Parish Ethics and the Teaching of Jesus

In Communion / issue 42 / Summer 2006

Peacemaking in the Parish:

Parish Ethics and the Teaching of Jesus

by Fr. John Breck

In this brief essay I would like to focus on what can be called “parish ethics,” and the scriptural background that underlies decision-making in the parish setting. Moral choices have to be made in many spheres of our life: in the family, on the job, at school – in fact, in every realm of personal and social interaction. The local parish, as much as the family, is a community of persons. Like parents and children, parish members relate to one another in a specific context and for specific mutual ends. Therefore, they too, both clergy and laity, are constantly faced with the need to make moral decisions.

If needless tensions and disagreements arise within the local parish, often it is due to the fact that we take our church life for granted. The Church is the realm of the holy: we experience the joy and peace of God’s loving presence with us through the Liturgy and Sacraments. We are nurtured by the reading of Scripture and the celebration of its saving message. We are edified by the singing of hymns that instruct us in our faith and give expression to that faith. Icons remind us that we commune with the saints, asking their constant intercession on our behalf. Although we know that we are called to struggle against temptation and sin – what the holy Fathers refer to as the “passions” – we seldom take that struggle very seriously. Everything is given in the Church: the content of our faith, the presence of God, eternal life itself. So our tendency – our great temptation – is to perform the Church’s rituals, create a vigorous social life within the parish, and assume that we are fulfilling God’s will and our Christian vocation. Nevertheless, when ritual performance and social function occur above all in order to preserve our ethnic identity and cultural heritage, then we can only admit that we have betrayed both God and our vocation.

Among all of us who share an Orthodox heritage, this is indeed the great temptation. The local parish, rather than being the Church, becomes our “possession,” a structure by which and in which we preserve our own heritage and promote our own agendas. Little wonder that we no longer perceive it to be a living and life-giving member of the universal Body of Christ, uniting the living and the dead in an eternal communion that reflects the boundless love of an infinitely merciful God.

It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of “problems” that arise within our parishes are due to this misperception concerning the nature of the local church. Problems between clergy and laity, between bishop and priest, and between various members of the community, can usually be traced to our sinful tendency to transform the parish from the Body of Christ into a kind of social organization whose purpose is to provide us with “spiritual” nurture and a communal identity, while imposing little or nothing upon us in the way of repentance, self-sacrifice and love. This situation represents a chronic illness within our church communities. But because it concerns basically our patterns of behavior, it signals as well an ethical or moral crisis.

IN THE MIDST of the pluralistic and relativistic culture in which we live, we are constantly called to rediscover and recommit ourselves to the true Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, our risen and glorified Lord. The foundation for such a rediscovery and recommitment is provided for us in Jesus’ own teachings. It is there that we find the “pathway” into the Kingdom of Heaven: a pathway that necessarily begins in our present life, and most specifically within the parish setting.

A useful place to begin is with Jesus’ teaching given in the framework of his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5-7. But this should be read with its parallel passage, given by St. Luke (ch. 6). These two sermons, using similar language and imagery, provide us with clear indications of what constitutes genuinely “Christian” moral behavior. They speak to Christian life in general, but perhaps with special eloquence to life within our parish communities.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are the pure in heart.” They are addressed in the third person (“blessed are they”) and represent what can be considered as virtues to be acquired in the Christian life. St. John Chrysostom and other Eastern Fathers will speak of “poverty of spirit” as a spiritual value to be sought and cultivated. “Mournfulness” concerns repentance, compunction, the sense of profound sorrow over our sinfulness. “Meekness,” “righteousness,” “mercy,” and “purity of heart” are, in similar fashion, attributes of those who attain the ultimate beatitude of life within the Kingdom of God.

When we turn to St. Luke’s Gospel, however, the situation is different. Here (6:17ff), Jesus does not speak from a mountain side. He comes down to “a level place,” a plain, filled with crowds of people who are sick and poor. He addresses them directly, in the second person (“you”), and thereby he speaks to their own greatest needs and personal suffering. “Blessed are you poor, you that hunger, you that weep and are persecuted…” This doesn’t describe attributes to be acquired; it speaks rather to the harsh, painful reality of the people’s daily lives. Yet the promise is the same as in St. Matthew’s Gospel: insofar as we remain ultimately and completely faithful to Christ, his saving love will open before us the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven. That particular Way is then charted, in both Matthew and Luke, by further teaching that focuses above all on the theme of love: God’s love for us expressed through the ineffable gift of his own Son; but also through our love for one another, that which imitates and conveys God’s love within every aspect of our daily life.

