Grace and the Frog

When David completed the Book of Psalms he was uplifted with satisfaction. He said to God, “Does there exist any creature which You created anywhere in the entire universe which sings songs and praises which surpass mine?” At that moment a frog passed and said, “David, do not be uplifted with pride, for I sing songs and praises which surpass yours!… Not only that, but I also perform a mitzvah [an ascetic obedience]. On the seashore there is a creature which draws its sustenance from the sea. When that creature is hungry it takes me and eats me. That is my ascetic obedience.” … The song of the frog is: “Blessed be the name of the glory of His Kingdom forever and ever.”

A Rabbinic parable from Perek Shira

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I found this gem of a story in the new book, The Grace of Incorruption, by Donald Sheehan (I strongly recommend it for wonderful spiritual reading). Many rabbinic stories sound remarkably like the stories from the Desert Fathers. Apparently, living with a Tradition, a primarily Biblical Tradition, can make for frequent sameness. Some thoughts on the frog:

The mitzvah of the frog is a wonderful example of grace and good works – rightly understood. A mitzvah is a good work, a fulfilling of a commandment. This is true in the Christian faith as well – any deed done in joyful fulfillment of the commandments of Christ could be called a mitzvah. And the mitzvah of the frog is like the great mitzvah of Christ – a voluntary self-offering. This is the very nature and character of Eucharistic existence.

In many ways, the difference between faith and works (negatively defined) comes down to the difference between a Eucharistic action and a non-Eucharistic action. Anything that can be done with grateful thanksgiving becomes a point of communion with God. All that He gives to us is given in utterly free generosity. There is no demand from God that we owe Him anything. He does not make us into His debtors.

The person who gives no thanks receives the same as the person who gives thanks in all things. God causes His rain to fall on the “just and the unjust.” There are, of course, many among the “just” who resent God’s generosity. It seems to us that God could control the world much better if the actions of the evil were punished immediately and clearly and actions of the good rewarded just as quickly. But such is not the way of God. Neither should it be the way of anyone who professes faith in Christ.

There are some things that we have to do that are very difficult – and distinctly unpleasant. “Grateful thanksgiving” by no means excludes such things. However, they bring us to the paradox of the Cross, for we are told that Christ “went to the Cross for the joy that was set before Him” (Heb. 12:2).  Thanksgiving is perhaps the measure of all things –  the surest manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

20 comments:

  1. As ever, many thanks, Father! It can be surprisingly difficult to be grateful and joyful. I think I need to get a t-shirt with a frog on it that says “mitzvah”. How fun would that be? Might be a good conversation starter too.

  2. Grammar note: It looks like “eats” is misspelled in the below sentance from the parable.

    “When that creature is hungry it takes me and etas me.”

  3. This is a most difficult word. It is much easier to think of our work as prayer or going to church or reading the bible or anything that requires action. Much more difficult when we realize it’s not the work, but an inner condition of our heart in the midst of the work…that of thanksgiving. I find it very difficult to be thankful in my work. Thank you, Father, for reminding me of my purpose.

  4. Fr. Stephen,

    I have been thinking about a lot of what you say, and I admit I am very drawn to its power. I share most of your articles, and I find them very refreshing.

    I do, however, have a question that I haven’t quite been able to put into words until now, prompted by your statement, “[God] does not make us into His debtors.”

    How do we explain — or rather, integrate — the statements of our Lord regarding our forgiveness of others’ debts — specifically, that if we do not forgive others, our own debts will not be forgiven, and we will be cast into prison until we have paid the last farthing?

    How, then, can it be said that “[God] does not make us His debtors”? God does make us. And by virtue of said making we are, by default (pun intended), His debtors.

    Surely He doesn’t require this debt of us immediately, but that doesn’t mean we don’t owe it. And if we do not forgive others their debts, He will not (continue to) forgive us ours. Thus we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

    How do we integrate this with Eucharistic thought? (It’s clearly meant to be.)

  5. Steve,
    Very good questions.

    Let’s start with our very existence. You noted that “God made us.” Indeed, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” He also made Satan and the other fallen angels – and sustains them in existence. The gift of existence is indeed a gift, and He does not repent of giving it. If a gift creates a debt, it is not a gift. He would be the “Lender of life,” and not the “Giver of life.”

    If we make debtors of others (by not forgiving them), we will find ourselves in a state of being in which we are bound by such debts. There is no freedom in debt. If we do not forgive our debtors, our own debts remain. But this is not because God is holding it over us and punishing us by not forgiving our debts. It’s simply that the reality of freedom will not be known by us because we have given ourselves over to the world of debt.

    “Freely you have received, freely give.”

  6. ” . . . any deed done in joyful fulfillment of the commandments of Christ could be called a mitzvah. And the mitzvah of the frog is like the great mitzvah of Christ – a voluntary self-offering. This is the very nature and character of Eucharistic existence.

    . . . Anything that can be done with grateful thanksgiving becomes a point of communion with God.”

