04 Be Merciful as the Father/Protection of the Theotokos - October 1, 2006

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Hebrews 9:1-7 [Theotokos]

Luke 6:31-36

Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28 [Theotokos]


In an effort to find the treasure of meaning and wisdom that is to be found in our Scripture readings for this morning, I would like to go back to a technical point of translation I have made before that has dramatic impact on our theological understanding. In the Hebrew, the word that is oftentimes translated into English as “soul,” nephesh, could also be translated as “throat.” When God breathes into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, it says that he became a “living soul”. Reading it in the Hebrew, we could say: “a living throat.” The Hebraic picture of Adam, therefore, shows him utterly dependent for his life on what he eats and drinks and breathes. What makes Adam live is not his soul; it is the Spirit of God that is breathed into him from outside, from God. Adam’s soul like his body is also from the dust. Even in his immaterial soul, Adam is an eater, a drinker, a breather.

This view of human nature – that we live from what we eat, drink and breathe – makes all the more meaningful God’s command to Adam and Eve that they could eat from every tree in the Garden, including the Tree of Life, but that they were not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We are given to see the Tree of Life as the Cross from the liturgical texts for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. The fruit of the Tree of Life is Christ who hangs from the tree “like a cluster of grapes full of life.” In giving Adam and Eve the fruit of the Tree of Life for their food, God was giving them himself as their food, so that they could become partakers of the divine nature [2 Pt 1:4] and become by grace all that he is by nature.

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God said: “On the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” But the devil, taking the form of a serpent, said to Adam and Eve, “You surely shall not die!” Who is telling the truth, God or the serpent? Jesus calls the devil a liar, the father of lies, and a murderer from the beginning [Jn 8:44].

In the Orthodox Christian Tradition, death is understood as separation from God, the consequence of sin, which is at its root a willful turning away from God. And it is interesting in this light to observe how the murderous effects of the serpent begin immediately after Adam and Eve take the serpent’s fruit into their soul, their nephesh. The murderous effects begin with shame, which murders their former intimacy with God by inducing them to hide from God; i.e. to separate themselves from him, and it is interesting to observe that they do this of their own choice, out of fear. Fear of what? Fear of facing themselves and what they have done. The murderous effects of the serpent’s fruit continue when God confronts them and the intimacy they once enjoyed with each other is, as it were, slain when, again freely, by their own choice, but out of fear of facing up to what they have done, they separate from one another and blame each other for what they each had chosen to do of their own volition: to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. The murderous effects of the serpent’s fruit, however, do not reach their climax until Eve brings forth the “fruit” of her womb, sired by the seed of Adam: Cain and Abel. When God accepts Abel’s offering over Cain’s, Cain their first born murders Abel, his younger brother, in a fit of jealousy and rage. In other words, the first fruit born from the life taken into their soul, their nephesh by eating the serpent’s fruit, Cain, is a murderer; the second fruit, Abel, is the murdered.

 Now the first chapter of eating the serpent’s fruit and taking its life into their soul is complete. And all the chapters that follow in the book of the life given in the serpent’s fruit are the same. Read the history books. They are filled with stories of loneliness and despair, deceit, self-interest, stealing, violence and murder. What was this food Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that, when they ate it and took it into their soul so that it became their life, they began to live a fragmented life of murdering one another?

The fathers of the Church identify the fruit of good and evil as the biological life of this world, which by no means is evil in itself. It becomes evil, murderous, when it is separated from God and incorporated into the act of eating that fruit against the command of God, which is an act of self-love. In the texts for the Elevation of the Cross, this act is called greed. In other texts it is called pride. By whatever term you call it, it is an act of the human soul, the nephesh, willfully choosing to turn away from God and to save its [worldly or biological] life in order to gain the whole world for itself, rather than to lose its life for the sake of the spiritual life of God and his commandments. As a footnote to this, it is instructive to reflect on the character of God’s commandments compared to the commandment of the serpent. In a word, the command of the serpent is to love and serve yourself; the commands of God direct us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.

