Only Surface Deep: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost & Ninth Sunday of Luke

Galatians 6:11-18; Luke 12:16-21; 1 Chronicles 28:9

As I began to think about this week’s blog and podcast, and make some notes, I struggled with the first line of what I was trying to write. I tried THREE times to get a pesky comma deleted, only to find that I was deleting text. Looking more closely at the screen, I discovered that the “comma” was a dirt-speck, on the surface of the screen. It had nothing to do whatsoever with what I had typed.

Sometimes what we observe is only surface deep. We know that this is true not only in the physical world, but in our intellectual world as well. When my husband and I were graduate students, we used to laugh at the evaluation a prominent theologian gave to the revisionist book, Honest to God, that had made such a negative impact on the faith of many: “On the surface it is profound, but way down deep it is superficial.”

Our readings for this coming Divine Liturgy are both concerned with depth and superficiality. First, there are St. Paul’s words to the Galatians concerning what is only “skin-deep”—circumcision. Then there is the sad story of the rich man who concerned himself only with amassing stuff, and thought that this was the only wealth that there is to be had in life. Let’s begin with the gospel:

Jesus told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops? And he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21).

First, we should remark that what had happened to the rich man was a good thing. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and he promised the Jewish people that if they honored him he would bless them with the fullness of this wonderful creation. The Scriptures are replete with examples of God’s concern for our physical needs, such as: “Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (Mal 3:10 RSV). And God’s ultimate plan for the material world goes beyond the sustenance of his creation. Since Jesus has come, we have seen the wonderful things that God can do with wheat and grapes, when we receive them at his hand: they become for us, in the Divine Liturgy, the body and blood of Christ.

God uses physical things to nurture us, both physically and spiritually. As Fr. Schmemann puts it, “We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know him.” (For the Life of the World, 121.) Or as C. S. Lewis puts it, “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us” (Mere Christianity). It is not physical things that are shallow, but the man’s response to them! For when God gives blessings, the response he seeks (and the response that we are created to give) is that of thanksgiving. Indeed, an argument can be made that the first sin, the ancestral sin, was the refusal to give thanks. As St Paul puts it, “They did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him” (Romans 1:21).

But the man in Jesus’ parable, despite his bounty, was not grateful. Indeed, he had no idea whatsoever of the responsibility that he had, as a beneficiary of God, to do good things with those things that had blessed him. Instead, he used these things in an attempt to create an alternate reality, a world in which he would have no labor, and no responsibilities. Moreover, he thought that this plan would ease not only his body, but his soul: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’
The man, rich on the surface, was poverty-stricken deep down where it mattered. He had no thought in the center of his being for God. Here is true folly—to think that material things and self-centered actions can satisfy, when only God, the God who gave everything for us, can.

No, it was not the wheat and corn that alienated him from God. It was the man’s abuse of these things, which he could have used as a means of praising and giving glory to God: in giving to others, in celebration of God’s bounty, and in numerous other ways. The common saying is, “you can’t take it with you.” That is only partly true, of course, for the book of Revelation tells us that the “glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into the Holy City (Rev. 21:26)—Christ assumed human flesh and took it with him into the heavenlies. Similarly, it seems, we will bring with us what has become truly a part of our worshiping lives—but only if we have offered it to Him, and if he has made it glorious. This man did not offer his bounty to God—and so he must, at the end, forfeit all. He was wealthy on the outside, but deep down, he was poor!

The cautionary tale of the rich man is easy to perceive, since we are well schooled in the matter of materialism today. St. Paul’s words to the Galatians may be a little more complicated. He is very worked up in this part of the letter! Apparently some of the leaders in Galatia have tried to compel the new Gentile Christians to be circumcised, suggesting that if they are true followers of Christ they will show it by this traditional mark on the body. St. Paul will have none of it:

See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh. But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God. Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen. (Gal 6:11-18 RSV)

This is a very interesting passage. Notice that St. Paul begins with the issue of circumcision, one of the outward marks of Judaism. But it is not as though he considers the body unimportant. For at the end he reminds his congregation that he bears on his body “the marks of Jesus.” Remember how St. Paul suffered bodily for the sake of the gospel, even being scourged several times! He quite literally had marks on his body that linked him with our Savior, who “became sin” for our sake (cf. 2 Cor 5:21). It is not, then, that Paul considers the body unimportant. But some of the things associated with this current world, with “the flesh” as St. Paul calls it, are unrelated to the perfect plan of God. And the Church had been shown that, though circumcision was once a mark that God required of his people, now it was not to be a decisive factor in determining who comprised the people of God: “There is no Jew or Greek” (Gal. 3:28) for those who have been baptized into Christ.

