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Sometimes as we read the Scriptures, we may not realize that we have operative assumptions and thoughts which may guide our reading and interpretations. We are, presumably, well intentioned and therefore believe that we are approaching Scripture and reading it ‘the way it was meant to be read’. Even more so, we believe ourselves to understand God ‘as He truly is’. However if we look deeper into the texts of Scripture, ‘bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10.5)’, we may find more than we had expected. This article explores an example where our assumptions may be very different than what Scripture teaches as interpreted by the fathers of The Church
Let us start with Matthew 1, a text we have looked at together before (God Saves His People). In the text, what we read may shock us if we are able to read the many layers of meaning present therein. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy, which some of us may or may not simply skim through, although a great student and teacher of the Scriptures such as St. John Chrysostom spends ample time here in his homilies. St. Matthew then describes the events of the birth of the Lord and the understandably peculiar events leading up to it.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew 1. 18-21.
The latter part of this text, and what follows it was the object of the previous discussion we had on this text. Let us look more closely at what else is being said here. The intervening events are not included in St. Matthew’s Gospel, but St. Luke describes the revelation to St. Mary that she ‘will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus (Luke 1.31),’ and that this would come to as ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God (Luke 1.35).’ St. Joseph, betrothed to the Theotokos, is not aware of any of these intervening events. He has no idea what has happened or how his betrothed (wife to be) has become pregnant. All he knows is that his fiancée, his betrothed, has been found pregnant and that this child is certainly not of him. All things considered, there can be no logical conclusion for Joseph other than to consider his betrothed as having been unfaithful, having committed adultery. This is where the text speaks to us in very interesting terms, in a way we may not be expecting. As we read on we should keep in mind that St. Joseph must think his fiancée has been unfaithful to him, resulting in an unlawful pregnancy. Let us see what his response was,
“Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make a public example of her, was minded to put her away secretly.” Matthew 1.19.
If we can see it, this is a remarkable text. Joseph is not willing to publicly humiliate his betrothed (despite his assumption that she has been unfaithful). Therefore he decides that he will keep things ‘hush-hush’ and hide the Virgin Mary that no one might find out that she is pregnant. But look at what the text says of Joseph, “Joseph, being a just man” wished to do stave off humiliation for his (presumed by him to have been unfaithful) fiancée. There are layers here that we would do well to unravel.
Justice, in our modern sense, is for the person who has done wrong to be punished according to the tenets of the law. According to our sensibilities, when someone is speeding, the just thing to do is for them to be given a speeding ticket, no matter the extenuating circumstance. From our modern vantage it may be nice to ‘let someone off easy’ but it certainly is not just. Justice, in our modern sense, would have had the elderly St. Joseph drag St. Mary into the public eye and have her stoned publicly, condemned to death for the sin (he thought) she committed. According to both Roman and Jewish law, adultery is punishable by death and there is definitely no ‘get off easy’ clause in the Levitical or Roman laws of the time.
Yet, St. Matthew insists on describing St. Joseph as a just man for his breaking of the law. Even though, or perhaps because, St. Joseph has broken the law and not acted as per the letter of the law, choosing instead to act according to love, he is said to be just. The word used by St. Matthew here is dikaios, which can alternatively be translated as ‘righteous’ although both the NKJV and the RSV render it with the term ‘just’. It seems that dikaios implies much more than our own modern sensibilities about justice, law, and punishment would have us believe. Instead, St. Joseph’s description as being just communicates his faithfulness, his willingness to set things aright, his protection of his betrothed despite her supposed infidelity. In fact the verb for this word, dikaiou, means to ‘set aright’ or ‘correct’ when it is employed by the New Testament and the Greek fathers (Cf. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p 369-370). This same word is used in the liturgies of the Coptic Church where the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord” and the congregation responds, “It is meet and right” or in some translations “It is right and worthy”. In both cases the words used are axion (‘meet’ or ‘worthy’) and dikeon (‘right’ in both cases). This is an instance of Greek loan-words (Greek words and sometimes whole prayers which are included, in Greek) in the Coptic liturgical text but the point here is the use of the words. Surely it cannot mean that it is ‘just’ to worship God in the same way we think it ‘just’ to punish a criminal. Rather, here we see the word, also employed by St. Matthew, meaning that this is what it is to be righteous, to act according to godliness, to seek God, to find life.
