The Last Farthing

The title of this post refers to Jesus’ parable. It sounds so harsh to us now. The lord didn’t get what he expected out of his servants, and so he sends them away to a place of darkness.

Now fundamentalists (from every church and sect) would have us believe that once you arrive in whatever the spiritual real-world version of this dark place is, there is no real hope that you will ever come out.

But Jesus says, you won’t come out until you “pay the last farthing.”

I want to point out a few things about the assumptions that we can bring to this text, as well as the assumptions underlying the text from its original context.

First, we can bring the assumption that human beings are capable of committing infinite sin. In that case, “until you pay the last farthing,” really means, “endlessly,” because you never get to the end of the payment for an infinite sin.

However, I don’t see any reason to believe that. It’s not in any biblical text. Some people say that the sin is measured, not by its own magnitude, but by the greatness of the person sinned against. Thus, every sin against an infinite God is an infinite sin. We then have the theoretical incongruity of someone suffering unbearable agony, endlessly, for one small error. I think we can leave this possibility aside.

Secondly, we can assume that the payment, the farthing, is quite simply the application of pain. One pays for wrongdoing by suffering, we believe, so we conclude that the fires of hell mentioned elsewhere are the same as this “farthing” mentioned here.

From there, we easily conclude that after death, those who don’t measure up to God’s expectations will be made to suffer endlessly for it.

Why do we assume that we can pay for our wrongdoing by suffering pain? If you think about it long enough, it starts to seem odd. It’s kind of like the child who says to his sister, “No, wait, don’t tell on me for hitting you. Look, you can hit me back, and then we’ll be even.”

But are we capable of hurting God the way we are hurt when he unleashes his terrors on us? This is seems to me like a very good question.

We might also make the assumption that we can pay for our wrongdoing by suffering, when we carry over our experience with our parents. When they became angry with us for something we had done wrong, they would say things like, “You’ll pay for that,” and then hurt us physically. When it was all over – the anger transferred from their hearts and hands and faces into our aching and traumatized bodies – then and only then would peace and reconciliation be possible.

But are we really capable of making God angry? This seems to me like another very good question.

I think that in the traditional understanding of the divine nature, we would cautiously answer no to both these questions. God may have that in his nature of which the image is our incensive power – our ability to be angry. But he does not burn with that enraged, infantile fury that we usually experience as anger. Nor can we damage God – the divine nature is not corruptible.

But I will mention that God does indeed burn against evil deeds, and more importantly even, that he does have a human heart now that he is incarnate in Christ. And the human heart can feel pain. Christ has been wounded for us, has poured out his soul to death for us.

Now let’s look briefly at the original context of the parable.

Did the parents in Bible times beat their children for wrongdoing? Well, in pre-monarchy tribal days, they certainly were allowed to, by law.

Now this in itself means nothing. Remember, Jesus said that the divorce laws allowing a man to abandon his wife for no reason whatsoever was not really God’s will, but was allowed “by Moses,” and only “because of the hardness of your hearts.” It might be the same way with beating. The Israelites had been physically abused by their Egyptian taskmasters. Probably they were already beating their sons, in private, with no restrictions, and for any offense whatsoever.

With tribal government, there was no clear distinction between the government and the family. Thus, the only juvenile justice system was your dad and his dad and the elders of your tribe. The law said that a beating had to be carried out publicly, with testimony, with limitations, and with the agreement of people other than the father.

So the idea was, if you were a young man going down a life-path that would otherwise get you killed – maybe your friends were a local band of thieves and their prostitute friends – it was thought to be the lesser of two evils for your father to take you to the tribe and have you beaten – but not to death – in order to deter you from that path. But only, of course, if he’d tried everything else and you still refused to listen.

We have no actual stories of this happening.

In the Proverbs, the reader is exhorted a few times to beat his children, and particularly his sons. The rational is the same: there is no juvenile justice system, and you may save him from eventual execution. The purpose then, is deterrence, not payment for an otherwise unforgivable offense.

Many readers mistake these proverbs for universal, timeless commandments (and sometimes apply them to tender young children making their first experiments in balk-talk) simply because they are in the imperative mood. But of course, a proverb is a type of literature that uses the imperative in an ironical manner.

Likewise, proverbs that offer predictions or outcomes for a certain behavior are not “divine promises.” They are limited and general predictions of the tendency of certain behaviors to produce certain outcomes. Divine inspiration does not turn limited and conditional statements into absolute and unconditional ones.

Moreover, we now have a juvenile justice system, and the family, much to the grievance of power-hungry types in certain religious circles, is clearly distinct from the government, not only in our day, but even in Jesus’ day.

