Some ancient Christian commentators on James 1:17-27

 

This is a continuation of the previous discussion of this Sunday’s Epistle Reading from James particularly with reference to true religion.

John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople (344/354-407) wrote: “We can become more like God if we are merciful and compassionate. If we do not do these things, we have nothing at all to our credit. God does not say that if we fast we shall be like him. Rather he wants us to be merciful as he himself is. ‘I desire mercy’, he says, ‘and not sacrifice’”

In the 7th century, Bede – commonly known as Bede the Venerable (c.672/73-735) the author of An Ecclesiastical History of the English People noted that spiritual happiness is gained not by empty words but by putting our good intentions into practice.

The contrasts in these two examples need no more elaboration.

What Hilary of Arles (c. 401-449) writes in Introductory Tractate on the Letter of James speaks eloquently today, especially with regard to public policy, policy making in general and prioritizing. He wrote: “What he (James) says about widows has to be understood in the light of the fact that there were many who tried to rob them of their possessions…”.

In biblical language, widows and orphans are terms used to include the poor, the needy, the aliens, and all who are vulnerable in society.

There is another good example from the 6th century, from Oecumenius, in his work on “The Practice of Religion”. He wrote, “If you want to be truly religious, do not demonstrate this by your knowledge of the law but by the way you put it into practice. Religion appears to mean something more than ‘faith’…”

How about James’ exhortation about controlling the tongue?

Bede writes, “James says here that even if someone appears to be doing the good works of faith…none of this matters unless he restrains his tongue from slanders, lies, blasphemes, nonsense, verbosity and other things which lead to sin”.

I have sometimes wondered if there has been any significant change in human thinking over the centuries, especially with regard to religion, spirituality and how we practice them in society.

 

 

Is spirituality the antithesis of religion?

 

It is not uncommon – actually it is fashionable these days – to hear people express anti-religion sentiment, saying, “I am spiritual but not religious”, especially when talking to strangers or new acquaintances. (There are some good examples in Match.com). The impetus is the desire to distance oneself from formalities.

Criticism of empty rhetoric and expressions lacking tangible application to people’s lives is not new. Indeed, those who would rather refer to themselves as believers (in contrast to religious) or play faith against religion, have at times been in the very camp they chastise.

In this Sunday’s Epistle Reading from James 1:17-27 the writer states: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”. Faith is practice, and so is religion; not systems or thought forms, but relating to one another.

This goes back to the very beginning of the church, as evident from some ancient Christian commentators of scriptures whose comments are in the next post.

 

Stepping into the unknown is itself transformational

 

Thinking of transformation on a day when we commemorate St. Augustine of Hippo – best described as a “sinner-turned-saint”, – I am often drawn to think of his saintly mother, Monica. Until he was converted, or transformed, at age 33, Augustine’s early years were in search of the true meaning of life.

He lived a life of indulgence with intensity.

Monica, on the other hand, fervently prayed for her son. She prayed that he would find the light, the truth he was searching; that he would be converted. Yes, she prayed for his transformation; and this she did for many years.

When he was called to the academic and sophisticated world of Milan, her worries for him intensified. The lifestyle that the north African city of Hippo afforded Augustine was worrisome enough for her. How much more the lifestyle that awaited him in Milan? Surely it was not what she had prayed for all those years!

She prayed that the Divine Maker would prevent him from going to Milan.

Yet, it was precisely where she feared most that his life would finally be wasted that he found the light he had been searching for. Her feared place of death became his discovered place of life. In Milan, he found conversion; he found transformation and he has continued, to this day, almost 16 centuries later, to inspire transformation in many. 

I have learned not to be afraid of stepping into the unknown but to seek transformation in every situation – from the best or the worst, the scary, the inviting and the uninviting. There is light to be discovered.

 

 

 

From a small humble step to a giant leap for mankind

 

It was on August 5, 2012 when the Mars rover, Curiosity landed inside the planet Mars’ huge Gale Crater. Since then, not a single day has passed by without some amazing pictures and stories from the red planet, 36-62 million miles away. Back in January 2004, Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on the planet, the latter still moving across the Martian terrain.

Forty three years and a month ago, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step outside his habitat and land into another terrain. The words he uttered from the surface of the moon, “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” have remained indelible in the minds of generations.

Most pioneers do not live to see the full results of their endeavors; only future generations look back and see the humble beginning initiated by someone who simply heeded the call of life. Indeed, everyone has a mission to fulfill on earth.

