The Lord Requires Effort More Than Accomplishment

“If, according to the maxim of heavenly truth, we have to render an account of every idle word uttered (cf. Matt 12:36),

 or if, like the timid investor or the greedy hoarder, every servant who was entrusted with a large sum of spiritual grace and then hid it in the earth will incur no little blame on the master’s return  since it was to have been distributed among the moneylenders, and so be multiplied by the increase of interest payments (cf. Matt. 25:14-30); then, very rightly have we grounds for fear lest a return be demanded for our gift of speech, we, to whom has been allowed a modicum of ability, yet having a pressing necessity to lend out to the minds of the people, the eloquence of God entrusted to us; especially since the Lord requires of us the effort rather than the accomplishment.

(St Ambrose of Milan, Early Christian Spirituality, p. 82)

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)

The Spiritual Miser

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey.

Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.

So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’

But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed.  So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest.  Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

St. Mother Maria Skobtsova (d. 1945) writes:

“Spiritual egocentrism replaces the goal of true asceticism. It cuts off such a person from the universe and makes him into a spiritual miser – and then this miserliness quickly begins to develop and grow, because he begins to notice that the more he acquires, the emptier his soul becomes. This occurs because of a strange law of the spiritual life, whereby everything that is not distributed, everything that is saved, everything that is not lovingly given away somehow degenerates, becomes corrupt, is consumed in flames.

The talent is taken away from the one who buries it and is given to the one who will lend it at interest. Further accumulation makes one more and more empty. It leads to dryness, to spiritual numbness, to the complete degeneration and destruction of one’s spiritual essence. A unique process of self-poisoning by spiritual values takes place.”

(Essential Writings, pp 172-173)

Christ Has Entrusted You With His Gospel

Several of the hymns from the services for Great and Holy Tuesday call to mind Christ’s parable of the Master who before going on a journey entrusts to his servants some of his money.  When the master returns from his journey he demands an accounting from his servants as to what they did with the differing great sums of money he had entrusted to each of them.  Here is the parable that Jesus tells according to St. Matthew (25:14-30) :

“”For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'”

That the hymns mention this particular parable of Christ makes me think that at some point in the past, the Gospel was read as part of Holy Week, though it no longer is.  The theme is one of judgement and giving account.  So as we come to the end of Lent we are reminded that we will have to give account of what we did with the time and the spiritual gifts Christ bestowed on us through the weeks of Lent.

You have heard the condemnation, my soul of the man who his his talent.  Do not hide the Word of God.  Proclaim His wonders,  that increasing the gift of grace, you may enter into the joy of the Lord.

The hymn above again reminds us that these weeks of lenten abstinence are connected to a bigger picture of what it means to be a Christian.  Fasting was not the goal of Lent, but a tool to help us focus on what is important to our our life as Christ’s disciples.  The hymn says we each are like those in the Gospel Lesson who have been personally given a precious gift from God.  In the above hymn the priceless gift is the Word of God.  What have we done with the Word of God in our lives for these weeks of Great Lent?  We might protest, but all the emphasis was on fasting, not on the Word of God, why is this only brought up at this point?  Note in the hymn that the Word of God is a person, not a book.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.  We were supposed to be making room in our hearts, souls and minds for Christ, the Word of God.  To borrow some computer imager, abstinence from food or sin was supposed to be freeing up space and memory in order that our spiritual lives might run better and that we would have spiritual room in our lives for Christ the Word.

Come, Faithful, let us work zealously for the Master, for he distributes wealth to His servants.  Let each of us according to his ability increase his talent of grace:  Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works; let another celebrate a  service in splendor.  The one distributes his wealth to the poor; the other communicates the Word to those untaught.  Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us, and, as faithful stewards of grace, we shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s joy.  Make us worthy of this, Christ our God, in Your love for mankind.

Once again in the hymn we are reminded that Christ our Lord has distributed spiritual gifts to each of us and we are supposed to be using them to increase the wealth of grace given to us and to the Church as a whole.  Good deeds such as being charitable to the poor, as well as worshiping God in the church services, and proclaiming the Word to those who do not yet know the Lord Jesus are all ways in which we increase the blessings God bestows on us.  And like the Master in the parable, God will demand an accounting from us of what we have done with the gifts He gave us, with the time we have on earth, with the blessings he bestows on us.  Lenten abstinence was meant to turn us away from ways in which we while away our time, or waste the blessings in selfish pursuit of pleasure.  We were supposed to use the time of Lent in service of God and others!