Perhaps that is one reason why, in the New Testament, no reference to corporal punishment exists from parents to children. But I think we can gather both from history and from the parables that adults did expect corporal punishment from their lords – that is, their governors, their masters, and even their employers. Sometimes this was simply terrible prison conditions. Sometimes it was slavery or other punitive labor. Sometimes it was beating or other punishments.

We may have a hard time imagining how normal this seemed to people then, just as a little over a century ago, wife-beating seemed normal to many “salt of the earth” types.

Jesus uses this expectation in his parables. I get the sense he was saying something like, “If you expect evil results from treating your human lords shamefully, then why do you think it’s safe to test the patience of God, the greatest Lord of all men?”

The Bible does not, therefore, contain any general instructions to cause physical suffering to one’s children as a disciplinary method. Nor does it suggest physical pain as a way of paying for one’s misdeeds and paving the way for reconciliation with God. It does talk about physical punishment as a deterrent and as a human behavior that can be compared to God’s judgment.

Now we all know that comparisons only go so far. In the question of any comparison between human and divine, the question is always very important of how far and in what direction the comparison may be taken.

What is the payment that God wants from people who won’t give him his due?

Well, there’s nothing in the parable to indicate it isn’t deterrence. So it’s entirely possible that this unsatisfactory servant is like the boy represented in the O.T. law who wouldn’t listen to his dad. Rather than see his son’s carcass lying on the desert floor getting its eyes picked out by vultures (what a barbaric age!) he would prefer to have him beaten.

So, God, rather than see someone’s name snuffed out of the book of life, would rather see him suffer in the afterlife for a time, in order that the spark of life within him can be preserved through repentance.

There’s one great big problem with this. Physical pain may deter in a purely behavioral sense, but it invariably alienates emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. I cannot conclude that physical torture in the afterlife is something that God uses to pave the way for reconciliation with the sinner. People’s feelings don’t work that way. As Kalormiros pointed out, you can’t love your torturer.

What, then is the last farthing? What does God want from us when we have sinned?

I think that we, perhaps, are ready for the inner truth hidden in Jesus’ rather scathing parable. This inner truth is spoken of in other places of the scriptures, but hardened sinners tend to make sport of it.

First, read this short article. Read about a girl who responded to corporal punishment by cutting herself and plunging into a deep depression. Read about how she was able to start healing, but only when her parents finally said, “I’m sorry.”

It’s not the mere act of saying sorry, of course. We know that when someone is hurting us, we can say sorry just to make it stop. And no one who needs to hear “sorry,” from someone who has hurt them wants to guilt or coerce them into saying it. Why? Because it matters to us what is in the heart of the person saying it. What hurt us was their betrayal of love – of the sharing of two hearts. What can heal is the reversal of that betrayal, and that alone.

That matters to God, too. He, far more than we do, looks on the heart. He is humble and gentle and forgiving and meets more than halfway the person with the “broken and contrite heart.” Does this mean God wants to break us in order to find us acceptable? Not at all – that would be to import our deeply flawed experience and our resulting assumptions into the text.

So again, what is it that God wants?

I think it is the same thing that any of us wants when we loved someone who wounded us. It is that treasure brought out of the heart. The heart of the sinner is broken in the sense that it is open, like a treasure box. Grief and love have burst open (or eased open) what was wrongfully closed.

What we want and need is the person who grieved us finally coming around and grieving with us, grieving that we are sad, grieving that they are the ones who caused the sadness.

Only then can we believe they love us. Because anyone who did love us would do that for us, when they understood they had hurt us.

God is not stupid – he knows that he cannot coerce that kind of thing by retributive torture.

One Orthodox afterlife tradition has it that all souls are taken to Heaven shortly after death, and allowed to see the holy ones and Christ himself. Then they are shown the regions of the shadow of death, and all the differing habitations of the spiritual world. Only after the full forty-day tour is that soul told where it will reside until the final judgment. I don’t know how authoritative in a literal sense this tradition is, but I tend to use such things in a literary fashion anyhow.

Why would someone who is about to be sent to an afterlife of unending, no-appeals suffering need to be shown God?

This tradition suggests to me that it is the very sight of Christ’s face that begins the process of afterlife reconciliation. The sight of his face ignites the divine flame in the soul. The sight of his face reorients the soul and interprets the actions of life to that soul.

Other flames, of course, are already burning there – the flames of those torments we have already begun to suffer in this life – the flames of arrogance, rage, and refusal to accept reality.

Which flame will win?

And which flame is the farthing?

God doesn’t desire us to burn in arrogance, rage, and refusal. Those dark flames may have to burn themselves out in the soul, and while they do the Lord may exile us from the presence of the souls at rest in the light of his countenance. But they are not the “last farthing” that God wants from us.

