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.

Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man

The Lord Jesus told this parable“There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”  (Luke 16:19-31)

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

The rich man,” it says, “also died, and was buried” (Luke 16:22). Perhaps when Lazarus died he did not even have a grave, as there was no one to bury him. No mention at all is made of a grave in his case but the account then goes on to say that the rich man “was buried.”…There was a time when the rich man had seen Lazarus cast down in front of the gate, a victim of hunger, writhing on the ground in the dust unable even to move, and he turned a blind eye.

Now that he is lying in the depths being tortured and cannot escape his torments, he looks up and sees Lazarus comfortably settled high above, passing his time in profound ease and dwelling in Abraham’s bosom, and instead of resolving to ignore him, he thinks he has a right not to be overlooked by the man he formerly disregarded. In the place where mercy belonged, he had neither looked for it nor practiced it, but there where justice is merciless, he seeks mercy to no avail.

…That rich man, brethren, who had Moses and the prophets, none of whom had risen from the dead, seems to have had some sort of excuse. We, by contrast, hear, along with them, Him who rose from the dead for our sake, saying, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19, 20), “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matt. 5:42), and “Give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). If someone eats and drinks with drunkards but is hard hearted to the poor and gives them nothing, “The Lord”, says the Scripture, “will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:46).     (The Homilies, p. 378, 381)

For an interesting and  different translation and interpretation of this parable see:  The Vale of Abraham.

St. Isaac on the Merciful Heart

Isaac loved solitude and stillness, but any kind of closing in upon himself, any thought of his own salvation apart from his brethren, was entirely alien to him. He possessed that ‘merciful heart’ which is characterized by having compassion on all creatures, not only Christians, but also apostates, animals, and demons. His personal prayer, like liturgical prayer, grew to a cosmic scale embracing not only neighbors and strangers, but the whole of humanity and the entire universe.

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, p. 202)

The Cheerful Giver is the Righteous Human

24319325696_77e0508aea_nIn the Epistle lesson of 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, St. Paul describes the generous giver, which turns out to be for him identical with a truly righteous person.   His words are something for all believers to consider, for often Christians think of the righteous person as an upright person who avoids sinning and chooses a virtuous way of life.  St. Paul reminds everyone that to truly be righteous one needs to know how to be charitable, generous and cheerful about the giving.  St. Paul’s words are to a large extent him quoting, paraphrasing and/or echoing Old Testament texts.  It is in the Scripture he uses that we really see how St. Paul is describing that the righteous person is a generous person.  Below are St. Paul’s words with the Old Testament texts interspersed to who what he had in mind:

But this I say: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.

Proverbs 22:8-9 in the Septuagint reads:
God blesses a cheerful and generous man . . . He who has compassion over the poor will himself be nourished, because he gave his own food to the poor.

And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.

While God is able to make all grace abound, St. Paul quotes a text (Psalm 112) that refers not to God but to the righteous person:

Praise the LORD. Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments! His descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in his house; and his righteousness endures for ever. Light rises in the darkness for the upright; the LORD is gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with the man who deals generously and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered for ever. He is not afraid of evil tidings; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady, he will not be afraid, until he sees his desire on his adversaries. He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever; his horn is exalted in honor. The wicked man sees it and is angry; he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked man comes to nought.

The Lord is gracious, merciful and righteous, but the righteous person is the one who “deals generously and lends“, who gives freely to the poor and needy.  The righteous is not just interested in avoiding sin, the truly righteous is like God in being generous, kind and merciful.  The righteous person isn’t the one who gnashes his teeth when thinking about sinners, but rather is benevolent and hospitable to those who lack clothing, food, or who are homeless or exiles or strangers or refugees.  It is the person who gives to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, not the person who judges sinners.

mercytoChrist

Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness,

The Prophet Isaiah proclaims (55:6-12) :

4587290523_19055aeed1_n

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

God is abundantly merciful and forgiving – God’s mercy are the seeds Go plants in us to accomplish God’s own will.  God’s Word, in Orthodoxy that surely means Jesus Christ, comes into our lives to change us into the human beings God wishes us to be.  Christ tells us to love others as He has loved us.  We are not just to hold onto Christ’s teachings to purify ourselves, we are to bring forth the fruits of repentance, to be able to offer back to God an abundant harvest through our imitation of Christ’s love and mercy.

while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.

