Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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Many Gospel parables linger in our hearts, especially those about God's loving kindness. The parables of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, and the Pharisee and the publican evoke images of the loving Father, waiting for his erring son; of the kindly traveler who helped the man half-dead from wounds; and the visitor who heard the prayer "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Recollection moves the heart to repentance and readiness to recite this sinner's prayer again and again. These parables have inspired many painters, such as Rembrandt, who can call on their physical allegory to provoke contemplation and to make explications.

By patristic convention, the parables of Jesus Christ about God's loving kindness make a second distinct group, told by the Lord a few months before his sufferings. They tell of God's limitless loving kindness toward repentant sinners, and how Christ's followers must love one another. The parables of God's loving-kindness show us what to withdraw from and what to cling to: To [withdraw] from sin [and cling] to repentance in "the embrace of the Heavenly Father."

Here we must consider the tragedy of original sin and its fruit. The Church teaches that God is all-good and all-powerful. His omnipotence belongs to love because God is Love. God did not create any evil. One may even say that He could not even create it.

According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, evil appeared because God created His higher creations - man and angels-as free beings, according to His image and likeness. God is, first of all, Love. Man is like God and becomes more like Him when he loves. One cannot love by coercion. One can love only in freedom. Therefore love is the action, sign, and fact of freedom. That is why God also created angels and men free. He created them for Love, so that they might participate in that mutual love in which He Himself abides, as God, as Trinity of Persons.

Freedom brings the risk of a wrong choice, the risk of deviation from the Orthodox way. Unhappily, certain angels and the parents of the human race, made wrong choices, from whence evil arose.

Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky writes that at the creation, the Creator endowed man with three supreme gifts: freedom, reason and love. The three gifts are necessary to allow religious conversion. But freedom invites the possibility of wavering in one's choice, and temptation is possible. "The temptation for reason is to grow proud in mind; instead of acknowledging the wisdom and goodness of God; to desire oneself to be a 'god.' The temptation for the feeling of love is - in place of love for God and one's neighbor, to love oneself and everything that satisfies the lower desires and gives temporary enjoyment. This possibility of temptation and fall stood before mankind, and the first man did not stand firm against it" [Orthodox Dogmatic Theology [English edition, 154].

We cannot explain why our first parents made an incorrect choice. All created things have a meaning, as creations of the all-wise God. Whatever has meaning allows its explanation. But God did not create evil, and so it can have no meaning. It is inexplicable.

The power of evil lies only in the consent of a free man's will. God, of course, foresaw that angels and man would make an incorrect choice. So, before eternity, God "took measures" for man to correct his mistake. According to His immeasurable love, God responds to all man's mistakes, to all human evil and to all the sufferings of men with Self-sacrifice. He takes all mistakes, all evil and all sufferings upon Himself, as if He, Who is innocent of any evil, were the author of evil.

When man turns away from love, God always remains Love and only Love. The Lord's sacrifice in His Incarnation returns to man the chance again to choose the correct path freely. God does not wish to and cannot save men by force. He can call and summon, but in Christ, God summons man to Himself in a completely new way.

Oliver Clement, a French theologian, wrote an article on evil published in the issue No. 31 of the journal, Contakt. "God can do everything, except compel man to love . . . This paradoxical impotence of God (at the creation of man), Who, of course, still remains omnipotent, already announces to us beforehand the mystery of the Cross . . . God is so omnipotent that he can suspend His omnipotence . . . There is no need for Christians to create a special theory for justifying God (theodicy). To all the questions regarding the allowance of evil by God (the problem of evil) there is one answer - Christ; the Crucified Christ, Who burns up in Himself all the world's sufferings for ever; Christ, Who regenerates our nature and has opened the entry to the Kingdom of everlasting and full life to each one who desires it."

The Orthodox Church teaches that from the time of Christ's coming into the world, the fullness of Divinity Love is revealed to those who believe in Him, the veil is fallen, and the Lord's sacrifice has demonstrated His Divine in His Resurrection. It only remains for the faithful to partake of this Love: "O taste and see that the Lord is good," exclaims David the Psalmist.

And what is sin? According to one theologian, sin is "missing the mark." God created man for him to be an icon of God, to live in unity with God, and to exercise authority over the universe. Man's failure is that sin called "The Fall."

Orthodox tradition usually understands the tasting from the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" as man's real experience of choosing evil. Some other Orthodox writers (for example, Saint Gregory the Theologian) understand the Fall as man's attempt to overstep the limits of his capabilities. All Orthodox agree that human pride, human envy, and human lack of humble gratitude to God, caused man to yield to Satan's temptation and to violate God's commandment. Thus, man "missed the mark" of his calling. By violating God's law, man ruined himself, and the universe that God had entrusted to his care.

According to the Bible and Orthodox theology, sin, evil, devil, suffering, and death always co-exist. None comes by itself, and all come by man's revolt against God and loss of communion with Him. Sin gives birth to sin. The story of the Fall in the Book of Genesis is divinely inspired. As the devil's principality, the universe will groan in torment until God saves it. All children of Adam share this tragic fate. Even infants, who are born as images of God in a world originally good, grow up in a world bound by death, ruled by the devil, and filled with misdeeds of all generations.

Thus the ancient Church established the baptism of infants everywhere. A local council in Carthage in 252, under the presidency of Saint Cyprian, enacted the rule: "not to forbid (baptism) to an infant who, having only just been born, has not sinned in anything, except that by being descended from the flesh of Adam he has received the infection of the ancient death through birth itself, and who all the more readily approaches to receive the remission of sins, since not his own, but another's sins, are remitted him."

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