Godly Love: An Action Not a Reaction

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My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9)

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The Apostle James warns us in our Christian parishes against showing preference for wealthy visitors while showing partiality against impoverished people who may come into our assemblies. He presents a high Christian ideal for loving strangers. There is a natural human impulse to be attracted to attractive people and to be repulsed by people who seem dirty or impoverished. St James tells us to overcome our natural impulses through and with the love of Christ in order to treat all people coming into our assemblies with love and respect – in a sense, having concern for their ‘soul’ rather than allowing their appearance to dominate our thinking.  In other words, we are to act towards them in love rather than react to their appearance. Christian love is an active verb rather than a reactive emotion. St Basil the Great narrates a similar theme to us, describing how we commonly react to beggars, forming endless logical rationale for not charitably meeting their needs. Instead of loving them, we judge them.  Instead of acting toward them as Christ commands us –in love—we react to what we don’t like about them. Christ doesn’t tell us to like the poor, He tells us to love them.

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“But if a poor man who is so hungry that he can barely speak presents himself to us, we turn away from him, even though his nature is the same as ours. We feel loathing for him and get away from him as quickly as we can, as if we are afraid that walking slowly would cause us to share in his misfortune. And if he bows down to the ground because he is ashamed of his circumstances, we say that he is putting on a pretense. But if he boldly looks us in the eye on account of his oppressive pangs of hunger, instead we call him a shameless lout. And if he happens to be wearing clothes given to him by someone else, and they are in good shape, we drive him away as a greedy swindler and swear that he is feigning poverty. But if he is covered with rags that are falling to pieces, instead we drive him away as a smelly dirt bag. And neither by appealing to the name of the Creator in the midst of his supplications, nor by continually praying for us that we too may not fall into similar sufferings, can he bend our merciless decision. For these reasons I suspect that the fires of hell will be more severe for us than they were for that rich man (Luke 16:19-31).”   (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE, p 174)

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Judging others, as part of our hierarchy of values, exists in every human social group. When I was visiting inmates in the prison, they had their own hierarchy of values with those guilty of manslaughter or murder loathing those inmates guilty of child molestation or sexual crimes. One inmate related to me a story of how his own eyes were opened to his judgmentalism. He was in prison for manslaughter, involving the shooting death of his girlfriend and the child with whom she was pregnant. All the inmates had assigned seats in the dining hall.  A new seating assignment was issued, and this man ended up sitting across the table from a child rapist. He despised the child rapist and was enraged that he would have to sit across from him at every meal, for he judged such people as being the dregs of humanity (despite his own crime!). He came to his meal when he would share the table with the child rapist for the first time. He was so filled with anger and hatred that he wouldn’t even look up from his plate at the man.  He dug into his food, wolfing it down in anger, wanting to get away from there as quickly as possible. The child rapist sat down across from him, bowed his head and offered a humble prayer: “Lord, thank you for this food, I know you always bless me rather than give me what I deserve. Forgive me for my sins and for the terrible things I have done.  Hear my prayer and receive my thanksgiving. Help all those in need. Help me to repent of my sins so that I might become a better Christian.”  The inmate I was visiting told me he was so stunned by that prayer – here he was sitting in judgment, considering himself to be the good Christian and condemning the evil sinner.  However, it was that ‘sinner’ who repented and offered a prayer of thanksgiving before he ate, while he (the Christian and Pharisee) wolfed down his food without prayer and his own heart was filled with hatred and disgust.   He said it was a moment of enlightenment in which he saw the goodness in this other person who was still a sinner.  But he realized that there was little good in his own heart because he himself was a sinner. And he said he suddenly realized he was living the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

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And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. (Paschal sermon of St John Chrysostom)

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