Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 / Luke 15:11-32

One of the puzzles that vexed Medieval theologians was how it was that the fallen angels actually fell. While the philosophical and theological issues are complex, in brief the worry was grounded in the knowledge that angels, not having bodies, and knowing what they know through direct intuition without the possibility of error, could not have their evil choices explained either by being drawn to another real, but unreasonable and disproportionate, good through the senses or through being mistaken in fact, and nonetheless making a decision to act out of that ignorance. These latter explanations, after all, seem to cover much, if not all, of human evil. We turn to sin, that is, in pursuit of some kind of perceived good, even if not a moral good. What makes us sin, it seems, is that the good we seek actually violates the bounds of reason, and so violates what marks us out specifically as human. We miss the mark in a fundamental way, for example, when we choose sexual pleasure for the sake of the sexual pleasure alone, and not in light of the kind of relationship, viz. marriage, in which such pleasure fulfills what it means to be human. Similarly, we sin because we do not know enough about something, perhaps the motivations of another for an action of his that harms us, and so we lash out, accuse, seek vengeance, acting as though we were in justice opposing a malicious wrong, even though in fact we do not know this to be the case.

If angels, however, have no physical senses, and so no physical appetites, they cannot be led astray by the particular goods of the senses that exceed the bounds of reason. Likewise, if they cannot be mistaken in the light of their natural knowledge, then their actions are never in ignorance, never guilty of rash judgment. Or, so it would seem.

Yet, as St Paul reminds us, what marks out a rightly lived human life is not merely that the passions and desires of the body fall under the greater, richer, more perfecting rule of reason, but also that our reason must itself bend the knee before the wisdom of God. In Corinth, Paul faced those who proclaimed, by virtue of the liberty in Christ, that to them all things were lawful, and in light of that liberty, they acted in ways, especially through sexual license, that violated the truth of what it means to be a Christian, to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit and a member of the Body of which Christ is the Head. No doubt, these Corinthians felt rationally justified in their acts, and we see this in their self-defense: All things are lawful unto me. They are not, that is, merely responding to a momentary whim or lust. They have a plan, a vision, in light of a rational principle, and they are acting accordingly.

However, as important as our reason is in guiding us to what it right and good, it necessarily falls short in guiding us to our true and lasting happiness in a life with the Triune God. To live eternally with God is, for angels as much as for men, to seek and end that exceeds anything we could imagine. Indeed, it means to walk along a path that, for all that it generally accords with reason, will occasionally stretch the power of our reason to understand, as it would even for the exceedingly greater intellectual power of an angel. As much as our bodies, if they could speak directly to us, might find most of our decisions to their liking, but others — staying up all hours of the night to tend to an ailing parent, refraining from sexual intercourse in the absence of a spouse, enduring hardship for the sake of the Gospel — would seem, in the body's terms, incomprehensible without the insight of reason, so much of what it means to follow Christ, for men and for angels, entails receiving wisdom neither from our bodies, nor from our minds, but from our Head, Jesus Christ, and his Spirit who dwells within us.

That angels could, in the beginning, have fallen for failing to seek the one thing their intellect could not penetrate, which is to say the deep mystery of God, despite its vast power, we, whose reason in comparison is far dimmer, ought to take caution. We have been given, in the life of the Gospel and the indwelling of the Spirit of God, a sure and certain source of a wisdom that surpasses our powers but will guide us unfailingly to our end, if we but heed its promptings.

For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.

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