Readings: Genesis 14:14-20; Deut 1:8-11, 15-17; Deut 10:14-21; Luke 8:5-15; Titus 3:8-15
“The saying is sure…But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile” (Titus 3:8-9).
What is sure? What is stupid or shallow? The answers we hear this Saturday and Sunday should give a sense of déjà vu! The Epistle reading for Divine Liturgy (though not the gospel), as well as the OT readings for Saturday’s Great Vespers, are identical with the readings that we encountered back in July, when commemorating the holy fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical council. The parallels make sense, since this week we remember the importance of the holy fathers of the seventh ecumenical council. Indeed, our prayers for Great Vespers recall all the councils (including those who gathered together their fruit). All the shallowness of Arius, Apollonius, Eutychius, and others was repudiated through these councils, while the mystery of God Incarnate and the deity of the Holy Spirit was accepted, in the full-blown doctrine of the Trinity. All this culminated in the final council, when the use of icons was ratified, because it is in line with what we have learned about the Incarnation of our Lord, whose nature is truly human and divine! In the sequence of prayers at Great Vespers, we are reminded that seven is the number of completeness or perfection:
“Patriarch Germanos the New assembled the accounts of all of the Seven Councils convened by the Fathers at diverse times and compiled them into a single rule and canon, setting them all in order. He thus confirmed their doctrines, gath’ring them in one written record. He established them as fellow shepherds o’er us the flock and as most vigilant suppliants before the Lord, that we may be saved.”
“The Law’s letter bound the sons of the Hebrews to observe the seventh day with due rev’rence, and keeping that worship, they persisted in the shadow. And when ye gathered in the Seven Councils, O sacred Fathers, bade thus by God, Who finished all His works in a span of six days and thereafter also blessed the seventh, ye made the seventh yet more hallowed and ven’rable when ye decreed the bounds of the Faith.”
This Sunday, then, we contemplate the importance of leaders, those “shepherds over us the flock” who brought the needs of the Church before God—indeed, they continue to pray for us, for we are joined with them. In remembering them, we also repudiate shallow heresies, and honor those sayings that are sure, because these fathers confirmed key doctrines of our faith. In harmony with these themes, our epistle reading gives us the picture of the holy apostle Paul passing on his wisdom to a young leader, Titus, and commending to him those things that are central to our faith. He says to Titus,
The saying is sure. I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men. But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned…And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful. All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all. (Tit 3:8-1:1 RSV)
So, there are things that are sure, and things that are both stupid and controversial. To the first, Titus is told, we must cling. But what IS the sure saying that St Paul commends to the younger man? For this, we must go back a few verses before our reading:
“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” (Tit 3:4-7 RSV)
What is sure? That the goodness of God our Savior appeared, that we have been rescued by HIM, by his mercy, by our baptism, by the Holy Spirit, by the rich gift of God. Because of everything that Jesus has done, God has called us “righteous” and has given us the hope of inheriting his divine life! All this is from God, not BECAUSE we earned it by anything we can do—and yet God has done this, so that we might do good deeds, so that we might bear fruit! Not BECAUSE of GOOD deeds, but because of Christ. Yet, all this has been done so that we might “be careful to apply [ourselves] to good deeds”, something that St. Paul says both at the beginning AND the end of this passage!
The sure saying, then, is a mystery—a mystery concerning the God-Man Jesus, who freely has set us free, to become like him. Because of his actions on our behalf, we are to put behind us stupid controversies, not applying ourselves to fruitless debates that are unprofitable, but to the daily challenges that we meet. The decisions of the seven councils help us to avoid these fruitless controversies about the faith, and not to be fixated on unimportant debated matters, because the fathers have given us helpful parameters within which to contemplate God and practice our faith. Just as St. Paul set out a sure saying for Titus, before warning him not to engage in the heretical thinking of his day, so the apostolic fathers of the second century preserved Jesus’ teaching concerning how to read the Old Testament, and so the fathers of the seven councils set forth boundaries in understanding and worshipping the Holy Trinity. All this wisdom sets us on a straight course, so that we will be like the right kind of soil referred to in Jesus’ parable, not trodden under foot, or devoured by heretical birds of prey, or choked, or dried up, but yielding fruit. We have the means to be sure, and not shallow, to be fruitful, and not to die. To the Church, through Jesus, and the apostles, has been given “the secrets of the kingdom of God”—and we are a part of all this!
