True Lenten Charity

He gave Himself up for the life of the world (from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

“Strive to acquire humility, and charity – the real charity, which never limits itself to gifts no matter how generous, but, consuming the heart with infinite compassion for all creatures, generates a pure flame of good will and the firm decision to help every single one of the great host of unfortunates.”  (Macarius, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, 56)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”  (Genesis 9:8-17)

God’s covenant relationship is not just with the chosen people, but with all creation, which God repeats again and again as God talks to Noah:  with every living creature (Genesis 9:10, 12, 15, 16), with the earth (9:13),  with all flesh (9:15, 16 and 17).  If God so loves the world which He created, shouldn’t we?

Seeing, Nay Seeking, Christ in Others

Two poems related to themes found in Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).  The first poem, untitled, is by St Maria Sobtskova.

I searched for singers and for prophets

who wait by the ladder to heaven,

see signs of the mysterious end,

sing songs beyond our comprehension.

And I found people who were restless, orphaned, poor,

drunk, despairing, useless,

lost whichever way they went,

homeless, naked, lacking bread.

There are no prophecies. Only life

continuously acts as a prophet.

The end approaches, days grow shorter.

You took a servant’s form. Hosanna.

(Pearl of Great Price, p. 51-52)

For St. Maria, if we seek Christ or the holy ones who follow Him, we might be surprised whom we find or in whom we find Him, the Lord God who makes Himself a servant and washes the feet of the least of His brothers and sisters.

In the second poem, “DE Way T’ings Come”, American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar writing poetically in an English dialect he sometimes used puzzles over how unlike the Good Samaritan we can be – working to feed those who are well fed  and avoiding those in need.

De way t’ings happen, huhuh, chile,

Dis worl’ ‘s done puzzled me one w’ile;

I ‘s mighty skeered I ‘ll fall in doubt,

I des’ won’t try to reason out

De reason why folks strive an’ plan

A dinnah fu’ a full-fed man,

An’ shet de do’ an’ cross de street

F’om one dat raaly needs to eat.

(The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar,  Kindle Location 5587-5591)

(For the poetically and dialectically challenged, the poem’s last lines are:  I just won’t try to reason out the reason why folks strive and plan a dinner for a full-fed man, and shut the door and cross the street from one that really needs to eat.)

 

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)

What If You Planned a Party and No One Showed Up?

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.  (John 15:16-17)

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The Gospel lesson in  Luke 14:16-24 (**the text of the parable is at the bottom of this post) offers us  the parable of the man who planned a formal supper and sent invitations to those he really wanted to attend.  This lesson occurs at a time when Jesus offers some practical advice to His followers about proper behavior.

In 14:7, the Gospel says Jesus told them a parable, yet what follows in 14:8-14 isn’t a parable at all, but direct advice in vs. 8-11 about how to behave humbly when invited to a wedding reception: not to sit down at the head table and then be asked to move because you don’t belong there, but rather to make oneself obscure and let the host invite you in front of everyone else to sit at an honored place.  The humble will be exalted, but the prideful will be brought low.   The text reads like an Emily Post etiquette manual.

Next, in 14:12-14, Jesus advises his followers not to plan dinner parties with a guest list of people to whom you are indebted or people you want to make indebted to yourself.  Don’t invite friends and families who will then reciprocate and invite you to their dinner parties.  Rather, invite people who cannot repay you – the poor, needy, the homeless, the unemployed.  Here, Jesus is teaching from the point of view of the up-side-down Kingdom of Heaven.  You will be blessed by offering hospitality to those who can’t repay you in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Immediately upon hearing Jesus teaching, someone shouted out: “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”   Perhaps it was one of the poor who realized that they would certainly benefit if the values of the Kingdom were lived in this world.  If we did on earth what is done in heaven, God’s will would be done.   Maybe most of those listening to Jesus just sighed, thinking that you can’t really invite all these unwanted people to your dinners, because you are obligated to invite those who invite you.  We all go to such events, we put them on our calendars, even if we don’t really want to go because we feel the social or familial obligation.  Of course, then we are really being hypocrites but we don’t want that exposed either and usually force ourselves to go thinking it is politically correct.

