God’s Miracles Overcome Even a Lack of Faith

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.

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Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful.    (Matthew 17:14-23)

We can imagine the anguish of this father  of the epileptic boy – epilepsy was viewed as an incurable, debilitating disease with harshly negative social and religious overtones.   The father would despair because his son would never have a normal life and would never be accepted by pious and good citizens.   The father’s anguish was no doubt something like the Prophet Job who wondered, why was I born if life is nothing more than pain and sorrow?

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“Why is light given to him that is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hid treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad, when they find the grave? Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, whom God has hedged in? For my sighing comes as my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me.”   (Job 3:20-24)

The father obviously loves his son, yet is plagued by that gnawing question:  Why is anyone born if they are doomed never to know God or joy but only rejection, humiliation and being an outcast?

The father hears about these miracle workers, the disciples, and brings his son to Christ’s disciples to see if they will heal his son, but they can’t.  Imagine the crushing resignation of the father as he realizes the despair that no one can help his son.

Part of the miracle is Jesus heals the boy despite the lack of faith of the disciples or the father.  Jesus overcomes not the illness but even the lack of faith of the people and His own disciples.  God can overcome insurmountable obstacles – even our lack of faith.

In Numbers 11:13-23, we see even the great Moses is dubious about God’s ability to help in every situation.  Israel is in the inhospitable desert and the people are crying from hunger for food.  Moses seeks God’s intervention but God tells Moses not to worry but to feed the people.  Moses replies:

4587917216_dd3821f5cd_nWhere am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me.” …  And the LORD said to Moses, “…  say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was well with us in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month… But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot; and thou hast said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to suffice them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?” And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.

Faith is trusting in God.  We can overcome fear, frustration, despair, hopelessness by trusting in God and abiding in Christ.  No matter what the problems we face, or the obstacles to solving the problems, we can trust that God is still the Lord of the situation and that what will happen occurs according to His will.

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Saints are not those who have no problems but those who seek solutions to their problems in God and who abide in God no matter what problems they are confronted with.   We learn in the Scriptures of the many problems which God’s chosen people faced and how they trusted in God that whatever happened would be according to His merciful will.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the LORD delivers him out of them all.   (Psalms 34:19)

Let God Arise

“However, even when I see such things, I do not give up an even firmer hope, as I consider the Pilot [God] governing everything, who prevails over storms, who calms the raging gale, not through skill and artfulness, but with a single nod. It is not at their beginning – not immediately, when they first arise – that he customarily obliterates evils, but when they increase, when they come to their furthest point [telos], when most men fall into despair, then he does wondrous things beyond all expectation, demonstrating his own power, and training the patience of those who have fallen. “

(St. John Chrysostom, Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 46)

Seeing With the Eyes of Faith

The first teaching given to us in writing is, “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth” and all the other statements about creation. By faith we understand that the ages were brought to completion by the word of God so that what is seen might be made from what is invisible (Hebrews 11:3): the body’s eye did not recognize the God of all as creator; instead, faith instructed us that God, who has always existed, created what did not exist. There is, after all, no example of this among human beings; yet though learning nothing of the kind from nature, we have in faith a teacher of the unexpected. Human beings, of course, make something out of something, whereas the God of all produced what exists out of nothing.

(Theodoret of Cyrrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, pp. 181-182)

Faith and Hope: Catching a Glimpse of Eternal Life

5692625598_867a6e36a9_nI remember a cartoon I saw once in which a mother tells her son, “I want you to mow the lawn and clean the garage today.”  The son moans mightily and  responds with great complaint saying, “Man, I can’t wait until I’m an adult, then I won’t have to do anything I don’t want to do!”

Most adults recognize the weakness of that logic.   We Americans just celebrated this past week our Independence day, and as much as we value those hallmarks – independence and freedom – we know that freedom brings with it responsibility – responsibility for self-restraint, self-control, self-denial, self-respect and respect for others.  As Christians we know our responsibility includes love for one another, which means we intentionally try to do what is good for others, not just what is good for our self.  For us love for one another and freedom are not opposed to each other but work in harmony to help us see ourselves as part of a greater whole – whether part of family, or neighborhood, or city or state or nation.  Our life in Christ always means working out our salvation in relationship to the church, to our neighbors, to our family, to strangers, and even to enemies and to the world itself.

The goal of this love is to help build up in us a concern for others.  In Matthew 6:22-33, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us numerous times not to be anxious.  He concludes his anti-anxiety lesson with these words:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.

