Orthodoxy in the Balance

As you may be aware heresy is not usually or simply the teaching of error or falsehood. What heresy more often involves is the teaching of one (or several) truths out of balance or proportion to other truths. The Greek word from which heresy derives  is haireisthai meaning “to choose or pick.” So the heretic usually chooses one truth but rejects other truths that might balance or nuance it. Some early heretics so emphasized the humanity of Christ that there was no room left for the divinity of Christ. Others so emphasized his divinity there was no room for his humanity. Heresy is frequently a struggle with extreme or exclusive thinking, a lack of balance.

Take an example from a parable in last Saturday’s Gospel that illustrates a delicate balance and how we often get this balance wrong today:

And Jesus told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,  and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:5-9)

Now this parable very carefully and delicately balances two concepts: God’s patience and our ultimate judgment. God is patient and merciful that is true, but that does not exclude the fact that we will and must one day face judgment before him. Plain and simple, both truths are taught and we must hold them both. Here are those truths:

  1. Truth # 1 – For those of us who still live here, it is a time of God’s patience, grace and mercy. Not only is God exhibiting patience with us he is, as the parable states “cultivating the ground around us and fertilizing.” In other words he is sending every necessary grace to help us grow in holiness, bear the fruits of righteousness and to be ready for the day of judgement. Praise the Lord for his mercy his patience and his grace.
  2. Truth # 2 – But there comes a day of reckoning, a day of judgement. There comes a moment when we must show forth the fruits of righteousness or be “cut down.” Elsewhere Jesus elaborates on this teaching:  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful….If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:1-6). The point here is that we must all face judgement and our life must be assessed.

Now one of the heresies of our time is that we are all for truth Number 1 but many simply reject truth number 2 or downplay it so much that it no longer has any substance. Many in our time “choose” 1 and reject 2. Or they so emphasize 1 that 2 gets lost. It is easy for us to love  truth 1 and celebrate it. And well we should. But truth 2 is also essential for our consideration and must balance truth 1.

And here is the key point: balance. Orthodoxy is about balance. What is at stake here in this parable is the theological virtue of Hope. Without balance hope is lost and becomes either presumption or despair. What is hope? Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. Presumption and despair are both sins against hope. Despair rejects the confident expectation that we can have of God’s help and grace. The one who despairs either doubts God’s grace, love and mercy, or does not consider them powerful enough to help him. Presumption sins against hope by rejecting any real need for God’s help. As St. Paul says, “Who hopes for what one [already] has?” (Rom 8:24) For example, let’s say I have misplaced my Bible. Now I search for it in hopes that I will find it. But once I find it what happens to hope? It is fulfilled but it is also gone, no longer necessary. Many people today simply presume that they will have heaven. They don’t really need to hope for heaven, they already have it.  Judgement and hell simply are not likely or even “possible.”  Thus they sin against hope. How? In effect they simply choose (haireisthai)  truth # 1 and reject truth # 2.

Most Christian (even Catholic) funerals never mention judgement today. Truth # 2 is either intolerable or embarrassing. It is set aside and no longer balances Truth # 1. Hence we have instant canonizations at funeral masses and never bother to pray for the soul who has gone to be judged. The funeral moment is thus distorted by a lack of balance, a lack of orthodoxy.

I am well aware that truth number 2 above is a hard teaching. Truth # 1 and # 2 seem to be in real tension with each other, 2 almost seems to cancel 1. Notice I said it SEEMS to cancel 1, it does not actually do so. Rather it balances and completes truth 1. Balance can seem precarious and difficult at times.  That we are all judged and that some are found to lack proper fruits deeply disturbs us. But we cannot simply set aside teachings that trouble us. I am not going to launch a full scale defense of judgement and the possibility of hell here. I have done that elsewhere and you can read it here: http://blog.adw.org/2009/10/hell-has-to-be/  My point here is simply that orthodoxy is about balance. Heresy is about picking choosing. Some heretics pick one bible verse or concept and make it the whole thing. But orthodoxy is about the whole range of truth held in proper balance and proportion. God is merciful but he also truthful. God is patient but there does come a day of reckoning: reward for some, exclusion for others. Balance by the Book, all of Scripture not just favorite scriptures. All of Catholic dogma not just what we like.

Now in this video, I am not presenting Johnny Cash as a theologian 🙂 But the refrain contains two truths in balance: “You can run on for a long time” (God’s patience), “But sooner or later God will cut you down (There is death, judgement and final reckoning). Enjoy a little Johnny Cash:

And it is appointed unto men  to die once, and after this the judgment.  (Heb 9:27)

One Reply to “Orthodoxy in the Balance”

  1. Msgr Pope,
    Great reflection. One of my grandma’s favorite sayings was “Throw the rock and hide your hand” I haven’t heard that expression in years. I hear Johnny Cash using it in this song.

Comments are closed.