6th Sunday after Pentecost: Matthew 9:1-8 [cf. Mark 2:3-12; Luke 5:18-26]
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s reading is an interesting lesson about the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is ‘preaching the Word’ to the crowd—from the house where he was staying—and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, or Empire, of God. He speaks of God’s Kingdom, power, and glory ‘breaking into’ the world. The crowd is so large that no one can even get near the door.
Suddenly, four men appear and make a hole in the roof of the house in order to lower their friend into the presence of Christ. They seek the Kingdom of God of which Jesus speaks. However, they are not looking for words—they want power. As St. Paul writes: “For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power” [cf. I Corinthians 4:20].
Jesus’ pastoral response
This lesson proceeds to offer us an important message about God Himself—God can, and indeed does, forgive sins. As St. Isaac the Syrian says: “There is no sin which cannot be pardoned except that one which lacks repentance…” [cf. Six Treatises on the Behavior of Excellence]. We are sinners—not only because we commit sin—but because we do not hate sin and repent.
In Mark, we read: “Jesus saw [the] faith of the men” [cf. 2:5]. This faith was not simply momentary intellectual assent, emotion, or feeling—it was manifested in determined, concrete, and visible action. The faith of these men was manifested for all to see. Jesus then says: “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you” [cf. Matthew 9:2]. He knows this paralyzed man’s heart, and this is Jesus’ pastoral response to a man who is wounded in body, soul, and spirit.
The Jews are astonished by Jesus’ words to the paralytic. Such words infringed on the prerogatives of the Old Testament Levitical priesthood—which priests performed the atoning rituals according to the Law [cf. Leviticus 4:1-32]. These priests acted as intermediaries but all Jews agreed that the prerogative to forgive sins belongs to God alone [cf. Mark 2:7].
Who were the scribes?
“And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts” [cf. Mark 2:6].
Who were these scribes? In the New Testament, the scribes—or lawyers—were public teachers of the Law [cf. Matthew 22:35; Mark 12:28; Luke 20:39]. They were adherents of the party (or sect) of the Pharisees, meaning ‘separatists’. They expounded upon the Torah and regularly supplemented the Law with their own traditions, thereby obscuring the Law and often even nullifying it [cf. Matthew 23:1-37; Mark 7:13]. In Mark, the scribes ‘reasoned’ and silently judged Jesus saying ‘within their hearts’: “Why does this man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” [cf. Mark 2:6-7].
In brief digression, it should be noted that although it is possible for a man to forgive sins committed against himself—every sin is ultimately a sin against God. The Holy Prophet King David writes: “Against you, and you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight” [cf. Psalms 51:4]. He wrote that Psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband—Uriah the Hittite [cf. II Samuel 11:1-26]. David had, in fact, sinned greatly against both Uriah and Bathsheba. As King, he had sinned against all of his subjects. Nevertheless, his greatest sin was against God—and only God could forgive such sin [cf. Psalms 51:1-3; 85:2].
Notwithstanding, the scribes pronounced judgement --in their hearts-- on Jesus and found Him guilty of blasphemy for assuming God’s exclusive prerogative to forgive sins. Among the Jews, blasphemy was a serious sin, and the Torah ordered the execution of blasphemers by lapidation (stoning) [cf. Leviticus 24:10-23]. Thus, the issue of blasphemy was raised at the very outset of Jesus’ ministry. Later, the Sanhedrin will formally charge Jesus with blasphemy, and on the basis thereof, demand His crucifixion [cf. Mark 14:61-64].
The scribes in today’s lesson were disturbed, but it was not Jesus that caused their uneasiness. The Lord Jesus Christ says: “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man” [cf. Mark 7:15]. The scribes—with all of their education and ‘understanding’ of the Law and the Prophets—were unable to see God at work in their midst. Instead, they perceived Christ’s loving and pastoral words as blasphemy and His actions as evil. The evil within them, which they refused to relinquish, did not allow them to move beyond their own inadequate and false perceptions of reality.
Jesus asked the scribes: “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” [cf. Matthew 9:4]. Why do we think evil in our hearts? It is because of the impurity within us. Only the pure in heart can see God [cf. Matthew 5:8]. Those on the highway to holiness [cf. Isaiah 35:8] —those who are striving towards theosis— are, as are all men, made in the image of God and are in the process of re-acquiring His likeness. Those who are impure —although created in the image of God— attempt to re-create God into their own fallen and damaged likeness.
Set yourself free by setting God free
Like the scribes in today’s Gospel, the impure seek to put God into a metaphorical box—a box, as it were, created by their own fixed and sinful attitudes (or mindsets) formed by their own prejudices, inadequate and false perceptions of reality, and unfounded opinions. The impure seek to put God into a box in order to circumscribe, or restrict, Him.
