1 Cor 1:26-31; Hosea 6:6-7; Genesis 3:1-5; Wisdom 2:23-24.
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mat 9:13)
This week, as we come to the end of the apostles’ fast, we celebrate the two most famous apostles, Peter and Paul, and then the following day, all twelve apostles. Fittingly, we also remember the women “apostles-to-the-apostles” in the resurrection hymn (in the fourth tone) that we sing on this Lord’s Day. It is natural that we should remember the exemplary and glory-tinged lives of these apostles, as well as their forthright and courageous speaking of the truth! The apostles Peter and Paul were martyred for the Lord Jesus, after showing what St. Paul described as “[t]he signs of a true apostle… performed among you in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. (2 Cor 12:12). In the Acts of the Apostles we see the steadfastness of these two, and the miracles performed by Jesus through them: they stand as representatives of the apostles as a whole. With the women disciples who were at the tomb that Easter morning, we have the great sign of the Theotokos herself, the all-pure mother of our Lord, and of us. But the others were significant as well—especially we know about St. Mary Magdalene, who spoke the truth not only to the apostles on Easter morning, but who, we are told, went on to be a missionary in her own right, witnessing even before the emperor with great creativity and panache. (If you don’t know the story of her “red egg,” used as an object lesson, look it up!)
But, hidden in our readings for this weekend is a stark phrase: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus speaks this to the religious authorities who criticized him for calling the tax collector Matthew (also known as Levi), and for eating in his home. Matthew’s dubious background leads us to remember the humble beginnings of virtually all the Lord’s chosen. Peter, we know, was an unlearned fisherman, and every Pentecost we marvel at the power of the Holy Spirit, who “made the fishermen most wise,” so that those around them could hardly believe their background. Indeed, St. Paul says that this is true of Christians in general:
For consider your call…; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1Co 1:26-2:1 RSV)
I suppose we might think that St. Paul was the exception—a Roman citizen, with family ties to Jerusalem, and educated in the university city of Tarsus, and (in his own words) “blameless with respect to the Torah.” Except, of course, he was utterly wrong in his youthful years, consenting to the murder of Stephen and chasing down Christians without mercy: “Saul,” challenged the Lord, “why are you persecuting me?” What looks honorable in human judgment can actually be the lowest life of all—and so he calls himself “least of the apostles.” On top of that, the Lord gave him a lesson in humility by leaving intact his “thorn in the flesh” (whatever it was!) and not healing him. Paul learned that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, and that the only boast he had was in Christ.
And then there was St. Mary Magdalene. So many stories are told of her early days it is hard to know what to believe. Many associate her with sexual immorality, but all we know for certain from the Scriptures is that she had been controlled by “seven demons,” whom the Lord exorcised, and she was constantly among his followers from that time forward. Her loyalty must have been exemplary, for it is to her that the Lord appears in the garden, after the angel had told all the women that Jesus had arisen from the dead. We are reminded of these exhilarating moments regularly in our cycle of resurrection troparia, when we sing in the fourth tone:
Having learned the joyful proclamation of the Resurrection from the angel, and having cast off the ancestral condemnation, the women disciples of the Lord spoke to the apostles exultantly: Death is despoiled and Christ God is risen, granting to the world great mercy.
Yes, the women did speak out—but only after they had first “said nothing” about the message, because of fear, the evangelist Mark tells us. Their first inclination was to continue in the manner of all humanity, acting (or in this case, NOT acting) in line with passions and self-imposed weakness, rather than in the light of the great revolution that had taken place in the world that very morning. But God desires mercy and not sacrifice, because that is His nature—He is compassionate and merciful, says Hosea the prophet, even though all of us, like Adam, have sinned (Hosea 6:6-7). Jesus criticized the religious authorities for not recognizing this merciful God, quoting the prophet Hosea, who actually demonstrated God’s utter love by not repudiating his immoral wife, but taking her to himself. Hosea knew that God’s love and power are transforming.
Because of the women and the apostles, we know that glory even more fully. The resurrection troparion for this week reminds us of the constant confinement placed upon our human race—and indeed the whole world, for God had subjected it in hope of the new creation (Rom 8:20). After all, human beings could not be allowed free rein (or free reign over earth!) after they had shown their willingness to seize power and listen to the Enemy rather than walk with God. So, after the fall came God’s chastening, and his limitation of willful humanity –“the ancestral curse,” or as some translations put it, “the parental condemnation.”