It is initially hard to make sense of what St. Matthew has said here, and the gravity of his statement, because of our many presuppositions coming to the text. When we think of the ‘justice system’, we no longer summon connotations of ‘setting aright’ or ‘rehabilitating’ the individual being sanctioned by the system. Rather we often hear or may say things like, “Justice was served” when someone is given a certain prison sentence or in some states, given the death sentence. In reality, nothing has ‘changed’, no one has been ‘brought back to wholeness’ even if we feel (somehow) better about the incarceration or elimination of the person sentenced. Given that the United States currently houses the most incarcerated persons per capita globally, our experience of the ‘justice system’ is that of one gone awry. Despite that, even in English, when we speak about ‘justifying’ something, we mean its being made aright. Think to when you are typing and you have the option to ‘justify’ or ‘centre’ the text. This is the original and true meaning of justice, to set things aright and to faithfully rehabilitate the person who has offended (or perhaps the text that has gone too far one way or the other). In a modern land where justice is about locking up and removing persons, it is no wonder that we have lost this original meaning. Justice, particularly if we wish to speak of Divine Justice, should not be limited to our own lexical backgrounds but rather grounded in that which was revealed in Christ. Let us look to other places where we see this same term employed in the Scripture. For example we see this being said by Christ as He is to be baptized by St. John the baptist,
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (dikaiosyneen).” Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3.13-17.
Again the word employed by St. Matthew is the same as that said of St. Joseph, but here rendered righteousness in English. What justice or what righteousness is there in Christ coming to be baptized? In fact, according to the simple facts (if this is to be imagined as though a court case), Christ has no need of baptism and this is certainly what St. John the Baptist thought as The Lord approached him. Let us look at how St. Cyril of Alexandria explores this episode to better understand. We quote this at length here,
“Behold Him [The Lord Jesus Christ], therefore, as a man, enduring with us the things that belong to man’s estate, and fulfilling all righteousness (dikaiosyneen), for the plan of salvation’s sake… Was He too then in need of holy baptism? But what benefit could accrue to Him from it?…. ‘He was holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sins, and made higher than the heavens, (Heb 7.26)’ according to the words of the divine Paul … For the Holy Spirit indeed proceeds from God the Father, but belongs also to the Son. It is even often called the Spirit of Christ, though proceeding from God the Father. And to this Paul will testify, saying, at one time, ‘They that are in the flesh cannot please God: but you are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any one have not the Spirit of Christ, he is not Christ’s (Rom 8.9).’ And again, ‘But because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father (Gal 4.6).’ The Holy Spirit proceeds, as I said, from God the Father, but His Only-begotten Word, as being both by nature truly Son, and resplendent with the Father’s dignities, ministers The Spirit to the creation, and bestows It [The Holy Spirit] on those that are worthy. Yea, He said, ‘All things that the Father has are mine (John 16.15).’
How then will the mystery be true? In that for our aid He assumed a kind of adaptation. The divine Word became man, even ‘He Who was in the form of God the Father, and thought it not robbery to be equal unto God,’ as most wise Paul says, ‘but took the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men, and humbling Himself to poverty (Phil 2.5-7).’…
He had no need of holy baptism, being wholly pure and spotless, and holy of the holy. Nor had He need of the Holy Spirit: for the Spirit That proceeds from God the Father is of Him, and equal to Him in substance. We must now therefore at length hear what is the explanation of the economy. God in his love to man provided for us a way of salvation and of life. For believing in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and making this confession before many witnesses, we wash away all the filth, and are enriched by the communication of the Holy Spirit, and made partakers of the divine nature, and gain the grace of adoption. It was necessary therefore that the Word of the Father, when He humbled Himself unto emptiness, and deigned to assume our likeness, should become for our sakes the pattern and way of every good work.