How do the OT readings of Vespers prepare us to remember the seventh council and the 367 fathers who brought our sure and holy doctrines to fruition?
First, there is Gen 14:14-20, a curious story about Abram and his three-hundred and some home-born servants who rescued his nephew Lot, who had been taken captive by enemies. In rescuing him, these courageous men also recovered all the people and goods of the neighboring kings! On their return, Abram was blessed by the very strange figure, Melchisedek, king of Salam, who “brought forth bread and wine” and “blessed Abram, saying Blessed be Abram of the Most High God, Who made heaven and earth, and blessed be the Most High God, Who delivered thine enemies into thy hand.”
This may seem a random selection for our purposes. But notice the details: Abram and his 300 some servants rescue Lot and other unfortunates from slavery, just as the ecumenical fathers rescued the company of faithful from heresy. And in doing so, Abram, the father of our faith, is blessed by Melchisedek—Melchisedek, that strange priest, whose end and beginning are shrouded in mystery, and who prefigured the Lord Jesus, the priest of peace, who feeds us with bread and wine. Abram is blessed, not because of anything he has done—though he has shown great courage—but because he serves the “Most High God, who made heaven and earth.” In this way, we remember also our holy fathers, who have done good things, but only because God has “delivered…enemies” into their hands. So we bless God himself, when we remember their work with gratitude. Because of them, we are not condemned to the shallow, man-made doctrines of Arius and company, but hold in our hearts the mystery of the ages. Remember, friends, that heresies are not ingenious or exciting, but a watering down or distortion of the truth that enslaves and stifles. So C. S. Lewis remembers the glory of St. Athanasius, who refused to swim in the shallow heretical waters of his day, and whose doctrine now stands firm:
“He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius – into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.” (C. S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius’ De Incarnatione)
Our second reading, Deuteronomy 1:8-11, 15-17, concerns Moses’ solemn words to the people of Israel at the end of their wilderness wandering:
Thus said Moses to the sons of Israel: Behold, I have delivered the land before you; go in and inherit the land, which the Lord swore to your fathers Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, to give it to them and to their seed after them. And I spake to you at that time, saying: I shall not be able to bear you by myself. The Lord your God hath multiplied you, and behold, ye are today as the stars of heaven for multitude. The Lord God of your fathers add to you a thousand-fold more than ye are, and bless you as He hath spoken to you. So I took of you wise and understanding and prudent men, and I set them to rule over you as rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, and rulers of tens, and instructors for your judges. And I commanded your judges at that time, saying: Hear causes between your brethren, and judge justly between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. Thou shalt not have respect to persons in judgment, thou shalt judge small and great equally; thou shalt not shrink from before the person of a man, for the judgment is God’s.
In this reading, we may be astonished to see how Moses explains everything up-front to his people, as they are about to go into the Promised Land. He tells them about how, because of their vast number, he needed help to govern them, and how the Lord instructed him to select wise men to lead at various levels—to judge prudently and justly, and not to “have respect to persons” but to judge all equally, as from God himself, the only Judge. The Israelite nation as a whole was let into this procedure, and nothing was hidden from them. Not only did Moses instruct the leaders, at God’s command, to be just, but he TOLD the people that he had done so! In that sense, the governance belonged to all of them, not simply to those who had been selected. The entire people, we remember, were called by God “a kingdom of priests.”
If governance was not done in a corner, in secret, for the early first covenant community, how much more is that true for God’s baptized people! The faith is not something imparted only to the wise and those in authority, but to all of us, who are called to search out the truth, to drink deeply of the waters of the Scriptures and the fathers, to be transformed in our minds, hearts, and lives. To each of us is given the promise that we will “yield a hundredfold of fruit…hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart.” Christianity is not a faith for the elite, but for all who listen, look, and are transformed. Our icons are on the walls for the illiterate to contemplate; our Scriptures are read aloud in the vernacular language for all to understand; from the earliest days the sermon was given even to those who were not baptized, that they might eventually come to illumination. Christ’s gift is gloriously for the free, not those who are enslaved, for everyone, regardless of age, ability, race, or education. Though there are mysteries, these are hedged only for our protection, and we are meant to grow into them, all of us! Holy Things are for the Holy! We have a sure foundation, Jesus Christ himself, and will not be left in shallowness, so long as we apply ourselves to what we have been given.
