Like everyone who had even the smallest amount of contact with him, the news of the untimely death of Fr. Matthew Baker hit me hard, perhaps harder than I was prepared for. After all, I had never met him in person, but our occasional discussions in a private Facebook group had a very important and lasting impression on me. Facebook! For such was the effect of this man’s brilliance, his perspective, and his graciousness. Truth be told, Fr. Matthew was one of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered. The breadth of his knowledge in philosophy, theology, patristics, and church history was astounding, and he used that knowledge to provide people with a perspective on the Orthodox faith that was liberating in its commitment to the fullness of the faith while cutting through the many cheap caricatures that tend to pass for Orthodoxy today. He never knew how much his words helped me gain the perspective I needed to get through difficult intellectual and spiritual issues.
When I think of the death of someone like this, someone of such brilliance but also of such service to the Church and to his family, I think how much we have been cheated. A grave injustice has occurred. An evil affliction.
A basic axiom accepted by billions around the world is that doing good will bring divine reward and doing evil will bring judgment and calamity. Yet, even those who accept this axiom know in their hearts that it does not always hold true. The righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. Good men die, and wicked men live many years. Even the Bible knows this tension, for at times it teaches just such a thing:
The rich suffer want and hunger
But those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
Come, you children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Who is the man who desires life,
And loves many days, that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
And your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil and do good;
Seek peace and pursue it.
– Psalm 33:11-15 (LXX)
The Proverbs too present a similar picture of things: The wise practice righteousness and virtue and are rewarded for it, while the foolish who practice wickedness are punished by God. This is, I think, representative of a more primitive state of faith. In ancient religion, if something bad were to happen, it was a sign of the displeasure of the god(s) to whom sacrifices were then made in order to appease him(them). Yet many people live like this today. When something good comes, they exclaim how blessed they are by God, yet when something bad happens, they think, perhaps they didn’t have enough faith, maybe they didn’t have enough faith, or perhaps God is punishing them for some hidden sin. We might call this doctrine retribution, the notion that everyone gets what they deserve.
And, such was common in Jesus’ time as well.
Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” – John 9:1-2 (NKJV)
Yet, Jesus does not answer by upholding the doctrine of retribution, because he knows in his divine wisdom that such simple axioms do not always hold true.
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.
So then we create spiritual platitudes to try to explain: “All things happen for a reason.” “God has a plan.” And while Jesus immediately proceeded to heal the blind man, our maladies and injustices do not get fixed quite so easily.
The Righteous Ideal
But the doctrine of retribution also represents an ideal, a sense of the way things should be: The righteous should prosper in life, and the wicked should should suffer. And we are constantly looking for theological explanations as to why things are not as they should be, because we know intuitively how they should be.
This is what we call righteousness – the way things ought to be.
When the righteous suffer and perish, while the wicked prosper to length of days, we know that something is wrong, that some injustice, some unrighteousness has occurred. And, believe it or not, this forms a great many of the prayers found in the Psalms. So much of prayer is offering to God our complaints that something is not righteous in the world, be it our sins, the sins of others that cause us to suffer, or some pain and suffering that we do not deserve. A familiar psalm read twice a day according to the typikon, at Matins and Compline, gives voice to this complaint:
Hear my prayer, O LORD,
Give ear to my supplications!
In Your faithfulness answer me,
And in Your righteousness.
Do not enter into judgment with Your servant,
For in Your sight no one living is righteous.
For the enemy has persecuted my soul;
He has crushed my life to the ground;
He has made me dwell in darkness,
Like those who have long been dead.
Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed within me;
My heart within me is distressed. – Psalm 143: 1-4 (NKJV)
The Bible does not shy away from the fact that we perceive and experience that not all is as it should be, and the natural response to this is to cry out to God with complaint. Another psalm from the Third Hour:
Hear the right, O Lord.
Attend to my cry.
Give ear to my prayer not from feignèd lips.
From Thy presence let my judgement come forth.
Thine eyes, let them behold equity.
Thou hast proven my heart.
Thou hast visited me in the night.
Thou hast tried me.
Nothing shalt Thou find.
Nothing shall pass my lips. – Psalm 17:1-3 (my translation)
The author of this psalm pleads innocence before God and calls upon him to hear his cause, which is just. Implicit in these cries is that something is not just, that God has not yet “heard the right” or “attended to his cry.” This is not book theology, this is real, human anguish and outrage directed toward God.
Job, the Righteous Sufferer
It was for this reason that the biblical book of Job was written as well as other similar works of “wisdom literature” in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In a genre loosely called “the unjust sufferer” a righteous man suffers some injustice, and he questions the gods in regard to why this has occurred. In Job, God makes a rather interesting wager with the Satan (a sort of prosecuting attorney). We should not read this narrative as if it were literal history, but rather in its allegorical and theological senses. God is not in reality making bets with Satan over the souls of his servants, though from our perspective, it often seems that some injustice like this has occurred – like God has afflicted us just to try to prove a point. And Job had the gall to maintain his innocence and accuse God himself of unjustly afflicting him.
