What follows below is the most remarkable summary, analysis and overview of the life of Jesus Christ that I have ever read – written by a woman who clearly knows the Gospels inside and out, and loves the Lord.
Icon by Coptic Monk Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib in 1684, copied from a more ancient icon (Creative Commons license)
We traditional Christians focus rightly on the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But there is more, much more. As we read the Gospels day by day, there is the life of Christ: His way of thinking, His way of living, His phronema which He shared with His Apostles and has been passed down directly to us through His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This is the Orthodox phronema which sets the pattern for how we are to think and act.
Here in the Conclusion of her book Thinking Orthodox, Dr Eugenia Constantinou focuses on the life of Jesus – I’d almost say rediscovers it for us. As I said last week, when I first read it my reaction was a simple “Wow!”
This Post will be long, since I think to break this up would destroy its impact.
If you have not read Part One of this series, please go back to last week and do so. Never begin anything in the middle!
Many thanks to Dr Jeannie and to Ancient Faith for permission to print, and to my wife Khouria Dianna for helping me proof-read.
Conclusion – Part Two
Jesus Christ and Orthodox Phronema
The life of the Lord provides a model for our behavior in general and also for the way we ought to teach and talk about God. All of us who identify ourselves as Christians ought to convey Christ to others by our words and behavior. What can we learn about the Lord’s phronema from the Gospels?
We might begin by noting that His teachings were not a radical departure from that which had come before. His teachings were the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law’s intent and purpose to lead the people of a holy God to personal holiness. He promoted inner righteousness and true virtue, not legalistic, ritual cleanliness, since “the pure in heart … shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). His teachings were rooted in Judaism, but they were fresh, forceful, lively, true, and relevant to the people of His day. He taught using familiar forms and methods: parables, similes, antitheses, rabbinic argumentation, proverbs, blessings and woes. He used classic biblical images: the shepherd, the vineyard, the fig tree, weddings, banquets. He related His teachings to daily life: fishing, with its boats and nets; pastures with sheep and goats; farming with its sowing, reaping, and harvest; and housework, with its mending, grinding, sweeping, and measuring flour. He used examples of people in various walks of life and in a variety of relationships: kings and soldiers, merchants and householders, landlords and tenant farmers, scribes and day laborers, judges and litigants, fathers and children, masters and servants, tax collectors, bankers and borrowers. He used images of daily life because sanctification is possible by actively conforming ourselves to Christ in countless ways in our daily lives.
He called on us to study the Scriptures. “Search the Scriptures” (John 5:39), for they bear witness to Christ. He opened the minds of the apostles to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45). The Lord quoted and interpreted the Scriptures Himself, introducing them with the phrase, “Have you not read,” or “It is written.” “Have you not read what was said to you by God…?” (Matt. 22:31). “Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry…?” (Matt. 12:3). “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected…'” (Matt. 21:42). Or He expressed His judgment in the form of a Scripture quotation: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice'”(Hos.6:6/Matt. 9:13), or “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said…” (Matt 15:7, quoting Is. 29:13) The apostles received and preserved those interpretations and others, and the Orthodox Church in turn has preserved that precious repository of faith that is expressed in our doctrines and daily lives.
The Lord rejected human interpretations and rationalizations that were designed to dilute the Scriptures and evade the will of God. He condemned the Pharisees for creating legal technicalities to circumvent oaths and avoid moral responsibilites (Matt. 23:16,18). He did not employ rationalistic arguments but spoke of repentance, humility, prayer, fasting, mercy, alms, and forgiveness. Christ is our model because He did not conform to human or societal ideas but conveyed the truth from above. His message revealed that spiritual reality is not aligned with human perception and that God’s principles are not based on the values or mentality of this world. His teaching was replete with mystery and paradox: “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it” (Luke 9:24). His words contradicted and confounded human logic. “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44).
Jesus Christ is the ultimate paradigm of our Christian phronema. What we learn from Him is not limited to His words, either the content of His teachings or its application. Equally important are the purpose and spirit with which He spoke and acted. His words were pure, lacking guile, self-interest, or hypocrisy. The ministry of Christ often perturbed the powerful and influential of Jewish society. He had no desire to impress His hearers and made no effort to flatter anyone or gain social, professional, or political advantage by His words or actions. He did not present His own personal opinion or theorize about hypothetical matters. He was completely devoted to doing the will of the Father and taught with complete obedience to the Father (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-39).
Clearly, Christ’s teaching was not based on human traditions, human wisdom, human authority, or the interpretations of the famous rabbis who had preceded Him. Jesus presented Himself as the source of authority. As God Himself, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, has authority over the Law of Moses, and even has authority to forgive sins. This was revolutionary, scandalizing, even blasphemous to the Jewish leaders who questioned His claims. “By what authority do you do these things?” they asked (Luke 20:2).
