Every Neighbor is Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samaritans Good and Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob ate his fill;

Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked.

You grew fat, bloated, and gorged!

He abandoned God who made him,

and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.

They made him jealous with strange gods,

with abhorrent things they provoked him.

They sacrificed to demons, not God,

to deities they had never known,

to new ones recently arrived,

whom your ancestors had not feared.

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sower of Good Works

The Lord Jesus told this parable:  “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.

But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.

But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.  (Luke 8:5-15)

St. John of Kronstadt comments:

Why is that one evil word, one word of calumny, produces the most disagreeable impression upon us, agitates us to the depths of our souls, whilst on the contrary, sometimes thousands of good words, for instance, concerning God and His works in the world, do not reach our hearts at all, and are lost in the air? The Devil comes and catches away the word, sown in the hearts of men. It is also he, on the other side, who sows and grows in our hearts the seeds of evil, and does not miss the slightest opportunity of implanting enmity and envy for our neighbor in our hearts.

One glance of our neighbor at us, often quite innocent, but appearing suspicious to us, is sufficient to give rise to a feeling of enmity in us towards him. And, therefore, do not let us take to heart any evil occasioned to us, intentionally or unintentionally, by our neighbor, for we know the author if it, and that “the whole world lieth in wickedness” (St. John 5:19), from its beginning, but let us bear every affront offered us serenely, praying for those who offend us, as for our benefactors, for even in their affronts we may often hear words of good-will towards us, although not proceeding from a good heart. May the Lord teach them, and not impute their behavior unto us as sin to them, and let us be more careful, so as not to give place to the Devil.    (My Life in Christ, p. 64)

God’s Love for the Good and the Bad

…the divine love of the Sermon on the Mount, a love that shows its perfection in being directed toward good and bad alike. It is precisely this love, which draws no distinctions but loves all its fellow men equally – the distinctively Christian form of love (agape)…that is, for Maximus, the purest reflection of God, as he has revealed himself in his incarnate Son and in his Holy Spirit. So the unity that the Church realizes on earth is the first and most exalted image of God in the world, precisely as a unity of love.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 103)

Jesus Proclaimed

Jesus Christ whether as the historical person or the one proclaimed through the centuries by the Church is the same, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).  The Gospel is not about Jesus, Jesus is the Gospel.

Who Jesus really was, what Jesus really thought of himself, and who really were included among Jesus’ closest associates – such titillating questions have in recent years occupied the front covers of national news magazines and prompted television documentaries. This is fascinating since the church looks to the Gospels as authoritative witnesses to the one gospel, who is Jesus Christ, and not to the Jesus reconstructed by even our best historians.

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, p. 109)

Refusing God’s Invitation to His Wedding Banquet

And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said: “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.”’ But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:1-14)

John A. McGukin comments:

The God of Jesus Christ, on the contrary, was a God very near, not far away; a God who needed no persuading at all to have mercy but who poured out his mercy with an almost reckless prodigality. This forgiveness of sins, freely given, freely received, in the wedding feast of God’s return to his people, was the heart of Jesus’ evangelion or “Good News.” It consequently must have struck him as perverse that many of his follows rejected this theology, and thus opposed his personal insight into religion and his claims to prophetic authority in preaching it.

These he characterized as the ones who refused to join in the celebration, those who would not come to the feast: “Tell the guests the banquet is all prepared: my oxen and fattened cattle have all be slaughtered. All is ready. Come to the wedding. But they were not interested.” The reaction of the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Father who was too incensed at the “easiness” of forgiveness granted to his dissolute brother to be able to come to the celebration is a typical illustration of the case in point. (Witnessing the Kingdom, pp. 21-22)

Obeying the Gospel When Life is Complex

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.