It is love God wants, the peaceable, humble grief of love that says, “O my beloved, I have wounded you in your side, in your hands and feet, in your head, and in your Great Heart. How can it be right for me to blithely sing and make merry in the lands of the blessed when I see your beautiful, all-loved face and feel the dissonance between your love for me and my treatment of you and others? Let me sit here and grieve with you, even if it is too late. I’m so sorry.”

Of course, we can begin to do that in this life – and that is what being a Christian means. Many people think that being a Christian means thinking you are the only ones that God loves and will forgive, the only ones who will make it to Heaven. Actually, there are a few Bible verses to that effect, but I choose to interpret them to mean that Christians are seeking salvation through Christ in this life, and by so doing, we are initiating the salvation of the whole world. I don’t think it means that we have no hope for anyone else, although many Orthodox theologians would disagree with me.

What I am talking about is the reality of Persons in relation to persons. It is the reality of love and the dynamic of forgiveness. It is not God looking for narcissistic supply, so I hope I haven’t made it sound that way. It is, rather, God being in genuine relation to us and therefore caring how we relate back to Him. It is God insisting on behaving toward us as toward free, rational daughters and sons, and giving us the full opportunity, in an eternity-oriented setting, to behave toward him as toward our true father, our true beloved, our true Sabbath. And it is the “natural law” of the spiritual world – the law that we are only alive in spirit when our hearts are joined to God, and they are only joined to God when we are exchanging love, trust, and honesty with him. Love is substantive in the spiritual world. It is the very stuff of it. God is love, and God is our true home.

Clearly this life alone does not give us that full opportunity, because nearly all of us experience too much ignorance of our spiritual nature, of God, and of the conditions of the afterlife, for this life to be a complete test of our inclination.

I know that much smarter people than I am have worked on this problem a lot over the years. I feel what I have said is true because of the nature of things, and not because of endless rigorous study, although I’ve done some studying, as well. Hopefully it will be taken in that manner – one person submitting her insight to the judgment of others.

I owe a lot to Fr. Kimmel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, as well as to reading George MacDonald, whose rejection of retributive substitutionary atonement, and his arguments for his position on that subject, paved the way for my understanding of this one.

45 thoughts on “The Last Farthing

  1. Still there is a great deal of Orthodox Patristic teaching that supports the understanding of eternal separation from God whatever form that might take.

    It is easy to minimize such teaching in the hope of full and total reconciliation.

    Personally it seems to me the ideas are somehow, I know not how, antinomical seemingly contradictory ideas that are together part of the whole truth.

    The salvation of all is held to be something to hope for even pray for but not be certain about dogmatically.

    We pray for mercy for our selves and even more for others. And render the deeds of mercy as well.

    Our salvation rests in that mercy no matter what the form or the process.

    “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it”. Psalm 118:24

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    • I don’t think that’s a bad way to look at it, Michael. I’m sure there must be a logical possibility of everlasting separation from God, at least from the human point of view, or it wouldn’t have been mentioned. I am mainly encouraged by the thought that the entire church is involved and invested in the salvation of every human soul.

      At one time I felt a sense of danger, a fear of betraying God, if I changed my belief on this matter. However at this point in my life, my faith depends upon believing what is best of Christ, attributing to him at the very least the kindness of ordinary human love. That’s why I try see beneath the harsher sayings in scripture, and to realize that not everything is equally written to me.

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      • I’ve been thinking about this, Alana, for years. The only thing that helps is the possibility that the harsher sayings and stories are meant for blockheads, or for simple minded persons (like those among us who believe that it is enough to believe, or that expressions of love or contrition–without any corresponding actions–are all that is needed.)

        I myself have been a blockhead at times, so I know whereof I speak. It took some harsh words from friends and acquaintances to make me reflect on my condition. What they said were exaggerations, even threats, but I wasn’t capable at the time of listening to reason or kindness.

        Did Jesus exaggerate or make threats to wake people up? I don’t know. But as you said, he has a human heart and a human mind, so why shouldn’t he be expected to behave in a human way. (The whole concept of two nature’s is beyond me, but I accept it and try to make the most of it.)

        With regard to simple minded persons, I shouldn’t judge. It’s just that there seems to be an awful lot of “religious” persons who don’t think. (Some of us think too much and get lost or sidetracked or fooled–but that’s a different problem.)

        Thank you for the thoughtful post!

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        • And thank you, for your thoughtful comment. Well, I think it is probably pretty basic to assume that harsh words are for blockheads, and gentle words for those in a more sensitive condition! As far as the reality behind the words, as Jesus said, “If I told you of earthly things and you don’t believe me, how can I tell you of Heavenly things?” He was trying to communicate a reality that people can barely begin to comprehend, even at its lowest levels.

          As I said, what is logically possible (eternal damnation) is one thing – but I highly doubt that God is a determinist.