The final reading is again from Deuteronomy, this time, 10:14-21.
Thus said Moses to the sons of Israel: “Behold, the heaven, and the Heaven of heaven, belong to the Lord thy God, the earth and all things that are therein. Yet the Lord chose your fathers to love them, and above all nations, as at this day He chose you out of their seed after them. Therefore ye shall circumcise the hardness of your heart, and ye shall not harden your neck. For the Lord our God, He is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, and strong, and terrible God, Who doth not respect persons, nor will He by any means accept a bribe; executing judgment for the stranger and orphan and widow, and He loveth the stranger to give him food and raiment. Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve Him, and shalt cleave to Him, and shalt swear by His Name. He is thy boast, and He is thy God, Who hath wrought for thee these great and glorious things, which thine eyes have seen.”
Yet again, in this second message to the Israelites, Moses stresses God’s justice, not only for the Israelites, but also for the stranger, not only for the rich, but for the poor and destitute. He reminds the people that everything belongs to God, and calls them not only to obey outwardly, but to “circumcise the hardness of their heart”—their separateness to God is to be from the inside out, not simply a shallow consecration. All the things that God has done for them have been done in public—“thine eyes have seen ..these great and glorious things.” Actually, of course, this generation had not literally seen the signs and wonders of the past, but their parents and grandparents had—there had been forty years of wandering. But, because the community was one, and kept the memory alive, they had truly seen, just as we have truly seen the Light, though we have not seen Jesus in the flesh. Indeed, it is not simply a matter of memory for Christians, since we DO see, in the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, and (amazingly!) the great and terrible second coming! God is the Lord of ALL the faithful, not simply of the first generation, or of those who are “in the know,” mystics! All of us are called to be holy to the Lord, to cleave to him, and to rejoice that he alone is our glory.
Sometimes it may seem as though so much has happened in our Holy Tradition that it is impossible to master it all. We have the entire OT to read, the subtle theology of the NT to understand, the debates and decisions of the seven councils to embrace, alongside the daily run of our lives. Sometimes, in comparing my Orthodox brothers and sisters to evangelical friends, I am dismayed by the lack of knowledge of the Bible, and wonder if it is because we are embarrassed by riches—there is just SO much to learn! As people who are not enslaved by the sola Scriptura principle, we have an entire tradition to instruct us. Rather than being overwhelmed, however, can we consider the work of the fathers like an intricate and careful road map, helping us through the faith as we have need? Or maybe their effort is more like that of city planners, dredging swamps here, building bridges there, leaving natural land here and there, providing places where we can travel, and dwell, and be refreshed. (I am currently on Marco Island, amazed at the work done by the Mackle brothers in reclaiming this low land, and also glad that the conservationists insist that some wild land be left.) The work of the theologians and fathers of the past has given us ways to understand Scripture and the Christian life, while leaving mystery intact: for God and his purposes cannot truly be tamed!
Of course, it will take a lifetime—indeed, an eternity—to plumb the depth of God’s wisdom. As the evangelist John put it, “there are so many things that Jesus said and did that all the books in the world could not contain them.” Drinking of Scriptures and the Tradition is like trying to drink from a fire-hose, if we do it all at once. But that’s what glasses and drinking vessels are for. Let us not ignore the riches of the councils, nor the deeper roots of the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, but read, mark and inwardly digest on a daily basis, allowing the Word to transform us. Let us not say that we are too busy, for we get fully engaged in many matters—fantasy football, business, political intrigue, you name it! Where our heart is, there is our treasure, said the Lord. And in us the Word has been planted. We have been given sure sayings and wise councils to keep our feet from straying into those matters that are unprofitable, or even dangerous: let us therefore explore, avidly reading the Scriptures and the fathers, so that we can grow in wisdom, and also can give a word to those who are seeking the way—not for the sake of controversy, but that they too may know Him.