Loving One’s Enemies

“’But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest; for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful‘  (Luke 6:35-36).

These are the great heights to which Christ desires to raise men! This is teaching unheard-of before His coming! This is the glory of man’s dignity, undreamed-of by the greatest sages in history! And this is God’s love for mankind, that dissolves the whole heart of man into one great flood of tears. 

Love your enemies.‘  He does not say: ‘Do not render evil for evil’, for this is a small thing; it is only endurance. Neither does He say: ‘Love those who love you’, for this is passive love; but He says: Love your enemies‘; do not just tolerate them, and do not be passive, but love them. Love is an active virtue.”   (St Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p. 194-195)

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)

The Talent for Serving God

In Homily Two [John Chrysostom] adverts to the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30), from which the appropriate lesson for an Antiochene is that we must all make our own contribution if we are to win God’s favor:

“What is looked for by God even among human beings, you see, is not whether we come up with little or much, but making an offering that is in no way less than the ability we have.”

(Robert C. Hill, :St, John Chrysostom as Biblical Commentator,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 2003, pp. 317-318)

St. John Chrysostom says it is not how much you start with that matters, it is what you do with what God gives you.  We need not be jealous of what others have or even what they do with what they are given.  We can be grateful for what we have and for what God gives others as well.  Anthony de Mello offers the following story:

“Here is the Good News proclaimed by our Lord Jesus Christ:

Jesus began to teach in parables.   He said:

The kingdom of God is like two brothers who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity.

The older responded to the call generously, though he had to wrench his heart from his family and the girl he loved and dreamed of marrying. He eventually went off to a distant land where he spent himself in the service of the poorest of the poor. A persecution arose in that country and he was arrested, falsely accused, tortured and put to death.

And the Lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand talents’ worth of service. I shall now give you a billion, billion talents’ worth of reward. Enter in the joy of your Lord.”

The younger boy’s response to the call was less than generous. He decided to ignore it and go ahead and marry the girl he loved. He enjoyed a happy married life, his business prospered and he became famous and rich. Occasionally he would give alms to the poor.

And when it was his turn to die, the Lord said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have given me ten talents’ worth of service. I shall now give you a billion, billion talents’ worth of reward. Enter into the joy of your Lord!”

The older boy was surprised when he heard that his brother was to get the same reward as he. And he was pleased. He said, “Lord, knowing this as I do, if I were to be born and live my life again, I would still do exactly what I did for you.”

(The Song of the Bird, pp. 117-118)

Who is the King of Glory – Jesus or Caesar?

When Augustus ruled alone upon the earth,
the many kingdoms of men came to an end,

and when You were made man of the pure Virgin,
the many gods of idolatry were destroyed.
The cities of the world passed under one single rule,
and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead.

Virgin Mary being enrolled for taxation

The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar,
and we the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead,
When You, our God, were made man.
Great is Your mercy, O Lord, glory to You! 

(hymn from Vespers of the Nativity)

The events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke purposefully mirror images we know from historical evidence describing the celebration of the birth of the sons of Roman Emperors.  The Gospel writers want to be be clear that Jesus is not only the King of the Jews but more truly the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Caesars may rule THE Empire, but Christ rules the entire cosmos.  Sts Luke and Matthew set Christ from the time of His birth on a collusion course with the claims of the Roman Emperors.

“Ethelbert Stauffer in his work, Christ and the Caesars (SCM Press, 1955)…pays close attention to the evidence of the imperial coinage (which was regularly used as a propaganda medium) in this regard. The imperial coinage is full of the characteristic motifs of Advent and Epiphany, celebrating the blessings which the manifestation of each successive divine emperor was to bring to a waiting world. Among the adulatory formulas with which the emperor was acclaimed, he mentions, as going back probably to the first century, ‘Hail, Victory, Lord of the earth, Invincible, Power, Glory, Honor, Peace, Security, Holy, Blessed, Great, Unequalled, Thou Alone, Worthy art Thou, Worthy is he to inherit the Kingdom, Come come, do not delay, come again’ (p. 155).