          As far as two natures, one thing that helps is remembering that there are no “parts” to a person. A nature is not a part.

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        • Albert, are not all of us blockheads? Certainly I am. At the very least we are the maimed, the halt and the lame: totally unworthy of anything God gives us. Yet He gives.

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          • You are right. I had almost fooled myself into thinking the blocks had been removed once I discovered Orthodoxy and joined up (or rather, once God led me there invited me.)

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            • Sorry guys, I’m not into the Christian self-hating talk. If that’s not making a display of one’s supposed humility, I don’t know what is.

              Obviously some people are in a state of imperviousness to God’s grace that makes a genuine difference between them and others – not in terms of deserving, which is not at issue here, but in terms of how they need to be approached. If you approach a sensitive seeker like an irreligious “blockhead,” don’t be surprised if he becomes one.

              And don’t tell me Jesus and other scripture sources were oblivious to this. From Exodus to Proverbs to the Gospel of John to Revelation, the foolish and hard of heart are distinguished by the unusual treatment they receive from God, scripture authors, pastors, and prophets.

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      • One reason I am suspicious of the idea of universalism, despite all of the good souls and gentle hearts from which it is coming, is because it is popular right now. It fits a little too neatly into the cultural narrative or can quite easily be interpreted in such a way to allow it to fit. It is also a little too speculative for my taste.

        There is a Judgment. That is clear from the Biblical corpus and Patristic teaching. What the nature of that judgment is, no one knows. Being prepared, however, to both accept and render mercy is the key.

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        • Michael, your confidence that there is a judgment comes from the fact that the proposition “is clear from the biblical corpus and patristic teaching.” However, I do not locate my own confidence within the same source.

          Remember Abraham? “Will not the judge of all the Earth do right?” he asked the Lord, and changed God’s decree. How did he know that the Son was Judge of all the Earth? He had no Bible. He had an oral tradition from some fathers – and he had his faith. And the children of Abraham are not those who know all the right words, but rather those in whom his faith, passed down from generation to generation, is still alive.

          Faith is the substance of the very thing that, in faith, we hope for. Faith is “stuff” – it is the “stuff” of spiritual reality, of God’s nature. It has a character and a taste – it is a foretaste of Heaven.

          I believe there will be a judgment because I know, through the faith of Abraham, the the Lord Jesus is the Judge of all the Earth and that he will do right. Therefore I cannot agree that we know nothing about the nature of the final judgment. We know the Judge. We do not comprehend him, but we have tasted of him.

          There is nothing speculative about this, I assure you. Universalists and their like do not tend to be determinists. I have nothing to say about any determined future, whether one of total salvation or of widespread damnation. I am speaking about the nature of God. The Judge of all the Earth will end evil. He will not preserve it forever.

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  2. So the “last farthing” isn’t a debt payment but rather an emptying of self regard, including feelings of guilt, (getting out of the prison of self) in order to participate fully in God’s love by grieving with Him as persons who are in genuine honest relationships do when hurt is at issue.

    (I reread the post a few times and came to appreciate it’s complexity even if I may not yet fully understand its meaning. The sentence/paragraph above is an attempt.)

    In light of that complexity and patient elaboration of ideas , I ought not to have been so quick to comment. Words like “blockhead ” and “simple-minded” not only do not help develop the argument of your post, their vague superficial glibness is out of keeping with your serious tone. About “Christian self-hatred” and” supposed humility”–those are both personality issues of mine which are compounded by a limited understanding of Christianity. But I’m trying!

    So once again, thanks for your challenging words!

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    • I like your summary, I think that approximates what I was trying to say (and I know I wasn’t terribly clear.)

      As far as personality limitations, I totally get that. Honestly, I find God working around my personality issues a lot. Which means on the one hand, I know I’m limiting myself. But on the other hand, I’m surprised to find that God doesn’t “react” to my failures or limitation or flaws. He responds to my effort. I’m sure it’s the same with everyone.

      Just to be clear, I didn’t have a problem with your tone. I don’t fuss over tone.

      The other day the Lord came to me, and I was half asleep and I said something like, “Oh, hi there!” But then I kind of took it back, thinking well, that’s not what you’re supposed to say to the Lord! But I was groggy and I couldn’t think of anything, and he was so sunny, so I added, “Or, whatever the respectful version of that is!” I think he laughed – not contemptuously but gently and in delight. I certainly felt a sense of delight.

      On the other hand, I’ve found before that too often when I think I’m being reverent, I’m actually being pompous! It’s a sort of pretense. He doesn’t care for that at all, as far as I can see.

