by Fr. John A. Peck
A sermon I gave some time ago on Publican and Pharisee Sunday. It can also be read here.
Today, I’m going to teach you some profound heresies.
In today’s Gospel, we have two men. This is a short, but important parable. First, the Pharisee. The Pharisee begins his prayer
“O God, I thank you that I am not like other men…”
We consider this boasting, of course, but I learned something important in seminary about it. My Old Testament professor was Dr. Moshe Zorea, an Orthodox Jew who had become an Orthodox Christian. He really knew the Old Testament very well, and he was a gifted teacher. When we were talking, one day, about the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, he took out his Jewish prayerbook, opened it to morning prayers and said to one of us, “Read this aloud.”
Here is what was read:
“O God, I thank you that I am not like other men…That I am not an extortioner, unjust, an adulterer…I thank you that I am not a woman.”
Sorry ladies, that’s what it said. I asked him about that, and he explained that theologically, in the Jewish tradition it is understood that men are made of earth – dirt (!), that’s why little boys always run out to get dirty. They’re digging in to familiar territory.
Women, however, are made of a higher substance. Women are made of ‘man.’
The ‘thanks’ to God for this was the opportunity to strive for holiness, and this was laudable, and something worthy of giving thanks for.
This Pharisee is just saying his morning prayers. In another place, the Gospel says that the Pharisees tithed mint, and dill and cumin from their gardens. They tithed from everything they received! They said their prayers in the Temple every morning and evening. They were leading righteous lives!
Us? Not so much.
We all talk about not judging others but we do. We don’t all say our morning and evening prayers. We don’t all tithe (which is an Old Testament prescription anyway – New Testament must cheerfully be more – tithe +1!)
We have an important and humbling lesson from this parable: the Pharisee was better than we are. By his boasting, he did not receive the blessing of God.
But really, he was better that we are.
Now, the Publican was a sinner, like us. He knew he was a sinner. He came to the Temple and did not even lift up his eyes. And when we come to church, are we repenting? Are we really, humbly asking God to forgive us for our sins? This man, who knew his true state, came in hope and faith, but without presumption. He truly repented, and he received God’s mercy.
This is why, during the fast of Great Lent, we make sure to take the time for a holy confession. It is the time of repentance. The Publican said nothing to justify himself at all. Not a single word or self-righteousness.
Us? Not so much.
He was set right with God. This is called being justified, because it is necessary to repent in order to receive salvation.
Salvation. To be set right with God.
There are some false understandings about the work of Christ, and theories of Atonement, and this is the core of our lesson today.
First of all, Salvation is not solutions to problems that don’t exist.
Let me say that again.
Salvation is not solutions to problems that don’t exist.
Remember the movie “The Music Man?” We must not allow Christian theology to act like Robert Preston, running around telling people “There’s trouble in River City!” while having the ‘solution’ right here in my suitcase – for a small investment. If you need to sell something, you need a problem it solves first – and if there is no problem, you create one.
There are many false understanding of Atonement, and let’s check them off.
Most of these came about after the advent of Scholastic Theology in the west. They don’t exist in Hebraic thought, and are not at all Apostolic in their understanding of salvation.
The Ransom theory of Atonement
The ransom theory of atonement is based on verses such as Mark 10:45 –
“the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for the many”.
In this metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom.
Not understanding the metaphor, evidently, some Christians have taken this literally – which then begs the question “To whom did He pay it?”
Did He Pay the Devil? NO! A conqueror does not go to the jailhouse and pay for the prisoners. He puts his foot on the throat of his defeated enemy and takes whatever he wants.
The reason we don’t follow this view is because;
a) We understand what a metaphor is, and
b) The idea that Satan could be rewarded by God, by paying for the hostages with Himself (!) for his tyranny is blasphemous!
No. Christ is the Victor. He ‘paid the price’ in the sense that he did what had to be done.
Debt Satisfaction Theory of Atonement
The Debt Satisfaction Theory of Atonement sees Adam’s sin as infinitely offending God and his honor.
This is a little close to my heart. As a kid, I watched the movie “Becket” where Thomas Becket admits he falls in love with the honor of God, and says that the Kingdom of God is a real kingdom, and that it must defended like any other kingdom.
Under this theory of Atonement, God’s honor has been infinitely offended by us poor mortals, and in order that Divine Justice be fulfilled, he must punish us with death to restore His honor (I don’t know to whom He must restore it, but that’s another point). Here’s the problem. Under this theory, in order that it not be seen that God takes sin lightly, God MUST repay evil with evil. Therefore, God is beholden to a greater law than himself – God is neither free nor merciful.
God demands payment of an infinite debt. Obviously, no mortal is infinite (but evidently can infinitely offend!), but Jesus, as the God-Man, has infinite merits, and therefore can pay this debt.
This sort of thinking led to the invention of indulgences in the Roman Church.
The temporal punishment must be paid by each soul – despite forgiveness of sins by Christ, and this can be alleviated through indulgences from the Church. As the merits of Christ, and his saints, exceeded what was necessary to atone for each one’s sins, they are built up in a ‘treasury of merits’ which the Church has the ability and right to distribute as it sees fit. This is the Roman doctrine to this day.
