Gnostic America

September 8, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Friday of Trinity 11: Jesus Takes a Side in a Reformation Debate

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified…”

If there was a question answered in this week’s Gospel, it is this: who gets to heaven justified? The punch line, after all, is “this man went down to his house justified.” Again dealing in binaries, as Jesus often does (no grey areas with Him), Jesus sets up the one who went home justified against the backdrop of the one who exalted himself, the Pharisee.

Jesus starts up the parable, of course, dealing with another question: what about these Pharisees who trust in themselves because they are righteous and despise others? But He ends on a positive note, describing not only not how to act, but how to act.

And how should we act? “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ ”

Let’s parse that.

We begin with how the publican stands afar off. There is a spacial dimension to this week’s parable that cannot be overlooked. Sufis are Islamic Gnostics, and there is a Sufi tale about a man who goes out to seek God, only to traverse miles of terrain and come to a place where he realizes God is in himself. How nice. The God of this parable is not such a God. He comes in a temple, is hidden behind a curtain, and is approached in a certain way, through priests, sacrifices, and properly followed rituals.

And that’s not just some Old Testament way of doing religion that more enlightened times transcend. No, it lays down the foundation for Jesus. If it took some four books of the Torah – the Torah! – to articulate proper worship, as much should we meditate and contemplate on the details and mysteries of the person of Christ, who is the new testament temple and fulfills every detail of the Torah. A theology that glosses over Old Testament details and acts as if they mean nothing now is a theology that also ignores the importance and mysteries of who Christ is, turning Him into a mere archetype, or cosmic messenger, or guru-like teacher. No, we have to get into the nuts and bolts of Jesus, precisely because He’s founded on the Torah’s detailed account of the temple.

And one of those details is the spacial dimension. If He is God in flesh, then He is God in location, outlined and bordered off from other things away from us. To get to God isn’t to go into ourselves because God is everywhere. It’s to go to Jesus.

Jesus is the temple, and He, as that temple described in the parable, is large enough to include the begging and the justifying. Jesus is both beggar and justified. He sighs and cries on our behalf, along with the publican. He is also justified on our behalf, ascending to God’s right hand on our behalf as our righteousness. And He sends the Holy Spirit to share with us both the begging (the Holy Spirit crying “Abba Father” in us) and the justification (the Holy Spirit confessing “Jesus is Lord” in us).

All this happens in the Church, the Holy Spirit’s creation, created where people cry “Lord have mercy” and are justified. What is it to be justified? It’s to be reckoned righteous not on account of one’s own righteousness – that is the righteousness of the Pharisee – but on account of God’s righteousness, that is, His forgiveness, love, and mercy. We’re justified not because we do something, but because God forgives us our sins, causing us to become righteous, justified, before Him.

This too centers on Christ, who ascended to the Father and is our righteousness and sanctification before the Father. This status is administered to us by the Holy Spirit through ministers, in the liturgy. After the Holy Spirit prays in us the publican’s prayer, the Kyrie, the confession, the Lord’s Prayer, we most certainly stand in God’s presence, at His very table, and are reckoned with Christ as His holy, treasured family, His dear children. This is justification.

And there is no purgatory on the way to the altar.

The Pharisee in the parable represents the very doctrine of justification Martin Luther was against in the Reformation. It was taught that we are not justified the way the tax collector was, by first humbling ourselves to the zero point, confessing our sins, and begging for mercy, and then receiving the declaration of Jesus that it was he who went home justified. Rather, it was taught that we are justified after God’s grace works with us to make us good people. What sort of people? The sort of people who do not exhort, commit adultery, or steal, but who fast and tithe.

And what sort of worship arises from both views? The latter view necessarily results in a worship which says something to the effect of, “God, I thank you that you’ve made me so good by your grace. Whatever I am I am by Your grace. Thanks for that!”

The former view results in a different kind of worship. Our involvement in the worship is always supplicatory. We are the beggars needing help. We presume nothing. Meanwhile, we confess God to be everything, our everything, our only source of hope to be anything.

Interesting, but the liturgy – which looks very much like it did in pre-Reformation – has always looked like that second way of worshiping. Unfortunately, the teaching of the Church has not always matched up with what happens liturgically. Liturgically we are the tax collector, begging for mercy and then being justified. No purgatory, just forgiveness and table fellowship, just dying, rising, and joining Christ at the feast. But somehow these doctrines crept in, and a new doctrine of justification crept in that created an incongruity between what happened liturgically and what was believed to happen theologically – you don’t die and go with Christ; you first have to sizzle in purgatory so you can be purified.

Martin Luther embraced what Jesus taught about justification. The beggar went home justified. No wonder Luther’s last words were, “We are beggars, this is true.” Beggars go home justified.

September 6, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Thursday of Trinity 11: The Pharisee’s Noble “But for the grace of God go I” Piety

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The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ ”

Think about the Pharisee. Let’s look at him from another perspective. Imagine you came across a man who was pious, had a grateful heart, who takes care of his body, and does charitable giving. You see him offering his religious services regularly – you see him quietly praying toward the front of the building. By all standards, this is the sort of fellow the world praises.

And I mean that genuinely, not in that cynical way we Christians do when we talk of the “world” with a rightly contemptuous sneer. I mean, he’s the sort of person you look up to, who at the end of his life you say, “He lived a good life; he was a good person.” Because, in fact, he is.

