“I must make you one confession,” Ivan began. “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance. I once read somewhere of John the Merciful, a saint, that when a hungry, frozen beggar came to him, he took him into his bed, held him in his arms, and began breathing into his mouth, which was putrid and loathsome from some awful disease. I am convinced that he did that from ‘self-laceration,’ from the self-laceration of falsity, for the sake of the charity imposed by duty, as a penance laid on him. For any one to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov”
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Purity, Honour and Respect
It is usual for us who consider ourselves to be “modern” and “enlightened” to scoff at the “primitive” attitudes of the Jews of Jesus’s time with their “purity” codes. For example, consider the parable of the Good Samaritan where the priest and levi, thinking that the robbed man was dead, passed on for fear of getting “defiled” by coming into contact with a dead body. We consider such attitudes to be rather silly, as if death was some mysterious force or thing which can spread through contact and destroy oneself through “defilement”.
Or consider our attitudes towards “stigma” which we think are fundamentally groundless and just plain irrational. We condemn the Pharisees for “stigmatising” the “dishonoured”, and the “shamed”, the adulterers, prostitutes and the tax collectors, shunning their company and refusing to associate with them or eat with them.
However, the truth is that in every society, culture and age, even one as “enlightened” as ours, have their system of boundaries and categories whereby society is ordered and those “within” the community distinguished from those “outside”. The only difference between our time and theirs is that the boundaries has shifted, but they still remain as rigid and as stern as ever.
One can hypothesize that at least the “purity” codes may have a biological origin, e.g. it has been built into our psyche to shun dead organisms so as to avoid infections or spread of diseases or viruses which may harm us. However stigmas and honour codes are not directly based upon biological preservation but upon social and communal order boundaries. They exist to defend the integrity of the various institutions of the time, such as marriage, national loyalty, etc.
But even as stigma and honour has evaporated in our time, they have merely been replaced by something else, in our age, it’s the law of human rights, consent, individualism, happiness, success, achievements, etc. Even as we cease to stigmatise divorcees, adulterers, homosexuals, etc, because of the way our social and communal boundaries have shifted, but we have merely transferred our wrath to those we sin against our present order. Consider for example the fervour with which we denounce and condemn rapists, paedophiles, etc. Not a single word of mercy, not a single hope of redemption was held out for these people who transgress against the order of our age, who dared to sin against human rights, consent, happiness, etc. Every instance of rape or paedophila is greeted with loathing, disgust, outrage and the baying mobs who are supposedly enlightened and above such sentiments promptly revert back to the same instincts which animated all those whose loyalty is for the boundaries, and they all gather to have those who sin against the law and order of the age crucified. The only difference is simply that those boundaries have changed, the systems whereby those who are judged to conform to the order remain as they ever have.
These transgressors against the order of our age, the order of human rights and consent, happiness, success, are as despised, shunned, hated and loathed, as have ever every other transgressor throughout history been despised, shunned and hated. Respect and esteem remains as ever has, tied to our performance and our conformity to the order of the age, as it has ever been in the past. If in the past shame arose from transgressing against honour and purity codes, if esteem and respect was gathered from aristocratic priviledges and material wealth, now shame and judgement arises from failure to respect the boundaries of individuals, consent and human rights, and failing to attain unto happiness, life experiences, success, etc. Not only are rapists and paedophiles shunned, but we judge people for being “losers” and “failures”, we exalt and respect those who live a “happy” and life to the “fullest” and those who have accomplished, while those who fail to satisfy the god of happiness and success are treated with contempt. If we ever pay any attention to those who have failed, it must only be after they have succeeded and overcome their failtures with accomplishments, that all may smile and know the power of success over failure. But otherwise, those who die unknown and despairing, unhappy or failed, will never be remembered or mentioned by anyone. The Law, as Melanthchon once said, always accuses, it’s form morphs through the ages, but it still pronounces the same word of condemnation as it ever had.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree… By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
Every order necessitates a certain amount of appearance, act, or “external righteousness” and conformity to the order of the age. Such “external righteousness” is certainly necessary for the order and life of this world, although we might debate as to which order is “better”, but some order is always necessary. Christ himself affirmed the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, (Matthew 23:1-3), and even as he denounced their hypocrisy for being concerned with tithes and neglecting the “weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy and faith”, he says that “these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23)
Yet even as we struggle to fulfill external righteousness as demanded by the order of God, there is a terrible alienation between what we know is true of us, and our necessary conformity to the outward order. As Ivan Karamazov puts it, it is impossible to believe that we can love one’s neighbour, he must be faceless, abstract, simply as a member or actor within an order or a general vague category, like “mankind”, only then can we love him. We can only love at a great distance from their inward reality.
