Against The Normal

Within the Christianity of our time, the great spiritual conflict, unknown to almost all, is between a naturalistic/secular world of modernity and the sacramental world of classical Christianity. The first presumes that a literal take on the world is the most accurate. It tends to assume a closed system of cause and effect, ultimately explainable through science and manageable through technology. Modern Christians, quite innocently, accept this account of the world with the proviso that there is also a God who, on occasion, intervenes within this closed order. The naturalist unbeliever says, “Prove it.”

The sacramental world of classical Christianity speaks a wholly different language. It presumes that the world as we see it is an expression of a greater reality that is unseen. It presumes that everything is a continuing gift and a means of communion with the good God who created it. The meaning and purpose of things is found in that which is not seen, apart from which we can only reach false conclusions. The essential message of Christ, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” is a proclamation of the primacy of this unseen world and its coming reign in the restoration of all things (apokatastasis, cf. Acts 3:21).

The assumptions of these two worldviews could hardly be more contradictory. The naturalistic/secular model has the advantage of sharing a worldview with contemporary culture. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as “common sense” and “normal.” Indeed, the larger portion of Christian believers within that model have no idea that any other Christian worldview exists.

The classical/sacramental worldview was the only Christian worldview for most of the centuries prior to the Reformation. Even then, that worldview was only displaced through revolution and state sponsorship. Nonetheless, the sacramental understanding continues within the life of the Orthodox Church, as well as many segments of Catholicism. Its abiding presence in the Scriptures guarantees that at least a suspicion of “something else” will haunt some modern Christian minds.

An assumption of the secular/naturalist worldview is that information itself is “objective” in character: it is equally accessible to everyone. The classical worldview assumes something quite different. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Christ says, “for they shall see God.” The Kingdom of God is not an inert object that yields itself to public examination. The knowledge of God and of all spiritual things requires a different mode of seeing and understanding. St. Paul says it this way: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1Co 2:14).

This understanding disturbs the sensibilities of many contemporary Christians. Some go so far as to suggest that it is “gnostic” (by this they mean that the very notion of spiritual knowledge that is less than democratic is suspect). Sola Scriptura is a modern concept that posits the Scriptures as subject to objective interpretation. The Scriptures thus belong to the world of public, democratic debate, whose meaning belongs within the marketplace of opinion. The Scriptures are “my Bible.”

The classical model is, in fact, the teaching found in the Scriptures. It utterly rejects the notion of spiritual knowledge belonging to the same category as the naturalistic/secular world. It clearly understands that the truth of things is perceived only through the heart (nous) and that an inward change is required. It is impossible to encounter the truth and remain unchanged.

The classical model, particularly as found within Orthodoxy, demands repentance and asceticism as a normative part of the spiritual life. These actions do not earn a reward, but are an inherent part of the cleansing of the heart and the possibility of perceiving the truth.

The rationalization (secular/rationalist) of the gospel has also given rise to modern “evangelism.” If no particular change is required in a human being in order to perceive the truth of the gospel, then rational argument and demonstration becomes the order of the day. Indeed, modern evangelism is largely indistinguishable from modern marketing. They were born from the same American social movements.

The classical model tends to be slower in its communication, for what is being transmitted is the fullness of the tradition and the transformation of each human life. Evangelism, in this context, has little to no relationship with marketing. The primary form for the transmission of the gospel is the community of the Church. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is properly only seen in an embodied community of believers living in sacramental union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. In the early Church, the catechumenate generally lasted for as much as three years. The formation that took place was seen as an essential preparation for the Christian life. “Making a decision” was almost beside the point.

The struggle between classical/sacramental Christianity and modernity (including its various Christianities) is not a battle over information. The heart of the struggle is for sacramental Christianity to simply remain faithful to what it is. That struggle is significant, simply for the fact that it takes place within a dominant culture that is largely its antithesis.

A complicating factor in this struggle is the fact that the dominant culture (naturalistic/secular) has taken up traditional Christian vocabulary and changed its meaning. This creates a situation in which classical Christianity is in constant need of defining and understanding its own language in contradistinction to the prevailing cultural mind. The most simple terms, “faith, belief, Baptism, Communion, icon, forgiveness, sin, repentance,” are among those things that have to be consistently re-defined. Every conversation outside a certain circle requires this effort, and, even within that circle, things are not always easy.

Such an effort might seem exhausting. The only position of relaxation within the culture is the effortless agreement with what the prevailing permutations tell us on any given day. Human instinct tends towards the effortless life – and the secular mentality constantly reassures us that only the effortless life is normal. Indeed, “normal, ordinary, common,” and such terms, are all words invented by modernity as a self-description. Such concepts are utterly absent from the world of Scripture. Oddly, no one lived a “normal” life until relatively recently.

That which is “normal” is nothing of the sort. It is the purblind self-assurance that all is well when nothing is well.

God have mercy on us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows a marginal pen-and-ink drawing from a letter by Olaf Stapledon, written to his fiance, dated October 3, 1918.

Divine Impassibility

It is fascinating how the ever-changing needs of the times often call us to tread again the same ground once covered by the Fathers. In their day the need was to show how the Scriptural account of God’s self-revelation was consistent with a more Hellenistic and philosophical view of the impassable divine nature.

Such a project was required in their day if they were to commend the Hebrew Scriptures which the Church received as divinely-inspired to the wider pagan audience which viewed the divine nature as eternal, impassable, transcendent, and unchanging.

The problem, of course, is that this philosophical view of divinity didn’t seem to line up with what people read about the Hebrew God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

People believed—correctly—that the divine nature was unchanging and unchangeable, that it was eternal and untroubled. Or, in the words of St. John of Damascus, that “He is invariable and unchangeable, and it would not be right to speak of contingency in connection with Him. [The divine nature is] uncreated, without beginning, immortal, infinite, eternal, immaterial, good, creative, just, enlightening, immutable, passionless, immeasurable, unlimited, undefined, unseen, unthinkable, wanting in nothing” (Exact Exposition, book 1, chapters 13, 14).

St. John Cassian said the same thing at an earlier time: The idea that God has physical limbs “cannot be understood literally of Him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncompounded, so neither can the passion of anger and wrath be attributed to that unchangeable nature without fearful blasphemy” (Institutes, book 8, chapter 4.)

What both John of Damascus and John Cassian meant was not that the Scriptures were unreliable, but that they needed interpretation. For if one read the Hebrew Scriptures with a simple heart and insufficient subtlety, one might come away with an erroneous view of the Hebrew God.

One might imagine that Yahweh had a short fuse, that He sometimes lost His temper and needed calming down, that He did not know everything in advance, and sometimes needed to find things out by investigation and then might need to change His mind.

They might imagine that mere human beings could ruffle the divine feathers and get Yahweh worked up, and that He was subject to passions and emotions such as jealousy, uncontrolled rage, as well as bouts of happiness, and that His emotions could see-saw between extremes of happiness and sadness.

Even simpler readers might conclude that Yahweh had arms, fingers, eyes, ears, and a mouth because the Scriptures spoke of these things.

And some people even justified their own human rage by referring to the divine wrath mentioned in the Bible: “We have heard some people trying to excuse this most pernicious disease of the soul [i.e. anger] in such a way as to endeavour to extenuate it by a rather shocking way of interpreting Scripture: as they say that it is not injurious if we are angry with our brethren who do wrong, since they say God Himself is said to rage and to be angry” (Institutes, book 8, chapter 2).

These overly-simple interpretations of Scripture flew in the face of what an intelligent pagan audience believed about the divine nature, and led a number of them to dismiss the Scriptures and the Church which received them as infantile and unworthy of true philosophy.

Of course, they said, the divine nature cannot be subject to such human passions. In fact, the Church had been saying the same thing about the pagan gods for some time, pouring scorn on the pagan myths and stories of Jupiter becoming angry and lustful.