Furthermore, when you get into his religious outlook a bit, you find out what his piety is like. He truly is grateful to God for everything that he is. You detect a bit of elitism as he looks at those lesser than himself and says, “But for the grace of God go I.”

Finally, let’s say you were to ask him a theological, sort of out-of-the-blue, question. Let’s say you were to ask him, “Tell me about God. Do you think God is someone you should order around and command, or do you think something other of God?” He’d likely be gentlemanly enough to say something like, “I wouldn’t presume to command God anything. Whatever we get is purely God’s grace working in us. You either use that grace for good or you don’t. Some people (like me) get more grace; others less.”

Because of his importance, wealth, and influence, many would nod approvingly as the man spoke. “That’s right,” we’d say, secretly hoping our approval might align us correctly with whatever stars get people to that point of importance, wealth, and influence.

We like his theology, a theology acknowledging God as an aspect, an important aspect of a well-rounded, whole, rich life. It’s a theology similar almost to that of the Stoics. There are divine forces at work in the world. Your relationship with these divine forces is friendly, gentlemanly. “God helps those who help themselves,” is the motto. Work with these forces, not against them.

The tax collector in fact does presume to command God, to give Him an imperative. “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Consider that. The Pharisee makes not demands upon God; the tax collector does. And the latter is the one who goes home justified. God avails Himself to us as someone to be demanded of, even commanded: have mercy on me!

Who avails Himself to be commanded but one who presents Himself as a servant, which is exactly as God does. Not a fellow gentleman on our life’s journey who will help us now and then, but a servant who avails Himself to us as someone we cannot do without.

“[H]e will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them.”

“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

“I am among you as the One who serves.”

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

The Lord came to serve us in our utmost need, to save us completely. It’s how He wants us to approach Him, not as a fellow traveler in this journey called life who can help us along the way – and we appropriately thank Him when He does – but rather as the sole source of our life and salvation, without whom we’re toast, therefore we desperately cling to Him and insist on his help, because that is what He promises to give.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! The one praying that goes home justified.

September 4, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of Trinity 11: Despising Others

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Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others…

One of the bigger themes of this parable we haven’t dwelt with yet is this “despising” of others. Jesus lays down the theme in the opening words of the parable; it’s directed to those who trusted in themselves because they were righteous and despised others. Two themes: trusting in yourself because you’re righteous and despising others. And of course, half of the Pharisee’s prayer itself is about how he’s more righteous than that nasty IRS agent.

Some make this, actually, the biggest point of the parable. Generally when they do this, they’re trying to ignore the Pharisee’s doctrine of grace and justification, because it hits a bit too close to home.

Again, by way of review, the Pharisee’s example indicts two current attitudes:

First, it indicts a view of grace which yields an attitude of “I thank God how great my life is because of, well, me.” This prayer arises from a view of grace seeing God working with man. God does His bit to empower or enable us; we do our bit, after which we say, “I did it all by God’s grace.” OK. Good for you.

Second, it indicts humanism, the view that, so close are we to divine forces in our world, that we are able to identify in ourselves a genuine righteousness superceding that of others, and if only everyone gets on board my righteousness train, the world can be a better place. This, in fact, is God at work, or at least History with a capital “H” at work. Thus Hegel.

We’ve spent some time contemplating this humanistic attitude. We haven’t probed that “despising others” aspect of it. But we need to, because that’s where blood gets shed.

The Greek word for “despise” means to treat someone as nothing, to disdain them, or make light of them, or disregard them. So, we have someone who is truly righteous by human standards. He’s grateful, doesn’t steal, knows justice, is faithful to his spouse, has a good diet and gives to charity. He’s mindful, spiritual, and full of wellness, the very incarnation of every painting at any hospital built in recent years. More than that, he acknowledged that divine forces got him to that point. So, if God is empowering him to such great things, surely God must not be favoring the poor tax collector. Surely this one is someone to look down at.

Is that how it works? Are those on whose side God is working to look down on those on whose side God is clearly not working? Let’s suppose so, and see where it takes us.

Well, to begin with, the only way we can maintain that God is clearly not working with a group of people is to maintain a sort of elitism, or understanding of election. The Gnostics held this view, as do the Calvinists.

Gnosticism claimed there were “spiritual ones” who received gnosis, while on the other side of the spectrum were the earthly ones, who were basically piles of mud and clay devoid of any spirit whatsoever. Their destiny is dirt, and if this material world is just an illusion, surely they are as well, truly something to look at and treat as nothing. There’s certainly no “love your neighbor” here, that is, embracing your fellow man as a human being made in God’s image, one for whom Christ died. No, elements of this world order only serve as archetypal echoes of deeper truths, flat symbols in my personal psychodrama. The tax collector represents “the man,” an icon to be despised – “even as this tax collector.” Doesn’t he have a name, Mr. Pharisee?

And then, because God is on your side, but not on the other side, and in fact the other side is something to be despised, well, what do you do with “nothing people” at a political level? If God is truly behind history, moving it to His ends, and that God is on your side, then you represent God’s impulse in history getting the world to a better place, a place more like you, full of goodness and divinity, and a place less like those other people. What do you do with those other people? The communists and fascists – both movements “relying on the righteousness of their cause” like the Pharisee – had an answer to this question in the showers and gulag.

