Managing our Wealth and our Investments

The Gospel Lesson from Luke 12:16-21, occurs within a larger context in Luke’s Gospel and the context helps us understand the lesson.   The immediate context is Luke 12:13-34.

One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

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The first thing to note is that the parable of the rich fool follows immediately upon Jesus warning against covetousness or greed.  Jesus does not believe that life is a game where whoever accumulates the most stuff wins.   Life is far more precious than how much you own or what you own.

What is wealth?   Not just property, money, material possession.   What about your relationship to the living God?   Is that not the most valuable commodity we can own?

There are countless other intangibles which are incredibly valuable to us, such as: salvation, health, wisdom, special talents, peace of mind, a loving family, good parish, long life, great job, good habits.  These are all priceless possessions for us, and can be had by people with no money.

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According to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true investments are our every action toward family, friend, neighbor, stranger, the poor and enemy.  The profits from those investments await us in the Kingdom of God.

God will not ask you on the judgment day how your stocks fared on Wall Street.  He will not ask you whether you supported tax cuts or deregulation or what you rate of return was on your 401K.

And with all this in mind we hear Christ’s parable:

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

God owns everything.   You might hear a priest say at the graveside before a burial these words:  The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who dwell therein. (Ps 24:1)  They remind us that we cannot take our wealth with us beyond the grave.  Our blessings are given to us to use for the benefit of others in this world.  God is the true owner of everything.  But he does seem to give us in the next life all the blessing we gave to those in need.

3754785121_5587ea2f09_nSt Basil the Great speaking to those who did not give much to charity in their life time but promised to leave a donation in their wills to the poor  upon their death, has them say:  “’when my life is over I will make the poor to inherit the things I formerly possessed, and in a written testament will declare them to be the owners of my property.’  When you no longer exist among human beings, then you become a lover of humanity.  When I see you dead, then I shall be able to say that you love your brother.  . . . when you are lying in the tomb, and decomposing into earth, then you … become big-hearted.”  (Sermon to the Rich)   Basil goes on to say, as you can’t do business after the market closes,  as you can’t win an Olympic medal when the games are over and as you cant show your valor once the war has ended, so too you can’t postpone godliness until the afterlife.

His comments have a humorous edge to them, and yet are deadly serious.

The message of the Gospel is not so much that you should never make provision for life, for your family, for the future, but that you should not be self-centered, self-absorbed, practicing self-preservation.  Christ speaks bluntly however against greed and covetousness and selfish excess.  Remember Christ’s own teaching that God’s commandments can be summed up in two precepts:  love God and love your neighbor. This is what the rich fool ignored.  He mentions no one but himself.

After the parable, Jesus went on to say:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith!

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And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

What is the effect of prosperity on us Christians?    Does prosperity make us  more generous, loving , compassionate, merciful, kind, patient, peaceful, virtuous?  Does it help you to be a disciple of Christ?  to be a Christian?

Is prosperity the highest virtue in life which we should be pursuing with all our soul, heart, mind and strength?  What about with our investments, what should we be doing with them?

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Don’t strive for riches, strive to hear the Word of God and live by Him.  That is what Christ taught.  You live in the world and you are not forbidden to be successful, but use your prosperity and blessings for the good of others.  Practice the commandment to love one another.

Prosperity is not a virtue, but a blessing.  Wealth is not a virtue but a blessing to be shared. The parable reminds us of the truth that  Money is a good servant, but a bad master.

The Folly of the Wealthy

Then the Lord Jesus spoke this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

St. John Chrysostom comments:

Why are you so concerned about fleeting things that must be left here? Nothing is more slippery than wealth. Today it is for you; tomorrow it is against you. It arms the eyes of the envious everywhere. It is a hostile comrade, and you acknowledge this when you seek every way to bury and conceal it from view. While the poor are prepared for action, the wealthy wander about, seeking where they may bury their gold, or with whom they may deposit it. Why do you seek your fellow slaves, when Christ stands ready to receive and to keep your “deposits” for you. Those who receive treasures in trust think they have done us a favor. But with Christ it is the contrary, for He says He has received a favor when He receives your deposited treasures. For the guardianship he provides He does not demand a fee, but instead gives you dividends.