In the Ransom theory, the debt is paid to the devil.
In the Debt Satisfaction theory, the debt is paid to God Himself, as if we were held in bondage by the Father!
The Debt Satisfaction theory became the dominant theory of Atonement in western Christianity, and remains so to this day, despite its obvious and glaring problems.
Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement
After the Debt Satisfaction theory, protestant reformers invented the Penal Substitution theory, based on the (false) understanding of mankind’s total depravity after the fall – stating that Jesus who died for us, was punished in our place (by the Father, of course – it is related to the Debt Satisfaction Theory).
In this theory, all the individual punishments for sin, every sin, fell on Jesus. More sin, more punishment! Only then could God be satisfied that his Divine Justice has been fulfilled. God cannot just forgive sin, and leave it at that.
We believe that God is love and that his love in unconditional.
We do not believe that God’s wrath can only be appeased by killing his own Son. We do not believe that God must himself be healed of his passions and wrath by the blood of His own Son. If so, it appears that God Himself needs healing, and needs the blood of his own Son to heal him! This is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but Zeus! What a bloodthirsty God!
On a popular level, these three theories are combined so that Christ, by his death on the cross, simultaneously paid the price to the Devil, and to the Father, and receives the punishment for our sins. Add this to the idea that if Jesus suffered the punishment for our sins, then we don’t have to suffer at all. Hence, the introduction to this way of thinking of the Prosperity Gospel!
Moral Exemplar Theory of Atonement
There is one other theory that came about as a reaction to these distorted theories of Atonement: the moral exemplar theory of atonement. In this theory, Christ merely shows us the way to be good. There is no really change in us because we can refuse to follow his example. There is no existential change in us because of Christ’s redeeming work.
This de-emphasizes Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross, and indeed, the whole Incarnation. Orthodox reject it out of hand. In other words, Christ didn’t actually accomplish anything. He was just a good example for us.
If all of these are wrong, what is the teaching of the Church?
Atonement is therapeutic to the soul.
We see Atonement as genuine and effectual to us individually.
We don’t perceive that God looks at us, but only ‘sees’ Jesus righteousness, as if he was easy to deceive via a divine ‘peek-a-boo’ game.
We believe atonement heals us. Restores to wholeness the image of God in us.
The Barriers Between God and Man
The Orthodox Church sees three barriers between God and man.
Nature, Sin and Death
God is separated from man by His Divine Nature. We have limited mortal nature, and God is existence beyond existence.
By His Incarnation in the flesh, Christ united Divine nature to human nature, in his person. The glorified, resurrected flesh of the God-man Jesus Christ is ‘seated’ at the right hand of the Father to this moment! Christ united the Godhead to humanity in his flesh.
By the cross, Christ destroyed the power of sin – again, in his flesh!
By his Resurrection, Christ destroyed the power of death – again, in his flesh!
OT Sacrificial system: The life is in the blood. The big question about ‘the blood’ of sacrifice was this:
- Is it a propitiary sacrifice – designed to appease an angry deity?
- Or is it an expiatory sacrifice – designed to effect a change in those offering the sacrifice?
The Church’s answer has always been therapeutic – it is an expiatory sacrifice.
The sacrifices of the Old Testament were also expiatory. They were intended to effect a change in those offering the sacrifice. To help heal the interior person.
God himself in many places in Scripture proclaims that he desires no blood of bulls and goats. He neither wants nor needs sacrifices – we need them! For the sacrifice to be complete, especially the Paschal sacrifice, you –with the priest making the sacrifice -had to consume a portion of the sacrifice yourself or you were excluded from the covenant.
The Blood of the Sacrifice: The Blood of Christ.
Here – is where we offer and receive this sacrifice of thanksgiving. Here is where we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the Lord, according to his holy commandment. When we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we become partakers of Divine nature, like St. Peter writes about in his epistle.
Now, in every sacrifice there are four necessary elements:
- The God to whom the sacrifice is made;
- The Priest who is offering the sacrifice;
- Those on whose behalf the sacrifice is being offered;
- The sacrificial victim – that is, that which is being sacrificed.
Christ fulfills all of these in his flesh.
- He is, in the flesh, God Almighty, Yahweh, the Eternal Word.
- He is the eternal High Priest who offers the only acceptable sacrifice.
- He is one of us, a member of the human race, in his flesh, and therefore can offer on our behalf for all of us.
- And he is the sacrificial victim. He is the paschal lamb. He is the only acceptable sacrifice received by the Father.
Christ unites us all. Christ heals the rift between God and man, because he IS the healing of that rift. His crucifixion destroyed sin. His death destroys death. Uniting ourselves to him heals us of every infirmity and makes up whatever is weak and lacking. Christ heals. That is Atonement. That is Salvation. The healing and re-integration of the human person, body, soul and spirit.
And to access this grace, we need to access Him. And how do we do that?
Today’s Gospel tells us. Humility. Repentance.
Access to his grace comes about by repentance, humility, contrition.