Sin as Mud Washed Away

“God has imprinted the image of the good things of His own nature on creation. But sin, in spreading out over the divine likeness, has caused this good to disappear, covering it with shameful garments. But if, by a life rightly led, you wash away the mud that has been put on your heart, then godlike (theoeides) beauty will again shine out in you. And so it is that he who is pure of heart merits to be called blessed, since in looking at his own beauty, he sees in it its model.

Just as he who looks at the sun in a mirror, even if he does not fix his eyes on the sky itself, nevertheless sees the sun in the mirror’s brightness, so you also even if you eyes could not bear the light, possess within yourselves what you desire, if you return to the grace of the image that was placed in you from the beginning. (Gregory of Nyssa, from Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 365-366)

Numerous Fathers accept the image of sin as being a mud which has sullied us but has not become part of who we are.  Sin can be washed away by tears of repentance, by baptism, by living a godly life, by allowing the Light of God to enter into one’s life.  Sin at worst is a parasite living on us, but we never lose our connection to God, the image of God imprinted on our hearts.    These Fathers reject any idea of the total depravity of humanity or that humans are nothing but sin deserving God’s eternal damnation.   Humans are loved by God and Christ comes to us as a healer, to take away our sins, to restore us to full health, to make us human again.  The Hope diamond caked with layers of dried mud would look like a dirty rock.  Yet, beneath the layers of mud the diamond is as valuable as ever.  This is the situation of humans in the world and why God loves us and works so hard to save us.  God sees through the mud and knows the worth of every human person.

How We Shape God’s Revelation

“God condescends whenever He is not seen as He is, but in the way one incapable of beholding Him is able to look upon Him. In this way God reveals Himself by accommodating what He reveals to the weakness of vision of those who behold him.”  (St. John Chrysostom, in Archimandrite Amilianos’s The Way of the Spirit, p. 323-324)

Chrysostom’s observation that God accommodates His revelation to the capacity of the person beholding God is fascinating on so many levels, and really does seem true to what the Scriptures present about God’s manifestations to the world.  It does mean that God takes into account each person readiness for revelation and each person’s personal abilities and adjusts the revelation accordingly so the person can understand what is being revealed to them.  It also means that no two person have the exact same perception of God.  Take for example the Transfiguration – five people besides Jesus are present, and each would be encountering something slightly different about Christ according to their differing personal abilities to comprehend the revelation.   It means that no one person’s experience of God, no matter how true or how capable they are of describing it, ever has a full experience of God.    Certainly in the case of the Transfiguration, Orthodox Tradition as expressed in iconography has each of the apostles differently able to perceive and understand the revelation.  Peter, James and John are understand as experiencing the Transfiguration differently which is shown in the icon by their different responses to the event.

God reveals Himself as love and God reveals His love to us, and each of us experiences it slightly differently based on our own capabilities of receiving the revelation.  God does not require everyone to experience the exact same thing or to understand the revelation in the same way or even to be able to express what one has experienced in the exact same way as others do.   There is a true and unique synergy which occurs between God and each person to whom God reveals Himself.

A good example of this comes from the post-Resurrection experience of the disciples found in Luke 24.  We can consider a few verses as examples.

1] Luke 24:15-16  –    While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Here are two disciples who are personally familiar with Jesus having been discipled by Christ directly as they sojourned with Him.   In this chapter, they are walking with Him and talking to Him and yet they do not recognize Him with their own eyes.  Apparently, not only do different people have different capacities for receiving God’s revelation, but also at different times in life any one person’s lifetime, the ability to understand God changes.  According to Chrysostom, God takes this into account and only reveals what we are capable of receiving, so while our experience of God may be true, it may also be incomplete or just beyond our comprehension.

2] Luke 24:19-26  –    And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

The people were able to see the mighty deeds of Jesus and to hear his powerful message, yet they did not fully comprehend either Him or His message.  The disciples admit they thought they understood who Jesus was, but their hopes were dashed.  The crucifixion of Jesus was an unexpected revelation about God which blinded them to the truth of what they were seeing in Christ.  And finally though some of the disciples were moved enough to go look into the claims about the empty tomb and resurrection, they still were not capable themselves of seeing Jesus yet.  They knew Jesus’ own teachings about the resurrection, they had the testimony of the women disciples, they saw the empty tomb, and yet still they were not ready to receive the revelation.   It takes time for them to realize and embrace what God is revealing to them.   God reveals Himself as the disciples are growing in their ability to understand the revelation.  It is a lesson for mission work as well – people may need time to hear the message and to understand it.