Indeed, one has only to read Psalm 72 (**see below) in Latin, in the official language of the empire, to see that it is largely the same formal language which is used alike in the Forum for the advent of the emperor and in the catacombs for the celebration of the Epiphany of Christ (p. 251). Here there could be no compromise. Who was worthy to ascend the throne of the universe and direct the course of history? Caesar, or Jesus?”   (F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, p. 65)

**Psalm 72:1-17

Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son!

May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor! May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations! May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more! May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!

May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust! May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. Long may he live, may gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all the day! May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may men blossom forth from the cities like the grass of the field!

May his name endure for ever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May men bless themselves by him, all nations call him blessed!

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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God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom Not of This World

“It’s just what Christ was trying to say. If his aim had been to rule the world here, to rule this dust which he created, he would have fought. He would have brought armies to fight against those who crucified him. And as he apparently didn’t fight and as he apparently was defeated, he was actually fighting back and winning the battle, but not here, not over this dust, but over the kingdom, the eternal kingdom of peace.

…We might die and our families might die and our culture and civilization might die, but if we die in the name of Christ, we have won. Whereas, if we win, abandoning Christ and his commandments, if we win and rule this dust at that expense, we have, in fact, lost.

…The world does not need more soldiers; the world needs more saints. There is no question whether you or I should fight, because we are fighting, even against our will. We are all involved in this battle. We are all soldiers, but we can be the type of soldier that fights for a kingdom over dust and become a warrior, a terrorist, who [is] any kind of person who kills another person; or we can become the kind of warrior that fights for the kingdom to come, that fights for the kingdom of love, that fights for the kingdom of peace, which Christ promised to all those who make peace. Let’s pray for peace, for all of us, everywhere. Amen.”    (Fr. Seraphim Aldea, In Communion , Summer 2017, p. 8-9)

Destroying

This week in the news we learned of yet another attack in Egypt by Muslim extremists against the Coptic Orthodox Church.  Men from the so called Islamic State attacked a church in order to kill some Christians.  There is little doubt if these people had their way, they would destroy the Christian Church.

And yet they are not the first or only people who ever wished to destroy Christ and Christianity.

We heard St. Paul himself say in his letter to the Christians as Galatia:  For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.  (Galatians 1)

St. Paul’s initial reaction to Christianity?  He wanted to destroy it.  God in His omniscience did not stop him from aiding those who attempted to destroy the nascent Christian movement.  Paul was present when the first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death.  Paul was there to aid in the killing of Christians.  He declared himself to be an enemy of Christianity.

Despite Paul’s murderous intentions and hatred for Christianity, God was still able to call Paul and have him become the evangelist to the Gentiles.   Imagine if the Christians in reaction to Paul and in defense of their fellow Christians, had killed him?  The Church would have been deprived of one of the Apostolic leaders.  God was willing to wait for Paul’s conversion in order to bring Paul to salvation.

Let us pray that God will find the way to use all who would persecute us Christians!  Our prayer should never be for their death but for their conversion.  Whatever their intentions are against us, we should pray that they be saved and unite themselves to Christ.

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Even before St. Paul willed to destroy the Church, we know in the Christmas Gospel story that King Herod wanted to destroy Christ as well.

Now when the magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” (Matthew 2)

And despite the fact that Christ was a mere infant, as helpless as any human baby is, Jesus was not destroyed.  In fact, God destroyed no one in protecting the infant Jesus.  The killing was done by the enemies of Christ.

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While we contemplate the effort to destroy the Christ child, remember also what salvation is:  Christ from his conception in the womb of the Virgin unites God to creation, divinity to human beings, heaven to earth, the spiritual to the physical.   Salvation consists in the restoration of communion between God and creation.  And when Jesus was but an infant, the salvation of the universe was no larger than that baby.  Yet in that child, the reconciliation between God and humanity was already accomplished.   The Kingdom of Heaven began on earth as a seed and slowly has grown and spread into all the world.

