Orthodox Social Thought and the Gospel, Part 3

[T]he scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.
This is the wish of our schoolmaster the law, of the prophets who intervened between Christ and the law, of Christ who is the fulfiller and end of the spiritual law; of the emptied Godhead, of the assumed flesh, of the novel union between God and man, one consisting of two, and both in one. St. Gregory the Theologian
St. Gregory the Theologian

Having worked as an author and editor for a decade now, I strongly doubt that a technically perfect book, journal, or magazine exists. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”—so the saying goes. Look hard enough and you will find a grammatical slip, misalignment, misspelling, or misprint. In this sense, perfection paralyzes those who adopt it as their standard. Perfectionism doesn’t publish.

Without contradicting that advice, the Gospel challenges us to consider its seeming opposite: “Don’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect.” The Old Covenant was good. The New Covenant is perfect.

For example, to commemorate their exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days … that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42-43). In the exodus, Moses brought the people to Mt. Horeb, which he ascended, receiving the Law and instructions for the Tabernacle, in which the presence of the Lord travelled with the people, who dwelt in tabernacles (booths) in the desert. When Moses emerged from the cloud of God’s presence, his face shone with the reflection of divine glory.

Compare that to the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). St. Peter, St. James, and St. John accompany Jesus, the Logos of God that “tabernacled in us” (eskenosen en emin—John 1:14), to the top of Mt. Tabor, where his face shines like the sun and a bright cloud descends upon them. There Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the most famous of the Prophets, appear and discuss with Jesus his forthcoming “exodus” (exodon—Luke 9:31). St. Peter, overwhelmed by this, suggests that everyone observe the ceremony the Law prescribed: “Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33). In response, the voice of the Father thunders out, “This is my beloved Son. Hear him!” (Luke 9:35)

How should Orthodox Christians understand the relationship between the Law and the Prophets, on the one hand, and the Gospel, on the other? “This is my beloved Son. Hear him!” Moses and the Prophets are good. Jesus is perfect. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus taught. “I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). What’s the difference? There are, at least, six: transformation, supersession, transnationality, clarification, natural law, and perfection.

First, the Gospel fulfills and goes beyond the Law and the Prophets by Divine Wisdom becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ, teaching the way of salvation, dying, and rising again victorious over death, the devil, and sin—just as the Law and the Prophets promised. As such, many Old Covenant ceremonies are transformed in the New: The Feast of Tabernacles becomes the Feast of the Transfiguration. The Hebrew Passover becomes the Christian Pascha. And so on.

Second, other ceremonies were not destroyed but superseded by the new reality of the Incarnation. When a child grows into an adult, that person isn’t destroyed, though a child no longer. The perfect Body and Blood of Christ, and our participation in them through the Eucharist, supersedes the good sacrifices of the Law. So also, dietary rules and other taboos meant to distinguish God’s people from other nations are superseded in Christ’s Church, which includes all nations.

God chose Israel not only as his own special people but in order to bless to all nations. Thus, Christ rebukes them for cluttering up with commerce the outer court of the Temple, the only place Gentiles could come to worship. “Is it not written,” Jesus asked, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Mark 11:17; cf. Isaiah 56:6-8; Jeremiah 7:11). Commerce per se isn’t bad—people needed animals for sacrifices and to change their Roman currency for the Temple coin—but commerce that filled the outer court robbed the nations of their place in the Lord’s House.

Thus, third, the Gospel transcends nationality. The civil provisions of the Law that governed a particular polity—Israel and later Judah—no longer apply. As Fr. Georges Florovsky noted, “Christianity entered the historical scene as a Society or Community, as a new social order or even a new social dimension, i.e. as the Church.” Studying these provisions can help us understand how God’s moral laws were applied to a specific polity in a specific historical context, but they require further study to apply today.

Fourth, in some cases Jesus refuted not the Law itself but misinterpretations of it. For example, he clarified, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), emphasizing that the Sabbath prohibition of economic labor does not prohibit good works. While we Orthodox still honor the Sabbath by relaxing the work of fasting on Saturdays during Lent, the Sabbath has also been superseded by the Lord’s Day, Sunday, when Christ, after resting from the labor of his Passion, rose from the dead “after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn” (Matthew 28:1).