Calvinism is a world apart from these nefarious ends but is actually on the same branch in the family tree of philosophical movements. Millenarian movements almost always have some understanding of the “chosen elect” as God’s instruments of political change. The Puritans are a familiar example of this. Other millenarian movements in the Middle Ages demonstrate the same vibe, and several of these movements were totalitarian in nature. But for the lack of technology, they’d have had their showers and gulags as well.

Millenarian movements always have their witches to burn, their “lesser than we”’s to despise. Why? Because God is not with them as He is with us.

Jesus teaches something else. First off, against Calvinism, He teaches He is for all people, not just the elect; He died for all people. The doctrine of election isn’t a doctrine of exclusion, but of grace; that is, the purpose of the doctrine isn’t for us to ask nervously, “Am I elect?” but to say, “Hallelujah! I am elect in Christ from the foundation of the world!” Christ is the “elect one,” and those in Him are therefore elect. Christ died for all, fills all things, and saves the world, so the one not elect is the one who rejects Him. Those in Him by faith are elect, chosen from the foundation of the world. Why some reject Him while others receive Him by faith is a question we leave to God’s wisdom.

Second, He teaches love of enemies, not despising of them. Love of enemies is premised in the truth that all people are made in God’s image. To despise the poor, says a Proverb, is to despise his Maker. Given that God has made all people and redeemed all people, there is no “He’s working in me but not in thee.” There is not a single person about whom a Christian should not hope for his salvation.

Third, there is a doctrine of original sin. To presume that one’s righteousness can be the basis for despising others ignores the truth that even our righteous deeds are as filthy rags. Sure, one can be righteous by human standards and in fact be a pretty good guy, but before God something more is needed. He needs dirt to work with; He needs people who cast themselves before Him as nothing – not looking at their personal righteousness but looking at how much they fall short. Such as these the Lord builds into a new creation.

As St. Paul wrote, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.”

Yes, God has “chosen…the things which are despised…the things which are not.” Why? To bring to nothing the likes of the Pharisee and the mindful wellness spiritualizers who have no need for Christ or His Church. No flesh – like the Pharisee – should glory in God’s presence. No flesh should glory in his Self in the face of ultimate meaning. When facing such things – God that is, the ultimate meaning – a different attitude is called for.

As St. Paul continues, “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.’ ”

If Christ is our righteousness – the righteousness of the despised – the prayer of the Pharisee becomes impossible.

September 3, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Tuesday of Trinity 11: The Pharisee’s Humanist Religion

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“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ “

How literal do we want to go with “went up to the temple to pray”? In other words, is Jesus setting up the context to be about Christian vs. Jewish religiosity? Or, as a parable, is it more about spirituality in the newly christened Church: Who are the “Pharisees” of the Church and how can we avoid being like that? Or again, is Jesus being more cosmic? There are two ways of being, of existing, of posturing oneself before the ultimate meaning of the world.

I think it’s a cosmic point with particular applications in all other contexts. I think this is the only way to see genuine application of the parable in the world today.

The Pharisee represents those who “rely on themselves” because they are righteous. That is, there is a genuine righteousness which humans are capable of doing. Those who live a good life, make good decisions, treat others well, are faithful to their spouses, eat well, and give to charity certainly have a righteousness; they have a healthy attitude of gratitude toward God. Read any book on wellness, mindfulness, and spirituality, and you will see each of these “righteous” behaviors addressed in some way or another.

This is clearly the meaning of “spirituality” in the world today. One’s notions on God and spirit are simply tools in the toolbox of ones “resiliency” and ability to handle life. It’s really all about the Self, the actualization of the Self or whatever. It’s all about you achieving your personal goals, and according to the wellness or mindfulness guru, you need a healthy spirituality to that end. You have to “rely” or “trust” in your own resources.

The Church hasn’t been helpful in this regard either, and here’s where there is application of the parable in the context of the Church. On one hand, there are Medieval doctrines of grace that sound an awful lot like the Pharisee’s prayer: God infuses us with grace through the Sacraments to the end that we might be loving; in other words, at the end of the day we can literally say, “Thank you, O Lord, for making me such a good person who gives to charity, fasts, treats others well, and is faithful to my wife.”

On the other hand, it’s difficult to walk through the aisles of the modern Church and not stumble over the words “empower” or “enable” peppering the sermons and mission statements. The idea is that the Gospel is all about “empowering us to do X, Y, and Z,” X, Y, and Z being whatever action the leadership wants the congregation to pursue. Well, at the end of the day when you’ve done X, Y, and Z, what sort of prayer do you have? “Lord, I thank you that you have empowered me to be such a good person who tithes, fasts, treats others well, and is faithful to my wife.”

In both instances, God is the means to an end, the divinized, perfected Self. Reliance is ultimately upon one’s own person. Well, if God is the means to an end, it shouldn’t surprise us if the God getting us to that end can take on different forms. Mindfulness, spirituality, energy fields, higher powers can all get you to that end. Whatever it takes, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all about you, so that you can “trust in yourself.”