The heart of the Sermon on the Mount is a triptych of almsgiving, prayer and fasting (Mt. 6:1-18). All of Christian existence takes shape about these three virtues. Fasting subdues the passions, strengthens the body, and opens the spirit to perceive the presence of heaven on earth, particularly in the framework of liturgical worship. This personal sacrifice is complemented by works of “social action,” primarily the sharing of our wealth with those who are less fortunate. This is a necessary function of the spiritual life, because each of us is nothing more than a steward of God’s gifts. If we possess wealth or talents, it is because God has bestowed them upon us for a single purpose: to use them for others, to demonstrate his love and to manifest his glory.

Yet these two, fasting and almsgiving, are never complete unless they issue from and lead toward prayer. Significantly, the focus of the central panel of this triptych is the “Lord’s Prayer,” the prayer Jesus taught his own disciples. In the life of faith, that prayer becomes our own. Because of God’s boundless love for us, we are granted the gift of addressing him by the tender and affectionate name Jesus himself used: the name “Abba” or “Dear Father.”

As the comparison between the Gospels of Ss. Matthew and Luke makes clear, however, we can never attain to life in the Kingdom without reaching out as Jesus himself did, to meet the needs of those about us, and to embrace them with understanding, compassion and self-giving love. This is the work of every Christian, but it is also the work of our ecclesial communities, our parishes. The Way into the Kingdom of Heaven, for ourselves as individuals and as members of the Body of Christ, is through an authentic stewardship of love. Without it, once again, our parish life degenerates into the life of a social club, which serves neither us nor God’s world.

A second major element of Jesus’ teaching that underlies what we can call “parish ethics” is found in his parables. Several of those, known as “parables of mercy,” appear only in the Gospel of St. Luke. There we find a number of passages that help prepare us for the Lenten season: the encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus, but especially the parable of the Publican and Pharisee, and the parable of the Two Sons (often called “the Prodigal Son”).

In the first of these, Jesus makes a striking contrast between the noble and pious Pharisee, and the humble if sinful Publican or tax collector. We need to remember that in Jesus’ time tax collectors among his people were Jews who were in the employ of the Roman government. They earned their living by exacting more tax than the government demanded, then keeping the excess. The system was rife with exploitation, and as a result tax collectors were despised as traitors to their own people. In Rembrandt’s marvelous rendering of the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Pharisee stands boldly upright in the center of the temple, illumined by a bright shaft of light. Head raised, he is thanking God for his piety, grateful that he is not like other people. The depths of his hypocrisy would hardly be noticeable, if it weren’t for the figure of the tax collector, shrouded in the darkness of a temple corner. This man dares not raise his eyes heavenward, so conscious he is of his sinfulness. But despite the Pharisee’s very truthful claims to proper piety and ritual observance, it is the Publican who “goes down to his house justified.”

Jesus’ point is made by contrasting the repentance of a sinner with the self-proclaimed righteousness of one who feels he needs no repentance. The Physician of our souls and bodies has come to heal the sick. The tragedy of the Pharisee – and of so many members of the Church today – is that he does not realize that he is as “sick” as the Publican. He, too, despite his fidelity to ceremonial law and the “traditions of the elders,” is caught up in sin, death and corruption. He, too, has no claim on God’s grace without receiving the healing that God himself longs to bestow upon him. But that healing, grounded in repentance, comes only in response to genuine humility. God alone works the miracle of salvation and life. To receive that gift, however, we need to cry from the depths of our heart the prayer of the humble Publican: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Coupled with the name of Jesus, this has become the “Prayer of the Heart,” so dear to Orthodox piety. It is a prayer that eschews all exclusivism and triumphalism. It is an appeal grounded in utter realism about ourselves: that we too are sinful people, caught up in pride, selfishness, and an insatiable quest for comfort and amusement, however great the depths of spiritual and material poverty may be in the lives of people around us.