Yet, this Ivan Karamazov’s saint John the Merciful is precisely the model of Christ’s love for us. He was unafraid, unashamed of the foul loathsome disease breathing out of the mouth of the frozen begger, he took him in and even dared to breath into his mouth to give him warmth. In our terrible alienation from who we are as we present ourselves to others, and who we are as we know ourselves, the putrid, foul and loathesome sin which lies within, the judgement of our conscience, the condemning eyes of the order of the age, the fear that those eyes within might be imprinted in the eyes without in the faces of our peers, we wonder if God can possibly love us, us as we know ourselves, as we have judged ourselves, who habours such horrors within. Would God shun us too and turn his back on us if He knew us as we know ourselves?
Herein we understand the meaning various verses of the Scriptures which speak of Christ bearing our sins in his body, he was made to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). God is not distant from the nothingness, the foulness and the horrors which lies within us all, in his Son, he has bore them in his own body, he know it in his own suffering soul upon the Cross. Just as St John the Merciful dared to embrace the diseased beggar and breathed into his mouth full of foul sickness, Christ dared to embrace his creations, he dared to touch and approach the depths of the horrors within, the foulness of sin, the satanic wickedness wilful rebellion against him, and pray to the Father to forgive us, just as he prayed long ago to forgive his murderers on the cross, now he continues to whisper the same prayer into our lost and alienated hearts, knowing full well the things which lies within.
The God in the heavens was not only made flesh, he was also made sin. He did not only enter into the world, he also entered into the heart of darkness. The world may judge, the conscience may condemn, the devil may lie and we ourselves may seek to hide, but God still finds us in the end, upon the Cross and in that dark hour, Christ entered into the heart of our sin, despair, and nothingness, called upon his Father to forgive us our ignorance, and promises to us that we shall be with him in paradise and we are thus reconciled to God the Father, our Creator and Redeemer.
Conclusion: To Fulfill All Righteousness
When Christ preached that we should love our enemies, he fulfilled his own command. It was the Father’s will that he should love his enemies and not protect himself from them, and it was this will which caused even the Son of God to be exceedingly sorrowful, yet, unafraid he obeyed, he faced his enemies, called off his guardian angels, and let them do their worse to him.
Thus did he despise the shame of the cross, condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3), he scoffed at the sin and judgement of man, and bore our sins against him in his flesh until he expired. As he did so long ago, likewise does he now scoff at the judgement and shame which lies within us, himself being unashamed by the shame which the world has tried to inflict upon him. And unashamed by who we are and what we are, he reaches within and speaks peace to us.
“Against human reason, against the pride of the flesh, against conscience, faith clings solely to the biblical Word of the promise of God’s grace.” as the Bethel Confessions put it. Against all the forces arrayed against us, even ourselves, we grasp by faith this Word of Christ to us; from this knowledge of ourselves which judges and condemns us, we seek instead to know ourselves as we are known by God (1 Cor 13:13), and in the eyes of him who despised shame of the Cross, of judgement, and of the law, he looks upon us unashamed, and speaks the word of grace.
Thus do we rejoice in the righteousness of Christ, or Christ’s obedience to the commandment of the Father, to love his neighbours, as they truly are, and to love most of all his enemies, we who daily and constantly rebel against him, for it is this righteousness, this will to love his enemies, which ultimately overcomes the sin, the alienation and the judgement under which we all suffer.
And so to end off with the words of Luther,
Our most merciful Father…sent his only Son into the world and laid upon him…the sins of all men saying: Be thou Peter that denier; Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them. Here now comes the law and saith: I find him a sinner…therefore let him die upon the cross. And so he setteth upon him and killeth him. By this means the whole world is purged and cleansed from all sins.