|41 - The Centurion's Faith, June 24, 2018|
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Luke 1:1-25, 57-68, 76, 80
The LORD marvels and says: “I have not found such great faith even in Israel!” What is this faith that is greater than what the LORD has found even in Israel? Here is a summary of my effort to incline my ear to the music of the lyre, the liturgical worship of the Church, to solve this “riddle” (Psa 49:4).
These last two weeks or so, the Church has assigned for our daily contemplation readings from St Paul’s letter to the Romans, itself a “riddle” that has frustrated the efforts of many to solve and which many others have thought to solve by interpreting it in a theological confession that is alien to the mind of the Church (cf. Phil 2:5). Making no claim myself to have solved any of these biblical riddles, let me say only that it seems to me, as I incline my ear to these riddles from the “music” of the Church, that the burden of St Paul’s teaching in Romans is to expose the self-righteousness of our religiosity so that, seeing our spiritual pride, we would be smitten with shame and, in the humility of a broken and contrite heart, cry out: “create in me a clean heart, O God! Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, put a new and right spirit within me!”
The purpose of the Law, says St Paul, as I understand him, is to flush out my free will, my “self-power” (self-determination, autexouios, to use the word of the holy fathers) and bring it out into the open in order to choose my master. In the freedom that is the essential property of my having been made in the image of God, to whom will I offer my love: to God who created me and first loved me (I Jn 4:19), and so complete God’s work of creation (for, it was created in love, and so it can’t be finished until the creature returns the love of the Creator, freely in accord with the principle of love), or to the king of disobedience and death, Satan?
St Paul says – and let me translate his words sticking more closely to the Greek: “I would not have seen desire (epithumian – I believe he means, again I would draw out from the holy fathers, the erotic desire that is in me, that is perhaps the primary property of my nature) if the Law had not said: “Thou shalt not desire” (Rm 7:7). Now, most translations have this “desire” as “to covet”, which I think is okay as far as it goes. But St Paul here gives only the first word of the full commandment: “You shall not desire your neighbor’s house, you shall not desire your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex 20:17 sic passim). Let’s summarize it as: you shall not desire what belongs to another.
This in effect is the commandment given to Adam when the LORD commands him, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall surely die!” (Gn 2:17) The issue wasn’t the tree of knowledge. The holy fathers tell us the tree was the beauty of creation, and, as such, it was very good. The issue was to give Adam opportunity to execute the work given him to “work the garden” so as to “complete the creation” (I read Gn 2:17 together with Gn 2:3 & 2:5 LXX). For this, it was necessary for him to offer his freedom to God not under coercion but in love, expressed in freely chosen obedience.
Thus, note that the commandment was given but not forced on Adam, leaving him free to choose which master he would serve and which life he would live: the Life of God or the life of his bodily senses.
He chose to give his desire to what did not belong to him – not so much the tree, but what the serpent promised: that he would become like God. Notice that the promise wasn’t that he would become one with God, but like God; that is to say, he would become a little god alongside God, and so outside of God, not in God, with his “I” or his ego in his heart, not God in his heart. Such likeness to God, obviously, is a false likeness. It is a likeness outside of God, a self-righteousness, not the righteousness of God. It has the appearance of holiness, but it is not holiness itself. In such a “likeness”, man is not in union with God. He is altogether outside of God. In his heart at the root, at that point where he opens onto the deep that is beyond all things, he is absolutely closed to God, because the face of his heart is turned away from God.
The LORD’s word concerning the centurion is a stinging indictment against Israel. He is saying that the righteousness of Israel was a false righteousness because it was the righteousness of the ego presenting itself to God as a little god while its heart is closed off to God. It was not the righteousness of a heart open to God in the humility and love of faith. Even keeping the Law perfectly would reveal the lie of such a righteousness. Here is the heart of the riddle, and it seems to me that the opening into its answer is very, very narrow and so it is very hard, if not impossible for one to enter it to see it, especially if one is trying to answer it in the self-righteous arrogance of one’s ego. For, in keeping the precepts of the law perfectly, one would stand before God – actually, it’s rather that one stands not before God but before the image of God in oneself, viz., one’s ego – and boast: “I have kept all the commandments from my youth up. What more do I lack?” as in, “I lack nothing, so give me entrance into your Kingdom!”
This self-righteousness, this false likeness to God, in fact, is the property of every one of us. Whatever judgment we find in the New Testament leveled against the Jews because of their hypocrisy and self-righteousness is actually another “riddle”, whose answer is given in coming to “see” that I am this “Jew”. St Paul says, the true Jew is the one who is a Jew inwardly, and the real circumcision is of the heart (Rm 2:29).
It is thus that this centurion, a Gentile not a Jew, uncircumcised not circumcised, and so ritually unclean outwardly, is an indictment against Christians probably even more than against Israel. For, if the Law flushed out our self-determination and brought it into the open, is it possible that Grace does so even more because it is the Light of God that illumines everything in the darkness, including the self-righteousness of our egotism? I have observed it in myself. I find when I observe the rites and rubrics of the Church’s liturgical worship perfectly, keep a rule of prayer faithfully, live a pure and moral life, there is in me a tendency to claim all this as my own righteousness, and my egotism blinds me to the spiritual pride behind it all. I cannot see how the god that is in my heart is not the LORD Jesus Christ but my own ego, making me not righteous, humble, lowly, meek, loving, but self-righteous, judgmental, arrogant, easily offended, defensive, huffy, and unforgiving. These are the qualities in which the “righteous” Jews crucified the LORD of glory in the flesh. Is it possible that we Christians crucify the LORD of glory “in the spirit”, or in our heart by our self-righteous pride?
If the LORD marveled at the centurion’s faith, meaning that he marveled at the centurion’s humility, then how much more should faith marvel at the Faithfulness of God? If the purpose of the Law was to expose my “desire” to claim as my own what doesn’t belong to me, let’s say the holiness that belongs to the LORD who alone is holy (Rev 3:5), then the purpose of Grace is to break it. This egotism may be the wall of enmity that separates me from God. Cast off the darkness, says St Paul. Let us cast off our egotism. Put on the armor of light. Let’s put on the armor of humility and brokenness of heart. Put on the LORD Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh. Put on the life of the Church, the Cross of Christ given us in the ascetic disciplines, not to boast before God but to put to death what’s earthly in us, our ego, for the sake of Christ who first loved us. Let us become slaves of God, not of ourselves as little gods, that dying with Christ in the likeness of His death, we may die to our self-righteousness and have as our fruit holiness and life eternal in the love of God the Father, the communion of the Holy Spirit and the grace of our LORD Jesus Christ in the joy and love of His Holy Mother and all the saints. Amen!