Behold, the Master has entrusted you with the talent, my soul.  Receive the gift with fear.  Repay the One who gave by giving to the poor, and gain the Lord as your friend, so that when He comes in glory, you may stand at His right hand and hear His blessed  voice:  Enter, My servant, into the joy of your Lord!  Even though I have gone astray, make me worthy of this savior, through Your great mercy.

Our works of charity and mercy are our ways of “repaying” God for the gift of existence and of eternal life.  Many of the saints used the imagery that we indebt God to ourselves when we show charity to the needy.  The hymn above reminds us of the Gospel Parable of the Last Judgment in which we are commanded to show mercy and charity to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  The real fast according to Isaiah 58 (a text we read in the last week of Great Lent) involved being merciful and charitable.  God will accept that type of fasting and will bless us in eternity.   All that we have including our time is a gift from God to be used to love and serve God’s children.   Such is the spiritual fasting we were supposed to be doing through Lent – not wasting God’s gifts on our selfish self interests, but using them to extend God’s mercies and message to more people.  If all we did during Lent was change our diet or inflict suffering on ourselves, we fell short of the goal – to open our hearts and lives to Christ so that we might be more Christ-like in our love for neighbor and our faithfulness to our Father in heaven.

Listening to the Gospel: the Perils of the Parables

 In  Matthew 25:14-30, we read the Lord telling the Parable of the Talents:

 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. ’And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’ But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. ’So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. ’Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. ’For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. ’And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Father Lawrence Farley writes:

“It is a dangerous thing to hear the words of the Gospel, for to whom much is given, of him much is required (Luke 12:48). If we hear the truth of Christ, we will be responsible to God for what we do with it. We must not be like the man given a talent by his lord who went and hid it in the ground, doing nothing with it (Matt. 25:18). When we hear the words of the Gospel, we are being entrusted with a treasure, and we must let these words bear fruit in our lives. Otherwise we will hear truth to our condemnation on the Last Day. That is why, before the Gospel is even chanted, the priest prays the Gospel prayer for all who are about to hear it: ‘Illumine our hearts, O Master and Lover of mankind, with the pure light of Your divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Your Gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Your blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing to You.’ ” (Let us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, pgs. 41-42)

The Hidden Treasure

Remembering the Kingdom Which is to Come

Philosopher George Santayana famously warned us that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

Orthodox Christianity is a religion that each year runs through a cycle of Feasts and saints which remembers the past, though its goal is not to keep us there but to ever push us toward the future restoration of all things by God our Creator.  We never forget the past and do repeat it yearly through our liturgical cycle.

Unfortunately sometimes Orthodox seem to forget our goal is to be ever-moving toward the eschaton – the coming of God’s Kingdom – and instead forever want not only to remember but even to relive the past – the glorious past where things were so much more Orthodox, at least in the selective memory of the few.  Reviewing the past is safe – we cannot make any mistakes in the past, and frequently we have at least learned from our mistakes.  But the temptation is to stay in the past because somehow we imagine that will prevent us from making mistakes in the present.  And for the Orthodox – the right thinking and correct believing Christians – nothing is worse than being wrong.  So we withdraw to the fantasy of a safer past in which we do not make mistakes.

We do not remember the past in order to become focused on the unchanging past, but rather our yearly commemorations are meant to keep us ever focused on what is yet to come – the Kingdom of God.

“Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on for the goal toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:13-14)

We will soon remember the events of Pentecost, when God poured forth His Holy Spirit upon the earth.  We remember an event which is not geared toward the past but rather directed toward the future – toward the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

The coming of Christ into the world and then the coming of the Holy Spirit are not events intended to focus us on the past.  Both are events that gear us toward the future.   We are not trying to go back in time, but are always striving to move forward.