You are a stranger and a pilgrim with regard to things here. But you have a country that is your own in the heavens! Transfer there all that you possess…

Would you be rich? Have God for your friend, and you’ll  be richer than all men!

(Sermon: The Rich in This World, pp. 4-5, O Logos Publication)

Racism, Prejudice and the Good Samaritan

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“Orthodoxy condemns in an irrevocable manner the inhuman system of racial discrimination and the sacrilegious affirmation whereby such systems claim to be an in agreement with Christian ideals. When asked “who is my neighbor?”, Christ answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Thus, He taught us to demolish all barriers of enmity and prejudice. Orthodoxy confesses that each human being – independently of color, religion, race, nationality or language – is a bearer of the image of God, is our brother or sister, an equal member of the human family.”  (from The 1986 Chambesy statement, found in For the Peace from Above, p. 82)  

See also my post Feeling the Sting of the Good Samaritan Parable

Feeling the Sting of the Good Samaritan Parable

Many people have noted that Jesus was not crucified because he tried to please the powers that be or because He told stories that were too hard to understand.   He was executed exactly because his actions caused apprehension to the people in power, and his teachings and parables clearly stung those who held positions of authority.

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Perhaps as one way of understanding the sting of the parables we Americans might consider the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) retold in a way that we feel what Christ’s listeners would have felt.  To do so we may have to tell the parable in two versions so that the opposite pole antagonists in America can hear the parable with the same burning bite Christ’s audience would have felt. [And note, I kept the story in the “he” just to be consistent, but you can tell the story in the “she” for the same effect for the point of my retelling lies not in the gender of any of the people involved.]

Version 1

A Republican went down from a red state to a blue state, and fell among illegal immigrant thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain Orthodox priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a successful business person arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Democrat, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, brought him to the emergency room, and staid up with him all night making sure he was cared for. On the next day, when he departed, he took out his credit card and told the hospital billing department, ‘Take care of him; and since they stole his wallet and he doesn’t have any money, or an ID, or an insurance card, whatever  you spend, charge it to my account.’ “So,” Jesus asks, “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And we said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said,, “Go and do likewise.”

Version 2

“A Democrat went down from a blue state to a red state, and fell among gun toting thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain Orthodox priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a community organizer arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Republican, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, brought him to the emergency room, and staid up with him all night making sure he was cared for. On the next day, when he departed, he took out his credit card and told the hospital billing department, ‘Take care of him; and since they stole his wallet and he doesn’t have any money, or an ID, or an insurance card, whatever  you spend, charge it to my account.’ “So,” Jesus asks, “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And we said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said,, “Go and do likewise.”

In America today, we seem totally divided as Democrats vs Republicans – every bit as divided as were Jews against Samaritans. But we claim to be a Christian nation.  So are we going to stop beating each other up like a bunch of thieves, leaving the others for dead?  These thieves are not the heroes in Christ’s parable.  Are we instead going to understand that what makes America great, what has been a strength sparking our ingenuity is our very diverse population?   The melting pot forged an American alloy which has proven quite strong and resilient in a world of adversity.

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We don’t have to agree on every issue, and in fact that is going to be impossible in a diverse culture.  But what makes our nation strong and great is that we have found ways to unite ourselves as a people despite our disagreements.  We were able to unite very diverse peoples in our Revolutionary War and we defeated the most powerful empire of that day.  Our Founding Fathers found the way to get people who disagreed on a great many things, and who had greater loyalty to their state than to a country, to work together as one nation under God to form these united states, a more perfect union.  The lessons and examples are there to be learned.

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand…”  (Matthew 12:25)

Every Neighbor is Christ

The Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) deals with several questions which were asked or Jesus or implied in a conversation He had with a Jewish lawyer.  There are the stated questions of the lawyer:  Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  “And who is my neighbor?”  And there are the questions Jesus asked in return: “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”  and  “ which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”  Implied is the question: who is the person to whom I can be a neighbor?