48100270406_92e9cbb9f7_ndo not be anxious about your life –    Jesus taught us liberation from anxiety, concern and worry – that was His idea of freedom and independence.  Freedom from concern not because God grants us our every wish, but rather He taught us that by being united to God in prayer, we learn how to be content in every situation.  We learn to be thankful always and in all circumstances.     Worry doesn’t take away tomorrow’s problems, it only takes the joy out of today.  Faith in God on the other hand helps us to look to God and for God in every circumstance.

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:38-39)

If we are united to God, we will not be shaken by the events happening in our lives.    As St Paul says in Philippians 4:6-7,

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We are told not to be anxious, but rather to pray.  Yet, we are also warned that problems will arise, but that in Christ, if we stand firmly with Christ, we will have reason to hope even in the face of problems because in Christ we are already united to God.  In Christ we are united to God even through times of sorrow or suffering, as we heard St Paul say in today’s Epistle:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 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 5:1-10)

38756696372_b663c7b6ab_nIn the midst of all that troubles us, bothers us, weighs us down, confuses us, or causes us to suffer, there is hope – that is what our faith in Jesus Christ is and produces.  The world doesn’t have the last/final say, there is yet a judgment of this world, and this world as we know it as well as our own lives will become visible to us from a new perspective in which this world and our lives will seem small and unimportant in the grand scale of things.  Our hope is Jesus Christ, our belief is that Christ is the real context of our life.  We may suffer in this life, yet in faith we are never separated from Christ even in times of distress or sorrow or sickness.  We endeavor to keep ourselves in Christ so that we can always be united to God, to that bigger picture of which this world is only a tiny part.  It is this bigger perspective – the eternity of the Kingdom – that gives us hope in our current moment

Many of the original twelve disciples of Christ made a living by catching fish – they  sought out fish in the sea, trying to discover where the fish were so they could catch them.    Jesus promised to make them into fishers of men rather than fishers of fish.  In other words, He promised to redirect their life and work to seek out people and to work for God not just for themselves.  Jesus wants us also to produce a harvest for Him – to seek out people and bring them into the church.   The words of Jesus, “follow me”, are spoken to you.  Jesus invites you to follow Him and you do that by seeking out other people to join you in your Christian life.

We however often persist in following our own dreams and our own way forgetting the concerns of Christ and the Gospel.  We build our dreams, but then sometimes a tornado comes along and teaches us how fragile and temporary life is.  Some of the tornadoes are meteorological events, other tornadoes are simply people in our lives.  Sometimes in these events we are forced to look at the fact that we have been devoting our lives to build things that are temporary rather than eternal or permanent.

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Jesus says, “Come, follow me” and I will give you something permanent – eternal life.  Not a house that can be broken into or blown away by a tornado, but a room in the heavenly mansion.   Not a catch of fish, but an entire kingdom.

And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”  (Luke 18:28-30)

St Thomas: Faith and Seeing

Origen reminds his readers that doubting Thomas is not the only model of faith in the Scriptures. Faith is more than believing what was not seen with the eyes. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Happy are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear‘ (Matt. 13:16). His saying suggests that those who have seen with the eyes are happy, not just those who believed without seeing. Was not Simeon happy, asks Origen, when he saw the Christ child and “held God’s salvation in his arms.” Did he not say, ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation’ (Luke 2:29-30). Origen concludes that ‘faith complemented by vision is far superior to faith through a mirror.’ The disciples who saw Jesus alive after his death knew him by faith even though they could see him with their eyes.”  (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 179)

“The physical evidence that Thomas is invited to inspect is only a beginning, but, in human terms, perhaps an essential beginning for many on the road to faith. St. John the Theologian begins his first epistle by restating this evidence and its ultimate purpose: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we heard, which we saw with our eyes, which we observed, and which our hands touched, concerning the Word of Life…what we saw and heard we announced to you so that you might have fellowship with us as we have fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ’ (I Jn. 1.1-3), author’s translation).

The faith of Thomas was not born from a purely objective examination of empirical evidence. It could only emerge from the interface between a conscious acknowledgement of the evidence and an interaction between persons made initially possible through the senses. For the faith spoken so eloquently in Thomas’s declaration to Christ is not the affirmation of an idea or a fact, but a commitment of absolute trust in a Person. It is the necessary element, the sine qua non, for the journey toward union with the unknowable God, who yet through a relationship with his incarnate Word can be known.” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 111)

Faith, Hope and Trust in the Lord

The Gospel lesson of Mark 9:17-31:

10539655475_2a93f2f5ba_nThen one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.”

