Thursday, December 07, 2006

children sitting in the market

I came across some interesting remarks in Bl. Theophylact the other day. He writes regarding Matt 11:
16-17. But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the market, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. It is the malcontent nature of the Jews that He is speaking of here. For as they were cantankerous, neither John's asceticism nor Christ's simplicity pleased them. they were like foolish little children who are never satisfied--whether one cries for them or plays the pipe for them, they are not pleased.

18-19. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a drunkard, a friend of publicans and sinners. He compares John's way of life to mourning, for John showed great severity both in words and deeds, and His own life on earth He compares to piping, that is, to the sound of the flute. For the Lord was most gracious and pleasing, condescending to all that He might win all, bringing the good tidings of the kingdom, and He was not severe in appearance as was John. But Wisdom is justified by her children. . . . For I, on My part, have done everything, yet you, by your refusal to believe, prove that I Who omitted nothing am justified.
What interests me here is how the idea can extend (cautiously) to the response I've seen in some Evangelicals when confronted with Orthodox theology. Now, I want to say up front that I'm not trying to equate any Evangelical's response to Orthodoxy with the response of the Jews to Jesus. There is at least a quantitative difference, if not a qualitative one. But I do think there is an analogy that's worth teasing out. The response I've sometimes seen is this. When faced with Orthodoxy's emphasis on a changed life, judgment according to our deeds, etc., they say it is too legalistic and demands of humans what they can never do--to earn salvation by their own efforts. On the other hand, when faced with the suggestion that a person who was never Christian, never part of the Church, perhaps explicitly disavowed Christianity in life, could get to the judgment, stand before Christ, truly know him for the first time, respond with love, and be allowed into heaven, they say it smacks of universalism and leaves things too wide open.

It seems to me that there's some kind of correlation between these divergent responses and those outlined here. John showed a life of severity and asceticism--the need for radical repentance before God's judgment. The Jews looked at him and saw a demon-possessed man. Jesus showed a life of condescension and radical fellowship--loving everyone who came to him, regardless of their background. The Jews called him a glutton and friend of sinners. With our human perception, we might look at the situation and say, they were sensible, balanced people who realized moderation is necessary in all things. They didn't take up with extremists, whether wild-eyed lunatics of the desert or lax, liberal, touchy-feely reformers. And in so doing, we would get the whole situation backward. The truth was not to be found in the safe, middle ground. It was in the living tension between radical asceticism and radical love. Like so many other things about God, we can't be reductionist on this issue. We have to accept the mystery of the apparent contradiction. Sure, one extreme or the other by itself is imbalanced. That's precisely why we need both.

Now let's come back to the Evangelical response to Orthodoxy. A sensible, balanced human might say, extreme legalism is not good, nor is extreme openness to let everyone come in, and search for something in the middle. But in this case, as in the other, the outcome would be wrong. It is the tension between the two poles that leads us to the truth that otherwise eludes our grasp. Orthodoxy is not too legalistic, although if it spoke only of works it would be. Neither is it too loosey-goosey, although if it spoke only of love and welcome it would be. The two apparent extremes actually complement each other. Radical obedience is expected, but only when a loving God has already opened his arms wide to receive those who love him. He redeems them so that they can change into the people they were meant to be. Radical welcome is extended, but only to those who have lived in love toward Christ, whether they knew who he was or not, and who respond accordingly when they meet him face to face.

This might seem like a harsh indictment, to associate Evangelicals (at least, those who respond to Orthodoxy in this way) with what Jesus says here. And when I first noticed it, I was hesitant to follow up on the correlation for fear of going too far. I think it's safe enough, though, if you keep reading into Bl. Theophylact's remarks on chap. 12:
31-32. Wherefore I say unto you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in the age to come. . . . When the Jews saw the Lord eating and drinking, associating with publicans and harlots, and doing all the other things He did as the Son of Man, then they slandered Him as a glutton and drunkard; yet for this they deserve forgiveness, and not even repentance will be required. For they were understandably scandalized. But when they saw Him working miracles and were slandering and blaspheming the Holy Spirit, saying that it was something demonic, how will this sin be forgiven them, unless they repent? So, then, know that he who blasphemes the Son of Man, seeing Him living as a man, and says that He is a friend of harlots, a glutton, and a drunkard because of those things which Christ does, such a man will not have to give an answer for this, even if he does not repent. For he is forgiven, as he did not realize that this was God concealed. But he who blasphemes the Holy Spirit, that is, the spiritual deeds of Christ, and calls them demonic, unless he repents, he will not be forgiven. For he does not have a reasonable excuse to slander, as does the man who sees Christ with harlots and publicans and then slanders.
So their reaction in chap. 11 was bad, but it was understandable, and they will be forgiven, even without repentance. In the same way, I take comfort that Evangelicals who find Orthodox theology scandalous on this point will also be forgiven their failure to grasp what it all really means. There may be other things that are more obvious, for which they must give an account, but their objection here is understandable. That doesn't make it any less real an obstacle, of course, and we who accept Orthodox teaching should do what we can to help them understand the truth. We're maximalist on obedience anyway. We don't ask what is the least we can do to get into heaven, and neither should we be satisfied with knowing that a particular mistaken idea isn't quite so bad, because it will be forgiven.

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