A similar emphasis appears in the parable of the Two Sons. When the Prodigal repents of his arrogant profligacy and turns back home, he finds the father waiting for him with open arms. Willing to be taken in as a hired servant, he is instead embraced and showered with gifts, to celebrate his “repentance,” his return to the father’s house. The older brother, however, is filled with jealousy. He has remained “faithful” to the duties expected of a son. He has, we can say, played the role of the faithful Pharisee, respecting the rituals of daily life, including required chores and prayer. Yet he condemns himself by comparing his deeds and attitudes to those of his younger brother. Rather than rejoice at his brother’s return, he becomes sullen and resentful. “The household is mine,” he thinks to himself; “I have remained faithful to it, and this fellow who left it of his own accord has no right to be received back.” How many of us harbor similar thoughts and feelings regarding those of other Christian confessions, or of no confession at all? “They abandoned the faith,” we think to ourselves, “therefore they have no business coming into our church, our parish!” And in the midst of this hypocrisy, we wonder why the Church is not growing, why some are predicting that our parishes will simply wither away…

Hypocrisy, though, whether of the Pharisee or of the Older Son in Jesus’ parables, is rooted in a refusal to love. This is the most basic ailment affecting church life today. We have fashioned the parish community into our own image and likeness, creating a style of “Christianity” that is comfortable and undemanding. Would anyone, looking in from outside, ever see in our midst evidence of authentic repentance and a concern for active mission? Would they perceive that we are in fact “Christian,” given that true faith in Christ necessarily entails bearing his Cross for the sake of others? Would they be convinced that we have heard Jesus’ one commandment that sums up every other: “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself”? Unless our parish life reflects at its deepest level that most fundamental concern for love, then we cannot claim that our parish is truly “of the Church” at all.

That love, however, needs to be directed to the inner life of the church community as much as to those who live beyond its walls. Within the parish dwell both the Publican and the Pharisee, both the Prodigal and the Older Son. Yet only God can judge the category into which any of us falls. It is never our place to attempt to do so. Parish life – communal life within the Body of Christ – is appropriately marked by an ongoing struggle on the part of each of its members to move from hypocrisy and sinfulness, to repentance and humility. Because we live in communion with one another, that movement or spiritual growth involves not only ourselves as isolated individuals. It involves us together as a living “community,” united in faith and love in the Name and in the Person of Jesus Christ. This most simple and basic truth has momentous implications for specific relationships, and the resolution of specific problems, within any parish setting.

THE MOST DIFFICULT moral problems we have to deal with in parish life concern relationships: on the level of church authority, between bishop, priest and parish council, and on the level of personal interactions among parishioners. To each of these, the solution is as simple and straightforward as it is difficult to realize, namely, to ground every thought and gesture, every word and decision, in the love of Jesus Christ.

We in the Orthodox tradition have developed our own form of clericalism that has wreaked considerable damage throughout the Church. The threefold hierarchical structure represented by bishop, priest and deacon, is a venerable and essential one that goes back to the late first century. It reflects the hierarchical relationships that exist within the Trinity itself, among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A popular image, drawn from the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch (died ca. 117), likens the bishop to God and the priest to Christ. This image, however, has often been misinterpreted so that the authority implied by each ministerial function is invested in the human cleric rather than in the divine Person that cleric is called to reflect and to manifest. On the parish level, this takes an all too familiar form. We venerate the bishop and invite him to serve at the altar; we prepare a small banquet to welcome him and give him a chance to speak; and we breathe a sigh of relief when he leaves, thankful that nothing “went wrong,” that no controversies or delicate pastoral topics were broached, and that he came and went without obliging us to change anything of significance. We venerate the bishop, yet we hold him at a distance, afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of enduring his judgment upon us and our parish life.

Yet the bishop is elevated to his position within the ecclesial body to be a “father” in the image of God the Father. He is there as the pastor of pastors, the spiritual guide, the preserver of Holy Tradition, the celebrant of life-giving “mysteries,” and the living symbol of unity within the Church. Does he experience our support, our respect for the God-given authority he represents, and our concern to live and work in the closest filial relationship with him? Does he, in a word, experience our love for him? If not, we can hardly be surprised if our superficial welcome of him, and relieved parting from him, tend to push him into ever greater isolation and distance from ourselves and the concerns of our community. The loneliest ministry in the Church is often that of the bishop – precisely because we often place him on a pedestal and avoid him at the same time.

This is an ethical issue, once again, because it concerns our ways of behaving. Similar tensions arise within parish life because we behave in similar ways with regard to the priest, his wife, and the parish council. We tend to mistrust authority, as much as we may respect it. When the priest appears to usurp power that was once in the hands of parish council members, or a particularly influential lay person in the parish, we resent it. Often we talk behind his back, form alliances, and in general attempt to undermine the authority that is rightly his by virtue of his election and ordination. Yet the converse needs to be acknowledged as well. Often the priest, for various personal reasons, misinterprets the boundaries of his authority, ignoring the advice of the bishop or dismissing the counsel of his people. And the same, of course, happens with lay leaders in the parish.