Remember what happened at the beginning: Eve heeded the serpent, Adam heeded Eve, and everything was spoiled. They did not know, of course, that the Enemy had acted, as we hear in the book of Wisdom, out of envy (Wisdom 2:23-24): “For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.” I have always wondered if Solomon is here referring to the devil’s envy of that first couple, who walked in intimacy with God before the fall, to whom he had given the tree of life, and to whom, many fathers think, he would have offered the fruit of that other tree once they had matured into His likeness and passed the test of loyalty. Or, is the reference to the devil’s envy of God Himself, his desire to supplant God’s authority, to make the human creatures question what God had said, and to exaggerate the restrictions that the Almighty had lovingly placed on them? Recall his subtlety on that early morning in the garden:
He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:1-5)
There was truth encasing the lies, like a beautiful setting around a worthless stone. God had given to them a command. And they did not immediately die: but they entered into a state of corruptibility, and were as good as dead, save for the continuing grace of their Creator. Indeed, it had always been God’s intention to make the human couple “like Him”: they did not need the sneaky enticements of the Enemy, nor to grasp it for themselves. What they tried to seize—power equal to God—we see repeated over and over again in the sad stories of humanity, of Israel and of ourselves. Remember the tower of Babel, where people tried to make a name for themselves, the temptation of Saul to seize the leadership of worship rather than waiting for God’s appointed one (1 Sam/1 Kingdoms 15:16-24), and even the pride of David, who wanted to build a house for the living God, who does not dwell in houses made by human hands—unless He himself condescends to do so!
All this is undone by the Lord Jesus, who according to the ancient hymn, “did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself of no reputation,” and died the death of a human slave, undoing the curse. We see an echo of his great submission in the willing words of our Lady, “let it be done unto me,” as well as her instruction at the wedding, “do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). For, after trying to seize God’s role, human beings now must “learn obedience” (Hebrews 5:8), following after the model of God the Son and his humble Mother. This is possible because Jesus has put into place all that is necessary for us to learn to follow in the true Way, learning more and more to please God and to put Him first.
The time of this reversal we see in that other resurrection song, the kontakion in the fourth tone:
My Savior and Redeemer hath, as God,
raised up the earthborn from the grave and from their fetters,
and He hath broken the gates of Hades,
and, Master, hath risen on the third day.
Because of what Jesus did, living as the perfect Adam in the body, and dying to conquer death by life, we have been loosed from our fetters, and we no longer need fear the gates of Hades. His resurrection has changed everything. Yes, we are still vulnerable; yes we still will come to the time of death, unless the Lord comes first; yes, we still are not perfectly like the One who made us. But Satan’s power has been broken, and we are no longer simply “earthborn” creatures, but born as God’s sons and daughters, from above. To Peter, who recognized the mystery of His identity, Jesus promised that “the gates of Hades” would not prevail against the Church. All is not yet revealed in us, but everything that we need is hidden with Christ in God, and is being worked out, as we co-operate with Him.
Which is what the women, with Magdalene, did, as soon as they got over their human fear: They “cast off the ancestral condemnation,”—because Jesus had reversed it! Whereas the first mother had tempted Adam to disbelief God and to disobey, the women disciples break rank with her. Like mother Mary, they say “yes” to the gospel proclamation, and, as the song goes on, “the women disciples of the Lord spoke to the apostles exultantly: ‘Death is despoiled and Christ God is risen, granting to the world great mercy.’” The women were the first to hear, and St. Mary Magdalene the first to see—and so it is they who go and tell. But they are not fixated on their privilege. No, the burden of their message is not, look what we can do! We can preach the gospel. Instead, they concentrate on the One to whom all glory, honor and thanksgiving are due: “Christ God is risen”, despoiling death by His own death, and mercy has come to the whole world—not just to them, not just to the apostles, not just to God’s historical people of Israel, but to the entire world.
This is, of course, what both Saints Peter and Paul preached—the gospel “concerning God’s Son,” crucified and risen, who is the great I Am, the LORD (Romans 1:3-4) of the entire world. St. Peter was there for the baptism and infilling by the Spirit of the first Gentiles, even though his mission was mostly to the Jews. St. Paul, though once a Pharisee above other Pharisees, made it his mission to preach to the Gentiles as far as his legs could take him, and even while in prison—in the hope that the ancient people of God would see, be jealous, and turn to the Messiah. All the apostles, both the twelve, and those they commissioned, heeded the command of Jesus to go and baptize people from all nations, young and old, slave and free.
For the ancient boundaries given for our discipline could now be removed—God had completely, fully, entered our world, and was making all human beings one in Christ. The “earthborn” have been raised up from their fetters, both those literally in Hades, but also those of us here on earth, whose chains are of a different kind, some of our own making, but some inherited from the deadly condition in which we all, by fallen nature, find ourselves. In the apostles, in the women, in St. Mary Magdalene, we see the meaning of the verse from Hosea that Jesus quoted to religious leaders who did not understand the depths of the compassion of God, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mat 9:13 RSV). Thanks be for the transformed sinners, and first of all for the apostles, who have told us the glad tidings that death has been overturned!