Through the centuries Christians have attempted to live the Gospel commandments and to establish rules and guidelines to help each other fulfill the teachings of Christ.  St. Benedict of Nursia was one monk who attempted to help his fellow Christians follow Christ.

For it was the central purpose of Benedict’s Rule to teach novice monks how to “renounce themselves in order to follow Christ,” how to “advance in the ways [of Christ] with the Gospel as our guide,” and, by persevering in the monastic life, how to “share by patience in the passion of Christ and hereafter deserve to be united with him in his kingdom” – in a single formula, “not to value anything more highly than the love of Christ.” The love of Christ, moreover, modified one of the basic impulses that had originally led to the rise of monasticism. “Deep in the monastic consciousness is solitude,” writes a historian of Western asceticism. But, he continues, “you discover to your vexation that deep in the Christian consciousness, ran the axiom that you must receive strangers as though they were Christ, and they really might be Christ.”

Therefore, quoting the Gospel (Matt. 25:35), Benedict specified in his Rule: “All guests coming to the monastery shall be received as Christ.”

(Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, Mary Through the Centuries, pp. 143-144)

Treat the person you meet, neighbor or stranger, as you would treat Christ.

Samaritans Good and Bad

Luke’s inclusion of several narratives about Samaritans demonstrates also his interconnection with peace and justice, as God’s gospel way in Jesus Christ to overcome enmity and evil. The lawyer by seeking to justify himself draws forth Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In the face of God’s love commands, the lawyer seeks self-justification. In contrast, Jesus’ parable shows love compassionately aiding not only an unknown neighbor, but a known enemy – and the hands of love are those of a Samaritan! The narrative shifts from the question, “who is the neighbor whom I am commanded to love?” to another, “am I a loving neighbor even to the enemy?”

To be such a neighbor ensures one of eternal life, and it does not test with evil intent the Teacher of truth and life. The Good Samaritan story climaxes Luke’s first segment in his Journey Narrative, which is thus framed by the Samaritan theme, for in 9:54 the disciples wanted to rain fire down upon a Samaritan village because of its rejection of the journeying prophet Jesus (cf. 2 Kgs. 1:10, 12). But Jesus rebuked them (9:55), thus expelling their evil desire.

(Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace, pp. 143-144)

The Woman With a Divine Touch

Who touched Me?

Today, in our society the question implies sexual overtones and misconduct accusations.  Not long ago there were clear lines about what was “proper” touch, even in dancing.  But as our social mores continue to change, lines can become both blurred and sharp.   There is still good touch in our society, people do know how to be tender and affectionate with one another.  There are medical massage people and nurses who understand the importance of touch in healing, as do many compassionate human beings.  But it is true that our current generation is “wrestling” with what constitutes good and proper touch, and numerous celebrities have felt the sting of improper touch, whether as victims of it or the perps.

Our modern sensitivities about touch, a necessary society-wide examination of our behaviors, values and morality, do not enter into the picture presented to us in the Luke 8:41-56.  There is a lot of touch going on in the narrative, but the lesson is focused on one tiny touch which though inappropriate by the standards of that society was neither sexual nor evil.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is being jostled by a crowd and then suddenly stops and asks:

Who touched Me?

Each person in the crowd is shouldering his or her way in the throng, trying to get close to Jesus.  Elbowing and butting their way to be right next to Christ, to get a hand on Him.   The text implies they are crushing Him.  And, when Jesus asks “Who touched me?“, quite humanly everybody who is pushing and shoving to get next to Jesus immediately denies that they touched Jesus!  “Wasn’t me!” could be heard all around.  Peter sees the absurdity of the situation (perhaps is even nervously embarrassed for the Lord for asking the question) and points out the obvious – every single person there is pressing on Him.  “We are all squashing you and sticking to you, sorry.  Are you being facetious in asking who touched you?”