Pentecost is not just about remembering what happened to Christ’s disciples 2000 years ago.  For Pentecost is the empower of all disciples to go into the all the world and proclaim the Good News of God’s kingdom.

Certainly St. Paul is called by God to “get the show on the road” – get Christianity beyond Jerusalem and into all the world.

Note how often the Apostles are playing catch up in the Book of Acts – they hear about a new congregation and have to send someone to investigate –  God is way ahead of the chosen apostles calling them into the future.  The apostles are the chosen leaders of the church and yet they are watching where the church is going as it is led by the Holy Spirit.  For throughout the Book of Acts, those apostles are being sent into all the world at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  They are watching the Kingdom of God break into this world in order to prepare us all for the next.

In Orthodoxy we remember the past and repeat it annually, not to become focused on it, but to use it as the talent (Matthew 25:14-30) given us to bear fruit for God and to have something to offer Christ when He comes again.

Strangers & Neighbors: Christian Thoughts on Thanksgiving (1989)

A sermon from November 12, 1989

Text:   Luke 10:25-37  (The Good Samaritan)

Puritans arrive at Plymouth Rock

Each November as we celebrate Thanksgiving we are also asked to especially remember the many people throughout our country and world who are suffering from poverty or from some natural disaster. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is an appropriate theme for promoting charitable giving.

I want to remind you this morning of the biblical notion of neighbor and of stranger.

In the bible, the words stranger and neighbor occur almost 260 times! These two terms are both important in understanding God’s expectations of you and I. God has commanded us to be kind, generous, forgiving, loving of our neighbors. God also commanded us to be patient, kind and fair to strangers.

God taught us in the Old Testament that the stranger is to be treated as good as we treat the orphans and widows. We are to protect strangers and provide for them. We are forbidden to ever mistreat any stranger. For God Himself loves the stranger, both protecting the stranger from harm and providing him with food and clothing (Deut 10:17-18). And God reminds us that “You shall not mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21). It is precisely because we are and have been strangers on this earth that we can sympathize with every stranger we meet. We learn from the scriptures that the feeling of being a stranger is in fact a spiritual state which we sing about at each funeral service.

(Psalms 119:19) ” I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Your commandments from me. ” We all need to remember the fact that our spiritual sojourn on earth from the time of the Old Testament has been one of exile. We have been in search of our true home and have often found this world to be hostile, even though this is God’s creation and we are God’s chosen people. We Christians are not to forget that are only true motherland is the Kingdom of God.

Pocohantas saves John Smith

So, for us being a stranger is a spiritual state. It is our true status on earth. And it is because we ourselves know what it is like to be a stranger among other people, that God has commanded us to love and care for other strangers that we meet. In fact in Leviticus 25:35, God commands us to help any of our brothers and sisters who become poor just like we help and love the stranger. The way in which we care for the stranger is to be for us the model in dealing with our neighbor!

So, we are to love the stranger in the same way that God loves the stranger. This was a teaching of God set down hundreds of years before Jesus Christ walked on earth. It is this love of the stranger as I have already said which becomes the guide for us in loving our neighbor. For if we are to love those who are aliens and strangers to us then certainly God expects us to love the neighbor whom we know. We are commanded from the beginnings of God’s law to love our neighbor, as we love ourselves – with the same intensity and strength that we love ourselves.

God strictly forbids us to do any harm or evil to our neighbor (Psalms 15:3, Proverbs 14:21).) God even forbids us to withhold any good from our neighbor when it is in our power to give the neighbor what he or she may need (Proverbs 3:28 ).

It is in this context of stranger and friend, that we hear our Lord Jesus Christ tell us the story of the Good Samaritan. For Christ again teaches us that to love the neighbor as the self does not mean that we can ignore the stranger. For clearly, the love we are given by God through the Holy Spirit, is a love for each and every person in God’s creation, friend or stranger, brother or enemy, Greek or Jew, male or female.

We should also remember Jesus’ own teaching about the Great Day of Judgement in Matthew 25:35 where the Lord says: “for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in…”

The Son of God identifies Himself totally with the stranger. And we know that to love and care for any stranger is to love and care for our Master Jesus Christ.

It is then not hard for us to understand Romans 13:10, “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. ” To love stranger or neighbor is simply to obey God’s commandments to us.