46294599282_89faf533fe_nIt is only at that point that Jesus tells the parable already mentioned in 14:7.  The parable tells about a man who sent invitations to those he wanted to attend his special dinner party.  The supper is not open to just anyone, but is by invitation only.  What kinds of people do we invite to such parties?  Usually we invite friends and family members who have invited us to their dinners.  We owe them.  We also invite special friends and family members who we feel particularly honored to have them in our homes.  We feel some indebtedness to them when they grace us with their presence.  Perhaps we want to impress others with who is willing to attend our dinners.  We also may invite some we want to be indebted to us – people we hope will then feel obligated to reciprocate our invitation and will have to invite us to their parties.    The system of invitation to dinners becomes largely an exchange of paying off debts or indebting others to us.  It is all mutually self-serving.

In our culture, parties and gift exchanges are often about maintaining a balance, everyone “owes” everyone else and you keep the peace and the balance by doing your part to equally pay back everyone else for their efforts.  Everyone is held indebted to everyone else by the feelings of reciprocal payments.   If we have a wedding, often the guest list is at least partially based on who invited us to their wedding.    Jesus challenges this system of social payback.  Even sinners know enough to do this for their friends and family (Luke 6:32-34), but the Kingdom people are to live by the values of the Kingdom not the social values of this world.  Just as Christ came to call the sick and sinners to Himself, we could do the same.

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Remember in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus has already given the direct teaching not to engage in this social mutual exchange, but rather to give freely to those who cannot repay you.  Give and expect to get nothing in return (Luke 6:35).  The blessedness of the Kingdom comes not in repaying others for the kindnesses they do to you, but to extending hospitality and grace and goodness to those who could never repay you.  Here Jesus is clearly saying, don’t behave just like everyone else.  Your behavior as citizens of the Kingdom has to be better than what any sinner would do.  Sinners will repay sinners expecting the same again.

Now, the unexpected happens in Jesus’ parable.  The man carefully plans his invitation list, and invites only those he wants at this dinner – no doubt those he wants to impress or be impressed and those to whom he is socially indebted or whom he wants socially indebted to him.  But on the day of the big party, no one shows up. NOT ONE!  All have excuses about other things they would rather do (though claiming they needed to do them).    So, what do you do if you plan a dinner party and not one of the invited guests decides to come?

Of course there is an initial reaction of anger, because you would feel betrayed, or dissed or embarrassed.    You wouldn’t want anyone else to know that absolutely no one showed up to your party.   The message is clear – no one wants to be indebted to you, no one wants reciprocal payment from you for what they gave you.

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For this man in the parable, there is a sudden realization that the whole system of mutual invitations which keeps the social structure together and keeps people at peace with one another because of mutual indebtedness has collapsed.  And though he initially feels angry, he doesn’t directly act against those who have offended him.  Instead he is moved to do what Jesus had taught we should do – he opens his party to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the undesirable.   He even goes further, just  to have every seat at the party filled, he drags in the dregs of the earth to feed them.  Whereas he wouldn’t have done that voluntarily, he does it  to show his invitees that he cares nothing about indebtedness to them or their indebtedness to him.    He won’t be held hostage by the values of the world but rather will live by the values of a different Kingdom.   Their rejection of his invitation has freed him to act according to totally different set of values.  And though God loves the cheerful giver, God can bless and accept our gifts to the poor even when our motives are muddied by our emotions.

Or maybe he recognizes that all the proper social protocol of “gift exchanges” is ridiculous.  People on the high social plane keep repaying each other by attending their events even when they have no interest in them.  Social obligation becomes a burden which we hate.   The man is freed of such social obligations, now he can feed people who can’t provide food for themselves.  Instead of buying more gifts for people who already have everything they want, we give to those who really need something.

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Of course nothing that he did would endear him to those who rejected his invitation.  Perhaps they would even stop inviting him to their events if he was going to behave in such a crazy manner.

The man in the  parable comes to understand what his wealth is for – not for feeding other wealthy people, not for giving to those who can easily provide for themselves, but for feeding those who have no access food and nowhere to go.  Those without money or social status, those who cannot repay him with more invitations to rich banquets.  He suddenly realizes what it is to be like God.  For God invites to His messianic banquet exactly those who cannot repay Him.