      I don’t like it when I feel that people are being pressured to verbally self-flagellate as a religious exercise, and I felt that your response to Michael showed that you felt that pressure. I’m sure Michael has felt that pressure, too – we all have. I think it’s a twisting of our religion, some infection that gets passed around in religious communities, and not something essential to it. That saying of Paul’s, that he’s the chief of sinners, gets used as a proof text (we’ve had this conversation before, I know) but I don’t think that mimicking Paul is helpful. At least not for someone who has a personality that tends toward self-hatred.

      So, to try my hand at summarizing my own point, I believe the last farthing is something relational, not something retributive. We see it even in the O.T. – God telling his people that what he looks for is a broken and contrite heart.

      I’m trying to locate that “broken and contrite heart” within human experience so that we don’t mystify it right out of our everyday lives. Everyone wants the person who has hurt and offended them to relent toward them, to seek re-union even to the point of sharing the grief that they themselves originally caused! (Being “really” sorry.)

      Another way to say it is that the debt we God is not our list of offenses, but rather our selves. He gave us ourselves, and we owe ourselves back to him. The offenses are simply occasions where we failed to render our moments, our lives, our souls, back to our Creator and the Lover of our souls, thus depriving him of our love.

      What is it to pay the debt, then, but to find a way to pour our soul out to him. To 1) Begin giving ourselves to him from this moment and 2) to mourn with him for the lost moments. Not out of force, not harshly, but even simply the willingness. Just opening our hearts to him and responding to whatever awareness he brings us.

      In the end, it’s experience alone that can give us real understanding, but I say what I say in order to combat false understandings. Only being alone and quiet with God many times over a long time can begin to break up the barriers of understanding.

      I think it’s all right to be creative about this “rendering ourselves to God” because each self is unique. I think of the forms of religion as divinely-provided “training wheels” for this sort of things, but ultimately, one must offer to God something that springs from the heart, authentically and spontaneously.

      The difference between others and God is that our very life, and all our happiness, depends upon reunion with God, so that his insisting on our reconciliation with him is a kindness, and not a selfish thing.

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      • Although there’s a sense in which our reunion with others is germaine to our life and happiness, as well… but I am hesitant to talk about this as forcibly as some of the saints have done, because with abuse rising in our culture, the necessity to distance oneself from one’s family or other abusers is very real for many people. Spiritual understanding of truth often defies the apparent version. There is a way to share our very life with someone through prayer for them in the presence of the Lord, while still maintaining a necessary psychological and physical distance from their influence.

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      • AR and Albert: Forgive me. I wasn’t saying we ought to self-flagelate. I have always taken they parable of the master of the feast calling the maimed the halt and the lame as a parable of hope. No matter one’s scars or condition there is a place at His table.

        Mercy is always available in overwhelming abundance. It is only my blockheadedness that keeps me from it.

        Yes, there are those who’s hearts are hard beyond my comprehension but I really can’t consider those folks when it comes to my own salvation. If I do I risk being “cut out of the Kingdom” because of my own arrogance and presumption.

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        • No problem, Michael, but can you consider those folks when trying to figure out who Christ is talking to in a particular parable? If you apply everything to yourself equally and at all times, some distortion of Christ’s teaching might reasonably be expected to occur, right?

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          • A question I have been pondering since you asked it. Frankly I don’t see that going on in me. For instance I don’t think of myself as the unfruitful fig tree because God has made me fruitful in many small ways.

            The understanding that we are broken is pretty basic and indeed applies to all. Even great saints confess it of themselves.

            Their is a prayer before communion by St. Basil the Great for one instance.

            Simple recognition of one’s brokenness is required: I come to call the sinners not the righteous…

            2Cor 3 seems to provide a lot of substance to your proposition . I’d really like your comments on it.

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            • No, I don’t think you are actually doing that, I just said it to demonstrate the principle.

              Could you clarify how the scripture passage you mentioned relates to this discussion? I’m intrigued.

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            • OK, I’ve read the chapter a few times and I’m still not sure what you are getting at. Could you demonstrat the connection for me?

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  3. Just stopped by to see what you are writing about now> Enjoyed and agreed with your original post, and also with your responses to the various comments. Although I am not as intellectually endowed, I think you and I are very much on the same page, at least on these issues. In Christ, Romanos

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    • Thanks, I think of you whenever I post something. I so appreciate all the encouragement you have given me over the years. I think that your vision of Jesus has helped me have the courage to believe he is better than even his best friends realized.

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  4. Alana,
    I like what you wrote here very much. In fact, a friend of mine who had never heard of universalism but was deeply intrigued by my casual mention of it asked me for resources and I sent her a link to this post and a couple others at Fr. Aiden Kimel’s, at least for starters. 🙂

    However, there is something that gives me pause and I wonder if it something you have considered and/or may have an answer to. The matter of the use of “until” in Scripture. You see, in my dialogue with my father about Orthodox teachings, he objected to the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos on the grounds that Scripture says she remained a virgin “until she had given birth to her first born son.” This was a hurdle for me as well. Then I read a book of Elder Cleopa’s teachings, where he explained that “until the” in Scripture often additionally includes the idea of something going on perpetually. He listed a number of instances in which this was the case, but I don’t have the book anymore since I borrowed it from someone who has now moved away.