3] Luke 24:30-31  –   When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Seeing him with one’s eyes and realizing who He is are two different experiences.  The two disciples are talking with Him and yet their eyes are not opened.  However, in the breaking of the bread, they recognize Him – their eyes are opened and in that moment He disappears!  Seeing with one’s senses is one thing, but it is not the only vision we are capable of.  Another lesson is that as we are more prepared to accept the revelation, we may find ourselves less reliant on proofs and move more into a faith mode, letting go of the “props” that helped us believe and allowing Christ to enter into our hearts.   And we see in the icon that each of the two disciples sees Christ from their own point of view, they are not seeing identical things.  And Christ in these icons hands them a broken piece of bread – each receives a unique piece broken from the whole,  they are not given identical pieces.   They are given according to their ability to receive the gift.

4] Luke 24:33-35  –   And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The Lord chooses to whom He will appear.  Not everyone sees Him in the same moment.  God respects those who are ready for the revelation.  Others may simply not be ready, and so God doesn’t appear to them, or He appears to them and they don’t recognize Him.  We see again Chrysostom’s point that God appears in the way and to the degree that the person is able to receive the revelation.  Peter goes to the tomb and is not yet ready to embrace the revelation, but in the right time, the Lord acts and Peter sees the Lord.

5] Luke 24:36-41  –   As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

The Lord chose the moment to reveal Himself at once to all the disciples.  We see their reactions – startled, frightened, doubts, thinking some ghost has appeared to them.  Not all can see as clearly, but Christ proceeds with the revelation as they are able to receive it.  So then, there is disbelief, wonder and joy.  What they experience and understand is changing and growing.  Christ accommodates Himself to the ways in which they are not yet fully prepared to see or believe or understand.    Christ is guided by mercy and empathy for those to whom He reveals Himself, taking into account their weaknesses and accommodating His revelation to them.  There is no need to admire those who understand more nor to despise those who understand less.  God is accommodating His revelation to the needs of each based on His own love for them.  There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to God’s revelation as each receives the revelation as they are able.  God entrusts to each person the revelation according to their abilities.  And there is no need for everyone to think exactly alike, because God accommodates His revelation to each.

The Purpose of Theology: To Become Wise

There is in Orthodox Tradition a sense that correct belief leads to a correct way of life or that correct thinking leads to correct living.  Conversely, a wrong way of living – sinning – can often be traced to a wrong set of beliefs.  Confession and repentance in this thinking are efforts to get to the root cause of one’s sinful behavior and to aim to correct the thinking or beliefs that have allowed one to choose wrong behavior.  Correct theology then is not just a set of intellectual premises which we affirm through rational logic, but rather is the healing antidote to what ails humanity and leads us astray from God.  Correct theology is both the light that shows us the right path and the proper path itself.   As Jesus Himself said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”   (John 14:6)

“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”   (John 8:12)

Protestant Theologian Jeremy S. Begbie writes:

By “the gospel” I mean the announcement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Triune Creator, the God of Israel, has acted decisively to reconcile the world to himself. Here is theology’s raison d’etre and its lodestar – theology is not free-floating speculation, but it is disciplined by this gospel and seeks to interpret the whole of reality from this center. Just because it is so motivated, the theologian is ultimately responsible to a living God: the God of the gospel is not an inert presence but personally active, continuously at work to transform his creatures and his creation. Hence learning about God is undertaken in the context of learning from God, as God relates to us and we to God. This means, in turn, that theology is inseparable (though distinct) from prayer and worship – thinking appropriately about God means regularly engaging with God. . . .  Precisely because it relates to the whole of us and concerns the energetic, life-transforming God of the gospel, theology has a practical orientation.