Although we may try to put God into a box and re-create Him into our own fallen and damaged likeness—it is we who need to be freed. The essence of God is incomprehensible to the human mind. No finite mind can fully comprehend His character, attributes, or works. He is clothed in mystery—but though “clouds and darkness are round about Him: righteousness and judgment are the foundation of His throne” [cf. Psalms 97:2]. We can only comprehend His dealings with us in terms of His boundless mercy united to His infinite power. We can only understand as much of His purposes as we are capable of comprehending; beyond this, we must trust the hand that is omnipotent—the heart that is full of love.
The revelation of God to man in the creation, Holy Scriptures and Holy Tradition presents mysteries that can never be fully comprehended by finite beings. This should not surprise us. In the natural world we are constantly surrounded with wonders beyond our comprehension. Should we then be surprised to find that the spiritual world also holds mysteries that we cannot fathom? God cannot be circumscribed—He cannot be put into a box of our making. He cannot be restricted. He is not contained, even in creation or Holy Scripture. He is revealed in a way that we can understand.
“The wayfaring men, though fools, shall not enter therein” [cf. Isaiah 35:8]. But no child need mistake the path. Not one trembling seeker need fail to walk in the pure and Holy Light. Yet the most simply stated and revealed truths lay hold upon themes elevated, far-reaching, infinitely beyond the power of human comprehension—mysteries that are the hiding of His glory, mysteries that overpower the mind in its research—such mysteries inspire the sincere ‘seeker for truth’ with reverence and faith.
The more we search, the deeper is our conviction that His revelation to us is nothing but the Word of the living God, and human reason bows before the majesty of Divine revelation. God desires us to understand as much as our minds are capable of receiving. The difficulty lies in the finiteness of the human mind and of human language.
There is an inherent difficulty in attempting to define that which is indefinable. As stated, language is also a barrier. How can the effable describe the ineffable? There are no words or combination of words that we can use to adequately define God’s essence or attributes. In this regard, human language limits rather than expands our thoughts, understanding, and expression. True knowledge, or gnosis, of God is inexpressible—it is experiential.
We need humility as we approach the Holy Scriptures. God intends that—to the earnest seeker—the truths of His Word shall be ever unfolding. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but [only those] things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” [cf. Deuteronomy 29:29]. Finite understanding cannot be applied to infinite mystery. God contains all but He cannot be contained. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” [cf. Isaiah 55:8-9]. In other words, our knowledge is incomplete.
All that which God the Lord has revealed unto us—of or about Himself is entirely true—but our understanding remains incomplete. Ultimately, there are mysteries that we can never understand. The Holy Prophet King David says: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” [cf. Psalms 131:1]. Yet, David was at peace—assured by faith that God alone knows all things and that He alone is fully in control. God is in control of those things that we do not understand. For this reason, David exhorts us to “hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore” [cf. Psalms 131:3]. David’s awareness of his own limitations leads him to submit to and worship the One who knows all things.
How then, do we attempt to circumscribe God? How do we attempt to relegate God to a metaphorical box in order to restrict Him? How do we attempt to re-create God into our own fallen and damaged likeness, after the manner of the pagans who fashioned deities in the likeness of fallen man? The following 5 points proffer some insight:
1. We attempt to circumscribe God [or put Him into a box] when we espouse inconsistent and simplistic understandings of -and doubtful and enigmatic theories regarding- His revelation.
For example, we know that “God is love” [cf. I John 4:8]. God is indeed the very embodiment of love. Love is part of the fabric of His being. But we must also consider, and come to terms with the fact, that “God is a [devouring] consuming fire” who metes out justice to the unrighteous [cf. Hebrews 12:29; Exodus 24:15-16; Deuteronomy 4:23-25]. If we overemphasize one part of God’s revelation over another, we are attempting to circumscribe Him (that is, we are attempting to re-fashion God into our own fallen and damaged likeness). We must accept and uphold all of God’s revelation to us. We must not ‘pick and choose’ or favor one part of His revelation over another. We must not take on the personality of a “double-minded man who is unstable in all his ways” [cf. James 1:8]. We must not thresh or winnow the grain in order to obtain that which is more palatable to us—for God knows best [cf. Proverbs 3:5-6].
2. We attempt to circumscribe God [or put Him into a box] when we construct notions based upon unconfirmed presuppositions about Him over and above that which has been revealed.