And the Evangelist says that the heavens were opened, as having long been closed. For Christ said, ‘Soon you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1.51).’ For both the flock above and that below being now made one, and one chief Shepherd appointed for all, the heavens were opened, and man upon earth brought near to the holy angels. And the Spirit also again came down as at a second commencement of our race: and upon Christ first, Who received it not so much for His own sake as for ours: for by Him and in Him are we enriched with all things. Most suitably therefore to the economy of grace does He endure with us the things of man’s estate…
Having taken therefore Christ as our pattern, let us draw near to the grace of holy baptism, that so we may gain boldness to pray constantly, and lift up holy hands to God the Father, that He may open the heavens also unto us, and send down upon us too the Holy Spirit, to receive us as sons. For He spoke unto Christ at the time of holy baptism, as though having by Him and in Him accepted man upon earth to the sonship, ‘This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased. For He Who is the Son by nature and in truth, and the Only-begotten, when He became like unto us, is specially declared to be the Son of God, not as receiving this for Himself:—-for He was and is, as I said, His true Son:—-but that He might ratify the glory unto us. For He has been made our firstfruits, and firstborn, and second Adam: for which reason it is said, that ‘in Him all things have become new:’ for having put away the oldness that was in Adam, we have gained the newness that is in Christ: by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father, be glory and dominion with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen. St. Cyril of Alexandria, Homily on Luke, Homily 11
This is a remarkable and multi-faceted text and much can be gleaned from it. For our purposes we will discuss what St. Cyril’s understanding is of Christ’s ‘fulfilling all righteousness’. In this long text St. Cyril is at pains to denounce those who would say that Christ is baptized as though he stood in need of it or as though He was deficient. St. Cyril points out to us that Christ does all of this for the ‘plan of Salvation’s sake’. The Lord is not in need of baptism but humanity is in need of the communication of the Spirit and to be brought back to Sonship. Therefore the fulfillment of all righteousness (all justice) is the saving work of Christ; to restore us back to The Father and make us partakers of the Divine nature through the indwelling of The Holy Spirit. Far from being a desire to mete out appropriate punishments for wrongdoing, God’s justice is His bringing about the economy of Salvation. God’s faithful salvation wrought forth for the people, His rehabilitating, His making them right again, is His justice. In this way we can make sense of the texts of Scripture which read as Isaiah 61,
“For I am the Lord who love righteousness [(dikaiosynee; rendered by many translations as Justice)], and hate robberies of injustice; and I will give their labour to the just, and will make an everlasting covenant with them. And their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring in the midst of peoples: every one that sees them shall take notice of them, that they are a seed blessed of God; and they shall greatly rejoice in the Lord.” Isaiah 61.8-10.
The Lord Who loves Justice is the faithful one who makes a covenant with His people and will rejoice their hearts. We see God’s justice portrayed in this manner throughout the Old Testament as well, not simply in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Take for example,
“We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have accomplished unrighteously; and if they shall turn to you with all their heart and all their soul in the land of those who carried them captives, where they carried them captives and shall pray toward their land which you gave to their fathers and the city which you did choose and the house which I built to your name:— then shall you hear out of heaven, out of your prepared dwelling-place, their prayer and their supplication and you shall execute justice and shall be merciful to your people that sin against you.” 2 Chronicles 6:37-39
Again, it would not be ‘just’, in the all too modern sense of ‘appropriate’ punishment, for God to be merciful to the people that sin against Him. In fact these responses would be opposite. God’s justice is his faithful restoration of the people. Much as the Good Shepherd is the one Who seeks after the lost sheep (Cf. Luke 15), so God’s Justice is in His seeking out His sheep to return them to the bosom of the Father by The Son who is forever in His bosom. In the understanding of the evangelist and St. Cyril of Alexandria, this is intuitive. The fathers of the Church even speak against this forensic notion of justice as balancing the scales of punishment when they speak of the work of Christ. Take what St. John Chrysostom about how God is well disposed towards us despite our doing nothing to deserve it,
“What can come up to this excess [of goodness]?.. He not only did not demand justice, but even gave His son that we might be reconciled. They that received Him were not reconciled, but even slew Him. Again, He sent other ambassadors to beseech, and though these are sent, it is Himself that entreats. And what does He ask of us? “Be ye reconciled unto God.” And he did not say, ‘Reconcile God to yourselves;’ for it is not He that bears [has] enmity, but you; for God is never at enmity with us.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 11 on 2nd Corinthians
Similarly St. Isaac the Syrian says,
“Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life, and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching… Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to Him is so very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you…. How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?.. How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice? —for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies, Homily 31 as per the translation of Holy Transfiguration Monastery.