One of the best ways to express this is to speak of theology fostering wisdom. In the so-called Wisdom literature of the Bible (for example, the book of Proverbs), gaining wisdom concerns much more than amassing data for the mind’s scrutiny. It is practically geared. To be wise means being able to discern what is going on in specific, down-to-earth situations and to judge what it is right to say and do in those situations in a way that is faithful and true to God. We become wise in order to live well. As “lived knowledge,” wisdom is directed toward a lifestyle thoroughly “in tune” with God – godly living – that resonates aptly with the Creator’s intentions for us and his world.

(Resounding Truth, p. 20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   (Colossians 3:16-17)

Pro-Life Means More than Anti-Abortion

On the Sunday after the Nativity, we continue reading the Nativity narrative, but a portion which is not part of the American spirit of Christmas: Matthew 2:13-23.  This is part of the Nativity story we don’t have in our Christmas cards or carols and prefer to ignore because we like a sentimental winter story rather than one which exposes the reality of the world.  This Gospel brings to the forefront a very worldly reaction to the Gospel: Herod decides to murder babies to protect his own interests. We see in the Gospel lesson why the Fathers often described self-preservation as a sin which leads to much evil.  In this case Herod justifies the murder of babies by his concern for self-preservation.  In the modern world, we justify letting refugee babies die to preserve our comfort and  standard of living.

Christmas for us Christians is not just one day of the year which we can put away with our decorations, or throw out with all the wrapping paper, or take down with the tree.  In the Church we continue to celebrate the Feast for a week which remembering the entire Gospel lesson, including the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

Christmas is God’s Word to the world.  In the Christmas narrative God sends word via the angels to Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.  Persian Magi receive a divine message through the movement of the strangest star they have ever seen.

Christmas is God’s message to us.  It is not merely a human wish for good cheer nor just human hope for the world and for each other.  Christmas is God’s word, God’s plan, God’s hope for the world.

Christmas is God, not just some people, telling us about peace, joy and good will.  The angels proclaim it, not humans.  And certainly when we read the Gospel, and not just some sentimental version of it, we see God’s message of peace and good will brought about a negative reaction in the world.  King Herod is out killing children because of the Gospel.

Christmas is God’s Word coming into the world, it is not fake news, nor does it have a media spin to it.  It was not created by Internet trolls.

In the Epistle (Gal 1:11-12) St Paul points this out clearly:  the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul openly claims the Gospel comes to us by revelation from God.  St. Peter says:

First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.   (2 Peter 1:20-21)

Christmas is God’s message to us, not a human message.  God actively takes part in the world, to be with us and to heal us, to speak to us, to reveal Himself and His will to us.

If Humans were composing Good News about a savior, we would no doubt follow a more Hollywood plan – a superhero with supernatural powers, armed to the hilt with weapons of mass destruction, who wreaks vengeance and death on his enemies.

However, it is God who composed the Gospel, and God’s Gospel is one of humility, God in Christ sacrificing Himself for the good of humanity.  God’s message is one of reconciliation not rage and revenge.  God’s message is one of forgiveness for wrongdoing, not payback time.  Or as we find in Hebrews 1:1-3 –

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high … 

Christmas is God speaking to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, who comes as a baby into the world.  Christmas is a divine message, God speaking to us and to the  world about what God wants us to know about God’s plan.

It is a plan not created by military planners, nor by terrorists, nor by a government, nor by Hollywood, nor by American billionaires.  All of them would create a savior in their image and likeness.

The Orthodox Church today as it has for 2000 years is still preaching this same message.  Our purpose for coming here each Sunday is to listen to the Gospel so that we can share the Good News with others.

On this Sunday after Christmas, we are still celebrating Christmas in the Church, still proclaiming that Christ is born.  We are still celebrating life, though in the Gospel we hear about how in the world King Herod is already issuing a decree that children must die, that he sees some children as unwanted in the world.  This is his response to the Gospel.

For us on the other hand, Christmas is God’s message.  We hear it as a feast of life, of God the giver of life.

Christmas, we Americans often think is for children.  Let us as Christians give Christmas to all children of the world.  Let us be the bearers of life for the world.  Let us lend our support to those children in need, those children who anyone in the world declares to be unwanted and undesirable.  There are many Herods in the world who want to get rid of somebody else’s children.  Men and women who see someone else’s children as a threat to their lifestyle.  We should not be those kinds of people.   We are to be with God, pro-life and giving our full support to those children whom God has called into being.  Christmas is a pro-life message, and as Christians we should be working for the lives of the children of the world, especially those who some have declared as unwanted, just like Herod declared Jesus unwanted, and the children around Bethlehem as undesirable, as threats to his way of life.  We have a responsibility to protect life and to give aid and support to the children that others want to kill.