When we become aware of our limitations, we must also face the reality that there are many mysteries that lie beyond the narrow ability and powers of human comprehension. Therefore, we must only speak of and proclaim as Truth that which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and Holy Tradition, and remain silent when and where these are silent. A clear example of that which is beyond our comprehension is the doctrine of the Trinity. We know from Scripture and Tradition that God exists in three Persons—the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the Trinity one in essence and undivided. However, we cannot understand this mystery. The same is true of the correlation between human responsibility and Divine sovereignty. We cannot always understand how they relate. Therefore, in humility, we must not construct notions based upon demonic fantasies in regard to matters in which God Himself has remained silent.
3. We attempt to circumscribe God [or put Him into a box] when we believe, claim, or act as if the promises of God are not for this present age—thereby nullifying the words spoken by God through the Holy Apostle Paul, who said: “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God” [cf. II Corinthians 1:20]. For the Lord Jesus Christ also said: “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him” [cf. Mark 11:23].
Do we really believe in the Lord’s promises? Have we filed the Lord’s promises away in order not to be confronted by our lack of faith? Are the Lord’s promises merely metaphors? Or even worse, exaggerations or hyperbole? Again, we read: “And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of Him” [cf. I John 5:14-15].
4. We attempt to circumscribe God [or put Him into a box] when we believe that we have epistemic access to Divine intentions and God’s purposes for the cosmos, or that we are otherwise and somehow privy to God’s plans and purposes.
In such a state, we imagine that things happen for this or that reason, but we delude ourselves. God is the only sovereign Lord of the universe and there is nothing that happens that is beyond His knowledge and control. We, in turn need only to rest in His omniscience, foreknowledge, and sovereignty. When we imagine that we can know the reason why things happened, we are attempting to circumscribe God [or put Him into a box]. Through cognitive biases and faulty heuristics —the shortcuts and rules of thumb by which we make judgments and predictions— we delude ourselves into believing that we can know the unknowable. But God has hidden such knowledge from us. Perhaps in eternity, He will reveal these secrets to us—or perhaps not. Therefore, and by reason of example, rather than claiming that God has sent calamities to punish evil, we need only say that God is in control, and He dispenses knowledge as He sees fit. Ultimately, we need only pray that He delivers us from wrath, famine, pestilence, earthquake, flood, fire, the sword, foreign invasion, civil strife and sudden death, and have mercy on us.
5. We attempt to circumscribe God [or put Him into a box] when there is a schism between our faith (orthodoxia) and our daily-everyday practice (praxis).
In modern-day society, religion is relegated to the private sphere. Religion is considered to be a subjective choice, not an objective reality. It is therefore awash in moral relativism. Conversely, the public sphere is considered to be the dwelling place of facts—which are supposedly objective and can be proven scientifically. The public sphere—the purported sphere of facts—is objective and binding on everyone. When we view the world through such a lens, we place God in a metaphoric box. We have practically—though in all likelihood unknowingly—defined our faith as a subjective and private matter that has little or no impact on our daily and public lives. Such a worldview makes it impossible to “walk in the Spirit” [cf. Galatians 5:16-25] and to perform our Christian duties for His sake and in His power.
In conclusion, we need to realize that when we attempt to circumscribe the uncircumscribable God [or put Him into a box], such a box only exists in our feeble minds. God transcends any concept or category that we can invent or create to define or contain Him.
Notwithstanding, ‘putting God in a box’ and worshipping a God fashioned after our own fallen and damaged likeness manifests itself in our every thought, word, and deed. ‘Putting God in a box’ manifests itself in lack of submission to God and rejection of His sovereignty. ‘Putting God in a box’ manifests itself in a general lack of humility for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble'' [cf. I Peter 5:5]. 'Putting God in a box’ manifests itself in irresponsibility. ‘Putting God in a box’ manifests itself in the demystification of God and loss of awe in His presence. ‘Putting God in a box’ manifests itself in every manner of iniquity. ‘Putting God in a box’ opposes the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, in accordance with the Holy Apostle Paul’s words to St. Timothy, we must: “[s]tudy to show yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. …[S]hun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer… and… overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless, the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the Name of Christ depart from iniquity’. But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay—some for honor and some for dishonor” [cf. II Timothy 2:13-20].
God is infinite and cannot be contained. He cannot be circumscribed or put in a box.
God transcends any concept or category that we can invent or create to define or contain Him
Finally, and in paraphrase: ‘Set yourself free by setting God free in the recesses of your mind—submit to God and let God work His will in you. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Say ‘yes’ to God, draw near to Him, and He will draw near to you. Turn your back on sin. Purify your inner life, stop being double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Be prepared to hit rock bottom [or reach your lowest possible point]—and cry. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. Do not judge your brother. Do not boast about tomorrow—for you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is only a wisp of fog that will disappear when the sun appears. Do not boast in your arrogance—all such boasting is evil. For to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin' [cf. James 4:7-17]. Finally, discover anew the mystery that is God, and fall down in awe before Him.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.