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**Luke 14:16-24 –
Then He said to him, “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. ’For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’”

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Learning the Skill of Charity

One person has the skill to hammer brass into the most exquisite shapes and to engrave elaborate patterns on to it.

Another has the skill to make furniture, joining together different pieces of wood so firmly that no one can break them apart. A third person can spin the finest yarn, while a fourth weaves it into cloth.

A fifth craftsperson can lay stones one on top of the other to build walls, while a sixth puts a roof on top of the walls to make a house. Indeed there are so many different skills, each one requiring many years to attain, that it would be impossible to list them all.

So what is the skill that rich people should acquire? They do not need to fashion brass or wood, or to build houses. Rather, they must learn how to use their wealth well, to the good of all the people around them. The ordinary craftsperson may think that that is an easy skill to learn. On the contrary, it is the hardest skill of all. It requires both great wisdom and great moral strength. Look at how many rich people fail to acquire it, and how few practice it to perfection.

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 14)

St. Nicholas: An Icon of Mercy

On December 6 we honor the memory of St Nicholas the 4th Century Archbishop of Myra who has become so popular in Christian and Western European Cultures.  Most of what we know about his life comes from legend and lore.  He was being honored as a saint 200 years after his death,  but his popularity grew exponentially in later Centuries.  When St. Methodius wrote a life of St. Nicholas in the Mid-9th Century, he notes that hardly anyone had heard of him. Be that as it may, he became one of the most beloved saints in both Western and Eastern Europe.  Even the secular world continued to evolve stories about him which became an icon of the American secular Christmas celebration.

The legends of his life include descriptions of him as being especially merciful to the unfortunate poor.  As such, it is appropriate to consider the virtue of mercy.

“Mercy is therefore a twofold virtue.

On the one hand, it means giving shelter, protection, food, and necessary aid to those in want.

On the the other, it is patience, forgiveness of wrong, and compassion towards those who offend.”

(St Gregory Palamas, THE HOMILIES, p 283)

St Nicholas is for us an icon of mercy.  We can think about what Jesus taught us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:36-37 –

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.”

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)

Theosis: Being a God to the Unfortunate

Many Orthodox note that the goal of the Christian life is theosis or deification – the goal is not to get to some distant”heaven”.  Rather the goal is to transform and transfigure our own life and our own being, now on earth.   As in heaven, so on earth is what we pray in the Lord’s prayer.  The goal of the Christian life is not merely to get to some eschatological and transcendent location, but to become and be the temple of God – the very place where God dwells on earth!  And attaining theosis in this life means to be like God – to be a God to the unfortunate, offering love and mercy to those in need.  Fr. John D. Jones  writes:

As Orthodox Christians, we recognize the ultimate goal of the Christian life is theosis or divinization—becoming like God as much as is possible for human beings. Yet this process of theosis is not a matter of a discarnate spirituality that retreats from human need and suffering. The journey towards theosis is rather expressed through concrete acts of love and mercy in imitation of God, who is love. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes, ‘Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.’…[doing so] constitutes a sacred obligation for us to minister in Christ’s name to our neighbor; that is, to every person in need whom we encounter (cf. Luke 10:25–37).  —Metropolitan Anthony (Gergiannakis)

Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.” So wrote St. Greogry the Theologian near the end of his Oration XIV, On the Love of the Poor. This theme is basic to the oration from the start:

Beautiful is contemplation (theoria=the knowledge and vision) of God, as likewise beautiful is action (praxis). The one is beautiful because it conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it. The other is beautiful because it welcomes Christ, serves him, and confirms the power of love through good works (sec. 4)…. Of all things, nothing so serves God as mercy because nothing else is more proper to God (sec. 5)…. We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [and] those in distress from whatever cause (sec. 6).

“Opening the Doors of Compassion: Cultivating a Merciful Heart”, In Communion, Spring 2012, p. 4)

 

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.

Being Stewards of God’s Blessings

God says, “The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses..”

Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere Scripture says, “Deprive not the poor of his living.” To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.

This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need. Just as an official in the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends in stead for his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants.

(John Chrysostom, Daily Readings from the Writings of John Chrysostom, p. 44)

We Americans love the bounty with which God has blessed our country.  God has blessed us with this bounty so that we can generously share the blessings with others.  The bounty belongs to the Lord, we are but stewards of the abundance with which God blesses us.