Here St. John Chrysostom and St. Isaac explicitly deny the idea that God demands justice in the same way we would in human affairs. Rather than doing so, God has offered His only begotten Son that we might be reconciled to Him (for it is we who were estranged, Genesis: The Book of Life and Death). The other important consideration for all of us is simply that sin is not a forensic concept of innocent vs guilty much as a speeding ticket or murder charge is. In something like a murder charge, whether one is found innocent or guilty, if they have committed the crime, they feel the reality of what they have done, something has changed. The law in our society is an external reality. Nothing changes about the individual when they are ‘sentenced’, rather the reality of what they have or have not done is what is operant. This is why someone not-at-fault in a car accident fatality can have years of psychological trauma while the individual wrongfully charged with murder will not struggle in his soul (psychologically). The law of The Scriptures and of the Spiritual Life is speaking to us of these same realities. To the extent that we draw near to God (this is what virtue really is) we find life. To the extent that we draw away from Him, we become mired in death and this is what the reality of sin is. St. John Chrysostom has highlighted that what God does, in His excess of goodness, is to give up His own Son that we might be reconciled. At the core of this is relationship, not verdicts. Something fundamentally changes within us when we sin for we wrench ourselves away from the bosom of Him Who is Life. St. Athanasius teaches,
“For God has not only created us from nothing, but also granted us by the grace of the Word to live a life according to God. But human beings, turning away from things eternal and by the counsel of the devil turning us towards things of corruption, were themselves the cause of corruption in death, being, as we already said, corruptible by nature but escaping their natural state by the grace of participation in the Word, had they remained good. Because of the Word present in them, even natural corruption did not come near them, just as Wisdom says, “God created the human being for incorruptibility and an image of his own eternity; but by the envy of the devil death entered into the world” (Wis 2.23-4). When this happened, human beings died and corruption thenceforth prevailed against them. St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, 5.
St. Athanasius famously asks, in the same work, what God was to do in the face of a perishing humanity. As St. John Chrysostom has said above, justice is not to weigh the matter and determine whether there was enough punishment or not, or perhaps how to exact enough punishment. Rather, God acts to bring us back to Himself thereby justifying us of (making us whole from) our sins. This faithfulness is the ‘justice’ of God. It is for this reason that St. Athanasius can say later in the same work that the work of God has been accomplished in Christ,
“For when did the prophet or vision cease from Israel if not now, when Christ, the holy of holies, has come? For a sign and a great proof of the advent of the God Word is that Jerusalem no longer stands, nor does a prophet arise, nor is vision revealed to them, and rightly so. For when He who was indicated has come, what is the use of those who indicate? When the truth is present, what need is there any more for the shadow? For this reason they prophesied until there should come justice (dikaiosynee) itself and the one who redeems the sins of all…. So the Savior himself cried out, saying, “ The law and the prophets prophesied until John” (Matt 11.13)…. Why do they [the Jews] not know, or rather why do they willingly ignore, that the Lord who was prophesied by the scriptures has illumined the inhabited world and has been made manifest bodily to it, just as the scripture says, ‘The Lord God has appeared to us’ (Ps 117.27), and again, ‘He sent his Word and healed them’ (Ps 106.20), and again, ‘Not a messenger; nor an angel, but the Lord himself has saved them’ (Isa 11.9)…
For what more has he who is expected by them to do when he comes? Call the Gentiles? But they have already been called. To make prophet and king and vision to cease? This has already happened. To refute the godlessness of idols? It has already been refuted and condemned. To destroy death? It is already destroyed.” St. Athanasius, On The Incarnation, 40.
Justice itself has come to humanity in the Logos made man for this is the meeting ground of God and humanity. Christ our mediator (Christ The Mediator) is the one through whom the estranged children have been reunited to The Father by The Spirit Who is sent into our hearts. This very Christ, Who is the ground of the reunification of God and man, is The Justice of God.
Therefore we find, again in the first chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, a vision of justice which is much different to our own. We must put on the lenses of Christ in order to be able to peer into the Divine mystery, otherwise our vision will be distorted by the spectacles we are already wearing, even if unaware of it. Far from a constraint which God must balance (His ‘Justice’) vs other attributes of His (His love or His desire to renew us), God’s Justice is fulfilled by His renewing humanity and restoring it to wholeness. St. Joseph is a just man for he seeks to restore and rehabilitate, not because he will act in punitive fashion according to the letter of the law. Much as justifying a text is to center it, God’s justice is found in His restoring humanity to its proper place, the bosom of The Father, where the Son dwells in eternity, by renewing the Spirit within us. The justice of God is that we too may once again cry out, “Abba, Father” (Gal 4.6, Rom 8.15).