But His teaching thrilled and amazed the crowds, who marveled at the “gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth” (Luke 4:22). The Gospels frequently refer to the amazement of the crowds at His teaching (Mark 1:27). People “marveled at Him” (Luke 11:14), and the crowds were “astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority” (Luke 4:32). The Lord even amazed His enemies, who were bewildered by His wisdom because they regarded Him as uneducated. “How is it that this man has learning, when He has never studied?” (John 7:15). His extraordinary and unexpected responses often left His opponents speechless: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). When temple guards were sent to arrest Him, they returned to the Jewish leaders without Him. The authorities were frustrated and exasperated. “Why did you not arrest Him?!” The captain of the temple guards simply answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46).
His statements were amazing but not a complete departure from Judaism; otherwise His teaching would not have been received by the crowds. His words resonated with the people, who recognized not only their truth, but a depth and power whose source could only be divine Wisdom. Likewise, when Orthodox Christians speak the truth faithfully according to our phronema, it is not uncommon for non-Orthodox to react with surprise and astonishment, because our explanation, statement, or interpretation can be strikingly different from the response offered by the secular world or Western Christianity.
In His many encounters and challenges by His antagonists, Jesus displayed His discernment and presented many wonderful examples for us to imitate in our daily lives. When Christ was asked a question, He responded, but He was not disputatious, nor did He initiate debates. He refused to answer a question if He knew the answer would not be received or the questioner had an ulterior motive (John 10:24-25; Luke 22:67). He recognized flattery and insincerity and rebuffed them. He would not become involved in worldly affairs; for example, He refused to settle a dispute over money (Luke 12:13-14).
Jesus never sought to prove or justify Himself, even when He was slandered, but sought only the spiritual benefit of His hearers. If He was not welcomed or received when traveling, He simply went elsewhere (Luke 8:37; 9:53-55), and He instructed His disciples to do the same (Matt. 10:14; Luke 9:5; 10:10-11). He did not seek His own glory but that of the Father. He said and did nothing out of self-interest. He considered the occasion and the audience. When He performed an action that He knew would not be understood at that moment, He gave the lesson by His example alone, without explanation: “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7). When the lesson required instruction with words that could not be received or understood at the moment, He did not speak at that time but waited until the proper time: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).
The Lord adapted His lesson to His audience. He was gentle but also truthful. He spoke with genuine and divine love. He did not shrink from offending others when it was necessary for their salvation; He came “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Everything He said and did was for the sake of the other, whether it was a mild explanation to the Pharisees about divorce (“For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce” [Matt 19:8]), a correction to the Sadducees about the Resurrection (“You are wrong [because] you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” [Mark 12:24]), a strong rebuke to a disciple (“Get behind me, Satan!” [Matt. 16:23]), or an outright condemnation (“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” [Matt.23: 13-29]).
The phronema of the Lord was not appreciated or respected by the most important and influential Jewish leaders of His day. He had many followers among the Pharisees and elders, although often they kept their belief secret (John 12:42). Those who responded to Him openly and enthusiastically were usually the simple, the uneducated, the powerless, the lowly, children at heart who “had ears to hear,” those who were willing to truly see and truly hear. The wise and learned often did not recognize the Messiah, but in their simplicity the ordinary folk realized the prophetic fulfillment taking place in their presence. This aspect of the Lord’s phronema is yet another lesson for us: we should not expect the acceptance or admiration of most people, certainly not of those who are steeped in the values of this world. Rather, if we are being faithful, we should expect to suffer for Him; we should anticipate persecution, rejection, criticism, and slanders to be spoken against us falsely (Matt. 5:11).
Christ was not a revolutionary and did not set out to disrupt the established order of Roman society or of Judaism. When He healed a leper, He advised the leper to follow the proper procedure for being admitted to society: “Go and show yourself to the priest” (Luke 5:14). He even advised His disciples to respect the teachings of His worst critics: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2-3). He made sure He paid the temple tax so as not to give offense, even though He believed He was not subject to the tax (Matt.17:27).
What does this teach us about Christ’s phronema and how we ought to behave? We should not instigate controversy and should beware of taking a stance against something as a matter of principle, convinced by our own self-righteousness. We should avoid becoming unnecessarily disruptive or championing a campaign simply because we do not personally agree with a practice, or we believe it is incorrect. At times action is required and a line must be drawn, but knowing when we ought to act requires discernment; we must never act from the wrong motives. Let us at least remember that Jesus was not a rabble-rouser nor motivated by ego.
He was, nonetheless, a sensation. People sought him constantly, and He turned no one away, even when He was exhausted and needed to retreat from the large crowds to rest and pray. The evangelist Mark describes the massive crowds who came from all parts of the region, crowds so large that the Lord was often forced to sit in a boat offshore to preach in order to avoid being crushed (Mark 3:7-10). He healed all their sick, infirm, disabled, and demon possessed, and still the crowd would not leave Him. They hung on His every word and did not want to depart from His presence. He even provided them with food when they followed Him out into the wilderness (Matt. 14:13-21), and on at least one occasion the crowd followed Him for three days (Matt. 15:32). He could escape them only by sailing off in a boat or by going up into the hills to pray. Even then, they often waited for hours for Him to come down from the mountain (John 6:22).