Proverbs 11:24-28 offers us this wisdom:
One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.  A liberal man will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered. The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it. He who diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to him who searches for it. He who trusts in his riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.

Those who are generous, charitable, hospitable, benevolent, merciful and kind are the very people who are rich in God and will receive the Lord’s blessings – becoming enriched by God.  Not gathering in more possessions, but being blessed in giving all the more.

34358292054_143cd83080_nAnd Jesus said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 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.”  (Luke 12:15-21)

The Miracle of God’s Mercy

As Jesus sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6].  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

St. John Damascene (d 780AD) composed an evening prayer in which he wonderfully expressed the joy and hope of Christians experiencing the grace of God’s salvation:

It is not wonderful if You have mercy upon the pure;

and it is not a great thing if You save the righteous,

but show the wonders of Your mercy upon me, a sinner! 

Lenten Wisdom

As we continue our sojourn to the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, here are some words from the Old Testament Scriptures for us to consider about how to keep the lenten season.  In America we are moving through the season of family gatherings, dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas parties, festal baking, spiked eggnogs and punches.  So what should we Orthodox in America be thinking about?

Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness.  A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing.  It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies.  (Tobit 12:8-10)

mercytoChrist

Nevertheless, be patient with someone in humble circumstances,
and do not keep him waiting for your alms.
Help the poor for the commandment’s sake,
and in their need do not send them away empty-handed.
Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend,
and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.
Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High,
and it will profit you more than gold.
Store up almsgiving in your treasury,
and it will rescue you from every disaster;
better than a stout shield and a sturdy spear,
it will fight for you against the enemy.   (Sirach 29:8-13)

 

Elder Aimilianos on The Good Samaritan

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Archimandrite Aimilianos comments on how the unfortunate man of the parable is really each of us.

“After this, St. Makarios tells us that ‘all creatures saw the king who had been given to them.’ The sky, the earth, the animals, and all the angels and heavenly powers, had been placed under a king. Who? Man. Yes, man was made king even of the angelic powers because whereas they are ministering spirits, sent forth to serve (Heb. 1:14), man was created a king, according to the image of God (Gen. 1:26). ‘They saw the king who had been given to them become a slave of evil powers.’ He who had been given authority over all the angels, and was exalted over all heaven and earth, became the slave of a fallen angel. ‘Then his soul was cloaked in darkness, bitter and evil, for he was now the slave of darkness. He was the man who ‘fell to robbers’ and was ‘left for dead’ on the road ‘from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10:30-37).’ The man in the parable was Adam, although all of us, in our own way, retrace his steps, and fall victim to the same spiritual robbers. See the sermon ascribed to St. Basil, On the Passions 9: ‘He (i.e. the devil) managed to drag man down from Jerusalem to Jericho: from the high place to the valley, because Jerusalem sits on a hilltop, whereas Jericho lies below the level of the Dead Sea. Leaving the security of Jerusalem, man fell among thieves, who wounded him and stripped him of his garments. First came the wound, then the stripping. The wound of the soul is sin. The stripping is the removal of the soul’s garment of incorruption. And this happens because sin obliterates the grace given to us in Baptism. Thus fornication is a wound, as is adultery, and so is resentment and envy, and all other such things, which strike the soul like a band of robbers; these robbers are the demons, who, by exploiting our impulse to sin, attack and wound us. And after the wound comes the stripping. If we were speaking of bodily things, the stripping would precede the wound, but here the wound comes first, so that you might learn that sin precedes the loss of grace, which was given to us by the Lord.” ( The Way of the Spirit, p 240)

 

Removing the Obstacles to Healing

30707091221_39114f905d

This morning, about the same time that this post appears on my blog, I will be undergoing spinal fusion surgery.  This is my 3rd spinal fusion in 4 years, and the 4th major surgery I will have had in that same time period.  I both need and appreciate your prayers.