Inasmuch as it is in our soul, our nephesh, that we are eaters and drinkers, to eat and drink in the biblical sense has a much deeper meaning than sitting down at the table and eating a nice meal. It directs us to look at what we like to eat with our minds, or what we like to think on, what we like to look at. It directs us to look into our soul at what happiness or purpose in life we are eating and drinking, that is to say, what we are living for. We need only look to see how we think and speak of others to see if the fruit we are eating is from the serpent’s tree or the Cross of Christ, the Tree of Life; because we can be murdering one another with our words and our actions even if we are not actually physically killing one another. We can see the murderous life of the serpent even in ourselves as children: toddlers hitting, slapping, screaming, kicking, throwing toys at the other kids if they don’t get their way; school children making fun of and in ways both physical and verbal being mean to kids who are different and whom the “in” crowd decides are not cool. This murderous life of the serpent’s fruit becomes only more subtle and sophisticated when we get to be teens and even adults in the way we can destroy another person by gossip or ridicule, when we refuse to forgive, when we find fault with one another, when we criticize or speak ill of others, when we collude to ruin another’s reputation. Eating this fruit of the serpent friends, husbands and wives, parents and children become bitter enemies. And, of course, this life of the serpent has become the very life of human society where justice is often denied because of prejudice or influence, where basic human services are inaccessible to the underprivileged, when employers do not pay fair wages, or when CEO’s reap millions if not billions in personal profits while their workers are being paid barely enough to live on, if they are not being laid off, or when as a nation we follow policies not on the basis of what is just and fair but on the basis only of whatever serves our own national self-interests. In brief, I don’t think it would be very hard for us to see many, many ways in which we both as individuals, as social groups and as nations, are murdering our neighbors, our fellow human beings, even if we are not actually physically killing them. Here is the biblical evidence that we are eating and drinking the fruit of the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning, the devil.

In this biblical light, let us look again at Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” Can you see that the Lord is describing the life that comes from eating the serpent’s fruit of good and evil? It is a life that fragments and separates into self-preserving groups that withholds goods and services to those outside one’s own group, a life of estrangement and division, the disintegration of friendship, love and intimacy, resulting far too often in acts of cruelty and hatred and abuse, violence and even murder that we can now see, from the biblical teaching, as the fruit, the consequence, of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the act of self-love that turns away from God and seeks to save one’s own life over against the other in order to gain the whole world for oneself.

So when the Lord says, “But I say to you who hear,” he is addressing himself to those who have heard his command and who are wanting now, in the fear of God, with faith and in love, to take up their Cross and follow Him to his Cross, the Tree of Life, by losing their life for his sake and the Gospel’s. That means repenting or turning away from the serpent’s fruit, fasting from those thoughts, feelings, deeds and words that are of the serpent’s fruit, so that its murderous life of greed and pride, hatred, loneliness and selfishness begins to wither away in our soul. Then we turn toward the commandments of God,  eating and drinking those thoughts, feelings, words and deeds of His that are given us to eat and drink in the worship of the Church. Then the Christ, the fruit of the Tree of Life, who comes to us in the sacraments of the Church, in her prayers, her doctrines, her worship, begins himself to live in us and we become partakers of his Holy Spirit in the love and the communion of the Holy Trinity.

The Lord says to those who hear: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you.” He is teaching us how to eat and drink his Heavenly Spirit with our mouths and with our actions; and by actions, we must understand the actions of our whole being, the actions of our thoughts, of our eyes and ears as well as the actions of our bodies.  

I have come to believe that our efforts to follow Christ must be rooted in the act of receiving God into our hearts. God gives himself to us as food and drink in the words of Holy Scripture and in his commandments we find there. He gives himself to us as food and drink in his holy Church, the body of Christ. He gives himself to us as food and drink in the Church’s in her Scriptures, in her prayers, in her doctrines, in her icons, in her worship and in her sacraments. We receive God into our eyes and our ears and even into our mouths in the worship of the Church; our bodies are clothed with Christ in our baptism and our Chrismation. But to receive God into our heart, we must of our own free will choose to eat and drink him with our minds and clothe our thoughts, our words and our deeds with him. That means saying our prayers regularly both in Church and at home with attention, standing before his holy icon, reading the bible faithfully and humbly with attention. And when we go out into the world, it means acting and speaking in accordance with his commandments, which means to act and speak in a way that serves the good of others, even our enemies, as well as our own: in other words, it means loving our neighbor as ourselves.

By doing these things, and by turning our mind so that it begins to think on God rather than to take pleasure in the fantasies and images of worldly life, we are eating and drinking God not just with our mouths in Holy Communion, but with our whole being, our heart, soul, strength and mind. As we eat and drink God with our hearts, our mind, souls and our bodies, we are taking into ourselves the life of God the Father, we are becoming partakers of the divine nature; and in the words of the Lord to us this morning: we become merciful as the Father is merciful because the Father’s life is becoming our life from eating and drinking his Heavenly Spirit.

May God teach us how to die in Him that we may die to the murderous life of the serpent and begin to live in the mercy of God the Father, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.