Neil Armstrong accepted his call – and almost everybody who has made a remark about his death has mentioned his humility. He never sought to gain special recognition for following his life’s call. He saw himself as simply one who accepted and embraced himself, discovered his life purpose and aligned himself with the Universal or God – all elements we have emphasized repeatedly as necessary for transformation.

As we continue to be amazed by the pictures from Mars, we are also inspired to know that what seemed impossible is now possible in our own lifetime. That “one giant leap for mankind” is now happening, not a dream anymore. It is equally inspiring that Neil Armstrong lived to see the full implications of the first words uttered on the moon by a human being.

Indeed, as his family requested, whenever we look at the moon – and now even more significantly – the pictures from Mars, we should smile and give him a wink – even a salute.

Indecision is not “brimstone, fire and pestilence” but can equally be catastrophic

 

When the peak of Mount Vesuvius erupted in a volcano on August 24, 79, everybody in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum was caught by surprise. Lacking today’s technology which can predict when a volcano might erupt, the 12 noon catastrophe left for future generations a picture of devastation and the daily activities of the two cities that no historian could have written.

About 20,000 people lived in Pompeii and 5,000 in Herculaneum. Both cities were prosperous, evidenced by gambling in Herculaneum and a brothel in Pompeii.

The evidence of the licentiousness and frivolous lifestyles unearthed by archaeologists in the 18th to the 20th centuries has provided ammunition to preachers of doom and extremists to read “brimstone, fire and pestilence” into the catastrophe to warn against present-day immorality. However, according to Pliny the Younger, volcanic ash and pumice stones rained on Pompeii for 12 hours during which time many of the inhabitants fled in terror.

It was the next day, August 25 when the people who remained in the city were killed by a lethal cloud of toxic gas and were subsequently buried by the flow of rock and ash that followed. After 18 hours, Pompeii was buried under 14 -17 feet of ash and pumice. Herculaneum in turn was buried under 60 feet of mud and volcanic material.

The point to consider here is not “brimstone, fire and pestilence”, or ash, wind and rocks, but action versus inaction. It is hard to predict the outcome of a catastrophe – that is why it is a catastrophe! Probably less people would have perished but for the inaction.

Today too, we face moments of decision all the time. In moments of impending hurricanes and possible tornadoes, warnings are issued. Still, many people remain petrified with indecision. In personal matters too – be they health issues, relationships or lifestyles changes – decision far outweighs indecision.

Working through forgiveness and restoration

 

The current media obsession with the misdeeds of Prince Harry in his private life in a private time is only indicative of the western society’s penchant for sensationalism with the dark side. (So much for the slogan: What happens in Las Vegas remains in Las Vegas). We have a public that feeds and thrives on the scandals of the famous and celebrities. After all even the term “celebrity” is a western invention.

There is a lot of good things being done by millions of  ordinary and extra-ordinary people everyday. The consuming public is not interested and the media will not dish them out. In the example of Prince Harry, even his very public military service in Afghanistan is shielded in secrecy, ostensibly for security reasons!

At the bottom of this sensation with the dark side is the opportunity for glee at the other person’s ridicule and embarrassment and ultimately down-fall from grace.

Christians can learn from Jesus’ examples of working through forgiveness and restoration.  For example, when Peter denied him – three times – only a few hours  (two, may be) after declaring his readiness to die with him, Jesus did not ridicule him. (If it was today, Peter’s despicable lapse would have been top story on TMZ and on the Networks’ morning and evening shows)  On the contrary, after his resurrection, there, by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus charged Peter: “Feed my sheep…Take care of my sheep”

Yet this lesson is not grounded in Christian teaching alone. Forgiveness and restoration are principles of every form of spirituality. That is what inspires and transforms individuals, society, and the world.

Suggestions and comments are welcome.

Synopsis of some early Christian interpretations

 

This is a continuation of the discussion of the Gospel Reading for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. (See the preceding post).

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in his Sermones (Sermons) wrote, “When he is eaten, he nourishes without diminishing. So do not be afraid, brothers and sisters, of eating this bread, in case we should possibly finish it and find nothing to eat later on…”

According to John Chrysostom (344/354- 407), bishop of Constantinople,  in his Homilies on the Gospel of John, Jesus “knew how precious a thing life was in people’s eyes, and therefore he repeats his promise of life often…he offers life without end”.