It may help us to remember that circumcision, as an Old Testament sign, did not bring God’s covenant people honor, but ridicule among the pagans—especially in the time of the Greek and Roman empires. However, the Jews were tolerated to a certain degree by the Romans, and their strange ways of worshipping were given a certain honor because they were ancient and traditional, so long as the Jewish people did not give the conquering nation any outward trouble. But Christianity was little known among the Romans, and considered by many to be seditious. This is probably why St Paul suggests that circumcision was being urged “so that they would not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” So long as the fledgling Church kept under the umbrella of the Jewish people, they had a modicum of safety; but when they broke from Judaism, they became suspect as a new religion that did not honor the Roman gods—and we know the centuries of persecution that they suffered, right up until the time that Christianity became a legal religion in the Empire. The Jewish Christian accommodators could say, “see, our people follow the ancient traditions—it’s imprinted upon their flesh. You know that Jews, though they don’t follow your traditions, are hard workers and honest. You can trust us.” And so, says the apostle Paul, they wanted to “glory in the flesh” of the new converts, and commend them to the world.

But Jesus, in his life, did not commend himself to the powers-that-were! Instead, he gave his body to be crucified, and paradoxically, that great dishonor became his glory! Those who follow him must consider themselves dead to that old world of superficiality, and alive to Christ. They must learn that the wisdom of God is greater than the foolishness of humans. They must be prepared to take up their cross, too—whatever that might mean! No, this is not a way of saying that physical things don’t matter. Instead, says St. Paul, look at what Jesus the God-Man did with HIS body, and how he brought honor out of dishonor, glory out of shame, life out of death. This is the “rule” that we, the true “Israel of God” are to follow. We are told to look deep into God’s ways, and not to judge by appearances, or on the surface of things. For God is bringing about, in the most unusual ways, a new creation.

This is not a brand-new teaching, of course. The Old Testament is replete with warnings against superficial judgments. Consider God’s words to Samuel, when he was sent to anoint a king: But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” Consider the words of King David to his son Solomon about God’s ability to search the heart: “”As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever” (1 Chronicles 28:9). But in the New Testament, with the coming of Jesus, the teaching is amplified. We still are to look deeply into things and not judge on the surface. Yet every part of our life is caught up, and in proportion and in its own way, is brought into the will of God. By the Incarnation, the God-Man plunged deeply into every part of our life, and rescued us, body, mind and spirit. This good creation of His is to be brought into the light, and given its true significance. There is nothing in it entirely insignificant to God, if it is put in the right place and offered to him. The tiniest mustard seed can have significance—if touched by Him. As Jesus says, God numbers the very hairs of our head, and cares for the flowers of the field. This we know because He has honored us, this very creation, with his intimate presence, and has now sent his Holy Spirit, who is everywhere present, to enliven us.

Our readings, then, teach us not to be superficial, and to put the important things first. They teach us to care about being rich towards God, and to put the cross in the center of all that we do. But when we “lose” our coveted and idol-prone lives in this way, we enter into a life that we thought hardly possible! We gain Christ, and the whole of God’s creation, to be used as the Holy Spirit directs us. Jesus told us about this wonder: “Do not say to yourselves, ‘What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we
wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Mat 6:31-34 RSV). Remember also what St. Paul said to the Corinthians about true possessions and power: “So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s. (1Cor 3:21-23 RSV).

God cares about our bodies as well as our minds and spirits. But each thing in its own place. We have seen throughout Christian history that there are those who appear feeble and poverty-stricken on the surface, who (deep down) are confident and alive in God. It is to saints like these that “all things” that truly matter belong. Most important of all is to be “rich towards God” and to follow in the train of that one who, for the joy before him, set off to the Cross, showing that the weak things of this world can triumph over those that, on the surface, appear to be strong.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Edith,

    I agree with your statement: “The cautionary tale of the rich man is easy to perceive, since we are well schooled in the matter of materialism today.” But, I do think it needs special emphasis. My concern would be with the (my?) immediate temptation to emphasize the “yes but” aspect … “yes but …. I can be a Christian and be so comfy without the action of giving” in a way that would overly comfort North American overly comfortable Christians.
    PS — I read somewhere about C.S. Lewis’ giving profile. Very giving….

    1. Hello, Nick!!! I am honoured that you are reading my blog. Yes, of course, I agree with you entirely that many North American Christians so qualify Jesus’ words on giving that they make no sacrifice in so doing! I think that we have plenty of TEACHING on the importance of sacrificial giving, but that what we need is a sanctified imagination in this area. Also, the ascetic practices of learning to do without are helpful in turning one’s gaze towards God and others, rather than centering on “my needs and wants.” And, as you point out, we are heartened by the examples of those we know who give as Jesus instructs. St. Paul’s remarks about giving in 2 Corinthians are as important today as they were in the first century. And in the middle he exclaims, “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” As we dwell on the wonder of Jesus’ sacrificial life and death for us, we must surely be changed to want to be like him. Even in this self-centered culture! Thank you so much for the reminder of how what we KNOW doesn’t always translate into how we ACT and who we ARE….humans do have many ways of “getting around” the truth, don’t they?

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