Authority, in other words, can only effectively and faithfully be exercised in humility and in love. This means that concerted effort is needed – among bishop, priest and laity – to recognize problem areas in parish life and to seek resolution to those problems in an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation. This involves us together in prayer for mutual discernment and cooperation for effective and lasting solutions. The ultimate source of unity and of spiritual growth within the ecclesial community is Jesus Christ himself. The grace that works miracles, brings healing, and offers practical solutions to seemingly insoluble problems, is a grace that he alone bestows. But that grace comes in response to love: for him and for one another. By uniting ourselves as pastors and flock, in prayer and in genuine mutual concern, we can face any crisis, resolve any problem, and fulfill any mission, all to the glory of God and the salvation of his world.

With regard to ethical issues that confront us in the day to day activities of the parish, we can say the same. No program, no agenda, no “special parish event,” can have any but a destructive purpose, if it is not grounded in the love of Christ and his own work for the conversion and salvation of the world around us. We have recently crossed the threshold into a new millennium, one that will present to us as Christian people challenges and difficulties as great as we have ever known, including the periods of persecution that have so tragically marked our common Orthodox history. Yet the opportunities, especially here in the West, are as great as the potential problems. We need, for example, to look for new forms of ministry that will draw upon the talents and capacities of our women and our young people. We need to develop new models for Christian education in a society where our children are exposed every day to the corruption and denial of our most basic values. We need to find ways to bring the Gospel to areas of neglect, such as our inner cities and their lost teenagers, in order to extend the Church’s witness and mission to those who have never received it, or who rejected it because it was imposed without understanding and without love. We need also to open new avenues of witness and service to those who are the most vulnerable and the most readily rejected by our parishes: pregnant teen-aged girls, victims of AIDS, inmates in our prisons. And we need as well to develop new and caring ministries to the sick, the aged and the dying.

The challenges that face us, and the ethical decisions needed to respond to them, are daunting and seemingly overwhelming. If we rely, as we tend to do, only on our own resources – with the concern to preserve our own interests and foster our own agendas – then the Church will quickly lose its moral voice, as it loses its moral bearings, in what is increasingly a godless and demonic society. If, on the other hand, we unite ourselves in the love of Jesus Christ, determined to work together in order to further his mission within the world, then the grace of God will, without any doubt, lead us to fulfill that mission faithfully and successfully.

Such success is never measurable in human terms. It is not the product of structured programs, although those can be useful. It is not the product, either, of mere good intentions and hard work, although those, too, are instrumental to it. “Success” in Christian terms is measured as the fruit of an inner transformation, grounded in humble repentance and shown forth to the world and to one another as love: love that “is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful…does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” Such love, reflecting the boundless forgiveness and inexhaustible mercy of God, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13). This love, originating within the Holy Trinity itself, is ceaselessly poured out upon us by the God of love. It is a gift, one that can underlie and reshape all of our relationships and all of our moral decisions within the Body of Christ.

Let me close with an appeal. We have recently come through the blessed period of Great Lent and Holy Pascha; we have celebrated once again the life-giving event of our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. That victory can only become ours insofar as we respond to it in faith and love. Within our various parishes there are occasions every day for us to accept and rejoice in that victory as we interact with one another. Those occasions, however, require discernment. Yet discernment itself is a gift of the Spirit, granted in response to ardent and faithful prayer.

The key to resolving strife within our communities, to advancing the mission of the Church, and to following the pathway that leads into God’s Kingdom, is precisely that constant prayer for discernment in every aspect of our daily, communal life. May each of us, then, accept the challenge of the Apostle Paul, to “pray without ceasing” for the discernment that issues in acts and attitudes of healing love. May we learn to discern within the face of each other the very face of Christ himself, and so respond in all of our interactions and relationships with the self-sacrificing love of the Cross, that “bears, believes, hopes and endures all things” for the sake of the other’s salvation.

Fr. John Breck was Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir’s Seminary from 1984 to 1996. He is presently Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Paris, France. With his wife Lyn he directs the St. Silouan Retreat in South Carolina. He is co-author of Stages on Life’s Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics.

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