Jesus, however, is not asking who was jostling Him or elbowing Him or banging into Him or grabbing Him.  He particularly wants to know who gracefully touched Him in faith?   Who, in other words, has the divine touch?   Jesus knows the difference between being poked and prodded on the one hand, or, on the other hand, touchingly making a human connection – a holy touch. {And many of us know what it is to be truly touched by what someone else does for us}.  Jesus recognizes the difference between an accidental touch and one done with the intention of making a human connection.   Jesus tells this person that her faith healed her – Jesus felt her faith.   Interesting because with everyone else bumping into Him and pushing against Him, what he feels is the one who touches the hem of His garment, but not His body.  He doesn’t claim He healed her, He really is saying it was her touch which brought healing into her life.  This women neither bumped into Him unintentionally as part of the crowd’s pushing and shoving nor grabbed Him or grasped onto Him to get Him to pay attention to her.  Jesus could feel that difference – He felt Her faith in Him and His power flowing into Her.

The 3rd Century theologian and biblical scholar Origen insightfully comments that it is this woman who has the divine touch:

The outer human being has the sensible faculty of touch, and the inner human being also has touch, that touch with which the woman with a hemorrhage touched the hem of Jesus’ garment (cf. Mark 5.25-34 parr). She touched it, as He testified who said: Who touched me? (Mark 5.30). Yet just before, Peter said to Him: The multitudes are pressing upon you and you ask, ‘Who touched me?’ (Luke 9.45 parr). Peter thinks that those touching are touching in a bodily, not spiritual manner. Thus, those pressing in on Jesus were not touching Him, for they were not touching Him in faith. Only the woman, having a certain divine touch, touched Jesus and by this was healed. And because she touched Him with a divine touch, this caused power to go forth from Jesus in response to her holy touch. Hence He says: Someone touched me: for I perceive that power has gone forth from me (Luke 8.46). It is about this healing touch that John says: Which we have touched with our hands concerning the word of life (1 John 1.1). (Treaty on the Passover, p. 72)

It is spiritually possible to be in the crowd pressing against Jesus and not be touched by Him, nor for Him to be touched by you.  If we want our Lord to be touched by our prayer, we need to learn from this woman how to approach Christ- not grasping Him so that He must pay attention to you, nor unintentionally bumping into Him by mindless, scattered prayer, but rather by complete, self-effacing humility and focused faith.  Seeking to touch Him as your Lord not as your servant in order to be healed by Him, not to prove one’s worthiness or to be able to boast of one’s blessings, but rather in recognition of His being Lord, God and Savior.  The woman didn’t seek to make Christ her servant, she didn’t try to alter or interrupt His mission.  She did not see herself as worthy of His attention.  She faithfully wanted His healing holiness to flow into her life without bothering Him at all.  She doesn’t grab a hold of Jesus, no graspingness in her at all, but in touching His garment she connects with Jesus.  This woman’s touch creates a union, communion, with the incarnate God.   That is what we seek in prayer.  It is what we should be seeking when we receive Holy Communion – connection with Jesus Christ our Lord.

For the woman with the hemorrhage, she would not even be able later to boast about what happened to her, for her very presence in the crowd was religiously immoral and anti-social, disrespecting everyone around her.  She would have found herself even more shunned by angry neighbors if she told them what she did – they would see her as defiling Jesus, not being healed by Him.  What she was hoping would happen to her was something nobody would believe later if she told them.  They would not believe that God would heal a person in the moment she is violating the Law and contaminating everyone around her with her uncleanness.  She didn’t belong there bodily by rule and ritual.  So amazingly, she could be there only spiritually by faith, hope and love.  It was her spiritual presence that was holy and connected her to Christ.  If we want Christ to hear our prayer – to be touched by our prayer – we have to make ourselves fully spiritually present to Him.  Not just bodily present – but fully present in soul and spirit, heart and mind.  And this union with Christ and this prayer can be offered anywhere at any time even when it otherwise seems inappropriate.  We can always be seeking Christ even in a crowd, even when in a hostile situation, even when we are someone who is unwanted by all those around us.