Christmas is about our salvation, but the Gospel is clear there are evil men and women in the world who are willing to kill even children because they don’t like them.  We on the other hand are those who hear the birth of Christ as Good news, as life-giving news, and we are to be like Joseph protecting the lives of the children that are unwanted and who cannot protect themselves.  We are not only to protect but to nurture the children whom some ruler or nation wants to kill.

May the newborn Christ who lay in a manger for our salvation inspire us to help Him and all such children who are unwanted by the world.  Pro-life cannot be reduce to “anti-abortion”.  Pro-life means giving our support to children in general, but especially to those children victimized by the Herods of the world.  We are to protect all these children, for as our Lord Jesus told us:

 ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’   (Matthew 25:40)

The Infant Christ

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

The sign by which the shepherds will recognize the Saviour is that they will find “the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.” No sign of power accompanies the birth of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, God become man will make Himself known first of all by His poverty, His humility, His weakness. As a small child wrapped in swaddling clothes, He is at the mercy of those who press around Him. He depends on them. He cannot resist anyone. He is unable to exercise His will, nor can He defend Himself. As He appears in His birth, so will He appear in His passion, and that is how He wants me to be.

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior, p. 93-94)

This year a verse from the Christmas narrative has stood out in my heart and mind. The angel tells Joseph not to be afraid but to know about his wife Mary that

she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

I don’t know what Joseph made of that statement, for I wonder how many of us think deliverance from sin is the most important thing that God or the Messiah can do for us. Joseph had a lot to worry about – a pregnant wife, the Roman government, poverty, survival, homelessness, being an immigrant, fleeing persecution, paying taxes and escaping death. He was responsible for a young wife and a newborn baby whom God claimed as His own yet had entrusted to Joseph’s care. And Joseph had no army to protect him, no money, no place to lay his head. So, I’m not sure that the forgiveness of sins was the most impressing issue on his mind.

The angel doesn’t promise that God will save Joseph or God’s people from terror or tyrants, from the power of one’s enemies, or from pain, disaster or death. And while the angels in heaven were singing God’s praise at the birth of Jesus, on earth, forces were plotting to kill him. While our Christmas spirit tends to sentimentalize the story, the narrative of the Nativity involves evil plots and life-threatening risks.

And we realize one of the most profound mysteries of the birth of Jesus – God enters the world as a child and puts Himself at the mercy of the world. God entrusts himself to the care of a young girl and an old carpenter, penniless and powerless. God trusts them. God comes into the world with no power, money or influence as a defenseless child and allows the world to show God the mercy we always are asking from God for ourselves. That certainly is the mystery and meaning of the Christmas story. We are given opportunity to do unto God as we would have God do for us.

But, you might protest, yes, “they” rejected Christ and threatened him and wanted to kill him, but when did we have opportunity to show how we would treat Christ?

And the King will answer, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

Christ comes to us every year at Christmas in the guise of brother or sister, friend or foe, neighbor or stranger. We are given opportunity to see in each person in our household, or neighborhood, or family, or in the parish the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters and to how our love for them. When you do, Christ will be born again in you, and you will become like God.

I wish you all of the joys of the Christmas season. Thank you for all your prayers and for the work you do to make St. Paul’s the parish community to which God calls us.

 “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?    (Matthew 2:2)

The Ancestors of Christ the Lord

On the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, we read the Gospel of the genealogy of Christ found in Matthew 1:1-25.

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

“Although the Virgin, of whom Christ was born according to the flesh, came from Adam’s flesh and seed, yet, because of this flesh had been cleansed in many different ways by the Holy Spirit from the start, she was descended from those who had been chosen from every generation for their excellence. Noah, too, “a just man and perfect in his generation,” as the Scriptures say of him, was found worthy of this election.