    Thank you, Father. This is how an Orthodox Jew understands the keeping of God’s commandments–the doing of His mitsvoth. It is one reason he finds it to understand our claim of being no longer “under law” and of being freed from its “curse.” On his behalf, I truly appreciate your characterizing a mitsvah as an ascetic obedience. The original chassidim and 2 of the 7 types of Pharisees (those “reverence for Heaven” and “of love”–e.g. Nicodemos and the noble Joseph of Arimathaea?) would have also agreed.

    As you say, “living with a Tradition, a primarily Biblical Tradition, can make for frequent sameness.” Indeed, more than we typically are wont to admit.

    May that kinship of Tradition (e.g. the early Pirkei avoth) help tear back down the wall of division between us who rejoice in the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity and those observant children of avinu Abraham, who have not yet been able to see them in their brilliance.

    Christ is risen.
    rlb

  7. I think I understand. Again, forgive me….I am simply having trouble understanding what the Lord meant when He said, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”.

    He did not say, “You will remain bound to the debt obligations you do not release.” He says, “Your Father will not forgive you.” Implying, then, that there are debts we owe, and that they will not be forgiven, because the Father will not forgive them.

    If His giving of existence is without obligation, how then can He require anything of us? And yet He does require many things, not least of which is obedience to the Gospel. If one does not obey the Gospel, He will take vengeance in flaming fire, punishing with everlasting destruction from His face. By what right can He do this if we have no obligation to Him?

  8. ajt, you aptly note that dealing with the “inner condition of our heart in the midst of the work” is more difficult than the work itself.

    I agree. But I’m encouraged, too, because doing that is so practical!

    Giving thanks in any situation is like turning a key — a simple (not easy) matter that’s well within our control.

    We can thank God anytime for anything and when we do our very being becomes a prayer offering, especially when it is difficult.

    Please pray for me to cultivate this habit. I will be praying the same for you and the others fortunate to be blessed by this blog because it reminds us of our present inheritance in Christ.

  9. Steve,
    Yes. I understand the questions. What I’m offering is an interpretation that moves beyond a literal reading. We do this at any number of points. We do not literally “hate our father and mother,” even though we’re told that unless we do so we will not inherit the Kingdom.

    “Neither will He forgive” is a statement that has to be understood in some depth. That understanding will rightly take us to what I have said. That is the Tradition of the faith.

  10. The parable of the frog is indeed illuminating. However, the idea that, “Apparently, living with a Tradition, a primarily Biblical Tradition, can make for frequent sameness,” is misleading. Orthodox Christianity is the religion of the Bible; Judaism (at least Orthodox Judaism) is the religion of the Talmud, which usurps the Bible. The Biblical religion leads to the affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ; the Talmudic religion leads to something very different indeed.

  11. Greg,
    I have not asserted otherwise. But the Talmud is deeply rooted in the Scriptures, but without the right interpretation that comes only in Christ. But, if you read things such as the Sayings of the Baal Shem Tov, you would have to admit that my observation is correct. I think it is quite incorrect, even anachronistic to say that the Talmud “usurps” the Bible. Some of the earliest portions of the Talmud are older than certain portions of the Old Testament. Christ had clear criticisms of certain things that would come to be part of Talmud. But I think your characterization of the Talmud and the Bible (Tanakh) in Orthodox Judaism is simply wrong. No Orthodox Jew would agree with your characterization. The Talmud, for them, is a weighty commentary on the Scriptures, something with which they debate and through which they interpret and understanding – but they would never agree that it is a substitute.

  12. Perhaps Greg’s assertion might be based on the fact that the Talmud’s “Oral Law” (severely criticised by our Lord when He said, “By the traditions of your elders you make void the Word of God.”) now contains such extremely blasphemous verses amongst its other collected writings that it’s (as Saint Paisios used to say) like a couple of fine fried eggs with some bird droppings in, i.e.: it’s no good to eat…

    [here’s some pretty horrid examples I would not like to repeat, for anyone contesting this: ]
    Rosh Hashanah 17a
    Sanhedrin 107b,
    Shabbath 104b, (Hebrew Edition only)
    Gittin 57a,
    Shulkan Arukh, Yoreh De ‘ah, 158, (Hebrew Edition only)
    Sotah 47a
    Sanhedrin 106a

  13. Not bashing anyone, just pointing out one of the critical, indeed crucial, differences between Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox Judaism. One leads to eternal life in Christ, the other to the rejection of the only True God and Savior.

  14. The assertion of “a primarily Biblical Tradition,” which “can make for frequent sameness” was what caught my attention. Orthodox Judaism is not “primarily Biblical” it is “primarily” Talmudic; the Pharisees of the Lord’s time quoted the Scriptures in the same manner that the Talmud (from whom it is descended) has quoted them to this day.

  15. Years ago I was blessed to be taught to develop an “attitude of gratitude.” I am still working on it. Sometimes I forget.

    In the book, “The Enlargement of the Heart” by Archimandrite Zcharias, on page 56
    he writes, “But there is another way, for people living in the world: to keep thanking God continually, thus: I thank Thee, O Lord, for all the things that Thou hast done for me”, and then stating them. and finishing with “though I am unworthy.”

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