But if it was true, as the Church always taught, that divine nature was essentially impassable and beyond the reach of change and passion, how could the Church’s Hebrew Scriptures have any credibility when they seemed to present a very changeable and passionate God? That was the problem that the Fathers had to grapple with as they presented the Christian Faith to a pagan world.

The Fathers’ solution is well known: they affirmed the philosophical view of God and interpreted the Scriptural account of God’s limbs (such as His mouth, eyes, and hands) metaphorically, as well as the Scriptural narratives about God’s wrath and seeming changeability.

St. John Cassian again: “By God’s mouth we should understand that His utterances are meant…by His eyes we can understand the boundless character of His sight with which He sees and looks through all things. By the expression ‘hands’ we understand His providence and work”.

But the Scriptural references to His divine wrath, though they should not be understood as declaring that God is subject to the passion of anger or that our sins cause Him to throw a fit, are not to be explained away.

Thus Cassian: “When we read of the anger or fury of the Lord, we should take it not according to an unworthy meaning of human passion, but in a sense worthy of God, who is free from all passion, so that by this we should understand that He is the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in this world, and by reason of these terms and their meaning we should dread Him as the terrible rewarder of our deeds, and fear to do anything against His will.”

It is clear therefore that God still has wrath against sin, in that He will judge and avenge human wrong. Because of this divine vengeance we should “dread Him and fear to do anything against His will”.

The Fathers do not declare that God has no wrath, but only that His anger is just and not the result of fits of passion or pique. God’s anger is not like human anger, and is consistent with the divine impassibility. God is always good, and His beneficence never changes.

Whether or not we experience His kindness or His severity (see Romans 11:22) depends not upon His shifting moods, for He is not subject to shifting moods. Rather it depends entirely upon us and how we live.

St. Irenaeus said as much even earlier still: “As many as according to their own choice depart from good, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death and separation from light is darkness and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits He has in store…It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves are forever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them.” (Against Heresies, book 5, chapter 27).

God’s unchanging nature remains light; those who experience calamity and the divine wrath do so because of their own actions, not because God is no longer light or willing to enlighten.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: in the Fathers’ day, many took offense at the Scriptural teaching about the wrath of God, saying that this was incompatible with the divine nature, the objection taking its force from the philosophical conviction that divine nature cannot be subject to emotions of any kind (including presumably nice emotions, such as happiness).

Today also many take offense at the Scriptural teaching about the wrath of God, saying that this is incompatible with the divine nature, the objection taking its force from our modern conviction that a loving God could not also have wrath.

We have seen that the Fathers’ teaching overthrows both objections. The Fathers agree that God’s nature is good and unchanging and unaffected by our sins. They also assert that the Scriptural teaching about God’s wrath is true, and that God will one day act as “the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in the world”.

The modern attempt to deny this latter truth by appeal to God’s good and unchanging nature cannot be sustained, and those who attempt to use the truth of divine impassibility to deny the truth of divine wrath are in error.

I suggest that those making this attempt are not motivated by the venerable philosophical appreciation for the doctrine of divine impassibility so much as by a very modern squeamishness about the doctrine of divine wrath.

The Fathers affirmed both divine wrath and divine impassibility, and we must tread in the way that they walked, following along the path they blazed for us.

Father Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Moses on Mount Sinai,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted ca. 1895-1900.

Yoga Of Deception

What attracts people to yoga? In my case, it was a thirst for something mysterious, some teaching that would allow me to develop some superpowers, such as telepathy, breath-holding, etc. I discovered yoga as a primary school student back in the early 1980s thanks to my elder cousin.

I would sit in the lotus position at the lessons, and the teacher would rebuke me, telling me “to sit like a human.” And my last mentor was a yoga fitness instructor, under whose guidance between 2008 and 2009 I refreshed my skills in the fundamentals of Ashtanga yoga that I had largely forgotten over the years of my office work. And there were a great number of books, groups, seminars, and teachers between these two “mentors.”

When I was in my thirties, I wanted to comprehend the essence of yoga, and I was more interested in meditative practices than in physical exercises (asanas). The fact is that if someone starts yoga and doesn’t quit it, sooner or later he will find that it is boring to sit in the same positions and do the same exercises day in and day out.

One day he will inevitably ask himself: “Why do I need all of this”? And this is precisely what happened to me: I wanted to find the meaning. And at last I discovered the concept of pralaya in Hinduism which (to put it simply) means “cyclical destruction of the universe.”

No matter what you did (whether you practiced yoga or something else), what you strove for, how many times you were born, which class or caste you belonged to, all the souls (whether they like it or not) will ultimately unite into one “golden egg”, into which the whole universe will contract, once one “day of Brahma” has changed into a “night of Brahma” next time. It will be the end of the universe, and all will disappear.

From the yogis’ point of view, there is no such thing as immortality of an individual soul because with the beginning of a “new day of Brahma” the souls will come into being again, but these will be absolutely different souls (not those destroyed). Only Brahman, the impersonal absolute, is immortal.

There are many similarities between all of this and the materialist conception of the world, the “pulsating universe theory”, and so forth. However, there are quite a few tendencies in Hinduism (of which yoga is a part), from atheistic and agnostic to pantheistic, those recognizing many deities and close to paganism.

Then what is the object pursued by a yogi? He seeks to attain the state of Moksha, or Samadhi, approximately meaning “being released.” This is the “liberation” from the cyclic existence, this suffering-laden cycle of life. A yogi believes in reincarnation, in the rebirth cycle, but he tries his best to avoid this continued suffering.

When I came to realize that, according to yoga, death awaits you in any case (both the physical death and the death of your soul, once it has escaped the vicious birth-death-rebirth cycle and united with the indifferent absolute), I lost interest in this teaching.

Later, in the summer of 2010, I ended up at the Monastery of St. Paphnutius in Borovsk [in the Kaluga region south of the Moscow region] completely “by chance” (in fact, providentially), and my life was gradually transformed.

But why not practice yoga as we do gymnastics, without becoming absorbed in its mysterious and occult depths? I am quite sure that this is impossible (except when someone is fortunate enough in having a transient passion for yoga). Yoga is part of the Hindu religion, and there’s no getting away from it.

The very word “yoga” derives from the Sanskrit root word “yuj”, meaning “to yoke”, “to unite”, “to join.” Meanwhile the word “religion” derives from the Latin verb “religare”, meaning “to tie”, “to bind together.” In both cases you connect to God or some other invisible forces that interact with you. So at very least it would be illogical to state that yoga is not religious as the words “religion” and “yoga” are almost synonyms. The problem is that people seldom take the trouble to grasp the hidden meaning of words.

Websites dedicated to yoga often contain quotations from the Gospel and portray Christ as a yogi. This “message” is addressed to the nominal, unchurched “Orthodox” who make up the vast majority in Russia.

According to the statistics, between seventy and eighty percent of Russian residents call themselves Orthodox; those who take Communion at least once a year make up less than thirty per cent; and the true children of the Church, who know the Creed by heart, are fully integrated into Church life, and regularly take Communion make up less than five per cent.

Of course, yogis make use of some similar element in Christian teaching and the teaching of yoga to attract these “liberal faithful” who consider themselves Christians and may sincerely want to be followers of Christ, wear crosses on their necks, but know virtually nothing about Christ and His Church.

The question of the key difference between Orthodoxy and yoga really concerned me after my visit to the Monastery of St. Paphnutius in Borovsk. I kept asking the spiritual fathers there: “May I practice yoga? Why is it a bad idea?” While they answered the first question with confidence, they skirted the second one. So I wanted to find out the truth for myself.

It eventually became the subject of my seminary thesis and even developed into the book, An Orthodox Perspective on Yoga, which was published by the Simvolik publishing house not long ago.