She came to touch God but discovered that she had the divine touch!  It was her inner self and disposition which had allowed God to enter into her life and open her to the healing grace of Christ.  The divine power in Christ was at home in her, so readily flowed from Him to her.  Unlike the chosen Apostles, she didn’t seek to sit at the right hand of Christ in order to rule others.  She was content to receive Him into her life, but He pointed her out as a model of faith, capable of receiving divine peace.

Jesus said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”

There is also  an entire Scriptural background to this narrative.   In Leviticus 15 we are given the commandments concerning a woman with a flow of blood whether normal menstruation or due to some medical condition.  In part the Law reads:

“When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. . . .  If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean.  . . .  But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and bring them to the priest, to the door of the tent of meeting. And the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her before the LORD for her unclean discharge. Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”  (Leviticus 15:19-31)

Anyone who touches a woman with a flow of blood is made unclean by that contact.  But what happens if someone unclean touches something that is holy?  This menstruating and thus, at least by the religious standards of that day, ritually unclean woman wants to touch Christ in order to be healed.  She has a faith which goes way beyond what the Scriptural Law dictates.  No one is to touch her, but what happens if she touches someone?  The Prophet Haggai offers this (Haggai 2:11-13) :

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Ask the priests to decide this question, ‘If one carries holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and touches with his skirt bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy?'” The priests answered, “No.” Then said Haggai, “If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered, “It does become unclean.”

Holiness and uncleanness seem to flow in one direction – if you touch the garment which has holy flesh in it, does the holiness flow into you so that you become holy?  The priests answer: NO, holiness does not flow in that direction.  However, uncleanness does flow from a defiled object to the thing the unclean touches.

Interestingly enough in the Gospel lesson we see something new transpiring.  The need for the Law is changing.  Something greater than the Law is now present in Israel.    The women’s uncleanness does not spread to Christ or to the crowd.  But Christ’s holy power does flow to the unclean women.  Something new and holy is present in Christ.  What the priest’s in Haggai’s day thought impossible has come to pass.  Christ is not made unclean by the touch of the menstruating woman, but that woman is made whole and holy by touching Christ, the incarnate God.  Christ as the new High Priest of the new revelation shows the emptiness of the Levitical priesthood.  The Levitical priests were powerless to bring holiness to others.  Christ reveals His power in that He makes all things Holy. [This entire Gospel lesson also tells us it is proper for menstruating woman in faith to receive Holy Communion.]

The Levitical Law made it clear  that there is a need to keep the unclean separate from the rest of Israel because uncleanness present in the midst of the people will make the tabernacle in their midst itself unclean.

Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” (Leviticus 15:31)

But when Christ is in their midst, tabernacling with them, He is not made unclean by contact with the woman, but rather holiness flows from Him into the woman and heals her.  The tabernacle is no longer defiled by the uncleanness or sin of the people, but rather God’s holiness is now flowing from the incarnate Christ into the lives of the people and even the unclean are being restored to Israel.

In Genesis 3:3,  Eve expressed a thought that even if they were to touch the Tree of Good and Evil, they would die.  Holiness is taboo and deadly to the touch.  She apparently did not believe creation was a means to experience and know God.  The Woman with the flow of blood on the other hand believed in the life-giving nature of God, even God in the flesh.  The Law of her day also opposed her touching Jesus or any human.  But this time, the woman’s touch is divine and holy for it connects her to God rather than separating her from God.  Christ has not only opened Paradise to us, for in the incarnation He made it possible for us to touch God.

Jesus: The Word of God

“The all-too-frequent pitfalls of speculating on the nature of God helped make the option of saying nothing a desirable one. Within the heart of the Godhead itself some early Christian writers had discovered a profound silence, that of the Father, from out of which the Word, the second person of the Trinity, was spoken. Ignatius of Antioch was a pioneer in this respect. Writing at the very beginning of the second century, he says, ‘There is one God, who manifested himself through Jesus Christ, his Son, who is his Word, coming forth from silence, who in all things was pleasing to the one who sent him.

Two and a half centuries later the idea was still alive in the poetry of Ephrem the Syrian:

‘Glory to the One who came to us by his First-Born.