Fifth, to the extent that the Law of Moses simply made explicit the natural law that God “implanted within [us] from the beginning,” as St. John Chrysostom put it, it still applies today. Impiety, murder, theft, adultery, dishonesty, and covetousness remain sins not only against God and our neighbors, but against our very nature as human beings.

Sixth, the Gospel shows that the Law in this sense should be the beginning, the minimal standard, for our lives in Christ. Thus, when the rich young ruler says, “all these things I have kept from my youth,” “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:20-21), then challenged him to go beyond the Law: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). St. Ambrose even draws a distinction from this passage between “ordinary” and “perfect” duties, and St. John Cassian builds on it similarly as well.

In addition to ordinary, universal morality, each of us have our own calling from Christ, who embodies the personal nature of Divine Wisdom in the Biblical Writings. Christ called this young man to total material renunciation. But as Clement of Alexandria points out, “He bids Zaccheus and Matthew, the rich tax-gathers, entertain Him hospitably. And He does not bid them part with their property, but … He subjoins, ‘To-day salvation has come to this house….’” So also, St. Cyril of Jerusalem exhorted his catechumens, “Hast thou been put in trust with riches? Dispense them well. Hast thou been entrusted with the word of teaching? Be a good steward thereof. Canst thou attach the souls of the hearers? Do this diligently. There are many doors of good stewardship.”

The perfection of the Gospel, then, goes beyond the Law, but in this life that looks different for each person. Parents must have some income and property to provide for their children, whereas the rich young ruler had no such obligations. Trying to depersonalize the Gospel in this life confuses it with the Law and undermines it. For example, the Lord even said that some “have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” meaning those who embrace celibacy, not literal castration. But he adds, “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:21), acknowledging that not all are “able to accept it.” If, instead, one tried to mandate celibacy for everyone, it would be tyranny, not the Gospel. So also the renunciation of property.

That said, all people are called to chastity and not just in the outward sense of the Law. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” says Jesus. “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). The Gospel calls everyone to the higher standard of purity of heart. So also with detachment, generosity, and mercy. The difference between monasticism and the everyday asceticism of all Christians is a matter of degree, not kind.

Indeed, St. Gregory of Nyssa clarified that spiritual perfection is an unending process, rather than a static state: “The person who looks at a cubit or the number ten knows that its perfection consists in the fact that it has both beginning and end. In the case of virtue … its one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit.” It is, quite literally, eternal life.

Transfiguration of Christ

As created beings, perfection is a continuum, not a binary proposition for us. We become by grace what God is by nature, but we never fully “arrive.” Many Fathers, such as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Climacus, and St. Nicholas Cabasilas, even identify three “different stages of perfection,” as Abba Chæremon put it in Cassian’s Conferences: “[W]e are called by the Lord from high things to still higher in such a way that he who has become blessed and perfect in the fear of God; going … from fear to hope, is summoned in the end to that still more blessed stage, which, is love….”

The slave obeys out of fear of punishment, barely surpassing the Law and fulfilling the requirements of natural justice. The servant or steward goes beyond this, adding prudence to justice, obeying out of hope for reward. But the mature heir and child of God obeys simply out of love for the Father in perfect mercy, as Christ demonstrated for us even with his last breath from the Cross: “It is perfected” (tetelestai—John 19:30). The Old Testament Writings taught us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111[110]:10), but fear is not the end: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). Such is the perfect love of the Gospel.

On our better days, we manage some foretaste of the “heavenly bliss” that love contains. Many others, however, we struggle even to fear God as we ought. But by the “grace and truth” that “came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), we make progress, however imperfect, along that narrow and difficult “way which leads to life” (Matthew 7:14) in the Church. In my next essay on the Apostles, we will begin to see the transformative mission of that new and heavenly polity, both for the kingdom of God and the common good.

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