If we can remember that in the Old Testament, the Israelites were constantly reminded to love the stranger because they had been strangers in Egypt and in the promised land. Now, the strangers are not the people of God, but those who have not yet joined God’s people. As St. Paul told the Ephesians

2:12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

In Christ Jesus, we lose the status of being strangers to one another. In Christ Jesus you and I become brothers and sisters and fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. So our love for each other increases, because we are no longer loving strangers, but we are now loving our family. And it is this growing love which we are commanded by Christ to share with every neighbor that we meet, so that any neighbor can also become part of our family, and can know that overwhelming love which God has shown for us.

Exodus 22:21 “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:18 ‘You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 25:35 ‘And if one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.

Deuteronomy 10:17 “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe.

Deuteronomy 10:18 “He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.

Psalms 15:3 He who does not backbite with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend;

Psalms 119:19 I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Your commandments from me.

Proverbs 3:28 Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,” when you have it with you.

Proverbs 14:21 He who despises his neighbor sins; but he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.

Romans 13:10 Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Ephesians 2:12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Ephesians 2:19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

Holy Tuesday: The Talent Given to Us

From the Bridegroom Matins for Great and Holy Tuesday

bridegroom2Referring to Christ’s Parable in Matthew 25:14-30, the hymn reminds us not to hide the Word of God! For God’s Word is a talent given to each of us to help us proclaim God’s wonderous deeds to the world. As the Great Lenten catechetical season ends, we are reminded to put to good use the Gospel lessons which have been entrusted to us. The Word of God is a seed implanted in our soul for the purpose of bearing fruit for God.

YOU HAVE HEARD THE CONDEMNATION, MY SOUL
OF THE MAN WHO HID HIS TALENT.
DO NOT HIDE THE WORD OF GOD.
PROCLAIM HIS WONDERS,
THAT INCREASING THE GIFT OF GRACE,//
YOU MAY ENTER INTO THE JOY OF YOUR LORD.

God abundantly bestows His gifts – including His Word – to us. We are to be stewards of God’s Word – we are to use the Word given to us for the good of others, for the good of the world. Part of the joy of Pascha is not simply proclaiming the Resurrection, but sharing in the Master’s joy in richly giving in love to others.

COME, FAITHFUL,
LET US WORK ZEALOUSLY FOR THE MASTER,
FOR HE DISTRIBUTES WEALTH TO HIS SERVANTS.
LET EACH OF US ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITY
INCREASE HIS TALENT OF GRACE:
LET ONE BE ADORNED IN WISDOM THROUGH GOOD WORKS;
LET ANOTHER CELEBRATE A SERVICE IN SPLENDOR.
THE ONE DISTRIBUTES HIS WEALTH TO THE POOR;
THE OTHER COMMUNICATES THE WORD TO THOSE UNTAUGHT.
THUS WE SHALL INCREASE WHAT HAS BEEN ENTRUSTED TO US,
AND, AS FAITHFUL STEWARDS OF GRACE,
WE SHALL BE ACCOUNTED WORTHY OF THE MASTER’S JOY.
MAKE US WORTHY OF THIS, CHRIST OUR GOD,//
IN YOUR LOVE FOR MANKIND.

Before Great Lent began we were told by Christ that we would be judged for what we did for Him in this world. Pascha is the day to enter into the Master’s joy as we reap the benefits of His love for us and our generosity to Him through the poor and needy.

BEHOLD, THE MASTER HAS ENTRUSTED YOU WITH THE TALENT, MY SOUL.
RECEIVE THE GIFT WITH FEAR.
REPAY THE ONE WHO GAVE BY GIVING TO THE POOR,
AND GAIN THE LORD AS YOUR FRIEND,
SO THAT WHEN HE COMES IN GLORY,
YOU MAY STAND AT HIS RIGHT HAND AND HEAR HIS BLESSED VOICE:
ENTER, MY SERVANT, INTO THE JOY OF YOUR LORD!
EVEN THOUGH I HAVE GONE ASTRAY, MAKE ME WORTHY OF THIS, SAVIOR,//
THROUGH YOUR GREAT MERCY.