On the face of it, yoga’s ethical principles are very similar to the commandments of the Bible. Thus, the principle of Ahimsa (“not to injure”, “nonviolence”) seems to be equivalent to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Brahmacharya (“continence”) is consonant with the commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Asteya (“non-stealing”) is in harmony with the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

But this is what the Holy Hierarch Gregory Palamas said about similarities like these: “A lie that is not far from the truth gives rise to a double delusion. Since a tiny difference escapes the majority’s notice, they either take the lie for the truth or, on account of its closeness to the lie, take the truth for the lie, in both cases completely falling away from the truth.”

These words are true about Christianity and yoga: The difference becomes manifest when you make it as simple and clear as you can.

Yoga has no principle of humility at all, though this fact is often overlooked. Yogis will argue with this statement, but the collections of Yoga Sutras, the main sources of yoga, don’t say a single word about humility, whereas in Christianity the commandment of humility is the greatest one. Blessed are the poor in spirit (Mt. 5:3) – the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount begins with these words. No virtue has any value without humility.

From personal communication with adherents of yoga whom I held in respect I was convinced that the absence of pride is fine for yogis, but they won’t need it until they reach the “spiritual heights.”

While they are on their way “to the top”, they need to be motivated by pride (among other things) to speed up their progress. Thus ego becomes an “engine of progress.” Although humility is essential, they will first “achieve holiness” and then get rid of their pride. But will they succeed?

That is why Christians start with humility, relying on the will of God and not their own will.

However, someone can argue and say that while pride moves you to pursue new goals over and over again, traditional yogis aim to reach nothingness—a goal that seemingly has nothing to do with pride.

It should be stressed that classical yoga no longer exists—one won’t find it, not only in Europe, but also in India, the motherland of this teaching. I concede that there may be two or three gurus in the Himalayas preaching “true yoga”, though that is very unlikely.

As a matter of fact, yoga is a motley collection of various schools and tendencies. Some of them do understand that gaining supernatural powers feeds your pride and hinders your spiritual growth. Then the question arises: when do the Yoga Sutras devote so much attention (a special section) to these supernatural abilities?

Back in the 1960s, the documentary, “Indian Yogis, Who Are They?” was released in the USSR. Its authors presented yoga as a philosophy, a moral teaching, and health and fitness gymnastics. This film contributed to the popularization of yoga in the Soviet society, as did some publications in Soviet popular science magazines, The Razor’s Edge science fiction novel by the Soviet writer Ivan Yefremov (1907-1972), along with a number of other arts and cultural events in the Soviet Union.

And what is interesting is that the modern sequel of that film, “Indian Yogis, Who Are They? Forty Years Later”, tells the viewers plainly that yoga “is a tool for awakening of your energy potential and obtaining super-normal powers.” Formerly this side of yoga was not emphasized, but it is obvious that today this way of advertising yoga works.

Man wants to become like God. It is a matter of the path he chooses. If Adam had obeyed the commandment of God, he would have remained immortal and with time could have become like God, cultivating and caring for the Garden of Eden with which God had entrusted him and growing in love. But Adam preferred the easy path, namely “to become like gods”, by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was “magic”, something that was not blessed by God and “outside” God.

Many people see yoga precisely as entering the spiritual world “from the backdoor.” They think: “In Christianity I am obliged to obey the moral commandments, keep the fasts, go to church and so on. But why? I would rather go to a yoga center, perform asanas and pranayamas, and will get what I need!”

Nevertheless, I do hope that one way or another the Lord will bring the yogis who sincerely seek Him to His Church, the only ark of salvation. I believe that even committed adherents of yoga have simply strayed from the right path while searching for the true God. I have a feeling that many of them may become devout members of the Holy Church. After all, they are seekers of God and are not lukewarm (cf. Rev. 3:15-16).

The main area of divergence between Christianity and yoga is dogmas. What is a dogma for the majority? It is something the Church calls on them to believe in, while giving no proof of it. But yogis have their own dogmas, something they unconditionally believe in, too. And their basic tenets are very different from Christian ones.

Though it is hard to perceive it, Christians confess the faith in the God Who is one in essence and three in personhood: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the Consubstantial and Undivided Trinity. He is the Triune, One, Personal God. It is extremely difficult for Christians to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, to say nothing of yogis and Hindus, for many of whom the Supreme Being cannot be personal. Hindus recognize the existence of rational spiritual beings and even refer to some of them as to “gods”, yet they see the absolute, Brahman, as impersonal.

The concept of reincarnation that is prevalent among yogis contradicts all the Christological dogmas and is in opposition to the Christian doctrine that life is given to us only once, and it will be followed by death, resurrection, and judgment (cf. Heb. 9:27).

The Holy Church has never raised this very important idea to a dogma because there has never been a slightest doubt about this in the minds of Christians. The first argument that proponents of reincarnation usually put forward is that the belief in metempsychosis is widely spread and its origins allegedly date back to ancient times. They contend that “Christianity appeared only 2,000 years ago, whereas people had believed in transmigration of the soul for thousands of years before Christ was born.”

However, insofar as we can judge from surviving monuments, neither (traditional) ancient Greeks nor ancient Romans believed in reincarnation. We can trace back their beliefs concerning afterlife from their mythology, the earliest monuments of which go back to the time of Homer and Hesiod [c. 750 B.C.].

According to them, after death people descend to the underground kingdom—a dark place known as Hades, Erebus, and Tartarus in different traditions—where they drag out a “shadowy”, joyless, miserable existence. In fact the idea of metempsychosis didn’t appear until the time of Pythagoras and Plato (that is, the sixth to fourth centuries B.C.) and it was adopted only by some representatives of a number of schools of philosophy.

Ancient Egyptians mummified the corpses of dead people, hoping that in the future their souls would be reunited to their bodies.

Ancient Hebrews believed in the resurrection of physical bodies as well, as evidenced by the famous prophecies of Ezekiel about the valley of dry bones, which will be joined together and come to life again (see Ezek. 37:1-14); the prophecy of Isaiah about the rising of dead bodies (Is. 26:19); and the prophecy in the Book of Job about the restoration of bodies from dust (Job 19:25-27).

Thus, neither ancient Egyptian books nor the books of the Old Testament mention transmigration of the soul.

We can judge the Christian attitude towards incarnation by the Parable of the rich man and Lazarus: And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom (Lk. 16:22-23).

The narrator, our Lord Jesus Christ, made it clear that after death human souls don’t transmigrate from one body to another; rather, as St. Nicholas (Velimirovich) of Serbia said, “They proceed to the abodes that they have deserved by their deeds on earth.”

Interestingly, the notion of metempsychosis didn’t exist among the ancestors of Aryan people either. At least the Rig-Veda [the oldest and principal of the Vedas, composed in the second millennium B.C. and containing a collection of hymns in early Sanskrit] has no mention of rebirth.

Let us once again return to the question of the purpose of life. The ultimate goal of Hinduism is to stop suffering, while Christians aspire to everlasting and happy life with God. The idea of theosis (union with God) which is central in Orthodox Christianity is based on awareness that both God and man are persons. Given this, our union with the Creator by no means implies that we are becoming a part of His body or a cell in His organism. Rather, we can potentially contemplate God and be in communion with Him.

But someone will surely exclaim: “I don’t care about philosophy, religious systems and other intricacies! I am interested in yoga solely as a set of physical exercises and a fitness training system which give a practical result! Can I practice yoga as mere exercises?”

The point is that yoga is not limited to only physical exercises. The fact is that when you come to a yoga center, you not only begin to train your body and practice yoga poses, but you also should be prepared for “expanding your consciousness” through special exercises, breathing exercises and meditation. Yoga practice presupposes mandatory meditation.