The Pharisee is an emblem of the humanistic religion. He is an emblem of the divinization of Self. It’s the Gnostic heresy all over again, the discovering of God in the inner regions of Self, something to trust in. Even the Pharisee’s posture in the temple – marching up to the front, standing up – demonstrates a supposed affinity with the divinity, like the line between him and God is awfully fuzzy.

Jesus levels this understanding of God. If we learn anything in this parable, we learn God is far from being us. The publican keeps his distant – God and him are not the same! He doesn’t lift up his eyes – God is something “other” to make him tremble! And he begs, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Lord and sinner are twain which shall not meet, unless the former has mercy on the latter.

Of course, Jesus is the temple, the fulfillment of the temple. In Him, the temple, is where we who beg for God’s mercy receive the benefits of a high priest who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins. In Him, the temple, we are brought near to God. And as we leave Him, the temple, the Church, we go home justified.

September 3, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Monday of Trinity 11: Humanist Righteousness vs. Nagged-For Righteousness

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Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.

On the heels of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, we get some context about what’s going on behind this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. For just prior to this parable, Jesus taught the parable of the persistent widow, concluding with these words, “shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”

His encouragement is to “cry out day and night” to God – God will eventually answer. However, Jesus ominously adds, will He find such faith when He returns? Will He find the sort of faith that cries out day and night to God?

And then immediately we learn, “also” He teaches a parable about those who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and despise others. The “also” gives some connection to what preceded it. Will Jesus find the sort of faith that cries day and night to God when He returns? Well, we see that sort of faith in the tax collector who beats his breast and cries out to God, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” As the woman cried for vengeance against her enemies, the tax collector is crying out for vengeance against his enemy, sin, or even himself (which is why he beats himself).

But the Pharisee trusted in himself. He had confidence in himself, relied on himself. Why? Because he was righteous. This is how not to pray. This is the opposite of “crying out night an day.” How so? Because crying out night and day flows from a heart at the zero point. Crying out night and day ascends from spiritual poverty, from a spirit which has lost all personal resources. He doesn’t claim power; he doesn’t claim ability; he doesn’t claim strength; he doesn’t claim righteousness. He cries out “Lord, have mercy,” or “Avenge me” because he himself cannot do it on his own.

What does it mean to “rely on yourself that, or because, you’re righteous”? If we parse the Pharisee’s prayer, we get an answer. First off, I think it makes more sense to render the translation, “trusted in (or relied on) themselves because they were righteous” rather than “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” I think the end result is the same, but the first translation is more clear. It rests on the translation of the conjunction “hoti” which can be either “that” or “because.”

If we go with “that they were righteous,” the sense is, “The Pharisees believed they could be righteous on their own.” If we go with “because they were righteous,” the sense is, “The Pharisees relied on themselves because they were righteous.” The first translation carries into it some Reformation thinking that might be anachronistic: “The Pharisees established a righteousness of their own; that is the problem.” The second translation grants that the Pharisees were, in fact, righteous, but this righteousness led them to “rely” on themselves instead of placing themselves completely in God’s mercy.

And in fact, Jesus often speaks this way of the Pharisees, that they were indeed righteous. “I did not come for the righteous, but for sinners.” Or again, “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  And I don’t think He means this ironically in the traditional sense of the word, as if we should put quote marks on “righteous,” because, after all, no one is truly righteous.

But there might be something we could call divine irony. There is human righteousness and divine righteousness; the Pharisees relied on one sort of righteousness, and we are taught to rely on another. In this week’s parable, we get a wonderfully succinct demonstration of the difference between the two.

The righteousness of the Pharisee turns God simply into a means to an end, the end being his personal righteousness – fasting, tithing, not committing adultery or extortion. The Pharisee is grateful to God for His help in getting him to this point. God as means to an end.

The righteousness of the tax collector defers completely to God. If there is a righteousness, it comes not at all from the actions of the tax collector, but in what is given to him by virtue of the fact that he claimed nothing for himself. He “went home justified,” which is a concept in the etymological universe of “righteousness,” meaning, “he went home reckoned righteous by God.” We could call the passive sense here a “divine passive.” God is no means to an end, but the only end, leading the tax collector to place himself completely in his mercy. Much like the persistent widow as well relative to the unjust judge.

Note as well, we get a hint of two different kinds of righteousness going on with this preceding parable. The judge was unjust; yet, the woman got justice from him. Justice and being unjust, again, are from the same etymological universe as “righteousness” and “justified.” We’re dealing with issues of righteousness before the judge here. In any event, we note that the woman was not going to get justice from the judge on the basis of his righteousness. Put another way, Jesus is taking issues of justice and righteousness out of the realm of typical rules. He’s breaking the rules. (Much like in the Parable of the Shrewd Steward.)

The new rules grant justice and righteousness on the basis of something else. Those who “nag” the judge with their empty, impoverished selves, in a sense, create a realm of grace – even an unjust, irreligious judge will have grace given the reality created by the woman’s nagging! Is that what faith is? Like the Canaanite woman, is great faith a faith which insists, by sheer force of prayer, that God be gracious? Even if that may not be ontologically correct – God is gracious because that is what He is, not what we make Him to be – perhaps it’s not a bad way to look at faith. After all, much of our liturgical prayer life is telling the Lord to be merciful, to receive our prayer, to forgive us, to grant us peace, and so on.