Observe also that the Holy Spirit makes it clear to such as have understanding that the whole of divinely inspired Scripture was written because of the Virgin Mother of God. It relates in detail the entire line of her ancestry, which begins with Adam, then Zerubbabel, those in between them and their ancestors, and goes up to the time of the Virgin Mother of God. By contrast, Scripture does not touch upon some races at all, and in the case of others, it makes a start at tracing their descent, then soon abandons them, leaving them in the depths of oblivion.  Above all, it commemorates those of the Mother of God’s forebears who, in their own lives and the deeds wrought by them, prefigured Christ, who was to be born of the Virgin.

See how Noah clearly foreshadows Him Who was later to be born of the Virgin, for Whose sake the election was made. For Noah was shown to be the saviour, not of all the race of men in general, but of his own household, all of whom were saved through him. In the same way, Christ too, is the Saviour of the race of men, not of all men in general, but of all His own household, that is of His Church; not, however, of the disobedient. Furthermore, the name Noah can be translated to mean “rest” (cf. Genesis 5:29). But who is true “rest” except the Virgin’s Son, Who says, “Come unto Me through repentance, all ye that labour and are heavy laden with sins, and I will give you rest” (cf. St. Matthew 11:28), bestowing freedom, ease and eternal life upon you.

(The Homilies, pp. 471-472)

Charity: Building Your Home in Heaven

Furthermore, if now we expend boundless wealth in order to possess well-lighted and airy houses, building them with painful toil, reflect how we ought to spend our very bodies in building shining mansions for ourselves in heaven where that ineffable light is. Here, indeed, there are strifes and contentions about boundaries and walls, while there, there will be nothing of this: no envy, no malice, and no one will contend with us about the setting of boundaries. Moreover, we must leave behind completely this home here, while that other will remain with us forever.

Then, too, this one must deteriorate in course of time, and must be the prey of countless destructive agencies, while that one must remain forever incorrupt. Besides, the poor man cannot build this one here, while it is possible to build that one for two oboli, as that well-known widow did.

Therefore, I seethe with indignation because, when so many blessings lie in wait for us, we are lazy, we make little account of them, and make every effort to have splendid homes in this world. On the other hand, we are not concerned, we take no thought as to how we may possess even a little abode in heaven.

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom Homilies on St. John Vol 2, pp. 94-95)

Choosing the Good Portion

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”  (Luke 18:18-27)

To succeed in the world, we need many “good” things.  Good grades, good job, good income, good work habits, good credit scores, good schools, good neighborhoods, good opportunities, good family, and maybe some good luck too.

But for all those goods, our Lord Jesus might say, “why do you ask me about what is good?”

For Christ speaks to us about and calls us to a goodness which belongs to God alone.  It is not that those goods don’t matter as they do affect our lives.  And God knows we need such good things (Matthew 6:32).   But they all matter on a relative scale, for Christ tells us there is something greater to strive for, something which benefits us not only for the short time we live on earth, but which is eternally permanent.  We don’t have to have all those worldly goods to be good.   And even without all those worldly goods, we humans are still offered an even greater good, namely eternal life – a good portion which cannot be taken away from us.   As the Lord told Martha in Luke 10:41-42 :

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

We don’t come to Christ in order to have our beliefs reaffirmed or are thoughts validated or to learn what we can learn anywhere else in the world.  We come to Christ to discover what we don’t know – about life and eternal life.  We come to Him to seek what is missing from our lives, what we hope for but don’t have [“For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24)] The person in today’s Gospel knew the Law and how to keep the Law and how to accumulate wealth.  But he didn’t know the way to eternal life.  This is why he came to Jesus in the first place.  It is why we come to Christ, and come to the Liturgy, not just to be told what we already believe and know, but to learn what is missing from our lives.  How do we find our way to eternal life?   What do I lack?  What do I need?  What do I have to change to find eternal life?

Jesus says we are to follow Him.  Not to just do the things that everyone in the world does, but to learn what is missing in our life.   How do I get Christ to come and live in me?  How do I become like God in what I do?   In the Liturgy, we come to behold Christ so that we can see what we need to change in our thinking, in our habits, in our attitudes, in our behavior, in our faith, in what we do daily so that we can find what this person in the Gospel was seeking.

Are we ready for that next level?   We might honestly say to Christ, I do keep the Ten Commandments – I haven’t murdered anyone, nor stolen anything, nor committed adultery or told any lies.  What else do I need to do?