Can we practice yoga without all this “spirituality”? Yes, we can, but it won’t be yoga in this case. There are numerous similar types of exercises directed towards increased flexibility, muscular strength, and organism’s resistance to pathogens—in a word, towards health improvement. What about Pilates, stretching, and so on? If you are interested exclusively in physical training, you’d better opt for one of these instead of falling for yoga with its “spirituality”, which smells like sulfur…

The Russian original of this article was translated Dmitry Lapa, courtesy of Orthodox Christianity.

The photo shows the goddess Chhinnamasta, with his severed head. She is the essence of the yogic force, kundalini. The painting, in the Pahari style, dates to ca. 1750.

The Ontology Of Salvation

I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself.

For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons.

Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”).

There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures.

It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being.

But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence.

The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin.

When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic).

It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.”

The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it.

The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…”

Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken.

The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins.

If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha: “Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems.

It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church.

It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity.

I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Assumption of the Virgin” nu Francesco Botticini, painted ca. 1475-1476.

Why God Hides

God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.

This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?

In a previous article, I wrote: “Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.”

God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.

This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.

The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.

Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life (a life among objects).

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.

But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.

Christ uses the imagery of seeking or true desire (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…

But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.

Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought: “You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3).

What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.

The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other money in the world.

When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me.

The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe).

And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted began to come true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.

But the point that had found me was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.

St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach.

He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.

Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.

All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.

I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.

There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.

All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio, painted in 1606.

The Hope That Is In Us

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” These words of Christ, spoken to Thomas and recorded in John 20:29, have often been misunderstood. Some suggest that Christ was offering a blessing to those who believe in Him without any evidence at all, who accept Him on blind faith. This is not what Christ meant, for Thomas never accepted Christ on blind faith in the absence of any evidence.

Indeed, Thomas had plenty of evidence and reason to accept Jesus as the Christ, including the many miracles he saw Him perform. By these words Christ was not affirming the necessity of blind faith, but offering a blessing to those who believed in Him even though they never experienced a resurrection appearance as Thomas did.

For there are all sorts of reasons for believing in Christ and all kinds of evidence for the truth of Christianity, even apart from experiencing a Resurrection appearance as did the apostles. St. Peter told his new converts to always be ready to make a defense to anyone who called them to give a reason for the hope that was in them (1 Peter 3:15), and so Christians must have reasons for their hope in Christ. I would like to mention three of them, three pieces of evidence for the truth of Christ’s Resurrection.

These pieces of evidence all presuppose the essential reliability of the Gospel accounts. That in itself is not unreasonable, for the Gospels can all lay claim to relate first-hand eye-witness testimony: Matthew was one of the Twelve, as was John, who repeatedly stressed the first-hand nature of his testimony (e.g. John 19:35, 21:24). Luke wrote his account after consulting with many first-hand witnesses (Luke 1:1-4), and Mark wrote his account after listening to Peter’s reminiscences in Rome.

And the first three Gospels were written within about thirty years of the events they recount—i.e. they were practically contemporaneous with those events. Moreover, the Gospel writers wrote and circulated their writings while surrounded by a hostile group of people (the unbelieving Jews) who would have contested and contradicted their reporting if it veered from the known facts, and this hostility acted as a kind of control to keep the writers’ accounts accurate. So we may have confidence in the essential accuracy of the Gospel accounts.

The first piece of evidence is the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb. The apostles were publically proclaiming in the very heart of the Temple the Resurrection of Christ (and the consequent guilt of the Sanhedrin for the crime of having the Messiah crucified), and all the enraged Sanhedrin could do in response was to arrest Peter and John and to threaten them, telling them to cease and desist (Acts 3-4).

They could have shut down the whole apostolic enterprise and crush out the nascent Christian movement then and there—all they needed to do was to produce the corpse of Jesus, who had been buried a scant distance away from the Temple. But this they did not do. Why not? Obviously because the corpse of Jesus was no longer in the tomb and available to them.

So where was it? Why was it not in the tomb? The apostles’ explanation was that the tomb was now empty because God had raised Jesus from the dead, and that Jesus had emerged from the tomb, meeting with His disciples during the following forty days before being taken to heaven.

The Jewish explanation for the emptiness of the tomb was that the disciples came by night while the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb were asleep and these disciples stole the corpse (Matthew 28:12-15). Let us examine this explanation at greater length, for it contains a few problems.

The first problem with the explanation is the presupposition that a Roman soldier on guard duty would fall asleep—something which would bring swift and violent response from his commanding officer if he were caught.

Yet this story asks us to believe that all the soldiers on guard duty fell asleep, and all at the same time, and that they fell so soundly asleep that the disciples sneaking up, unsealing the tomb, moving the huge stone, and making off with the corpse didn’t wake them.

Even harder to believe is that the disciples stopped in the midst of this dangerous theft and took time to strip the corpse of its grave-clothes before carrying it away (compare John 20:6-7).

The Jewish explanation produces more questions than answers. Even if the apostles could somehow have sneaked up unseen on the Roman guards, and waited until all the guards fell so soundly asleep at the same time that they did not stir when the stone was noisily moved and the corpse stripped and stolen, why would they do this? What did they have to gain from it?

All they had to gain from their leadership of the Christian movement is what they in fact did gain from it—namely, suffering, poverty, hardship, and eventual martyrdom (see 1 Corinthians 4:9-13). And where did they then bury the corpse? And how could such a burial escape detection in a city swarming with their enemies to such an extent that they had to lock the doors when they met together? (see John 20:19).

And why would they persist in such a lie? It is incredible to imagine that such a colossal conspiracy would not somehow have leaked out, especially as persecution arose. Moreover, the Jewish explanation is not even self-consistent: if the guards were all asleep, how could they know that it was the disciples who stole the corpse? The whole thing is harder to believe than the Resurrection.

The second problem with denying the historicity of the Resurrection of Christ lies in the change in the apostles. From the time of Jesus’ arrest, during His trial and crucifixion, and immediately after His death, they all displayed tremendous cowardice—or (to put it more charitably) a tremendous concern for their self-preservation.

During His arrest, they all forsook Him and fled (Mark 14:50), and Peter, when challenged a number of times as to whether he was part of His movement, repeatedly denied even knowing Him (Mark 14:66f). None but John were present at His cross, and after His death, when they met together, they made sure that the outer door was locked, for fear of being arrested by the Jews—all in all, not a great display of courage and boldness.

Yet fifty days later they were so bold that they publically preached to anyone who would listen that Jesus was the Messiah, risen from the dead, and openly accused the Sanhedrin of disowning the Messiah and having Him killed (Acts 5:28). Arrest, flogging, and threats of further punishment could not deter the apostles.

The question is: what produced this change of heart and inspired this new boldness? The apostles explained it by saying they had seen the risen Lord. If they did not in fact see the risen Lord, what other explanation could there be for such a swift, radical, and unanimous change of heart among all of them?

The question becomes more acute as persecution of the Church intensifies: even when martyrdom threatened, the apostles continued to preach that they had indeed seen the risen Christ. Who would die for what they knew was a pointless lie? The apostolic boldness is only explicable if they were telling the truth about the Resurrection.

The third problem with denying the Resurrection of Christ is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. He was adamantly opposed to the Christian movement, and took drastic and effective steps to try to crush it out. He was present for the martyrdom of Stephen, and ravaged the Church in Jerusalem, entering house after house and dragging off to prison the disciples of Jesus, both women as well as men (Acts 8:3).

Not content with this, he requested and received authorization from the high priest to journey to far away Damascus and arrest any disciples of Jesus he found in the synagogues there.

Accordingly, he journeyed to Damascus, but upon arriving there, when he entered the synagogue, instead of denouncing Jesus as a false-Messiah and arresting His disciples, He proclaimed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. What produced such a sudden and stunning volte-face?