This Gospel lesson  is centered on an idea of faith or belief: what is faith?  how does belief manifest itself? and what power can faith bring into one’s life?  Unfortunately we can be tempted to think faith is just a way to get miracles into our life, kind of like a faucet which we can turn on and off to get miracles to come out whenever we are thirsty for them.  Or some in Christianity like to see themselves as miracle workers who can dispense miracles at will, so they see themselves as being the faucet which controls the powers of God to miraculously change the normal and mundane events of life.  Jesus for His part dispels such shallow understandings of miracles, and always uses miracles to get us to see and think beyond this world, to look for the Kingdom of God – not to look for miracles in this world but to open the eyes of our heart to see beyond this world.  Otherwise we are at risk to be so enamored with the glamour of miracles that we seek out the miracles rather than the God who gives ever good and perfect gift.   Miracles it turns out are nothing but signs that the Kingdom exists, but miracles are not the main point, rather they point to what is truly important – namely the Kingdom of God.  If we wonder why there aren’t more miracles in our lives, it is because we aren’t looking for the Kingdom to which the miracles point.  It is because we wrongly want the miracles rather than the reality to which they point.

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Miracles not only point to the Kingdom of God, they invite us to respond to the Kingdom, and in the Gospel, the response to the Kingdom is repentance not seeking miraculous powers or more miracles.

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  (Luke 10:17-20)

We can see in the Gospel lesson of Mark of Mark 9:17-31 that the ability to perform a miracle is not everything.  The 12 Disciples are not able to overcome the one demon possessing the boy.  Last Sunday, the Sunday of the Cross, we proclaimed the total destruction of all evil, of demons, and today we see the disciples stymied by one demon.  Now we learn of the struggle we face in this world.  The spiritual life is rightly described as spiritual warfare, and in warfare even if there is victory there can be casualties, dangers, defeats, even for the chosen saints.  The Cross means victory for us, but we still must persevere in life.  We are promised blessings in the world to come, the trouble is we are still in this world, a fallen and sinful world.  Here we do not always find victory, joy and ease.  We do find sickness, suffering, death, failure, frustration.  Here the cross is something we must sometimes carry as a burden.  Jesus says the lesson is we need to pray and fast,  but we want the miracles without having to give up anything ourselves.  The disciples were brokenhearted by their failure, but they aren’t the only failure in the Gospel lesson.

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Jesus tells the dad of this sick boy:   “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”     Here is the moment of metanoia in the dad – for up to this point he has accused the disciples of being failures – “I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.”    Suddenly, confronted by Jesus, he realizes the failure is his own – he has not believed it possible for anyone to help his son.  The failure is not in the disciples alone, but the man must be willing to trust in God, work with God, not just dump it on God and blame God and his followers for the failure.  The dad accepts his responsibility in what happens, he undergoes a conversion and begins to cooperate with God.  The dad was demanding help but not praying, the dad’s heart had to be changed, he had to become a man of prayer, not just a man demanding that his wishes be granted, but a man humble enough to realize his own helplessness and his dependence on others for help.

And all of this helps us understand that faith as such is not a faucet which we turn on and off to get what we want.  Faith is a relationship with God, a total life commitment to the God we are hoping in, trusting, believing and relying on.  When we manage to live in relationship to God, then we have faith.  Faith it turns out is also about our relationship with the entire Body of Christ, all believers, and how we relate to them.

At the beginning of Lent I commented that Israel in being called out of Egypt and into the desert was called to trust in the Lord, to put their faith in God, and not rely on the material resources that civilization could provide them.  Israel had to renounce their dependence on the mighty Egyptian Empire to which they had become enslaved.  Israel was not called to start a civil war to take over the empire, they were called to leave civilization and move into the hostile and inhospitable desert of desolation.  They were called to abandon all  that civilization had to offer them and to go into the desert where there is nothing awaiting them except for God.   This is what Great Lent calls us to do – civilization and all its pleasures, foods, entertainment are all around us, but God calls us out of that and to look for God in the wilderness, where there is hunger and deprivation and self denial is necessary just to survive.   In the desert, deprived of the comforts, the advantages of technology, of society, of civilization, we are confronted by whether we really trust God or not.    Salvation is not going to come from the greatest and richest country in the world.  Rather it comes from God.  We have to find God and not become enticed by wealth and power of the nation.

