment for the mind, for the soul, or, in truth, for the emotions. Thought without emotion tends toward an ugly drabness, while emotion without thought is wild and dangerous.

Continuing home:

Regarding theosis, as I understand it, it is not 'becoming like God' -- that, after all is what the Serpent offered as temptation -- but rather a restoration of the imago dei, becoming again the reflection of His nature that we were designed to be. And it is unimaginable mercy that He has made this restoration possible but the Cross and Resurrection.


Continuing Home said...


''Regarding theosis, as I understand it, it is not 'becoming like God' -- that, after all is what the Serpent offered as temptation -- but rather a restoration of the imago dei, becoming again the reflection of His nature that we were designed to be. And it is unimaginable mercy that He has made this restoration possible but the Cross and Resurrection.''

You have expressed extremely well my understanding thus far. Thank you!

And yet.. to this layman this seems a concept largely missing in (overall) Christian teachings these days...? Or have I been missing something?

Anonymous said...

That was fast!

The Western Church, both RC and Protestant, has concentrated so hard on sin and forgiveness, on justification, on satisfaction in the Atonement, and on similar issues, that I'm not even aware of a Latin term to correspond with theosis. There is a less-well-formulated expression of it in the works of some of the Mystics, but they are seldom considered in the teaching of dogmatic theology. I could recommend Gustav Aulen's Christus Victor for an overview by a Western (Lutheran, actually) theologian giving an overview of the issues.

The Christian East, on the other hand, stresses theosis and give only scant consideration to the favored issues of the West. One more argument for unity. the Church needs balance.


Anonymous said...

Proponents of liberal theological attitudes sometimes speak as if they have the monopoly on reason. "Scripture, tradition and reason" they cry, and then use what they consider to be "reason" to undermine scripture and tradition. The orthodox must therefore reclaim reason, as the means by which we apply scripture and tradition to contemporary problems as they arise, and by which we determine what is, and is not, consonant with scripture and tradition. This site is fast becoming an aid to the reclamation of godly reason. Can't wait for Trinity V.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Theosis, or Deification, requires a blog artilce all to itself, which I may not do until after Sunday, being, as I am, busy with the Church.

About reason, let us remember that the "three legged stool" is "Scripture, Right Reason and Tradition." All other versions, including the shorter version that drops "Right" from "Reason," are simply wrong. "Tradition" cannot be replaced by "experience," for example. Now, what is Right Reason, as opposed simply to reason? First of all, the Church as the Church is said in scripture to have the mind of Christ. Furthermore, Right Reason cannot be devoid of logic or sanity. Neither can it stray from the mind of Christ (Tradition) and teach heresy.