Saul (also known as Paul) explained it by relating that as he approached Damascus he received a visitation from the risen Jesus, an encounter which converted and temporarily blinded him.

Then one of Jesus’ disciples, Ananias by name, found Saul in the city, explained that Jesus had appeared to him in a vision, and sent him to heal Saul of his blindness, which he did. If one rejects Saul’s explanation of what caused his volte-face, what other explanation could there be? And once again, we may ask, why would Saul lie? What would he have to gain by it?

There are other reasons for accepting the truth of the Christian Faith as well—reasons having to do with subjective experience of the presence of Christ, and of contemporary miracles and answers to prayer.

But these three historical reasons, I submit, are sufficient—or at least they were sufficient for me. If Christ did rise from the dead, then the emptiness of His tomb, the change in the apostles, and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus are all adequately and fully explained. If His Resurrection did not in fact occur, these three things remain inexplicable.

At the very least the burden of proof shifts to those who would deny the Resurrection. Such historical evidence constitutes a reason for the hope that is in us—and challenge to those who would deny the Resurrection and choose to live without such hope.

Father Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “The Doubting Thomas” by Leendert van der Cooghen, painted in 1654.

Parable Of The Sower

Every Society has its dream of a better world. The classless society, the American dream; Utopia. Martin Luther King spoke about having a dream where black and white would no longer be segregated.

We hear our politicians when it’s coming up to election time talk about a fair and just society. The former British Prime Minister David Cameron talked about the ‘Big Society’. Not sure whatever happened to it.

The Jews of the first century were no different to us in wanting a better society and a better world. In the Old Testament, we can read from Judges on through to Kings and Chronicles all about the different rulers and kings Israel had and what sort of society they tried to create.

But as time went on it became clear that it would take an extraordinary intervention on God’s part to transform this present evil world into the sort of world where God’s people would really feel at home.

A decisive victory over the power of evil would have to be won, a victory no ordinary human being could ever achieve.

The people looked forward to the arrival of a supernatural deliverer, the one who would be anointed like the mighty heroes of the past; a new David; but greater even than David was. They waited for The Messiah.  

Don’t worry said the prophets; things look pretty bad for us Jews in this present wicked age.

But soon the Messiah will step out of the wings of history; and then at long last the kingdom of God will begin.

Can you imagine the shock that must have gone through the population of Galilee when Jesus, a young carpenter from Nazareth, started to wander around their towns and villages saying it had happened? ‘The kingdom of God has Come’. Its arrived. ‘Repent and believe the good news that I bring’. That’s what he said.

Many as we know were naturally very sceptical. They were not unfamiliar with lunatics who indulged their megalomaniac fantasies by pretending to be the Messiah.

But this man did not just make messianic claims; he cast out demons, he healed the sick, he raised the dead. He feeds 5000 plus people with a few fish and some loaves. He forgave people. And he taught. He wasn’t just all talk.

There was a charisma about him that had not been seen in Israel since the days of the greatest prophets 500 years before. There was even a rumour than he was Elijah or Jeremiah back from the dead.

The word ‘kingdom’ in that part of the world meant a great deal to the Galilean masses. The mere mention of the kingdom fired up their most fanatical zeal, and inspired their most passionate commitment.

All Jesus had to do when confronted by this vast multitude was to work a miracle or two and deliver a suitable firebrand speech and the whole of the Galilean countryside would have erupted enthusiastically for his Messiahship.

 He could easily have whipped up the crowds to march on Jerusalem. As some political leaders try to do even today.

But the extraordinary thing is, he didn’t. Instead he told them a story.

He had power greater than every nation combined together on planet earth at his disposal. But instead he tells the people a story. Can you imagine this great crowd coming to him from town after town, full of expectancy, hanging on to every word and ready to do as he commands? Then He sits down and tells them a Story.

Not a straight forward type of story; but a bizarre perplexing riddle of a story called a Parable. People are more open to stories; but not everybody; this is the strange conundrum.

Even his closest friends were utterly bewildered by this kind of approach. What on earth are you doing Jesus they asked him. What is this parable business all about?

Then he explains to them; ‘the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that though seeing, they may Not see, through hearing they may Not understand. What does he mean? These are unpopular and controversial words.

What Jesus says here clearly seems to contradict the popular view of parables as moralizing stories told to aid the understanding of simple rural people.  

On the contrary; Jesus says he speaks in parables not to make it Easier for people to understand, but to make it Harder. Though seeing, they may Not see, though hearing, they may Not understand. Whatever you make of that, its quite clear that Jesus was not as impressed by these crowds, streaming out of Galilee to see him, as we might have been, if we had been there.

Jesus was not convinced that they were on his wavelength.

You see Jesus grew up with these people; he knew perfectly well what their ideas of the kingdom of God were; and that they were as different from his own ideas……. as chalk and cheese. As day to night. He had to take a different way with them. The last thing he wanted to do was to foster their mistaken notions by courting popularity with them. He was going to make things difficult for them.

He hints in fact that he feels rather as the prophet Isaiah did, when he was told to preach to a people whose hearts would be Hardened against his words.

Yet At other times Jesus speaks to the crowds and challenges them; he who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Verse 8. So how do properly assess what Jesus is saying here.

This particular parable acts as a type of filter. You know what a filter does. It sifts.

Among the thousands who come to see and hear him for all the wrong reasons; he believes there are Some, just some who are genuinely Open to the truth.

A tiny minority maybe, amid that vast spiritually deaf multitude; but though few, they Did have ears to hear.

His parables were like a type of Filter that identified those True disciples.

They identified those who came to Jesus looking for just a political leader, a nationalist revolutionary, or a spell binding miracle worker, they went away disillusioned. Or I want you Jesus to give me the wow factor; take away all my troubles and tribulations, then I can get on with living for myself.

They found to their disappointment a teller of stories. But those who were drawn to him by some deeper magnetism stayed. In their hearts God’s spirit was working. They were being inwardly called to follow him.

Though they were perplexed at first, just like all the others, they were also intrigued, longing to understand what he was really getting at, sensing that somewhere buried in the obscurity of his parables lay the clue to that kingdom of God for which their hearts longed.

To you he says to them; ‘the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given’. But for some you have to take it a step further.

You will never find the kingdom, or Jesus for that matter if you do not allow your mind and heart to be opened. You need to move closer to him.

This is in fact, a fundamental characteristic of all Jesus’ ministry. You don’t get to grips with his message from the safe distance of a detached curiosity.

Unlike so many orators and some preachers of today; Jesus’ head was never turned by the flattery of the crowds.

He wasn’t fooled by the illusion of success that big numbers conjure up, he saw through all that hype. Instead he was perfectly content to Invest himself in just Twelve men and the handful of women Luke names for us. Provided they were real listeners, real learners, and real disciples, he was prepared to give the whole of himself to such a tiny band.

The parable of the Sower acts as a sifting process because

 behind this imagery of the sower and the seed is the solemn and serious truth that only some who hear his words are ultimately blessed by him and saved.

You know the way when people joined the Gold Rush in America back in the 1800’s. You see the prospectors sifting through a pile of dirt and stones from the river bed as they look for gold. And then they start to gradually wash all the debris away, until there is just one or two gold nuggets left.

Though there may be many whose initial response to the gospel looks promising, the path of being a follower of Jesus proves too demanding. They can’t hack it.

Different people view the meaning of parables differently. Some feel that parables are deliberately mysterious and elusive. But by drawing us into this particular story Jesus brings home some truths that we were not aware of which can strike home and leave us uncomfortable, perplexed and wanting more.

No matter whether we understand this parable, this story; at the first or second or third or fourth attempt; it can take years; Jesus still gets his message across. He wants us to hear it; to think carefully about it; and respond to it.