    But, in trying to answer my dad’s question I did some googling 🙂 trying to find a similar treatment of the subject, and I found this from some Romanian Orthodox website (I think). If I should post a source let me know and I’ll go hunting to see if I can find it again, lol.

    Here is what I quoted:
    “As if they had nothing to add (to say) on the virginity of the Mother of God and after the birth, they add even this passage of the Holy Bible: “And knew her not until she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus” (Matt 1:25) explaining it that after the birth Virgin Mary could have other children.
    Let us take into consideration and understand that in the Holy Bible the phrase “until then” means eternity. Because the Lord said “……And lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the century” (Matt 28:20). Is it possible this means that He will depart from us after the end of that century?” Doesn’t the divine Apostle Paul say “…. And so (after the common resurrection) shall we ever be with the Lord” (1Thess 4:17). At another passage of the Holy Bible it is written “The Lord said to my Lord sit thou on my right hand till I make thine enemies thy footstool (Ps 110:1). Does this perhaps mean that after this our Saviour Jesus Christ will not sit at the right of His Father to govern with Him through the ages, even though we know very well that “…… and of His kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33).

    Again in another passage of the Holy Bible it is said that Noah sent the crow and the crow did not return until the earth dried from the water (Gen 8:7), does this mean that it returned to the ship sometime later?

    Again it is written in the Holy Bible that Melhol, the daughter of Saul, the wife of David did not bear a child “until the day she die” (2Sam: 6:23). Does this perhaps mean that she bore children after she died, since it says “until the…”?”

    Sorry if that’s a bit garbled. Now this did trouble me a little in relation to “until the last farthing”, which I have long held onto as perhaps extending a universalist hope. Perhaps you have some insight into the usage that I lack or am overlooking? Should it be consistent? a

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    • It looks as if it matters whether ‘until’ is preceded by a positive or a negative. Basically, from what I recall of Greek class, the word represented by the English ‘ until ‘ means the same as ours except it doesn’t have the connotation that after the conditions are met things change. They might or they might not. So the Romanian writer is on the right track… sort of. The lofty explanations where Scripture somehow turns out to be written in some heavenly language with its own rules are always wrong. The observation is correct in so far as it notices how the usage varies but that variance, again, is always based on the normal uses of the original language unless the scriptural author is forced to coin a phrase.

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      • I really recommend reading the best qualified Orthodox apologists. Not that I know who they all are, but I do know that people who write the theological PR material for church websites are almost never them, oddly and disappointingly enough.

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        • Your father seems to be taking the position that your church is best understood through the lens of these spontaneous apologists simply because their words appear on church websites. I don’t see any value for you in meeting him on that ground, strategically speaking.

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    • I looked up a few things to refresh my memory on this ‘ until ‘ issue. Most temporal uses do indicate a reversal of action after the condition has been met, but not all. Also, one has to look at the whole construction, not just a single word. This is the stuff scholars spend years on. More importantly, in the many cases where the rules of grammar alone cannot determine the meaning, one must read the words as actual literature.

      In the case of Mary’s virginity, the construction used (heos hou) does tend toward reversal but with notable exceptions. In other words, the Catholic/Orthodox interpretation is grammatically possible, but not provable. Therefore one looks at meaning. Is there any particular reason why any Christian would WANT to go around insisting that Jesus’ mother… ? Sorry, I can’t even say it.

      In the case of the person who gets put into prison because they refused to settle out of court, it makes no sense that the judge, unless he was very unjust, would keep him in prison after the last farthing was paid, so given that this is presented as practical advice and only by extension applied to Hell by us, interpreting, we can regard reversal as an easy conclusion.

      The only way this advice could indicate an eternal punishment, then, is if the offence is regarded as infinite, which many do, including Jonathan Edwards. However, the real significance of ‘ until ‘ becomes apparent now.

      That God as a just judge would let you out if you could pay your whole moral debt is a foregone conclusion. That there is such a thing add a last farthing (and not infinite farthings) is the significance of this passage, as long as we can rightfully apply it to God as judge, and are not compelled to regard it as mere practical advice.

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      • Thanks for the comments on the grammatical usage and larger contexts of those “until” passages. It was helpful and really addressed the things I was wondering about very nicely.