Glory to that Silent One who spoke by means of his Voice.'”

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 44-45)

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)

We Are What We Eat: The Word of God vs The Word of the World

10539655475_2a93f2f5ba_nWhen we read a Gospel lesson like Luke 8:26-39 , the Gadarene Demoniac, we can easily get the impression that demons commonly haunt the earth and that demon possession is the most frequent problem confronting humanity.   And that would be our impression if the only Scriptures we ever heard was the Sunday Gospel lessons of the Orthodox Church year.  Yet if we study the Scriptures we note:

The word “demons” appears only 4 times in the entire Septuagint (Old Testament).  However it appears 35 times just in the 4 Gospels – but then only 6 times in the rest of the New Testament.

The word “demon” appears only in the book of Tobit in the Old Testament.   It appears 21 times in the 4 Gospels but nowhere else in the New Testament.

The notion of being “possessed by demons” – occurs only in the New Testament – 4 times in the Gospels and once in Acts.

Demon possession is not mentioned in the entire Old Testament and in fact demons are almost never mentioned in the Old Testament.  So, when we come to the Gospels and suddenly demons seem commonplace, we can ask: What happened?  Why do demons suddenly abound?

One thing that does happen in Israel is the invasion of pagan deities.   Following Alexander the Great’s conquering of Israel came the arrival of pagan Hellenism – Greek paganism which was the bane of Israel in the time of the Maccabees.  Then the pagan Roman Empire conquered Israel.  Pagan temples and pagan signs emerged everywhere in Israel.   The Jewish people readily  accommodated to this reality,  even some accepting  these gods/deities in their midst, but these gods were considered to be nothing more than demons by faithful Jews and early Christians.  Demonic influence spread throughout Israel with the influence of pagan Greek and Roman culture.   What we see in the Gospels reflects this concern – that people were being made sick by becoming accustomed to pagan religion, and making demonic ideas part of their daily existence.  Demonic influence and demonic possession took over the region as the Jewish people adapted to their political and religious reality and then even adopted some of these pagan Greek ideas.

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In the Gospels, however, the demons themselves acknowledging the Lordship of Christ.  These demons and the people they possess are telling Israel to return to and be faithful to the God of their ancestors.  The people’s inability to recognize that The Lord is not just like one of the many gods was making them all mentally and spiritually ill.   God was no longer the Lord of their lives, but rather they  saw all gods as equal and thus all gods as demons.  So they became possessed by demonic thinking.  Jesus may have been very critical of Pharisaic Judaism and the religion of the temple priests, but He was not telling them paganism is a better alternative or a more acceptable alternative.  Jesus came to rid the people of all false beliefs including wrong Jewish ideas as well as the pagan gods and demons.

In Deuteronomy 32, there is a song which Moses taught the people of Israel, rebuking them for their faithlessness, which says in part that

Jacob ate his fill;

Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked.

You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!

He abandoned God who made him,

and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.

They made him jealous with strange gods,

with abhorrent things they provoked him.

They sacrificed to demons, not God,

to deities they had never known,

to new ones recently arrived,

whom your ancestors had not feared.

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;

you forgot the God who gave you birth.   (32:15-18)

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It was because the people forgot the Lord that they began to worship the pagan deities or demons.  In our Gospel lesson, note that the man from whom the demons had been exorcised exactly did not forget God:

Now the man from whom the demons had departed begged Him that he might be with Him. But Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.” And he went his way and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.

Note well that usually Jesus tells those whom He heals not to say anything to anyone, but here He commands this man living outside of Israel to proclaim what God has done for him.  Perhaps when Christ is in Israel, Jesus feared that people would only misinterpret his powers as being demonic (Matthew 10:25, 12:24), whereas in the land outside of Israel, which was full of idols/demons, He wanted them to proclaim the one God above all the idols/demons.