The photo shows the icon, “Christ the Sower of Seeds.”

Rahab’s Faith

The children of Israel as they enter into the Promised Land, Canaan, have a few major challenges ahead of them. Their great leader Moses has died and there are a lot of people in Canaan who do not like, or want the Israelites anywhere near them. The entire generation that set out from Egypt 40 years earlier have all died, except two young men; Joshua and Caleb.

These two men had spied out in advance the Promised Land together for Moses. They had returned enthusiastically about the prospects of Israel’s new homeland confirming what God had already told them. The time was now right to enter into Canaan. The Israelites now under the leadership of Joshua are camped along the Jordan River directly opposite the city of Jericho. 

Wisely Joshua did not get his army ready and just attack. Just as Moses had done years before, Joshua sent spies ahead to gather military information about what lay on the other side of the Jordan and Jericho. The two spies head off and the first person they meet is a woman called Rahab. Was it by sheer chance they meet her out of all the thousands of people they could have met? Was it by sheer chance she would meet two very culturally different men? Rahab’s whole life and her future would soon be changed through this encounter.

What do we know about Rahab? It’s not a name that many women are called today. Many women are called after Mary, Ruth, Hannah, Lydia, Rachel, Rebecca, Sarah, Martha, Elizabeth, All biblical names. But no Rahab. That gives you a clue. Not many men are called Judas either.

The first thing we are told about her is in the very first verse; she is introduced as a prostitute named Rahab. I wonder what she looked like and what she dressed like. She was an immoral woman who had No concept of sexual purity.

She lived in a sex obsessed pagan society that was fanatically devoted to everything that God hates. This culture like Sodom and Gomorrah was on the verge of God’s judgement. Their generational descent into the abyss of moral and spiritual corruption had been intentional, and now it was irreversible.

It appears that Rahab has always been a willing participant plying her trade. Now that God had called for the complete destruction of the entire culture because of their extreme wickedness, why shouldn’t Rahab also receive the just desserts of her own deliberate sin?  Good question.

Rahab as we would say was; the dregs of society. She made her living catering to the most depraved insatiable sexual appetites. It’s hard to imagine how someone like her could ever be changed. Her house was not in some back alley of the city, but perched on the famous walls. She was in a prime location of her red-light district. We could safely assume that her trade was a financial success given the location.

Jericho was part of the Amorite kingdom which was a totally depraved and violent pagan culture. In fact, their culture was so depraved with witchcraft and child sacrifice going back to the time of Abraham that their evil lifestyle was the very reason God granted Abraham and his heirs rights to their land, driving them of it.  So, the spies enter into the city of Jericho to check it out. A bit like a Mission Impossible Team. Looking for a place to spy out the land they came across Rahab. The location of her house seems to have been the ideal spot.

The Israelite spies did not seek to take advantage of her for immoral purposes. Perhaps this being what won her trust over in the first place. They were not here to use and abuse her unlike the other men who came through the doors of her house. These men were different, they were sober and serious.  Presumably, they treated her with dignity and respect while they were staying with her. Maybe they told Rahab something about their God and the ways in which he had saved, lead and provided for them. Amazingly she was spiritually open to the way God was working through these two spies.

 Everyone in Jericho already knew that the Israelite nation was now camped across the river a short distance away. They had heard about the Hebrews escape from Egypt now they were seeing them with their very own eyes. And they were frightened. Rahab now finds herself where she could make a fair bit of money if she turned in these two spies. But she didn’t. She hid them. She misdirected the officials and saved the lives of the two spies, even though this put her at considerable risk of losing her own life.

At this point for someone who lived their life through wicked, corrupt ways it seems alien that someone like her would turn down the chance to make a lot of money, and put her own life at risk. Not only is this sudden change in her attitude unexpected, it runs counter to every instinct that normally would motivate a woman like Rahab.

What could possibly bring such a dramatic change in a person’s life, and in such circumstances. God. God is the answer.

Suddenly God touches her life in some amazing way. Over the years of her tough hardened life; had she come to realise that her life should not be like this. The lies, the perverted sex, the booze, the cheating, the brawling.

Is this the level I am at? I cannot do this anymore. I need a clean break. But how? There comes appoint in a person’s life where this awakening; this light comes on. Everybody is different. For some it’s like a Damascus Road experience, for others it’s more of an Emmaus Road experience, gradual. Either way something changes. With her new-found faith undeveloped as it was, we see immediately that it bears the fruit of action. The bible tells us; ‘faith without deeds is dead’. Rahab did something; she took the spies in, making herself vulnerable. With this act she was putting her faith into action. She not only hid them, she embraced their cause, entrusting her whole future to their God, and our God.

There is absolutely nothing but faith in God, that could have made such a dramatic, sudden change in the character of such a woman. She had heard of the mighty acts and wonders he performed with the Hebrews. Now she had met real flesh and blood people, spies, who knew him and worshipped him. She was prepared to follow them and their God.

What about you today? Have you sat maybe for years in the pews of a church, hearing Sunday by Sunday the stories of God’s mighty acts and his miracles? Listening carefully to the scriptures, and the prayers and the sermon. But that’s as far as it goes. The trust, the stepping out in faith needed; is still absent. After it was clear that the king’s messengers were gone for the night, Rahab went back up to the roof to speak with the spies. It’s really quite amazing what she says to them; ‘ I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great Fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting because of you.’

What was it that caused her in particular to trust in God? It was fear. Fear of God. Is it a bad thing to be frightened of God? No, it’s not. Our affluent western societies across the globe generally speaking have no fear of anything. No fear of the police, the courts, getting caught, libelling or slandering anyone. People generally have no fear.

A life sentence for murder is around 8 years in prison or less. You hire a barrister or better still you get the state to pay for a barrister to get you off. There is no fear of doing wrong. Knife crime in London is out of control.

Years ago, in the UK you would never have heard of a child being suspended from school; now it’s a daily occurrence. Most people have no fear of God. Afterall What’s he going to do? I; am my own authority. My rights trump everyone else. I must be allowed to do what I want to do. And the state will back me up. Right or wrong.

But they forget one thing; there will be a day of judgment for every human being who lives on this planet. That judgement will be carried out by the living God of Israel. This is what Jesus Christ says 1500 years later, after the battle of Jericho; ‘I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’

We all know what happened next. God intervened in a way that made clear to everyone in Canaan that he was fighting for Israel. He demolished the massive walls of Jericho without any military means whatsoever. On the 7th day the Israelites marched around the city 7 times, blew a ram’s horn, and shouted. Instantly the wall of the city fell down flat. All except one part of the wall.

Rahab and her house were spared. In chapter 6 we are told the two spies went into the ruins and brought out Rahab, her father, her mother, her entire family and left them outside the camp of Israel. They received the protection they had been promised.

Rahab is a beautiful example of the transforming power of faith in God. Although she had few spiritual advantages and little knowledge of the truth, her heart was drawn to God. She risked her life, turning her back on a way of life that did not honour God, and walked away from everything but her closest family members. But they too came into the community of God. We never hear of Rahab again in the Old Testament. But her name comes up in the New Testament. Her name is mentioned 3 times in Hebrews and the book of James where she is held up as an Example of faith, for both men and women. Rahab’s faith was anything but dead.

But the most amazing occurrence of Rahab’s name, though in the NT is the very first time it appears. It appears on the very first page, in the very first paragraph, of the first gospel, Matthew.

Matthew begins his account of Christ’s life with a lengthy genealogy tracing the entire lineage of Jesus from the time of Abraham.

There in the list of Jesus’ ancestors’, we unexpectedly come across Rahab’s name. ‘Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David’.