Jesus told this parable:   “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”   (Mark 4:30-32)

The Kingdom of God did not come from heaven to obliterate the earth, replacing the things of the earth with the things of heaven.  The kingdom of God did not come on earth as some tsunami eradicating everything in its path.  Rather the kingdom of heaven entered into earth as a child in the womb of Mary.  If God used a normal human egg to begin the process of the incarnation, then the Kingdom of God started in this world only .1 mm!  The Kingdom of Heaven begins as a tiny seed, becomes a zygote and eventually an embryo and then a fetus.  The size of God’s Kingdom could actually be measured at a point in history.  It has grown slowly like the mustard shrub, transfiguring and transforming people one by one.  Reclaiming humanity from the inside.  The Kingdom of God is not an external force that smashes the universe to rid the cosmos of anything that is not part of the Kingdom.

And yet, when this kingdom of God was still no bigger than the infant Jesus, the world was seeking to destroy Him and thus to end salvation, to end our reconciliation with God, to end our communion with God.  The Kingdom of God did not come to destroy the world, but the world was seeking to destroy the Kingdom of God.  “The world” 2000 years ago, like today sets itself in opposition to the reconciliation and communion which God offers to the world.  God in love works to reconcile with humanity, humanity is still interested in its own way and cares little for the Communion which God offers.

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Imagine – at one time the salvation of the universe was no larger than a human baby, and was contained in that child and was happening in that infant.    And the salvation of us all was fragile, as fragile as a child.  Yet this is the route God choose to enact the salvation of the world.  God choose such a fragile method, fraught with the possibility of failure, for life is fragile and it is not that difficult for an infant to die.  God the Father entrusted His Son to human parents.  The Holy Trinity’s plan for the salvation of the world required human care and cooperation.  Mary and Joseph actually had to care for this child to make salvation possible.

The mystery of God and God’s infinite love being contained in a little child –  that is the wonder of Christmas.  Our salvation hinged upon the Christ child living in a world in which the Jewish King and the Roman Empire wanted him dead.

O, the mystery of God’s way!  We want God to come and smash His enemies (or maybe more truthfully our enemies) with nuclear weapons which annihilate them.  Instead, God enters the world as a child, vulnerable to all the wickedness of the world.  God’s plan for eternal salvation involves a helpless baby capable of being killed in a second.

When we think about that we come to understand something about our God, and we realize there is a lesson there about why the world continues the way it does and why God doesn’t just annihilate everything and everyone God is unhappy with.  God’s desire is that we all be saved.   “Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”   (Ezekiel 33:11)

It is for the same reason that God kept St Paul alive and did not destroy him in his wickedness.  God waited for St. Paul to convert rather than destroy him.  “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  (1 Timothy 2:3)

God patiently awaits our repentance and conversion.  He is patient even with those who want to destroy Christ.   “Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

We end up experiencing exactly what God’s chosen saints in every generation experienced:

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect”  (Hebrews 11:37-40).

We will be made perfect only with all those who are to be saved.

 

Created in God’s Image for the Sake of Virtue

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.    (Romans 14:17-21)

In the Church, we are in the season of the Nativity Fast.  In our culture, we are in the midst of the Christmas holiday rush.   St. John Chrysostom offers us some thoughts about being Christian in a secular world – what important things do we need to remember to remain faithful to Christ?  Can fasting help us be more Christ-like?  Does eating make us more godly?

“So let us not grow tired until we reach the end; this, after all, was why we were made, not to eat and drink and wear clothes, but to avoid evil and choose virtue by adopting the divine value system. For proof, in fact, that we were not made for eating and drinking but for other far greater and better things, listen to God himself explaining the reason why he made the human being: at the time of its creation he spoke this way, “Let us make the human being in our image and likeness” [Genesis 1:26]. 