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We might also think about  Adam and Eve trying to hide from God after sinning.  Instead of coming to God for healing, they fear God will judge them and so they try to avoid God.  This is exactly like the demons in the Gospel behave.  They have no love for God, only fear.    “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me!”  The demons too want to hide from Christ precisely because they don’t love Him and they don’t want to have to bow before Him or to be embraced by His love.

“. . . the demons are violent and destructive, seeking  injury and death of the human person; Jesus’ actions are liberating, restoring humans to tranquility and communion with self and others.”  (Willard Swartley, COVENANT OF PEACE, p 98)

The demonic is visible wherever people are seeking destruction and injury for their fellow humans – the endless list of terrorists and murderers who attack children in school or worshipers in a synagogue.  Or who send pipe bombs to politicians.   It is Christ who brings sanity to us and tranquility and communion with God.  We need to see the violence in our society for what it is.  Like in Israel of 2000 years ago, all kinds of demonic ideas abound in our midst and our making us and our country insane.

But what to do, respond with more violence?  As Christians we are called above all to be a people of prayer.  To recognize that these people possessed by violence and demonic thoughts are still part of us – both human and American.  We have to work to exorcise the demonic influence in our country through prayer and fasting.  That’s exactly what our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us (Mark 9:29).

“The possessed and insane individual remains a brother who has even a greater need not to be held in contempt or rejected, but on the contrary to be loved and helped since he finds himself in a condition of great suffering.  As St John Cassian teaches:

‘We shall not only never despise them but we shall even pray ceaselessly for them as for our own members and suffer along with them from the depths of our being and with all our hearts (for when ‘one suffers, all members suffer’ [1 Cor 12:26]).’

The Christian should feel bound up with their destiny, believing that his own spiritual destiny is linked to theirs, as each member of the body is linked to every other member.

‘We cannot possibly attain to perfection without these members or ours, just as we read that our forebears were unable to arrive at the fullness of the promise without us.  As the Apostle says concerning them: ‘All these who were approved by the testimony of faith did not receive the promises, since God had provided something better for us so that they would not be perfected without us.[Hebrews 11:39-40]’

… It is quite evident that in the eyes of the Fathers the possessed remains a complete human being, for even though the demon occupies his body and soul, he continues to carry intact within him the indelible and unalterable image of God which constitutes his true being, his profound nature, and indeed his very humanity.  In the face of this, possession is only an accident, a superficial deformity.”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, MENTAL DISORDERS AND SPIRITUAL HEALING, pp 60-61)

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Rather than seeing these American terrorists as “them”, we need to realize they are us and we as a culture have allowed these demonic ideas to become part of our lives.  We all need to repent and turn to the Lord.   There is a writing attributed to St. Macarius of Egypt which says:

“The Word of God is God.  And the word of the world is world.  There is a great difference and distance between the Word of God and the word of the world and between the children of God and the children of the world.  For every begotten offspring resembles its proper parents.  If, therefore, the offspring of the Spirit gives itself over to the word of the world and to earthly matters and to the glory of this age, it is stricken with death and perishes, whence it came into existence.  For, as the Lord says, he is ‘choked and becomes unfruitful’ (Mk 4:19) from the Word of God who is surrounded by the cares of life and who is bound by earthly bonds.  Likewise, one who is possessed by the fleshly desire, that is, a man of the world, if he desires to hear the Word of God, is choked and becomes like someone irrational.  For being accustomed to the enticements of evil when such men hear about God, they are burdened by boring conversation and their minds are bored.”     (Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES, p 230)

Many are bored with hearing the Word of God and only want to hear the word of the world.  They read and listen to their political extremist talk show hosts and web pages.  They have filled their heads and hearts with demonic thoughts – “the word of the world” – and that is why they behave like the violent and destructive demons of the Gospel.

We also see in this why it isn’t enough for any individual just to change their mind, for they are not just acting alone but as part of a greater world experience/power.  “The word of the world” is greater than any one individual, it is all around us just like the ocean is to all the creatures that live in it.  We can’t just shake it off or get out of it.  This is why we need to read the scriptures and to pray and attend church and worship God.  It is why we need Holy Communion, the sacrament of confession, prayer and fasting.