It is highly unusual for women to be named in Hebrew genealogies at all. Yet in the Bible, the greatest manifesto of human rights ever written, Matthew mentions 5 women all of them notable for various reasons; Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Three of them knew what it was like to be an outcast, stigmatised because of who they were. Yet God is able to work all things together for good. Rahab was saved by God spiritually as well as physically not because of her good acts like protecting the spies.

She did not earn God’s favour by any good deeds. She is not a lesson in how to better ourselves through self-improvement. She is a reminder that God by his grace can save even the worst of offenders and turn a habitual sinner into a saint. Proving there is hope for everyone.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies,” by James Tissot, painted ca. 1896 to 1802.

Nahum The Carpenter, The Thirteenth Epistle

NIt has been almost three years since the tragic death of Isaac. Ruth and Nahum are still struggling with his death. It has affected them deeply to the point of depression. Ezra and Ezekiel have tried to console and help their parents but nothing they have done has made them feel any less remorseful.

Another contributing factor to their stress and poor health are the daily reports of mass murders of Christians in nearby towns and cities. Both the Jews, who resent the new Christian believers and the Romans who are angry that the Christians continue to state their belief in Jesus and his preachings ahead of the Roman Leaders.

Now a new fear is gripping the city of Jerusalem! There are rumors of a Roman attack on the city in the next few years. The attack will be against the Jews, but the new Christians are worried they may be part of the attack too. Many have already fled to other countries.

Nahum and his boys have discussed the possibility of an attack either by Jews or Romans. Considering their relationship with many Jewish customers and the recent non-threatening actions of the Roman soldiers they have agreed to continue living their lives as they have been for seventy years.

Nahum and family are feeling safe, but many of their friends and customers have been slaughtered by Jewish rebels as they try to eliminate the followers of Jesus.

The Jews are also shocked and angry thousands of Jews are converting to this new Christianity every day. Even in time of persecution, Jesus word is bringing in new followers.

It is fifty years since Nahum took over his fathers carpentry and leather shop. The boys believe a celebration should be held in honour of this accomplishment.

The boys have been secretly planning an event that they hope will help bring some closure to the death of Isaac and the hundreds of his followers. They also hope it will bring some happiness back into the lives of their parents.

It is a large event they are planning,  a huge amount of work and planning and even some fear of the Roman soldiers and the  Jewish rebels.  After all, Nahum was one of the mob who joined together and shouted CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM! and some of those people have remained faithful to the Jewish faith but are still customers today.

After three months of talking, checking, enquiring (secretly) and praying about their plan, they have decided to tell their wives on Saturday night of the plan.

Following dinner, Ezra asked the two ladies to join them in the sitting room where the boys presented their plan. The ladies were awe struck and for some time did not reply. After a while, Hannah looked at Elizabeth and said do you think the ladies from the Guild would be willing to help with the food. There were about fifty women in the Guild, she replied,  I am sure they would.

With that Hannah said, ok, lets do it! They all agreed they should keep it a secret from Ruth and Nahum, but should discuss it with the larger family before undertaking such a big event. They made a plan for each of them to reach out to various family members and get their approval. They are to meet again in two weeks.

Two weeks later the two couples met and exchanged the results of their respective visits. The visits all went well, and many of the visits resulted in offers to assist. Joshua said he had four large barrels of fine wine he would bring! That was an important aspect that they all smiled about.

The most important and dangerous part of the plan was the fact the event would be open for both the new Jesus people; Christians, and the Jewish community. They would also have to get the approval from Claudius and the Roman soldiers. Was this too dangerous a mix? Only time would tell.

The Christian community around this part of Jerusalem was not being persecuted by either the Jews or the Romans, however, only a few miles away there were horror stories of mass killings, tortures and persecution of the Christians. Would this Event be noticed by these factions who could easily slaughter hundreds of unarmed, innocent people.

Ezra and Ezekiel decided on a plan that would give them some assurance of a safe and danger free event. They would consult with  various people to get their reaction to the idea.

When the boys reconvened the next week, they were pleased with the responses they got from their contacts.  Ezra has spoken with some of his Jewish friends and leaders while Ezekiel visited Claudius.

They were assured from both fronts that there was no danger if they agreed to two rules.  That there be no religious activities, and no political involvement or participation. Both boys agreed this could be attained, although they were very disappointed they could not talk about their new friend Jesus, but realized the danger that could come to them if they aggravated the Romans or the Jews.  They decided to ask God for forgeiveness and forged ahead with their plans

Now it was time to get to work, and there was a lot of work for everyone. They decided they would have a meeting during one afternoon when they knew Nahum would be at home. Also, there would be no suspicions about a secret meeting held during the day.

On Thursday, fourteen people arrived at the shop. Ezekiel took the lead and presented the plans. He was supported by Ezra, Elizabeth and Hannah.

The Event would be a celebration of fifty years of Nahum The Carpenter. There would be an open invitiation to anyone and everyone. There would be food, wine, childrens games, music, horse and wagon valet service, and Ruth and Nahum would be comfortably seated where all the guests could stop by and say hello.

This brief synopsis begged many questions! Who would do the cooking? Abraham had volunteered to cook a large steer on an open pit; Elizabeth and Hannah had spoken to two local Ladies Guilds and over forty ladies would look after the remaining food. Market Man had offered to bring large baskets of fresh fruit, and of course Joshua was bringing the wine.

Who was looking after the children: Hannah and Sara had reached out to three teacher friends and they agreed to assist along with several teen agers from the local schools. What about  the horses and wagons. Here, Ezra was so proud of his “horse friends”, many had volunteered to meet the wagons and after unloading the passengers would drive the wagons to near by fields where there would be shade, water and hay for the animals. There were enough volunteers that they could take turns and still enjoy some of the festivities too.

 What about the music? This proved to be another proud moment for the two boys. First of all Ezekiel had played in a band with some of his friends. They enjoyed sacred music as well as some of the present day modern music. They would play in an area where people could listen, dance and sing as they chose. Then, the big suprise came from Sara and Hannah. They had met a young  girl, Demetra,   while at medical school in Athens. As well as training in the medical field she was also an aspiring entertainer. She followed the music of Sappho and her brother accompained her on the Lyre.  Both Hannah and Sara had attended several of her concerts while training in Athens. Although her music was primarily Greek, her beautiful voice and amazing poetry of Sappho made for wonderful musical entertainment.

When contacted by Sara  she  agreed to come if she and her brother could be given some travel expense money and a place to stay.  Hannah explained that the Medical Centre had saved enough to assist with travel expenses and Elizabeth had offered the new home that had been Miriamme and Yohanan’s apartment as a place to stay.

The participants were all nodding their approval as the couple explained their plans. Two final questions were asked: how many people did they expect, and who was  going to pay for all this? Again, the boys explained they had done some research and came up a number of 300 guests! since much of the labour was being donated, most of the costs would be assisting in paying for the food.

 The boys had prepared a budget for the purchase of the foods and to  reimburse the ladies for the purchase of vegetables etc. This would not be an issue.

On Monday Ezra and Ezekiel retraced their steps of a few weeks ago and revisited the leaders to advise them the Event was a go. Now it is time to get to work.

The photo shows, “The Widow’s Mite” by James Tissot, painted ca. 1886 to 1894.

Fake Religion

The TV programme Fake Britain is usually on in the morning. It’s quite interesting to watch. The Programme is about criminals in Britain who sell things to people like you and me, that are not real; they are fake.

It used to be that police would have raided Sunday markets like the one at Nutt’s Corner in Belfast years ago, where dodgy traders were selling off videos and cigarettes that were fake. Generally, those were the two main items.

Today There is hardly any household item that cannot be replicated as a fake. Even the new £5 notes have had to have special holograms printed on them; something the criminals have not mastered …..…yet. But they will.  Everything from Christmas tree lights, to perfume, to watches, trainers, even food can be sold as counterfeit.