And then we have to be prepared to hear Christ’s answer and to live it.  We have to be far more ready to deal with the shock wave which is the Gospel commandments than this person who came to talk to Christ in the Gospel lesson.   The way to the kingdom is not in the things we love so much and value so much and strive to get so much.  We have to seek first the kingdom of God, and that is as big a challenge to us as it was to this rich person who came to talk to Christ.  The little things we are asked to do as Orthodox Christians – to fast, deny the self, to practice self control, to resist our temptations – are the baby steps we take to move beyond this world into that eternal life.

This person in today’s Gospel, was very obedient to God’s commandments, yet still lacked something.  The man had a heart condition but not one that could be corrected by diet or exercise.  This person saw religious perfection only in terms of rigorously following the commandments of God.  Jesus tried to get this person to see that religion is more a matter of the heart.  It is not pure obedience that God willed for His creatures.  God wants us to be like God.  To care about something beyond our self and beyond our immediate gratification.  This person in the Gospel was quite willing to obey God as long as he was richly rewarded for doing so.   But to give up his riches, this was beyond what he was prepared to do because it was only to get more riches that he obeyed God at all.  He had turned God into his servant.

The Prophet Habakkuk said:

Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.   (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Unlike the rich person in today’s Gospel, Habakkuk says even if he is not wealthy, even if he is in miserable poverty and hungry, yet he will rejoice in the Lord.  It is a stark contrast to the rich man who was only willing to rejoice in his wealth and prosperity.

Do we each have such faith that no matter how good or bad things are going, we still rejoice in the Lord?  Do we have such love for God that even when things are going badly, we still rejoice in the Lord?

What Jesus asks is “what do you really treasure in your heart?”  We have to think whether we want God to be our servant giving us all we want, or whether we want to be His servant, no matter what condition we find ourselves in.  How can we seek God rather than just seek the things God might give us?

Sell All You Own and Follow Christ

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.

And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”   (Luke 18:18-27)

It is often debated as to  how literally we are to obey some of the Gospel commandments of Christ.  If everyone tried to sell all their belongings and give them away, what would happen?  Well for one thing there would be no one to buy anything since everyone else was also trying to sell everything.  And if everyone gave up everything, all of civil society would soon come to an end as no one would ‘have’ anything.  It wouldn’t take long before poverty set in and then famine and disease as no one was able to do anything because they couldn’t claim ownership of anything.  So it is not too hard to see that Christ’s teachings were not always universal laws that all must obey.  Rather, He was a wisdom teacher and gives to individuals the medicine they need for their own healing and to become fully human.  The teaching to give everything away was aimed at a particular man who seemed to trust that his riches were the sign that God favored him.  In effect Christ tells the man, since God seems to favor you and has given you all these blessings, give them all away – let’s see if you love and trust God the giver of every good and perfect gift or if you really only love your blessings.  Obviously the man loved the blessings more than He loved God and he certainly wasn’t willing to trust God to provide for him if he gave his blessings away.

In the desert fathers, we find a story of one monk who decided to take the teachings of Christ literally:

One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor. (From Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 37)

Anyone person is capable to literally following this teaching of Christ – even to give away the Scriptures to fully keep the commandment.  The monk had already abandoned civil society and moved to the desert to live the harsh life there.  He had given up the comforts of society, but decides to take the teaching to the next level and even give away the scriptures which had taught him how to live.   We do not know what became of this monk, but we do learn that it is possible to follow Christ’s teachings to the limit.  It is not necessary to have an abundance of possessions in order to be a Christian.  The blessings of God are not something to be accumulated, but to be shared with others.

Judging Ourselves, Not Others

To justify ourselves by condemning others is our permanent tendency, in private as in public life. True nobility is to take responsibility oneself. True humility and true love, in the spiritual order, consist in knowing ourselves to be guilty ‘in everything and for everyone.’

Abba John said, ‘We have rejected the light burden of condemning ourselves, and we have chosen to carry the heavy one of justifying ourselves and condemning others.John Colobos, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 21.

How can we judge another person without imprisoning that person in his past acts? Without shackling him to one moment of his development.  A change of heart is always possible.”   (Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 282)