Now, we become like God not by eating and drinking and wearing clothes – but by practising righteousness, giving evidence of lovingkindness, being good and kind, showing mercy to the neighbor, pursuing every virtue;

eating and drinking we have in common with the nature of brute beast, and in that regard we are no better than they. But what is the basis of our superiority?

Being made in God’s image and likeness.”   

(Old Testament Homilies, pp. 13-14)

Telling the Secrets of the Kingdom

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”  Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  (Luke 8:10)

In the 4 Gospel accounts, the word “Kingdom” (of heaven or of God) appears some 115 times.  The Evangelist Matthew uses “Kingdom” the most – 52 times, while the Evangelist John only mentions it twice.  Depending how you count the sayings, Matthew uses parables, metaphors or pithy statements thirteen times (25%) to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to something more familiar to his listeners: a sower of seeds, good seeds, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a fishing net, a householder and his treasure, a king settling accounts with his servants, a householder hiring laborers for his fields, a king and the marriage feast for his son, wise and foolish maidens and their lamps, a man entrusting his property to  variously talented servants, and the separating of sheep from goats.

These comparisons give us a sense that the Kingdom may be different than we imagine – for all parables require some interpretation, but Jesus does not tell us exactly how the Kingdom is like these many different common scenarios.  The Lord leaves their interpretation open ended, for his disciples to hear and and grasp the hidden meaning.  Yet, He says the secrets of the Kingdom are given to them. The meaning of the ambiguous parables and enigmatic aphorisms are the secrets of the Kingdom of God which Christ is gifting to us.  The parables, metaphors and apothegms often defy common logic or our sense of “justice” causing us to have to lay aside an earthly sense of correctness in order to see or hear the hidden meaning.  They are like photos of a common object, taken from an unusual perspective – it can take us a long time before we realize what we are looking at, if we ever figure it out.

By describing the Kingdom in terms of parables, Christ moves us away from thinking about the Kingdom purely in terms of commandments, rules, regulations, or rubrics.  Christ uses the comparisons paradoxically – the Kingdom of heaven is like… – to give us a sense that it is like nothing we can imagine.  The parables and metaphors of the Kingdom turn out to be an apophatic way of thinking about the Kingdom exactly because Christ doesn’t explain how the things mentioned are able to enlighten us  about the Kingdom.

The parables of the Kingdom have been proclaimed by Christians for nearly 2000 years.  They are the true teachings of Christ, timely in every generation and situation, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not itself changing.  Whether the Faith is prospering or being persecuted, whether the listener is rejoicing in blessings or surviving through suffering, the Kingdom of God remains the same.  It is a reality not affected by our times or by our mental state.

St. Paul whom God chooses to proclaim the Kingdom, discovers that being faithful to God can leave one in perplexing circumstances.  If one believes faithfulness to God is going to automatically yield prosperity, just read 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9, in which Paul describes soldiers hunting him down to arrest and kill him, and then also suffering personally some “thorn in the flesh” – an affliction he attributes to Satan, perhaps a serious, disfiguring illness which God will not take away from him.  Despite these setbacks, he remains faithful to that Kingdom which can be compared to seeds and sowers, talented servants as well as sheep and goats.

Even in the face of such terrible recent disasters – hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, wild fires in California, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas – the Kingdom of God remains the same reality revealed to us in the Gospel lessons.  Despite our worries about health care, and divisive politics, policy turmoil, soaring drug related deaths, the Church calls us to remember the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we can remain properly oriented in an uncertain world.   The mystery of the Kingdom, helps us to keep our feet on firm ground, even as the sands shift and the water rises against the house.

The Gospel does give us an answer to current worries – it gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God.  It is just that this insight is not necessarily the answer we think we need to solve all our problems.

The Lord Jesus taught 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!”  (Luke 8:5-9)