Jesus precedes this week’s parable saying, “Will He find faith on earth when He returns?” He wants a faith that insists on God being merciful, that goes “all in” on the notion that God will be merciful. The typical faith of the Pharisee, the one seeing God as, yes, having a role in one’s salvation, but really it operates by typical rules of righteousness – I don’t lie, cheat, steal, or commit adultery; and I do my religious obligation – falls short.

Given that the time is short, it shouldn’t surprise us if we see faith declining – Jesus kind of suggests its inevitability. Will He find faith when He returns? It shouldn’t surprise us if we see faith of the sort that the Pharisee had, a humanistic faith, a faith reliant on the Self and the power of people to make a change, or change the world. Sure, God may have some role in that – We should all have mindfulness and spirituality after all, right? Giving to charity and having a good diet are good for our wellness. – but ultimately we rely on ourselves. The Pharisees paved the way. And on human terms, what they represent looks so responsible and healthful.

The widow, the tax collector, and the child (who comes up in the Gospel after this parable) change the rules. Righteousness and healthfulness will be on other terms. It’s the naggers of God, the criers, the beats of self, the spiritually poor, and the mentally infirm (children) who know nothing other than their need for God. That’s the sort of faith Jesus wants to find. For such as these will not be denied the grace they insist on having. It’s truly a faith that moves mountains.

September 1, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: Pharisee vs. Publican, “Empowering Grace” vs. Real Grace

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This week’s Gospel is sandwiched by two wonderful teachings on faith that round out the themes brought up in the Gospel itself. Prior to the Gospel is Jesus’ teaching on prayer, using the parable of the persistent widow. After the Gospel is Jesus’ blessing of the little children, saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”

In both the persistent widow and the child, you see foreshadows and echoes of the publican who raises not his head. The persistent widow is persistent because she has no resources of her own to defeat her enemies. The child shows how to enter the kingdom of God because more than anyone he recognizes his dependency on a parent. The publican too went to church recognizing his absolute dependency and spiritual poverty in the face of his enemy, which in his case, was sin.

Not so the Pharisee. “I” drives his entire prayer. “I” is the subject of a prayer with a lot of action verbs. By contrast the Publican’s first person reference is a passive “me.” He’s the one acted on, not the one doing the action.

But lets look at the Pharisee some more. He’s a sneaky one. Because if you look, he’s quite grateful. He has a God-directed piety. He begins his prayer, after all, saying, “God, I thank you.” He has a doctrine of grace, for you don’t thank God for things if you don’t believe He’s giving you something.

What was his doctrine of grace? It’s what he thanked God for. God had enabled him, empowered him, strengthened him to be better than others. God had infused him with the grace to be a cut above the rest, to tithe and to fast. Today he might say, “I give God all the glory for all the blessings in my life. God has been good to me. I’m still married to my wife. I have a good job. I don’t have any major problems with my children. I see others and all their problems, but by God’s grace I’ve been spared that!”

Hmmm.

This is not the example Jesus gives here. Widows, sinners, children. Spiritually poor. These are they who live at the zero point. The one who would go home justified will find that log in his eye, and fall to his knees, beating his breast, seeking the Lord’s mercy. There is not a day goes by that we don’t need God’s mercy.

Jesus warns against “trusting in yourself” that we are righteous. He also gives as an example a subtle way we can “trust in ourselves” that we are righteous, even as we mask it in piety. The good example is the one who beats himself, beats his breast. In some traditions, the Roman Catholic especially but in others, there is a beating of the breast during public confession, three times. It’s a good reminder.

It’s not those “enabled” or “empowered” to be good who are righteous, who can thank God for how good they are, but those at the zero point, who cannot lift up their eyes to heaven. These are the ones who go home justified, or, who are declared righteous by our Lord.

September 1, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Saturday of Trinity 10: The Visitation

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“…because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

To be visited by the Lord is almost always a good connotation, as in the prophet Jeremiah, “They shall be carried to Babylon, and there they shall be until the day that I visit them,’ says the LORD. ‘Then I will bring them up and restore them to this place.’ ” Or again, from Psalms, “Remember me, O LORD, with the favor You have toward Your people. Oh, visit me with Your salvation.”

When the Lord comes, it’s to save His people. Yes, He’s coming as a judge, but there’s a reason why the household of faith “lifts up their heads.” It’s because the day of Christ’s return is a day of salvation, when the Lord will save us from our enemies, sin, death, and the devil. It’s not a day of fear and “judgmentalism.” Those that look to Christ for salvation will not be let down.

It is only in this context that Jesus’ use of the word today makes sense and explains why He weeps. Jerusalem did not know the time of its visitation. They didn’t know the time in which God was coming down to visit His people. That is, they did not believe in Jesus as the incarnate messiah. Because they did not, they would not receive their salvation, but only get judgment through the Roman army.

St. Luke’s Gospel especially works with the “visitation” idea. Already in the Benedictus, Zachariah’s canticle of praise at John the Baptist’s birth, we hear of God’s “visitation.”

“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people.” God has visited His people, to redeem them. Incarnation and crucifixion both are suggested in his words.

He goes on, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us.” Again, there’s the incarnation: “you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.” It’s none other than God visiting us.