St. Paul, suffering from some infirmity which remains unknown to us, mentions asking God three times to be relieved from the suffering caused by “the thorn in his flesh.”  Each time however God denied his request saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).   I find myself similarly petitioning God, and having to live the same response.  St. Paul continued: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). I am still trying, albeit reluctantly, to learn that godly response.

St. Paul says in another epistle: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).   I still have a goal to be a Christian, but in all these teachings of St. Paul, I see myself no where near fulfilling the instruction given to me.   I’m still trying to learn how to rejoice in suffering, so that the other virtues may become present in my life.  At least I have direction in my life – I see where I am supposed to go, and that it still for me is a sojourn to get there.

My blog posts for the past several days were all prepared days ago and put in the queue to be posted as scheduled.  This will be true of all the posts appearing for the next several weeks.  When I am able, I will give an update on my condition which will be more of a “live” report.

My surgery is hardly the biggest news of the day.   Today is election day in the USA.  So as several wits have quipped to me, mine is elective surgery.  I’m about to find out what is more painful, spinal fusion surgery or the presidential election.

What I’m hoping for today?  That all will go well enough with surgery so that some time later today, the nurses and therapists will come to me and tell me to get up and walk.

5875727980_4026800306

Though some people seem to think “miracles” can only happen in some inexplicable and supernatural way, I for my part have found that much of what modern medical science is miraculous.  What we humans are capable of discovering, learning and inventing is phenomenal and astounding.  God has gifted us with so much.  It is astonishing what we are capable of learning, envisioning, and engineering.  Thanks be to God.  If only we were always willing to use all our wisdom and knowledge to help our fellow humans!

The Church’s Mission is Mercy

 

“Just as God has reached into the heart of death and pain that is part of the human experience of being alive, and has offered its redemptive transfiguration in love through the Cross of the Lord, so too the church, following in the steps of its Lord, is called to meet human suffering with personal courage and communal philanthropy and alleviate the pains of suffering in whatever way it can: physically, morally, or emotionally. This is why the church’s involvement in the social institutions of mercy (hospital and schools) or suffering (prisons and places of enslavement) is a primary element of its mission. Relieving the suffering caused by natural disasters and chronic disease constitutes a major element of the church’s necessary response: a major way of manifesting among society its belief in the glory of the human being as the radiant image of God.”(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, pp 192-193)

 

God’s Word is a Seed

5096763138_3435941b81_n“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.”

As he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  (Luke 8:5-15)

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich finds deep meaning in the parable:

“The field signifies the human soul; the various parts of the field signify different human souls. Some are like the ground alongside the path, others like stony ground, yet others like patches of thorns.

Others, though, are like good ground, well away from the path, clear of stones and thorns. Why does the sower not cast his seed only on the good ground, rather than along the path or among the stones and thorns? Because the Good News of the Gospel is common to all, not secret and not confined to just one group of people, as had been the case in much dark and ‘magical’ teaching among the Greeks and the Egyptians, that had as their goal more the acquisition of power over a man, or by one group of people over another, than the salvation of the soul. ‘What I tell you in darkness, that speak you in light; and what you hear in the ear, that preach you upon the housetops’ (Matt. 10:27).

Thus the Lord commands His disciples; the Great Sower commands the sowers. God desires the salvation of all human souls, for ‘He will have all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), ‘not willing that any should perish’ (2 Pet. 3:9). Were the Lord to have sown His divine teaching only among good people, the wicked would have had the excuse that they had never heard the Gospel, and would have ascribed their perdition to God, not to their own sinfulness. No-one will ever come to perdition through God’s fault, for God is righteous and no sort of fault can approach the light of His righteousness.” (Homilies, p 214)

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
 ( BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if we think that some people have hardened hearts, hearts of stone or heads full of rocks, we are to share the Good News with them.  Even if we think they will never produce anything but thorns and weeds because we can see that in their lives, we are to live in such a way as to be light to them and to provide them with the seed of the Gospel.  It doesn’t matter what they are like, the Sower of Good Seed sends us into the world to continue His ministry.