(Proverbs 3:27-28)

There was a certain brother who lived a life of very strict seclusion, and the devils wishing to lead him astray appeared to him when he was sleeping at night in the form of angels.  They woke him up to sing the Psalms and pray and they would show him a light.  So, he went to an elder and said unto him, “Father, the devils come to me with a light to wake me up to sing and pray.”   The elder said unto him, “Don’t listen to them, my son, for they are devils – if they come to wake you up, say to them, “When I wish to rise up I will do so, but I will not listen to you.” And when they came to wake him he said to them what the old man had told him, and they immediately said to him, “That wicked old man is a liar, and he has led you astray. For a certain brother came to him and wished to borrow some money promising to pay it back, and although he had the money to lend, he lied and said, “I have none”, and he gave him nothing. Learn from this that you can’t trust his word.  Then the brother rose up early in the morning and went to the elder and related unto him everything which he had heard.  The old man said to him, “This is what happened. I did have some money, and a brother came and asked to borrow money from me.   I would not give him any because I saw that if I did so we would both lose our souls. So I made up my mind that I would treat with contempt one of the commandments, rather than the Ten.  Thus, we came to enmity with each other.  However,  don’t believe the devils who wish only to lead you astray.”  When he had been greatly confirmed by the old man, that monk departed to his cell.

(adapted from The Paradise of the Holy Fathers Vol 2,    Kindle Loc 1150-61)

The above story from the desert fathers shows just how complex the spiritual life can be.  Even a monk who strictly keeps the ascetical life can be bothered by demonic thoughts.  This monk, though having committed himself to living alone, knows enough to talk to an elder when the demons are bothering him.  He does not rely on his own mind to solve his problem, but humbles himself and turns to his brother for help.  The elder gives him sound advice, but then the demons tell the monk that the elder himself has been involved in scandal and failed to be honest and do the right thing (as according to the Proverbs quotes at the beginning of this post).  The demons endeavor to plant mistrust between the brother monks by pointing out that the elder has faults and is not himself perfect.  Still, the story shows it is better to trust a fellow Christian with known faults than ever to listen to demons or demonic thoughts.  The elder admits the truth of the accusation against him but also has an explanation for why he chose to do what he did.  He admits he had to choose between evils, and had to ignore what he believes to be a godly commandment.  He felt to give the money would produce even worse spiritual results than to withhold the money.  Nevertheless, his decision ended badly as he and the other part parted in enmity.  Even when we do what we believe to be the best thing in a difficult situation, there can be some negative consequences.

Still, he tells his younger brother in Christ, no matter how you judge me for what I did, never listen to demons.   The monk agrees with that wisdom.  We are to rely on one another for wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that our brothers and sisters in Christ will be without fault in some matters.  And because someone may have done something wrong in one thing, doesn’t mean they are wrong about everything else.  We always have to practice discernment as Christians.  But discernment also requires us to make difficult judgments – we might not know the whole story, we have to consider the motives of those who tell us the faults of others, we might have to choose between the lesser of evils, we might have to make a choice even without having all the information we need to know.   Remaining faithful to Christ and His teachings are what we always need to do, but sometimes life is complex and we have to discern as best we can what we need to do to fulfill the Gospel.

From, Through and to God

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.

Amen.

(Romans 11:33-36)

The Gospel: Making Us Glad

“When speaking of how God is known, the Bible seldom speaks of insight or illumination or demonstration; rather, it says that God appeared, did something, showed himself, or spoke to someone, as in the beginning of the book of Hosea: ‘The word of God came to Hosea‘ (Hos. 1:1). Accordingly, the way to God begins not with arguments or proofs but with discernment and faith, the ability to see what is disclosed in events and the readiness to trust the words of those who testify to them…

 For the Greeks, God was the conclusion of an argument, the end of a search for an ultimate explanation, an inference from the structure of the universe to a first cause. For Christian thinkers, God was the starting point, and Christ the icon that displays the face of God. ‘Reason became man and was called Jesus Christ,’ wrote Justin. Now one reasoned from Christ to other things, not from other things to Christ. In him was to be found the reason, the logos, the logic, if you will, that inheres in all things.

The Christian gospel was not an idea but a certain kind of story, a narrative about a person and things that had actually happened in space and time. It was, says Origen, an ‘event recorded in history.‘ In its proper sense the term gospel, as he explained in his commentary on the Gospel According to John, refers to those books that include a ‘narrative of the deeds, sufferings and words of Jesus.‘ But this narrative was not a bare report of what had taken place. The gospel, he writes, is ‘an account of things that…make the hearer glad when he accepts what is reported.‘ It is centered on a specific human being, Jesus of Nazareth…”

(Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 7 & 15-16)