But there’s more. God visits us with tender mercy, manifest in the remission of sins, of which John gives knowledge. How? Through his baptismal ministry: “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Baptism is where the Dayspring from on high visits us and instructs us in the remission of sins.

The Greek word form which “visitation” comes is episkope, very closely related to the word for “overseer” or “bishop” (with which the word is etymologically related). As such it has a sense of “to look over” or “to cast ones eyes over.” Interesting that we began our meditation on this week’s passage considering how the “sight” of Jerusalem triggered Jesus to cry.

Our God is no Gnostic, Islamic, or Deistic God. He’s not “out there.” As much as the Neoplatonist monastics wanted to fold into their theology this notion of the “out there” God who’s so far above our thoughts and cannot be contained by words, and as much as the modern evangelicals express their piety in a “not boxed in” God, our Lord is actually quite near, quite boxed in, quite approachable. He “visits” us; He’s triggered to cry by sights. No abstractions in him; no broad generalities. Individual people, cities, and times move Him.

And in our day, He still visits us, in the way foretold of John the Baptist long ago. By baptism, by turning away from sin and towards the font. There we meet a God who comes to visit us, for wherever His name is invoked, there He is present to save. How wonderful to know the day of our visitation. How wonderful for these things not to be hidden from us. How wonderful not to be a trigger for our Lord’s weeping, but for His rejoicing.

 

 

September 1, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Friday of Trinity 10: Jewish Millenarianism and the Fall of Jerusalem

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“For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another…”

Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them. Well, in this passage, Israel’s enemies end up building an embankment around them, surrounding them, leveling them to the ground, with their children. The temple is leveled stone by stone. How did Israel’s enemies get to that point?

They got to that point because Israel was not praying for their enemies, but rebelling against them. Christianity ended up toppling the Roman Empire and, for good or for ill, replacing it with its own governance and authority. And this because it revolutionized culture with a different message that was compelling.

Arguably that revolutionary message is still revolutionizing things, insofar as wherever Christianity goes it changes the hearts and minds making up the political culture, softening the world’s it “invades” as far as slavery, women’s rights, brutality, punishment, and treatment of foreigners goes.

But the Jews in Jesus’ day wanted a different sort of revolution. They wanted a military one. Therefore they were a legitimate threat. Where Christians changed the world by being good neighbors, paying their taxes, and praying for the leaders – hardly a political threat! – the militant Jews were indeed a great threat, because they sought a military expulsion of the Roman Empire from Israel.

They were millenarians. Millenarians are a species of Gnostic who are bit more worldly in their outlook. Millenarians fused together the horizontal dualism of apocalyptic Christianity and the vertical dualism of Gnosticism.

What is the horizontal dualism of apocalyptic Christianity? It’s the “now, not yet” idea. That is, “now” we live by faith in a fallen world, but “yet” there shall come, when Jesus returns, a restored world. “Now” we live by faith, with the “yet” hidden from us. But for some, like St. John, that “yet” becomes unhidden, hence “apocalyptic.” (Apocalypse means “unhidden.”)

Gnostics teach a vertical dualism. There is “down here,” which is a deficient echo of a higher existence, something we ought to escape. And then there is the “up there,” the realm of oneness into which gnosis helps us escape. Whereas in Christianity faith is the necessary faculty needed to keep our hearts anchored on the world to come while living in this fallen world, in Gnosticism, gnosis can get you immediate “resurrection.”

Note, you don’t need a body for resurrection in Gnosticism, because it’s purely a resurrection of the spirit. That fits their rejection of the flesh in general, their view of it as essentially corrupt. By contrast, in Christianity, you cannot have resurrection without a body. The body is needed. Thus, we have to await the resurrection in time before we can fully enjoy the resurrection.

Millenarians fuse both dualisms. They believe you can have immediate salvation, in the flesh, now. It’s what philosopher Erik Voegelin called the “imminentizing of the eschaton,” which is a complicated phrase meaning, “what should be delayed to Christ’s return can become manifest now.”

Christ’s return isn’t so much a bodily return in time – Jesus is at the right hand, and one day will reveal Himself from God’s right hand and inaugurate the world to come – but more a spiritual one. The messiah isn’t so much a bodily person as he is a spirit of the people, which may have a messianic spokesperson or shaman-type “leader,” but in the end is more a movement than a person.

As we’ve meditate on before, this is the spirit of Antichrist, the leaking out of Christ from His flesh and blood and reconstitution in political movement.

This spirit permeated Jerusalem in the first century. They firmly believed God was endowing their nation with His divinity, so that they could reestablish the messianic kingdom on earth, as it was in David’s day. For that misunderstanding, they were slaughtered.

The truth was hidden from them, because they refused to recognize in Jesus the true fulfillment of the kingdom of God. It is not of this world. It’s a spiritual kingdom, of faith, in a world to come. Its fruits in this world come not by political or military means, but by subtle shifts in cultural attitude, as stated above. Where did slavery end first? Where did women’s rights first begin to be respected? Where did abortion and infanticide first end? Which culture first ended gladitorial contests? On and on we could go.

Many think, because of the philosopher Hegel, that Christianity was just a necessary stage in the development of a more humanist “consciousness,” and even now, we’re seeing consciousness transcending Christianity. Christianity, in other words, was a temporary crutch to move us to the next stage of human evolution.