Hilary of Pointiers (315-367) observed that “Jesus already knew what was on their minds and knows what is on ours too”. St. Augustine added that, for this very reason, the act of believing is a gift and not a merit “as the Father sometimes has to ‘drag’ us to Christ”. This is a truth that has been lost by some segments of Christianity which have made faith another “work of the law”.

Similarly, Jerome (347-420) noted that the truth Jesus spoke to that crowd in Capernaum was hard to hear, just as it has always been and will continue to be. Tertullian (155/160 -225/250) saw this as help in determining who truly sought to follow Jesus and who did half-heartedly. According to Chrysostom, Jesus did not compel the disciples to stay with him but he also sought to discern their motivation.

Athanasius of Alexandria (295-373) noted that what mattered to Jesus was not the number of disciples but rather their faithfulness. Thus, Peter response, “To whom shall we go?” implied “who or what could possibly be better to follow than their Lord?”.

Regarding Jesus’ knowledge of Judas’ intentions, Cyril of Alexandria (375-444) observed that Jesus did not expose him to the other disciples, but gave them an opportunity for introspection. For Augustine, this indicates that “God can take what was meant for evil and turn even that into good”.

Obviously, these thoughts give us a glimpse of these early Christian thinkers’ background and experience. Hopefully, they also give us something to think of our own experiences today.

For a detailed study, see Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, IVA, edited by Joel C. Elowsky, (Inter Varsity Press) 2006.

“Who can take this?”

 

If you have been following the lectionary readings for the past four Sundays or so, you must have noticed that the Gospel Readings have come from John, drawing on bread (and bread from heaven), manna and blood. In this Sunday’s reading from John 6:56-69 Jesus speaks of “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood…”

As would be expected, many of his followers found this, not only cryptic – cannibalistic – but also offensive. For the Jews, the Mosaic Law clearly prohibited drinking of blood or eating flesh with blood in it.  Furthermore, the Noahide Laws, which apply to all humankind prohibited drinking of blood.  The reason for the prohibition was the understanding that blood was actually the source, or sustenance of life.

This gives us a clue as to what Jesus was actually talking about because he could not have been literal – a good lesson for the literalists!

Manna came from heaven too – for sustenance and nourishment – but it was perishable. Union with Christ, which is, actually, the deeper meaning of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, also sustains and nourishes life. Unlike in the case of  the manna, though, the life is eternal, not perishable.

It is interesting to examine how some early Christian commentators interpreted this passage which drove away some followers, literally saying, “We cannot take this, we are out of here!”. Read the next post for a synopsis of some early Christian interpretation.

Accept yourself

 

On the list of some transformation essentials, we have briefly commented on create, align, embrace and discover – create yourself, align yourself, embrace yourself, discover yourself –  and now accept yourself.

Too often, and too many people have lived in regret, shame, fear and even misery because they are not who “they could have been”. They have been uncomfortable with who they are, because they have been told who they could have been. Or because they have been criticized for being who they are.

Napoleon Hill observed: “Close friends and relatives, while not meaning to do so, often handicap one through ‘opinions’ and sometimes through ridicule…Thousands of men and women carry inferiority complexes with them through life, because some well-meaning but ignorant person destroyed their confidence through ‘opinions’ and ridicule”.

It is not only friends and relatives who inculcate images of who one should have been. Society, in general seeks to “clone” its members. Schools – from very early age, for example – strive to make pupils into what society desires.

When one is considered unfit or different, the resultant indifference or ridicule can have life-long effects on the individual.

We are who we are by intention and for a purpose and these are beyond the designs of friends, family and society. Accept who you are because the Creator made the perfect image. If the Creator accepts us, we ought not do otherwise..

Discover your life purpose

It is a fact that every individual came to this world – was created – to live out a distinct and unique purpose. In scriptures, for example, Jeremiah learned that even before he was born, he had been set apart for a specific purpose (Jeremiah 1:5).

Individuals who discover their life purpose and live according to it, make an indelible impression. Actually, everyone desires to leave a mark on this world; but only those who passionately follow their life purpose do so.

In the Christian model, for example, every believer has been given a spiritual gift for the purpose of building up the one body. These gifts vary from individual to individual, but the purpose is the common good of all. One of the major elements of the spiritual gifts is that they are not for individual benefit. They point towards others.

Even the non-Christian does have a passion for something – again, as already pointed out – to make a mark on society; to make a difference.

Those who pursue their purpose find fulfillment in what they do, and in life in general.