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
“What is man, that You should exalt him,
That You should set Your heart on him,
That You should visit him every morning,
And test him every moment?
Will You not look away from me,
And let me alone till I swallow my saliva?
Have I sinned?
What have I done to You, O watcher of men?
Why have You set me as Your target,
So that I am a burden to myself? – Job 7:11, 17-20 (NKJV)
(Note: I am aware of the more positive interpretations of this section, made by Elder Sophrony of Essex and his disciple Fr. Zacharias, though I wish to focus upon the more literal flow of the Hebrew text, which is decidedly negative). Job is weary of God’s testing at every moment, his constant gaze, which Job attributes to the cause of his calamity. God has set him as a “target” מפגע mifgāˤ with the result that Job’s suffering has become a burden to himself. The LXX renders this as “Why have you set me up as your accuser?” almost lamenting that he has had to resort to accusing God directly of causing his anguish. Job is at a loss as to why he has suffered, and he maintains his innocence through the book.
Job’s three friends, on the other hand, appeal to the doctrine of retribution: clearly Job has sinned and done something to deserve divine punishment.
“Remember now, who ever perished being innocent?
Or where were the upright ever cut off?
Even as I have seen,
Those who plow iniquity
And sow trouble reap the same.
By the blast of God they perish,
And by the breath of His anger they are consumed. Job 4:7-9 (NKJV)
Yet Job maintains his innocence before the doctrine of retribution and challenges it by his own innocence. Finally, Job calls God to give him an answer to which God obliges. After God answers Job in a huffy and bombastic manner without ever actually giving Job a real answer (!), Job gives in:
Then Job answered the LORD and said:
“I know that You can do everything,
And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.
You asked, “Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. – Job 42:1-3 (NKJV)
Notice what Job has not done here – he has not admitted any sin that would be a just cause for his suffering. He simply admits that God can do whatever he wants, whether Job likes it or not. In some sense here, Job goes away disappointed, without any real answer. Sounds familiar.
Up to this point in the book of Job, we are left with a theology that many around the world concede: Bad things happen to good people, and there are no real answers, not even theological answers, that make any sense. But the story isn’t over. At the end, God speaks aside to Job’s three friends:
And so it was, after the LORD had spoken these words to Job, that the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. Job 42:7 (NKJV)
In the end, God admits that Job was right – he was suffering unjustly, i.e. as a righteous man (something we knew all along). Job is vindicated by God and blessed in a greater fashion than he was before.
Christ, the Righteous Sufferer
The story of Job is an exhortation to stand firm in righteousness even if the whole world seems to come crashing down upon you, even if God seems to be an adversary (“Why, God, could you let this happen?”). The doctrine of retribution does not explain everything, but there is hope…
And what is that hope? Will everything be restored like Job? Not in this life. Sometimes I think the ending of Job is a bit cheap, because not every righteous sufferer ends up blessed like Job.
But then we see Christ who is the ultimate righteous sufferer. The ultimate unjust suffering is that the sinless, spotless Son of God should be crucified by evil doers. We see then that Job is a type and an icon of Christ, who suffers unjustly yet maintains his righteousness throughout. And like Job, the Father raises his Son from the dead thereby vindicating him and proving his righteousness.
I think we have lost sight of this aspect of the Cross and Resurrection, that the Cross was the ultimate injustice – “My God My God, why have you forsaken me?” – but by the Resurrection, God’s righteousness was proven.
When we suffer the injustice of death, we should not try to diminish what it is – an injustice! We should not try to explain it away as being anything other than what it is – something unjust has occurred, and if God has any control over the world, then he will give an account of himself, and this he does through the Resurrection of his Son.
The Resurrection of the Son of God is a promise and a guarantee that every injustice in the world will be righted, that the unrighteous enemy that is death has been defeated, and we will see that victory completed at his second and glorious coming, when “the dead in Christ shall rise and meet him in the air.”
The Christian, the Righteous Sufferer
So in the mean time, we suffer injustice and we pray to God “How long will you allow this to continue?” We pray for the hastening of the end that God’s righteousness might be proven once and for all, for this is what the early Christians did who suffered martyrdom and persecution saying “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10). And with them we also say מרנא תא maran ˀǝtha O Lord, come!
When I think of the great injustice that is the death of Fr. Matthew Baker, I can only pray that God would bless his Church a hundred fold with such priests and scholars for having suffered the loss of such a one, that God requite us for this loss with a greater blessing as he blessed Job, that he would bless Fr. Matthew’s widow and six surviving children with some greater measure of blessing for having endured such suffering. But if this does not occur, then our faith allows us to know that in the Last Day, all these things will be righted, and blessing will far outweigh the sufferings, for Christ has defeated the last enemy, which is death.
And in the mean time, we can and should do everything we can to right the wrongs that are in our power to do. You can help right this injustice even a small bit by donating to a fund that will help Presvytera Katherine and her six children have some financial security in the coming months.
May his memory be eternal and his soul dwell with the righteous.