That’s quite a wager. The fact is, the day divinity is no longer seen as the sole possession of the Person of Jesus Christ, that is the day millenarianism arises, because now divinity is seen as the possible possession of any person or movement. And wherever that happens, bloodshed happens.

Jesus does God best; He bleeds. When others do God, others bleed. That could be the divinized ones themselves – killed off by the superior forces who fear their insurrection – or worse, it could be the victims of the divinizers who believe their advent is ushering in a new age, and all who get in their way must be eliminated. We’ve seen the results of that sort of millenarianism in the showers and in the gulag.

If only people knew who, what, where, and when is the day of their visitation. It’s Jesus Christ, in His Church, Who comes by Word and Sacrament, whenever that is going on, but usually Sunday. If only they knew, they would be spared much bloodshed.

August 29, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Thursday of Trinity 10: The Hidden Mystery

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“But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

When Jesus cried over Jerusalem, He said, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

You can only know things that are revealed. You cannot know who Abraham Lincoln is if no one teaches it, either in person or through some media like a book or screen. Short of that, Abraham Lincoln is “hidden.”

“Are hidden” is passive. The question is, does this remove culpability from Jerusalem. In other words, imagine purchasing a major gift for the birthday of someone you love. Imagine on the day of your birthday, for whatever reason, you couldn’t give that present to them until the end of the day. Now, imagine that person being upset and angry because they’ve gotten no presents for their birthday, because you have hidden it from them. As they sulk, upset and angry, you’re thinking, “If only you know the things that would give you peace! Just wait!”

Is that the tone Jesus is using? It easily fits the context and in fact the passive nature of the “hidden things” suggests it.

If we go down this path, we could fall into the dispensationalist idea that in God’s plan, He purposely caused Israel to reject Him, because in the end He was going to bring them back. So Jesus isn’t bemoaning their rejection of Him so much as the sad dispensation in their history.

On the other hand, we could look at “are hidden” in a Gnostic sense, like, Israel’s “third eye” was blind to the inner truth going on around them. All are born blind, and only those with gnosis – who are woke – can “see” the truth surrounding them. Is this what Jesus meant? There could be some support for this. St. Paul talks of the “veil” on the heart of Israel, and Jesus repeatedly speaks of Israel saying things like, “Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.”

It is the Holy Spirit who removes the veil and enlightens our hearts, so that seems to go along with the passive sense of “are hidden.” Why are things hidden from Israel? Why do they not know the day of their visitation? Why does Jesus weep? Because the Holy Spirit hasn’t enlightened them.

So, either we have to deal with the idea that the Lord didn’t open Israel’s eyes for Gnostic reasons – because opened eyes are only a gift for a select elite – or for dispensationalist reasons – because the Lord has a season of darkness planned for Israel, putting them on the backburner while He cooks up the “Church Age.”

In any event, it makes Jesus’ weeping somewhat suspect. If He’s orchestrating their rejection in some big plan, sure it’s sad, but the tone of His weeping wouldn’t be, “If only you know the things that make for your peace,” but rather, “Just hang in there guys and understand this is all part of a bigger plan.”

There’s a better explanation, that is, of the paradox of the Lord weeping over something passively happening to Israel. We can use a passage quoted above to probe the issue.

When Jesus told the parables, and concluded – “Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.” – remember this significant deal: the disciples were just as part of this rebuke as Israel! The same sense is going on when after the feeding of the 4,000, they were in the boat discussing the leaven of the Pharisees. The disciples thought Jesus was talking about lack of bread, and not something else. So Jesus says, “Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?”

So what is the difference between Israel not knowing, and the disciples not knowing? Well, in the case of the parable, the disciples eventually came to know once Jesus explained the parable. And in the case of the discussion in the boat, Jesus there too explained what He meant.

The point is, the difference between the disciples not knowing and Israel not knowing is, the disciples stuck with Jesus! They continued following Him. Every day they took up their cross, including the cross of their ignorance, and kept following Jesus.

And that is ultimately what Jesus rebuked Israel for. They rejected Him. But furthermore, their rejection denied them the opportunity for mysteries to become revealed, or unhidden.

To those who follow Him, He promises, “Seek and you will find.” How many thing remain hidden to us, just as they were hidden to the disciples. But we are promised that this will be revealed to us. It’s exactly as St. Paul said to the Philippians: “Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.” He said this in the context of saying each day he presses forward toward perfect knowledge, not looking back but always looking forward, all so that, as St. Paul said, “I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.”

There are non-believer hidden things, over which Jesus weeps, and believer hidden things, about which Jesus may rebuke, but ultimately says, “Keep on following Me, and you will find.” Evidently, by 70 AD, when Rome sacked Jerusalem, the Christians’ eyes were wide open. For the ancient church historian Eusebius tells us, “The whole body, however, of the church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella.”

Epiphanes (albeit a Gnostic) also remarks, “It is very remarkable that not a single Christian perished in the destruction of Jerusalem, though there were many there when Cestius Gallus invested the city; and, had he persevered in the siege, he would soon have rendered himself master of it; but, when he unexpectedly and unaccountably raised the siege, the Christians took that opportunity to escape. …”

This is probably the only time in these devotions a Gnostic will be quoted positively!