Jesus was Love Incarnate. This aspect of His phronema jumps off the pages of the Gospels. He loved the people. They knew it, felt it, and responded to His love. He did not show His love by seeking to make them feel good about themselves. Rather, He challenged people to repent, not simply to return to their lives as they were before they met Him. “Go, and sin no more,” He said (John 5:14; 8:11). He challenged His listeners to acquire true righteoueness. “It was said to men of old, ‘You shall not (commit adultery, kill, swear, take revenge)… but I say to you …” (Matt. 5:21-48). He encouraged the ordinary man and woman to realize that they were capable of a righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees, who were widely considered the paradigms of Jewish virtue (Matt. 5:20).
Christ called all people to repentance and inspired them with the possibility of salvation, regardless of their circumstances – even if they were poor, uneducated, lowly, the worst sinners, Gentiles, or unable to fulfill all the technicalities of the Law of Moses. The Lord welcomed all to be His disciples – including women, something unheard of in Judaism – and even praised them for sitting and learning (Luke 10:42). Everyone who displayed faith and humility was commended as a good example, regardless of whether he or she was an anonymous Canaanite woman, a notorious tax collector, a Samaritan cured of leprosy, or a Roman centurion. Through the acquisition of virtues such as humility, faith, love, and mercy, everyone could have a seat at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11). How do we find a seat at that banquet? By acquiring the right phronema, acquiring virtue, and modeling our behavior after His.
The life of Jesus Christ was the most extraordinary example of a human life in the history of the world. But most amazing is that His humility was His chief characteristic. The humility of Christ, demonstrated especially on the cross, cannot be appreciated by those who do not understand its power and who reject the cross as weakness or failure. By rejecting humility, we fail to recognize the power or purpose of the cross. Saint Paul explained that the cross is a paradox and does not conform to the thinking of the world. In fact, the cross is a “scandal” or “foolishness” to those who do not believe (1 Cor. 1:23). “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” and “the weak things of this world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27 [NIV]). The cross is the power of God and the glory of God precisely because it contradicts the assumptions of our rational thought. Christ’s accomplishment through the cross is contrary to human reasoning: life comes from death, victory comes from defeat, exaltation comes from humiliation. The cross is powerful because it confounds human wisdom. That is why the theology of the Church is not based on deductive human reasoning, as St. Paul explained, “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (I Cor. 1:17).
The Lord gave us countless examples of His sublime humility and His phronema. From the moment of His conception, the pattern of humble service was in place. He “did not account equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). He accepted our human nature with all is challenges, difficulties, temptations, struggles, pain, and sorrows. He humbled Himselfr to accept baptism by the hand of His creature that He “might fulfil all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). When tempted and challenged by Satan, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matt. 4:3,6); Luke 4:3,9), He responded but did not seek to prove Himself or make a display of His abilities. When challenged by the Pharisees to perform a “sign,” a miracle, to prove His authority, He ignored their demand, replying that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign” (Matt 12:38-39; 16:1-4). Even on the cross He was taunted to prove Himself: “Let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him” (Matt. 27:42), and yet He still exercised restraint.
Christ gave us the greatest example of true Christian phronema in His humility, His complete obedience to God, His refusal to make a display, to prove Himself or justify Himself, His tremendous restraint and discernment in His numerous encounters with various individuals, and in His wisdom, unselfishness, and love. We are called not simply to admire Him but to imitate Him to the fullest extent possible.
The Word became flesh to teach us who God is and what we are called to become. He is the One who established our phronema and taught it to His disciples, both by His words and by His behavior. Orthodox Christians are called not only to form a relationship with Christ the Logos, but to imitate Him. We are all called not only to hear the Word of God but to do it, not only to believe or intellectually assent to ideas but to act. “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28). The Church gives us countless tools – the discipline, prayers, services, Holy Mysteries – and wonderful examples and advice – the lives of the saints, the writings of the Fathers – on how to actualize the grace of the Holy Spirit in our lives and to conform ourselves to the image of God within us.
As we ponder the life of Christ and His example in all things, let us remember not merely the grace-filled, eloquent, and effective words of Jesus Christ but His entire demeanor and way of life. During the years He spent with the apostles, He formed them, shaped them, and guided them. He taught them not only what to believe but how to behave, primarily through His example. They observed Him constantly. They absorbed His phronema, and this is the basis of Tradition, that which became the foundation of the Church. This is what Orthodox Christianity preserved, and this is not only what we believe and think, but the way we live daily as expressed in our countless actions, great and small. Orthodox phronema is integrated into an entire way of life that both expresses and confirms our phronema. All religious systems have a way of life and a phronema. But only Orthodox Christianity has faithfully preserved the true phronema of the ancient Church, a visible and consistent way of life and manner of thought unbroken and unchanged from the time of the apostles.
May we all behave as theologians in the truest sense, speaking of God to others by both our words and our manner of life. Having “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27), let us adopt the phronema of Christ and the apostles and authentically represent the Lord Jesus Christ through our way of life to all those whom we encounter.
To God be the glory!
Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1255 (Public Domain)
Next Week: Saint Simeon Stylites and some other peculiar people
Week after next: Saint Ephrosynos the Cook
Twe Weeks after next: Justification by Faith (“Thanks a lot, Saint Anselm”, he said sarcastically.)