The Reality of Scriptural Allegory in You
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, August 21, 2022
Matthew 17:14-23; 1 Cor. 4:9-16
When it comes to reading and understanding our Scriptures, the Orthodox tradition has long held the tension between the literal interpretation of our sacred texts, and the allegorical method of divining them. The third-century theological school at Antioch leaned more decidedly into the literal rendering, while the Alexandrian school, more famously popularized by Origen, was highly allegorical in its interpretive style. In a certain way, the two schools provided a sort of balance for one another. There were tensions between these two centers of education, to be certain, the most famous of these being the 3rd Ecumenical Council where St Cyril of Alexandria squared off against Nestorius who was educated at Antioch. Suffice it to say that of these two theological schools, the one steeped more in the historical, or literal approach, got into some difficult theological waters. This is because certain of its teachers around the 4th Century — Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia — tended to disregard previous Church teaching on how the presence of Christ is manifest throughout all of our Scriptures. They focused, instead on Jesus as told primarily through the New Testament, as a man born from Mary, who simply makes his journey to the Cross — almost as type of literal narration, or sort of a biographical accounting. And this type of approach toward Scripture shouldn’t be all that foreign to us. Because if we’re being honest, this IS the approach used in most modern theology, today. And Orthodoxy has not been immune to this, as it seems to increasingly lean into the literal, or narrative approach, to biblical interpretation, almost by default. The difficulty of leaning too heavily in the literal direction is that it often leaves us, as Christians, to defend our sacred texts in ways they were never intended. I think it’s important that we understand that the Scriptures don’t need us to defend them. We simply need the eyes to read them properly. This is why in our liturgy every Sunday, Fr Antony reads aloud the prayer before the Gospel, which all of us just heard a few minutes ago.
“Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy Gospel teachings.”
Here, Father is praying that the eyes of our intellect might be awakened within us, that we might become enlightened to the truth of this Gospel teaching! Most priests don’t pray this out loud, so I’m grateful to Father for allowing us to hear it every Sunday.
Now, I say all this as a preface to our Gospel lesson, because it’s really difficult to approach what we just heard through the sole use of a literal interpretation. And the reason for this is because the text is loaded with allegorical imagery.
But let me first ask, as Orthodox Christians how we are to read the Bible? Since becoming an Orthodox Christian there are two sayings about Scripture that have helped me to reframe how I read them, considering my own Evangelical past. The first comes from Father Antony, who once said: “All of Scripture is true, some of it happened.” And I think a phrase like this is a little jolting for some of us at first, because deep down we have a need for all of it to be very real and literally true! But this was the danger that the theological school at Antioch got into. They moved too far in the literal direction, and soon Nestorius — who was a student of Diodore and Theodore — found himself in a Christological quandary over the Church’s teaching on the Theotokos. And this serves as a good reminder that we don’t arrive at the Church’s teaching of the Theotokos through a literal reading of Scripture. And this leads to the second saying about Scripture which I learned from Fr John Behr. Fr John taught our class to “Start at the end, and work your way back to the beginning.” This is to say that we start with Christ’s Passion, and then go on from there. Because this is how the disciples came to know Christ, after all — through His Passion. And then they worked out how to understand the rest of the Scriptures from there. This is also how most of our early Christian writers understood Scriptural interpretation, as well. Our starting point, remember, is always Jesus Christ. Not the Scriptures. But we learn to see Jesus throughout all the Scriptures, both New and Old by starting at the end, and working our way back to the beginning. We don’t read the New Testament as a biographical narrative to really “get Jesus,” so to speak, but we read all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ.
So … what do we do with today’s Gospel reading from Matthew? And how does this speak to us today? Two things stand out from the beginning. We have the faith of the man with the epileptic son on the one hand, and the disciples of “little faith” on the other. And these two things are placed in contrast to one another. The English translation doesn’t reveal this at first glance, but the man who comes to Jesus quite literally says “Kyrie Eleison!” — “Lord have mercy on my son!” So it seems evident that the man has genuine confidence that Christ is able to heal, where the disciples are focused more upon their own inability to perform the miraculous. They are focused upon themselves in other words, and not in a good way. This is evident by their own fixation on their failure to drive out the demon from the man’s son. And of this, St Augustine states the following:
“If a man prays so that he may throw out someone else’s demon, how much more so that he may cast out his own avarice? How much more so that the may cast out his own drunkenness? … How much more so that he may cast out his own impurity. How great are the sins of human beings!”
The disciples are not focused on the inward journey that allows Christ to work inside them. And more importantly, Christ is not their starting point. They are starting, rather, with what they think their own Scriptures say about who the Messiah is supposed to be. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn of the disciples reaction when Jesus says to them, "The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day. And the text says following this (which we didn’t hear today), “they were greatly saddened.”
There is also a deep truth we arrive at in this Gospel text that we can only get to by using the allegorical method of interpretation. In the passage, the man’s son is described as an epileptic, but we should know that other translations describe this person, not as an epileptic, but as a “lunatic.” Now the connection between the Greek word that’s translated for both epileptic or lunatic in this case, is that seizures in the ancient world were seen as being effected by the moon, or in certain cases controlled by a moon god, or goddess of some sort. But for us, the intent is to highlight our predilection for being controlled by certain natural forces at work in the world, but also within us — the foremost of which we understand through our Orthodox teaching on the Passions. We see that the man’s son rolls about through both fire and water. And of this imagery Origen gives us a good picture:
...such persons, so to speak, are epileptic spiritually, ... often ill, at the time when the passions attack their soul; at one time falling into the fire of burnings, when, according to what is said in Hosea, they become adulterers, like a pan heated for the cooking from the burning flame; and, at another time, into the water ... so that they come into the depths of the waves of the sea of human life.1
So we have the allegorical image of a man controlled by his passions. But how are his passions healed? They are driven out by Christ! And staying with the imagery in the passage, the disciples ask “Why could we not drive them out?” Christ tells them in the first place that their faith is too small. And He follows by saying: “Truly I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move hence to yonder place,' and it will move;” Having heard that allow me to pose the question to you: How is your faith? Do you believe that Christ can heal you of your passions? As you think on that keep in mind the allegorical nature present here. Christ is not asking you to have just enough faith so you can move Mt Denali off its foundation and drop it in the Pacific Ocean. That way of thinking is to be like the disciples who hoped to perform some great miracle in this instance. But how much more miraculous is the one who can engage in the type of faith that can heal a person from their own passions. And how exactly can we do this? What does Jesus tells in the passage? This kind can only be driven out “by prayer and fasting.”
And what of the grain of mustard seen in this passage?
St Maximus tell us, “The grain of mustard seed is the Lord, who by faith is sown spiritually in the hearts of those who accept Him.”
He who diligently cultivates the seed by practicing the virtues moves the mountain of earth-bound pride and, through the power he has gained, he expels from himself the obdurate habit of sin.2
1 Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Origen), Book XIII, 4,” New Advent, accessed August 18, 2022, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/101613.htm
2 G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 139