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We are to live in a covenant relationship with God, not seeking out miracles here and there, but adhering to faithfulness to God.  Great Lent calls us away from all the “blessings” which we so love and says do you really want God, the Giver of every good and perfect gift, OR do you really just want the abundance?   Would you give up God in a second if you could find abundance on your own?  Do you only seek God for what you can extract from Him?

“When the Church calls us to her truth, she does not hold out some theoretical theses Which must be accepted in principle.  She invites us to a personal relationship, to a ‘way’ of life which constitutes a relationship with God or leads progressively and experientially to a relationship with Him.  This way transforms our entire life from individual survival to an event of communion.  The Church is a body of communion, wherein the members live, not each one for himself, but each one in an organic unity of love with the rest of the members and with the head of the body, with Christ.  ‘I believe in the truth of the Church’ means that I agree to be included in the ‘bond of love’ which constitutes it; I trust in the love of the saints and of God, and they accept me with faith and trust in my person.”  (Christos Yannaras, ELEMENTS OF FAITH, p 14)

The faith that the dad needed in today’s Gospel lesson, the faith the disciples needed, the faith that we need is this relationship with God and admitting our dependence on God and need to trust God.  Think about today’s Epistle reading:

“that … we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. ”  (Hebrews 6:18-20)

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Hope it says is an anchor to the soul  and it is this hope which enters the Presence in the Holy of Holies.  Hope it turns out is a person, Jesus Christ.  Christ is the way, truth and the life.  Christ is our hope.   Our faith it turns out is to be united to Christ with all our soul, mind, heart, body, strength.  Faith, hope and trust all are ways that we relate to Christ our God, not mental contortions we use to extract from nature the things we crave.  Faith is a living relationship with God.

St Isaac the Syrian says our life is a spiritual warfare for which we can be prepared to engage in:

“Before the war begins, seek after your ally . . . and before grievous things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him, and he will hearken to you.  Before you stumble, call out and make supplication …    The ark of Noah was built in the time of peace, and its timbers were planted by him a hundred years beforehand.  In the time of wrath the iniquitous perished, but the ark became the shelter for the righteous man.” 

In Lent we endeavor to establish our relationship with God, to seek an ally in this world.   Because Lent doesn’t keep us away from the world but prepares us to go back into the world with God in us daily always and in all ways.  The journey into the desert for Israel was that time period they needed to prepare them as a people to enter into the Promised Land.

Eyes But They Cannot See

When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him…  (John 12:36-37)

One of the most troubling aspects of humans is our ability to blind ourselves to truth, when we don’t want to see it, or don’t like it, or don’t agree with it.   Christ came and healed so many, and yet so many saw Him as a threat.  He gave them health, forgiveness of sins and even fed them, but they feared He was there to take things away from them.  He even died for us – like a sheep led to the slaughter – but others saw Him as a threat who had to be destroyed.  Orthodox theologian Georges A. Barrios commenting on a prophecy from Isaiah writes:

“’Shut their eyes lest they see‘ (Is 6:10);

God’s prophetic warnings are a blessing to those who are disposed to receive them and repent. Otherwise they are a cures, inasmuch as the unrepentant sinner, by rejecting God’s appeal, is ipso facto, confirmed in his own blindness and obstinacy.”  (The Face of Christ in the Old Testament, p. 167)

The prophets give us fair warning about what God is going to do, but when we refuse to believe God’s love we reject both God’s prophecy and God’s promises.  We condemn ourselves to darkness and then curse the darkness.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.  (John 3:19-21)

Why Do We Pray to God?

“But, if God is so merciful, why must we earnestly knock at his door in distress and pray, to have Him turn away from our petition? Scripture says: ‘Behold the hand of the Lord is not too short to save; nor his ear hard of hearing. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and God and your sins have turned his face from you, so that he does not hear…‘ (Isaiah 59:1-2)

God has wisely ordained these things of yours in this way for your own profit that you may continually knock at his door, and through the fear of sorrowful events his memory may constantly come to your mind. Then you will be near to God in constant petition and you will be sanctified by the continual memory of Him in your heart.

When you invoke Him and He answers you, you will know that your savior is God. And you will be aware of your God as the One who created you, your provider and keeper, because He has made two worlds for your sake: one as it were for your instruction as a school of brief duration, and the other as the house of your Father and your home forever and ever.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life, pp. 89-90)

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?

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.