To follow Jesus is to find, to have mysteries revealed, to be enlightened. We talk of the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit. There’s a tendency to look at this in a Gnostic sense, as some sort of “inner light” that flicks on in a moment of epiphany. In actuality, the example we get from Scripture of how enlightenment works, is it’s simply a necessary fruit of following Jesus, which itself is a faith act, an act of recognizing in Jesus who He truly is, God in flesh. It’s a fruit, meaning it doesn’t necessary come in spurts, but in growths, like St. Paul’s pressing forward and leaving each old day behind.

It took forty years after Jesus spoke His words about Jerusalem until they finally were fulfilled. That’s a lot of time for Jesus’ words to grow in the disciples so that they were ready for what happen in 70 AD. This is a time frame equivalent to Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. From hidden to revealed in forty years. What forty year plan of enlightenment, of understanding of His Word, is the Lord working for any one of us?

August 28, 2019
by Peter Burfeind
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Wednesday of Trinity 10: Jesus Weeps over His Wife

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“If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”

Jesus addresses Jerusalem in the second person singular. He’s talking to a single unit, a city. So much is going on with this seemingly insignificant detail. Too bad we can’t just call it poetic license and leave it at that. Unfortunately the Bible is a big book and there’s a lot of heft going on behind Jesus’ linguistic choices.

First off there’s the personification of Jerusalem, something that happened all the time in the Old Testament. The phrase “O Jerusalem” comes up fifteen times in the Old Testament, twice in the New (although it’s the same event described in two Gospels). Then there’s the phrase “daughter of Jerusalem” or “daughters of Jerusalem” that come up fourteen times, particularly in the Song of Solomon.

Second, building off the personification of Jerusalem, is the idea that Jerusalem is the bride of the Lord. The phrase “daughters of Jerusalem” and its usage in Song of Solomon has most often been interpreted as God’s love song to His bride, His people, symbolized by Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah says, “For Zion’s sake I will not hold My peace, And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, Until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, And her salvation as a lamp that burns. …as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So shall your God rejoice over you.”

The whole book of Hosea is an parable of how Israel, God’s wife, committed adultery with him and her children are the children of harlotry. Of course, it’s for this reason St. John writes of the “New Jerusalem” in this way: “Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

More theologically, there are a few points to make about how the Lord deals with His people collectively.

The Lord dealing with us collectively goes hand in hand with the entire, objective nature of the Gospel. The ark was an objective thing in which those saved collectively gathered. The Passover was a collective event in which those saved participated collectively. So also the crossing of the Red Sea and the manna from heaven.

The Lord, when He came forth on the Passover to slay the firstborn, didn’t look at resumes of the people; He looked at one thing – lamb’s blood. Ham and Shem may have tussled, argued, swore at each other, lied about whether they fed the lions, and lusted at each other’s wives; still the ark floated on above the waters.

Some in the Gospel had little faith – disciples even! Others doubted, were skeptical, or weak in faith. The disciples fell asleep due to the weakness of the flesh. One person didn’t even have faith, and Jesus still saved him! Here, as with the ark, the Passover, the manna, and ultimately the whole nation of Israel, Jesus is an objective Savior, collectively saving us, and we who are saved participate in that salvation collectively.

The point is, when you look at the collective nature of the Gospel, you’re forced to focus on its objective marks. Just as yesterday we contemplated how Jerusalem bore the judgment collectively – without regard to the goodness or badness of any individual Jew – so today we focus on the same thing but from a different angle. The Lord deals with us collectively.

We call that the Church. The Church is the institutional manifestation of the truth that, we do not do the faith, but the faith does us. It’s the “Our” of the Our Father. The “we” of the Nicene Creed. The faith is like the pallet with the lame man carried by the four men. Jesus looked at the faith of the four men and then said to the individual lame man, “Your sins are forgiven.” It’s a collective thing.

Church has been defined differently by different denominations, but perhaps the most basic foundation about which every Christian can agree is that, Church is what arises from the principle that Christians submit their selves to something higher, bigger, and more transcendent than their individual selves.

Some evangelical traditions actually try to define the church on individualistic terms – it’s what happens as any given Christian personally inspired by the Holy Spirit brings his worship along with others doing the same thing, and I guess we sort of feel our way through that mess. “I feel like the Spirit’s telling me to say this…but oh wait, Billy Bob has a message from the…now what’s Martha doing up at the piano??”

This is why the “House church” movement doesn’t have legs, and if they do, there will certainly arise a “leader” who will assume the mantle of that church’s ethos or numinousness. But the true Church will always have ordained ministers, which is different than leaders. Leaders assume the mantle of group’s numinousness; ministers assume the mantle of Christ. They are “ordered” into it and are committed to an objective standard, even as Christ’s teaching and ministry is objectively standardized in the Gospel.

Jesus assumes a collectivity as regards His people in this week’s Gospel. He addresses them as a single person, His bride. And how wonderful is this. Our zeal goes up and down; our sinfulness wanes and waxes; our personalities place us all over the map. Thankfully Christianity is not for a particular form of zealousness, a certain standard of moral perfection, or a given type of personality. It’s for those in the collective known as “the body of Christ.”

Baptism gets us into that body. Faith governs that body (yes, collectively, but that trickles down into subjective manifestations of course.) And objective words administer that body…and blood…for us.