        About the best qualified Orthodox apologists, is there any author or any book that you would suggest particularly? Sorry to be so helpless, but I want to make sure I’m not missing the one right book I should be reading, lol. I’ve read several “intro to Ortodoxy” type books, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Clark Carlton, Jordan Bajis, and Fr. Stephen Daimick. And I’ve read “Wounded by Love”, “Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit”, a couple books by Elder Sophrony, some Lossky, and a little by David Bentley Hart. There is more but it’s all along the same lines. I feel like I’m able to answer my own questions adequately by self directed reading like this or asking questions of people I’ve come to trust, but I’m still often at a loss on what to say to my dad or other family members.

        Michael (or anyone else reading) if you have suggestions too I’m all ears!

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          • Thanks Albert. I’m a regular reader of Glory to God for All Things and value it greatly as well. In particular, the critiques of penal substitutionary atonement and discussions of salvation as existential/ontological have been helpful in solidifying new perspectives.

            The other link you posted is new to me and I will definitely look into it! Thanks. 🙂

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        • Leah, I’m not sure books will do very much. Deepening your own understanding and praying are probably you best options. Don’t be afraid to admit the inability to answer without saying there is not an answer.

          Listen for the truth in what they say and affirm that if possible then state what you know without apology. Let those who have ears to hear…..

          Be patient and don’t argue.

          Best book other than the Bible that I’ve read is St. Athanasius On The Incarnation with the forward by CS Lewis.

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          • Good advice, thank you. It’s similar to what my priest suggested. I have found the conversations difficult to navigate, but I’m somewhat committed to not shutting them down prematurely, and am concerned to communicate clearly and accurately as well. So I want to read the Right Things, but agree that books in themselves won’t do much.

            I have read “On the Incarnation” along with Lewis’ forward. I forgot to put that in my list. 🙂 It definitely merits a reread as it’s been a few years.

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        • Someone online, referencing Augustine, made the following point. When the angel said to Mary that she would bear a son, her response was, “How can this be, since I know not a man?” Obviously she did not mean that she was unacquainted with any member of the male sex. The word “know” clearly refers to sexual relations. As a protestant, I always assumed this meant, “I haven’t done that yet,” but that is silly when you think about it. “I haven’t done that yet” is no answer to “You will be pregnant in the future.” If she knew she was going to get married sometime in the future, or even suspected it, or if it was even possible, she would not have thought a future pregnancy impossible due to her then-virginity. ALL good Jewish unmarried girls were virgins. What was so special about Mary’s virginity that made her motherhood seem impossible, unless her virginity was intended to be perpetual?

          Plus, that interpretation ignores the present tense of the verb. One of the first things we learned in New Testament Greek is that the present tense usually signals continuing action – thus it affects the future.

          “I know not a man” is therefore said in such a way as to signal a continuance from the present into the future. Mary is indicating, not her past, but her way of life, which is virginity.

          In the Greek, she actually repeats the word “know” instead of just saying it once. I don’t know enough Greek to tell you all this implies, but it is certainly emphatic.

          Anyway, this definitely supports that idea that she had taken a vow of virginity before her marriage to Joseph, and that he was therefore her husband in the sense of her legal representative and protector, but not in the sense of intimate knowledge, which is the Traditional teaching about her, based on some early literature.

          It also makes sense that Luke, the gospel-writer who knew Mary best and was most concerned with her as a person in his way of telling the story, should make reference to this fact while Matthew passes over it.

          ***

          This looks good. I don’t know where you can get the actual early literature about the Theotokos, but apparently this book references them.

          http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Early-Christians-Knew-Her/dp/1612613438

          Anyway, it appears that the evangelical hangup with Mary’s continuing virginity is simply that it’s not in the Bible and they don’t like to believe anything not in the Bible. How odd, when you think about it, that their idea of religion involves complete alienation from the literature and beliefs of the earlier members of their own faith.

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        • Wow, having read some sample pages on Amazon of the Matthews-Greene book, I definitely want it for myself, and more, I think that you could even give it to your family if they are still interested. I don’t say that lightly. I haven’t given my own family any books on Orthodoxy. This is just written with so much understanding of where people are at with Mary right now, and why, but also seem to be well-researched. At the very least, anyone who reads it will never wonder again why the Orthodox believe as they do about Our Lady.

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    • It’s hard to write comments on this little phone. But I wanted too add that literarily, Matthew is not concerned here with the intactness of Mary’s womb as such. Rather, he is concerned with Jesus’ heavenly pedigree and so he emphasizes that Joseph was her husband (and so the guardian of her chastity) but did not know her during the entire time she was pregnant with Jesus. The entire sentence is carefully constructed to lock out any possibility of a human father for Jesus. It is not constructed to let us know more of Mary’s story. For that we must look to the early Christian literature which did not make it into the Canon, as well as our own sense of piety and that of they faithful through the ages.