Everything it seems can be a fake. Including religion. With regard to religion It’s not just fake; its counterfeit. Its looks identical; the same as the real thing. In other words, there is hardly anything on the surface that separates the counterfeit from the real thing. They both look identical.

In this parable of the wheat and the tares, or the wheat and the weeds; this is what Jesus is at pains to talk about. The tare is a type of weed.

 There are 8 parables in this chapter of Matthew and the first two have to do with soils and crops and growing.

All of them though, have to do with the Kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about the Good things concerning the kingdom as well as the Bad things.

 Jesus was a country boy and he liked telling parables about what he saw going on in the countryside and the natural world.

Growing crops like wheat in bible times and today is something vitally important for us; but so is the meaning of the parable.

 We need to understand that when the farmer sows the field with wheat, almost immediately weeds start to grow up alongside the tender shoots. These weeds are called Darnel. This weed called Darnel and immature wheat look very alike in the early stages of growth. In fact, you cannot tell them apart.

 Thankfully this is an easy parable for us to figure out, because Jesus tells us what it means. The meaning of the parable stumped the disciples, so he tells them and us what it means from verse 37. It’s pretty clear. This is what it means.

The one who sows the GOOD seed is Jesus. The field is the world. The GOOD seeds are Jesus’ true followers, the true Christians.

The weeds or the Tares are the sons of the devil. And the one who sows the weed, the enemy, is the devil. It’s not God. God does Not sow the Weeds. He sows the Good Seeds. Then comes the harvest, and the harvesters are the angels. 

It’s a straight forward parable but there are a few puzzlingly things that emerge from it.

Number 1. The Devil has a family; and His family are made up of counterfeits.

 In other words, they are imitators of the true faith. The first imitator of faith was Cain the son of Adam and Eve. In the book of Genesis, we are told He had a brother called Abel and both men were religious.  What did Cain do? He killed his own brother because he was jealous of his brother’s relationship with God.

Then when God asked Cain, where is your brother? Cain lied by saying,’ I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper. Cain was a member of the devil’s family.

 If you go on and read about some of the kings of Judah and Israel you will find they are also family members. The devil has sadly, a very large family.

In the New Testament which gets much closer to the truth; who are the next group of people we discover who belong to the devil’s family? Any ideas?

 It’s……. the Pharisees and Scribes. Now you may think they are just misguided but well-intentioned people. Not according to Jesus.

Jesus susses them out right away. He knows where they stand in relation to him; and who they stand with.

 The Pharisee and scribes were the ruling religious leaders and had been around for hundreds of years. What did they think of Jesus??

 Well After Jesus healed a demon possessed man, they said; ‘it is only by the devil, the prince of demons that this fellow drives out demons. Its only through the devil he does this.

Jesus knew where the Pharisees stood; he called them a brood of vipers several times. Vipers are poisonous snakes and can be very deadly.

After a relentless war of words, the Pharisees had waged against Jesus throughout his ministry Jesus says this about them. Reading from Matthew 23.

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.’

Pretty strong stuff. Jesus does not mince his words. It’s as well the NI Equality Commission wasn’t there to hear Jesus speak.

Jesus goes on; ‘You appear to people as righteous but, on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’

Now this is important to note; NOWHERE does Jesus ever say that if you are Not a child of God, then you are a child of the devil. He never says that. The only people he says that about are……….. the religious leaders; the Pharisees.

Jesus knows where each person stands with him. These people are members of Satan’s family and they do his bidding for him. The devil comes to us the bible says; as an angel of light, always hiding his true intentions.

You see The Pharisees appeared to others as very religious people, who prayed, tithed, carried the scriptures around with them. They looked the real deal. The rabbi’s still do to this day.

That’s the first point. The Devil is real; he exists and he has a religious family. You can see why this parable isn’t preached on very often.

The Second point is this; The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  It belongs to God; NOT the devil. The forests are his, as well as the cattle on a thousand hills. The Field in this parable is the world.

 Jesus in this parable is NOT dealing with the problem of evil in the world. This parable is NOT about evil creeping into the world.

 Jesus is dealing with a specific truth; namely and this is what this parable is all about; That wherever God plants a true child of God, the devil comes along and plants a counterfeit, who looks like the real deal. It’s a fact.

The devil is a neighbour; whether we like that or not. He lives beside us. He is in our neighbourhood.

 Jesus is the sower AND owner of the field. The earth belongs to God and the devil is a trespasser. It is NOT his world.

Many times, and with the news we hear daily we think it is. But it will never be the devil’s world and the devil knows this. And so He causes dissension, strife, wars, and rumours of wars, chaos, AND plants counterfeits. That is his MO. His Modus Operandi.

The servants wake up one day to find, weeds growing in the field alongside the good seed. Immediately they ask; ‘Where did the weeds come from.’ ‘An enemy did this’, replies Jesus.

The natural response is; the servants ask him; do you want us to go and pull them up?

 Jesus says NO; ‘because while you are pulling the weeds up, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest’. 

Surely you pull the weeds up right away; pull up these counterfeits, these distorters of the truth. You Get rid of them. Don’t you.

The fact is; Jesus is NOT worried about the weeds.

God is in control of the world. Remember the earth is the Lords. We get anxious about who will be the next prime minister, Brexit, the EU, our pension, our savings, our children, our parents, selling our home. Moving jobs.

 There will be a harvest; and it IS going to come at the end of the age. God will tell the angels Not us, to gather up the weeds, tie them in bundles and burn them.

Then HE will gather the wheat and it shall be brought into his barn. Two very different outcomes. Very Similar to how he treats the sheep and the goats later on in the book of Matthew. The sheep on his right, and the goats to his left.

The people and nations in this world are living on Substitutes. You can buy sleep and drugs, but not PEACE; you can buy entertainment but not JOY; you can buy companionship but not LOVE.

The three things the bible says are essential for living and having a good life; are Peace, Joy and Love. If you have those 3 within you; you are blessed.

People all around us are living on substitutes. They need to eat the food from God’s harvest. Instead they are eating steadily, even gorging themselves on substitutes, on counterfeits fed to them by the devil. He has blinded them to their folly.

This world for the Christian is not a playground; it’s a battle ground where we encounter all around us demonic led forces who persist in trying to deceive us and destroy us. But take heart; Jesus says; ‘I have Overcome the world’.

 Jesus is Not subject to the world; nor should his followers.

Oh, it would be great if Jesus would pull up all the weeds right now and burn them. NO; he says; but one day I will. Just Leave that to me. That’s my job.

Here’s a question for you. Why do you think he’s NOT doing it now? Why is he waiting and waiting? The time is Not right. But also…….

It’s because we have a job to do LIVING and Working among the weeds, among the tares. We have work to do for the Kingdom of God. That’s why God dosn’t pull us up and send us directly to heaven. We are to be active in the things that matter to God and not apathetic or indifferent as we live our lives. We are to be on the ball and not sleep walk into the devil’s schemes.

In his love and through his mercy he gives the weeds time to repent and believe. Some may do it; some will not. But it shows us that even with counterfeits God in his grace grants them a chance to turn from their wicked ways right up to the harvest.

God plants Christians where he wants to. He scatters them to grow for a reason or a season. You are planted where you are; in a family, in a job, in a neighbourhood, in a farm, in a church, in a village, for a reason. To live a life worthy of God. To live a God honouring life.

To grow strong and firm in faith where many around you are living on substitutes. Our lives are to be lived out differently and distinctly to those around us.

This at times can be very hard going especially when we face obstacles and setbacks along the way. Which we will. Even in our own families, as Jesus did.

Sometimes we feel like throwing the towel in. But we keep on going. We keep living among the weeds. Remember; The one who is in us; is Greater than he, who is in the world.


Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares” by John Everett Millais, painted in 1865.