Of Dunghills

A friend and I were discussing Luther’s views on salvation vs. Orthodox.  I mentioned, during that conversation, Luther’s analogy about the dunghill, which is debated as to whether it exists.  However, I came across the following two quotes:

Therefore let us embrace Christ, who was delivered for us, and His righteousness; but let us regard our righteousness as dung, so that we, having died to sins, may live to God alone [LW 30:294].
Explanation of Martin Luther: I said before that our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so. It does not hurt the sun, because it sends its rays into the sewer. [LW 34: 184]

It is the latter quote which implies that our sins are covered over in the eyes of God, perhaps covered in snow, or maybe whitewashed.  This morning, the daily gospel reading was, interestingly enough, from Matthew.  Within the reading is the following passage:

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’sbones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

It’s interesting to me because Christ doesn’t seem to look very fondly on the notion of whitewashing the outside.  In other words, would God really participate in a fiction where he pretends that we aren’t sinners?

The Beatitudes

On an Evangelical but seeking blog that I follow, the topic came up recently about how to interpret the Beatitudes. This, like many sections of the New Testament, is hard for Protestants, especially Evangelicals, to deal with as they eschew anything that smacks of a works salvation. The blogger asserted that what Christ is saying is that anyone can come and receive Christ’s blessings, regardless of their state and how society views them. He says that the other way to phrase what Christ is saying is, “even if you are poor, come and receive my blessing, even if your mourn…” etc. The weakness in this argument is Christ is clearly not, then, saying “even if you are merciful come” as if being merciful is a bad thing, or even viewed as being bad by society.

So, I decided to look at what the Fathers of the Church have to say about the Beatitudes, and found that St. John Chrysostom interprets the first beatitude in this manner:

“What is meant by “the poor in spirit?” The humble and contrite in mind. For by “spirit” He hath here designated the soul, and the faculty of choice. That is, since many are humble not willingly, but compelled by stress of circumstances; letting these pass (for this were no matter of praise), He blesses them first, who by choice humble and contract themselves.

But why said he not, “the humble,” but rather “the poor?” Because this is more than that. For He means here them who are awestruck, and tremble at the commandments of God. Whom also by His prophet Isaiah God earnestly accepting said, “To whom will I look, but to him who is meek and quiet, and trembleth at My words?” For indeed there are many kinds of humility: one is humble in his own measure, another with all excess of lowliness. It is this last lowliness of mind which that blessed prophet commends, picturing to us the temper that is not merely subdued, but utterly broken, when he saith, “The sacrifice for God is a contrite spirit, a contrite and an humble heart God will not despise.” [Psalm 50 (51):7] And the Three Children also offer this unto God as a great sacrifice, saying, “Nevertheless, in a contrite soul, and in a spirit of lowliness, may we be accepted.” This Christ also now blesses.”

 

The blogger went on to assert that the parallel passage in St. Luke’s Gospel supports his view. It supports it more, because that passage lacks the “blessed are the merciful, etc.” verses, but it in no way demands his interpretation. I decided to check Blessed Theophylact and discovered that his interpretation of the parallel passage is in agreement (as I expected it would) with St. John’s interpretation of Matthew:

 

“These words of the Lord are directed to the disciples. After ordaining them, the Lord uses these beatitudes and teachings to guide them into a more spiritual life. He first blesses the poor, whom you may understand to mean either those who are humble or those who live without greed for money. Simply put, all the beatitudes teach us lowliness, humility, self-effacement, and self-reproach. And accordingly woe awaits those who are rich and propserous now, in this life, those who the Lord says have received their consolation, meaning that in this life they have enjoyed revelry, laughter, feasting, and the praise of men. Let us tremble, brothers, to hear that Woe! awaits those who are praised by men. First we ought to live such a life that will draw down upon us the praise of God, and then others will indeed speak well of us.”

 

This view of the Beatitudes finds support throughout Scripture, but there are a couple of places that merit pointing out. The first is the 50th psalm (51st in Western numbering), where we learn that “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.” In the 108th Psalm (109 in the Western numbering), we see King David, ruler of Judea refer to himself being “poor and needy,” and that he is weak from fasting. Clearly King David was not really poor, but rather this reflected a state of mind and spirit he had acquired. That his action was involved is clear from the fact that fasting is involved in all of this (among other things).

So, the Orthodox understanding is clearly that we must humble ourselves – make ourselves lowly, in order to be blessed by God. This interpretation agrees with all of Scripture. I fear that the blogger in question is guilty of looking for an interpretation that fit his preconceived theology, then forced it into the text.

Good Works in Galatians

A friend of mine posted a passage from Galatians earlier today:

“Galatians 5:13: For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.”

A great passage, which reminds us of the importance of serving one another, and in a loving manner. That is, serve one another by love, not out of some sense of necessity. Of course, this makes it a part of the greater teaching we find throughout Scripture, but in particular in Paul’s letters about the danger of “empty” works, or works done in the interest of attaining salvation.

However, another question arises. What happens if you don’t comply with this line? What is the risk? There are some groups who would teach that the doing of works is utterly irrelevant. Most notably, various strains of protestantism. So, is this the case? Is there anything we can take from this passage to address this question? For those that don’t have a problem with the importance of works in our salvation, we still must ask the question of how we can learn to serve others by love. What is the key?

As it turns out, both the answer to what it means to not have works and the key exists a bit further on. St. Paul continues with the famous passage about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. He basically sets a stage for the conclusion that comes in verse 24, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” From this we learn two things, the first is that crucifying our flesh is the means by which we establish ourselves as Christ’s (there would be some, I suppose, who would argue that after Christ makes us his, then we automatically crucify our flesh, but that is both a fairly tortured reading, and inconsistent with experience). The second thing is that it is by this crucifying of our flesh that we learn to love others. That is the crux of Orthodox spirituality. We are to serve other’s by love, that happens when we are walking in the Spirit, and that can only happen when we crucify our flesh of the passions. That is why asceticism figures so prominently. If you think about it, how can we truly love other’s if we are focused on our desires? Christ, who is not only the ultimate example of love, but is, in fact, love itself, demonstrates this for us.