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      • Those who deny or seriously question Mary’s virginity have a real problem with Christ’s divinity which consecrated Mary’s womb. IMO they also lack an understanding of the sacred in general–that holiness can penetrate and transform.

        Really tough to get through all the layers of doubt there.

        As far as judgment goes we seem to exist in a similar level of doubt. We find it difficult to conceive of God’s judgment being different than ours. We tend to think that all judgment involves punishment especially punishment of others wrong doing.

        I think it is fair to say God’s mercy offends us: think of the non-prodigal son or the 1st hour workers.

        God does not appear “fair” and this is perhaps His greatest offense to the modern mind

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  5. 1 Cor 3 not 2nd esp vs 10-15. If there is any thing at all that can withstand the fire that is enough.

    Since love looks for the good it tends to find it

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    • OK, I see.

      I Corinthians 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

      16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

      Well, first, this is a warning to Church Leaders. Paul tells the faithful that they, collectively, are God’s building – his workmanship, his temple. This image occurs several times in the epistles, by the way, and putting all those references together is a terrific ecclesisological study I want to do someday, and sort of half did in college. Anyway, the thing about fire is saying that he, Paul, labored over them as God’s building, but it is still God’s building, not his, and if other Church Leaders come along and build on top of his work, they will have to answer for how well they do at that. Notice, his two options are not, saved vs. not saved. Rather, they are saved with reward, or saved “by fire” – in other words, without a reward.

      I do think you are right that this strengthens the Universalist position now that I look at it. Because we are told that people will be judged by their works. But if every single thing a person did for God fails to survive the conflagration of God’s judgment (if all his works are worthless and bad) we are told that he himself will be saved “as if by fire” – as if the fire itself, which destroys all his false works and reveals the truth about his earthly life, becomes an agent of salvation.

      This idea of the fire of judgment as an agent of salvation is definitely something we would expect to see somehow in scripture if Universal Salvation can be confidently expected.

      Of course, we do have to deal with the next verse. “If someone destroys you, God will destroy him.”

      I see two possible interpretations here.

      One is that this is a third option. 1) Saved with Reward. 2) Saved by fire without reward. 3) Not saved but instead destroyed by God.

      The other possible interpretation is that this verse is a summary of the previous statements. In that case, God destroying someone would not be taken in its absolute sense.

      First of all, I think most of us would agree that annihilation is not an action that God would do. I could get into that later. But putting it aside for the present, we can say that since God will not destroy the man himself right out of existence, we are already not taking this in its absolute sense. Is God the Destroyer or the Creator? The Giver of Blessings? Or of Curses? I don’t think it can be both in God’s case.

      Anyway, given that we cannot take this verse in its absolute sense without becoming annihilationists, we must then understand this statement that God will destroy a person who destroys the Church in some qualified sense.

      As I said, it could be a summary of the previous statement. “Destroying him” would then mean, “Causing his ruin” in relation to his position in the church, his life’s work, his reputation and name, and his expected reward.

      I think this possibility is strengthened by looking at the structure of Paul’s sentence here. He uses “destroy” twice – it’s some kind of wordplay. The word “phtheiro” might more properly be translated “corrupt.” Since God’s Church cannot utterly be destroyed in the absolute sense, we have to take the first usage as “corrupt” and therefore it seems the second use, which is chosen for the sake of paralellism, might also carry a similar idea.

      It seems there are many possible shades of meaning for this word in Greek and I don’t have to tools to determine what they all are and thin them out. Someone online noted that it can even be used of “languishing, like in prison.”

      There’s also a stronger form of the verb in the Greek language, (“diaphtheiro”) which would indicate a more thorough destruction, all the way through, and Paul doesn’t use that. For what that is worth.

      Anyhow, taking this passage by itself, it certainly seems less threatening of everlasting judgment than I would have thought at first glance. In fact, it is so problematic for the majority viewpoint, that it has led many evangelicals to conclude that there are two judgments: one for “saved” people to see whether they will get a reward or not, and one for everyone else, to pronounce that they are not, in fact, saved.

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    • Thanks for the challenge by the way. I do love an opportunity to dig into the scriptures a little. By the way, is there anything I didn’t address, or any points you would like to bring up?

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      • No, not at this time. I do want to go back to an earlier thought of mine that somehow this is not an either/or proposition that we can understand within our finite corporeal blinders. It is a both/and in which judgment, repentance, love and forgiveness leading to salvation are all part of it. It is, therefore a mistake, to go doctrinaire on it. (Not saying you, AR, are doing that). Mercy, whatever form it takes trumps all, however.

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        • I am sure there is much we cannot grasp. However, my job as I see it is to grasp as much as I can, so I do not allow that consideration to deter me.

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