Virtues Hard & Soft

September 23 (O.S., September 10) 2018: 17th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Exaltation. Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos. Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora, and Nymphodora (305). Synaxis of the Holy Apostles Apelles, Lucius, and Clement of the Seventy. Martyr Barypsabas in Dalmatia (2nd c.). Blessed Pulcheria, the Empress of Greece (453). Sts. Peter (826) and Paul (9th c.), bishops of Nicaea. Ven. Paul the Obedient of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission

Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: John 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Old Testament background of the today’s Gospel is this.

Because the Hebrew children “spoke against God and against Moses … the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many … died” (Number 21: 5,6, NKJV).

Stories like these are important because they remind us that God is not only a God of mercy and love but justice and vengeance. In this case,  God punishes His People because of their lack of gratitude and faith.

It isn’t so much that we forget this. It is reather that many of us simply ignore the demands of divine justice in favor of “cheap grace.” We don’t want to think that God punishes the unrepentant.

I don’t want to think God would punish me.

And yet, the whole of the New Testament, the whole dispensation of divine mercy, makes no sense if we neglect divine justice.

The “soft virtues” like compassion, mercy, and forgiveness depend on the “hard virtues” of justice, courage, honor, and duty. To see why this is, let’s return briefly to the events in the desert.

Even though they have blasphemed God and slandered him, Moses puts this aside and intercedes on behalf of the Hebrew children when they come to him in repentance (Number 21:7). As events unfold we see that both repentance and forgiveness requires real strength of character. Both require a willingness to look unflinchingly at human sinfulness and the terrible harm it inflicts on us.

And this is true whether I am the one who has sinned or been sinned against. There can be no forgiveness if I refuse to accept the harm inflicted.

And so, Moses makes “a bronze serpent” and puts “it on a pole” so that “if a serpent had bitten anyone when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” There is healing for those who have the courage to repentant.

Healing requires that I first have the willingness to look at the evil in my own heart and acknowledge the harm I have brought on myself and others by my sins.

Jesus draws a parallel between the Cross and the bronze serpent in the desert. To look at the Cross with faith means this: To acknowledge that it is not simply for my sins that He dies. It is rather because of my sins that Jesus suffers crucifixion.

To put the matter more directly, Jesus is not crucified by the Jews or the Romans but by me, by my sins.

This is a hard saying which is why I need the “hard virtues.” I’m tempted to turn away, to want mercy and forgiveness without self-examination and repentance. I want to be loved by God but resist loving Him if doing so requires that I acknowledge my own unlovable qualities.

There are many ways in which I seek to sidestep the necessity of repentance. The events in the early Church that the Apostle Paul alludes to in his epistle to the Galatians highlights one such way.

Since the Fall, humanity has been divided against itself. This happened in the early Church. Then the dividing line was drawn between those who demanded the Gentiles keep the Law of Moses and those who, like Paul, said that this was not only unnecessary but impossible. “For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.”

Like some in the early Church, I am all too willing to divide the human family into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Maybe my preferred categories aren’t theological. Maybe I prefer to think in terms of “liberals” versus “conservatives,” or “Democrats” versus “Republicans.” Or maybe just “them” and “us.”

The categories don’t matter.

What does matter is that the “good guys” are on my side. The real problem, I tell myself, is those other guys. Those “liberals” or “conservatives,” those “Democrats” or “Republicans.” Not “us” but “them.”

And yet, Solzhenitsyn points out, the line between good and evil runs not between people but through each human heart. If I forget this if I insist on dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” do something worse than fail to acknowledge the presence of evil in my own heart.

If I remain on this path, I quickly come to a point where–to maintain the illusion that evil is “out there” in “those people”–I turn against those who were until only just a moment ago were my allies, my fellow “good guys,” my friends.

To refuse to look on the Cross without repentance is to condemn myself to a life of isolation in which each person I meet is not my friend but my enemy. Absent repentance, the world around me is filled with nothing other than “bad guys” intent on my harm.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, all these require from us a real effort. There is no “soft virtue” that isn’t the fruit of a “hard virtue.” Likewise, there isn’t a “hard virtue” that doesn’t bear fruit in a “soft virtue.” Both, in fact, require the other and one without the other is simply a to write “Christian” what is actually a vice.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory