Thursday, January 15, 2009

nourishing Christ in poverty here


The title of the post is taken from St. John Chrysostom's second sermon in a series on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. These sermons are collected in a volume of St. Vladimir Press's fantastic Popular Patristics series: On Wealth and Poverty.
In this sermon, John asserts, as the editor put it:
If we spend more than necessary on ourselves, we deserve the same penalty as if we had stolen the money. . . Like others of the Fathers, he makes it clear that private property is not a Christian idea, however valid it is in law. "His goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants."

Let's use that last quotation to step into the sermon itself and take a look at what St. John argues.

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St. John on the rich man and Lazarus

The portion of the sermon where John really tackles this opens with a forceful assertion: "this also is theft, not to share one's possessions." The saint acknowledges the staggering nature of this statement, and suggests that we turn to scripture for support. Fair enough.
He quotes two scriptures to demonstrate this:
  1. "Deprive not the poor of his living." That's Sirach 4:1. John argues that "it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others."
  2. "The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses." John explains: "Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth."

The latter is the weightier scripture in his argument... and it's not *really* a scripture at all.
The quote is a conflation of sorts: the second half is from Isaiah 3:14; the first half is reminiscent of Malachi 3:8-10 (though John here sort of inverts the situation in Malachi), but it isn't a direct quotation from anywhere in scripture.

To the Protestant, then, we're left with a frightening assertion, from a man of no real authority, supported only by one verse from the Apocrypha and one 'made up' verse. This would be pretty easy to ignore.

But can we really ignore this?

John argues that "our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it." From here it's easy to suggest that a man's "own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants," and that "if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter."

Scripture, in turn, tells us much more: it is difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven; "you are not your own, for you were bought with a price"; Christians are to consider "others more significant than yourselves" and look to the interests of others; God's love does not abide in the man who closes his heart against a need that he's capable of meeting; we're to love our neighbor as ourselves and do unto others as we'd have them do unto us.

Even if you remain skeptical of his conclusion, you cannot deny one plain fact: St. John’s reasoning reflects the practical reality of the Church as it’s presented in Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35.
4:32 offers clearest description of the mentality behind the activity: “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”
I don't believe that the Church did this because they thought it would just be best for them or that they did this because it was culturally and socially natural for people in that period. It wasn't.
They did this because they understood the nature of the Church. It is a community of 'not-my-owns' who are branches of the True Vine and live to bear fruit.

Even after we argue that 'the world then and there was very different', or that Jesus's call to sell possessions didn't extend past the rich young ruler himself, or--somehow--that His further teaching in Luke 12 to "sell your possessions and give to the needy" doesn't apply to us either, one questions still remains: what part of "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" says that I can spend my resources on what I please? What part of this says that I can decide to buy books that I want or go out to eat or get an album off iTunes?

The New Testament brings up one idea over and over that we must--surely we are--be trying to ignore: the Christian is one who dies. How can we be filled with the Spirit of Life when we are holding to our own life? We are the taking-up-the-cross people, crucified with Christ, no longer living, yet living, because Jesus came to give us life and that, abundant.
This paradoxical centrality of death in the life of discipleship is behind St. Ignatius’s chilling claim that, as he was being lead to Rome and a gruesome death, “Now I begin to be a disciple.”

The Church in Acts understood this. That's why "no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own." St. John Chrysostom understood it too: "our money is the Lord's, however we may have gathered it."
We need to understand it as well.
The question must cease to be "well, why do you say that we shouldn't spend our money how we like?" and it must become "what makes me think that I can spend my money how I like?"
"You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." Surely then, the less intimate parts--our possessions--are not our own either.

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Scripture offers us two ways to consider Christ's presence within our relations with people. Jesus appears at times in the person of him who is in need. Whatever we do to "one of the least of these", we do to Christ. Yet He also appears in us, reaching out to the world through the members of the Body. We are ambassadors of Christ.
With either picture, the call to action for us is the same. If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Christ cannot live in us if we will not die.
So long as I live as if what I want is important, that great scar on the Church will remain: of course Christians then won't look any different from the world. Instead, we must take seriously the call to die.
A Christian is one whose God is the LORD, and that fact calls for a radically different understanding of what is important. Live the fact.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Irenaeus on the Incarnation

Over the Christmas holiday I spent a lot of time studying in preparation for a Bible study I'm leading in the spring. Much of that time has been devoted to the Church Fathers, and I have to say, I'm quickly falling in love with St. Irenaeus and St. John Chrysostom. These men remind me precisely why the Tradition has been such an enduring and authoritative power in the Church.

St. John, I believe, will make a good showing on through the wardrobe in the coming months, but for now, here's a taste of the writings of Irenaeus that I've encountered in the last few weeks. This is actually quoted from Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement. (The whole of his brief chapter on 'Atonement as Story' in Irenaeus and Athanasius is phenomenal, and the different descriptions, both from McKnight and the Fathers, of God's atoning work in Christ are simply beautiful.)

For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by His relationship to both, to bring both to friendship and concord, and present man to God, while He revealed God to man. . . For it behooved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should go forth from death.

Against the Heresies 3.18.7


Monday, January 05, 2009

some thoughts on Frankenstein

I'm reading Mary Shelley right now for an upcoming British Literature course, and the novel is (of course) a much more provocative work than I had expected. I have no doubt that Charles Williams enjoyed this book. 
Victor Frankenstein's descriptions of his 'creation' are nearly as disturbing as anything I've ever read:
It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being. . . life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their's.

For all his descriptions of this "new" life, Frankenstein never does call it good

This account is, in the novel, reported in hindsight by Frankenstein, and so he is able to reflect, only a few pages later, immediately after he animates the creature: "It became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived. . . I felt the bitterness of disappointment: dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space, were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!"

For two years of working on that creature, Frankenstein understood himself as God, and so naturally once his goal was achieved, he found himself in Hell. He had been there all along.

The epigraph of the novel's title page is borrowed from Milton: "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?" So spoke Adam, after the fall. While the connection there is certainly between Milton's and Shelley's creatures, Victor Frankenstein's realizations--after the fall from that heavenly throne he had established for himself--assure us that Mary Shelley also remembered well Milton's Satan:

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n
O then at least relent: is there no place
Left for repentance, none for pardon left?

Paradise Lost, IV. 75-80