When Religious Leadership Gets It Wrong

 In the Gospel according to St. Luke (13:10-17) our Lord Jesus, while in a synagogue, shows mercy to a woman who had been afflicted with a disease for 18 years.  A leader of the synagogue, failing to see the hand of God in the miracle, passive-aggressively criticizes the congregation for the Sabbath day miracle.  No doubt he felt he couldn’t criticize Jesus directly, after all, Jesus had just performed a miracle!  The congregation apparently at first must have sided with Jesus’ adversaries, or were unsure how to react to such a sign in the synagogue.  For they only rejoice after Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the leadership.  And the adversaries of Christ feel no shame about their opposition to Jesus when they see the miracle.  They only feel shame when Jesus points out to them that they show more compassion to their beasts of burden than to a fellow human being.   Their hypocrisy is obvious: they show mercy on the Sabbath to animals and know this is in their power and right to do.   Jesus reveals He has power to show mercy as well, and that is why it is right for Him to do an act of mercy on the Sabbath, and for the people to seek such an act of mercy when they come to the synagogue.

Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up.  But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”  The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?  So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound-think of it-for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic commenting on the Gospel lesson, himself indignant at the story, points out that it is almost as if a demon entered into the synagogue leader to cause him to react so caustically to Christ’s miracle.

 “And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath Day, and said unto the people: ‘There are six days in which men ought to work; in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the Sabbath Day.’

These are the words of a wicked son of darkness. It is as though Satan, leaving the twisted woman, had entered into him. Thus speaks self-love accompanied by its inseparable companions: envy and anger. Christ healed, but the ruler of the synagogue resorted to vilification. Christ delivered a human life from its satanic prison, and this other reviled. Christ drove the evil spirit out of the sick woman, and this other was furious that He had driven the evil spirit out through one door and not another! Christ opened heaven to men and revealed the living God, and this other was angry at Christ’s opening heaven in the morning and not in the evening! Christ went with a lamp into the prison to the captives, and this other rebuked Him for not having left doing this till another day! See the frightful and vicious touchiness of self-love!

This self-centered ruler did not dare to rebuke Christ, and so he rebuked the people, although his tongue framed it the other way round. How were the people guilty in this? If anyone was at fault for this good work, this straightened woman was. But how was this poor woman guilty? She did not run after Christ and beg Him to heal her. On the contrary, Christ called her to Him and gave her perfect healing, far beyond any hope or expectation she had in the synagogue. It is, then, clear that if anyone was guilty of all this, that person was Christ. The rule of the synagogue did not, though, dare to look Christ in the eye and say: ‘You are guilty’, but turned his barbs on the people and rebuked them. Is there any hypocrisy more evident and more vile? And the Lord calls him a hypocrite:

The Lord then answered him, and said: ‘Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath Day?’

The Lord knows the hearts of men, and He knew that the ruler of the synagogue meant the reprimand for Him, even though his tongue directed it at the people.” (Homilies, p 281)

The Church as the Ark of Salvation

“Wayfarers, behold the ark! When the flood came, Noah was saved in a secure ark.

Photo by Jim Forest
Photo by Jim Forest

The flood of madness and sin continues incessantly. Therefore, the Lover of Mankind constructed the ark of salvation. Ask for His ark, and you will soon be entering it. Do not let yourselves be led astray by the multitude of variegated vessels, decorated and adorned on the outside. Ask about the power of the engine and about the skill of the captain. The most powerful engine and the most skilled helmsman are to be found in the ark of Christ. This is the all-seeing, all-powerful, Holy Spirit himself.

Neither let yourselves be led astray by those who invite you into their tiny and new rowboats, or those who offer you private rowboats just for yourselves. The journey is distant and the storms are dangerous.

Neither let yourselves be led astray by those who say that on the other side of the ocean there is no new land, no new world, and that there is no reason to prepare for a distant voyage. They invite you to go fishing on the shore. To such a little extent do they see or know. Truly, they are setting out for destruction, and are inviting you to destruction as well.

Do not allow yourselves to be deceived, but rather ask about His ark. Even though it may be less dazzling to the eyes than others, nevertheless it is strong and secure. Even though it does not have many variegated banners, except the sign of the cross, know that your life is safe aboard it.

And on a sea voyage the first and primary concern should be that the life of the passenger is safe. If you believe in Christ the Savior, O Christ-bearers, you also believe in His work. His work is the Church, the Ark of Salvation. Aboard it are sailing the hosts of the saved and of those being saved.

Noah3

The Lord founded this work of His on faith, as strong as rock. Just as He said and prophesied: ‘On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18). And truly, up to the present day they have never prevailed, nor will they from this day forward.

The Church is called the body of Christ. ‘You are the body of Christ’ (Rom. 15:5; 1 Cor. 12:27). Therefore, there is only one Church. For there cannot be two bodies under one head, and Christ is called the head of the Church (Col. 1:18). Therefore: one Christ, one head, one body – one Church.”    (Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, The Faith of the Chosen People, pp 69-71)

Weep Not!

In the Gospel Lesson of  Luke 7:11-16 we learn of one of the great signs that our Lord Jesus Christ did in raising from the dead the only son of a widow, whose names we never learn.

Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”

Saint Nikolai Velimirovic (d. 1956AD) writes:

“ ‘Weep not!’, the Lord comforts the mourning mother. This is said by Him who does not think, as many of us do, that the soul of the dead boy has gone down to the grave at his body’s departure; He knows the whereabouts of the dead boy’s soul; He who holds the soul here under His authority. And we comfort those who mourn with these same words, even though our hearts are filled with tears.” Homilies, p 204)

 

When you saw the widow weeping bitterly, O Lord,

You were moved with compassion,

Raising her son from the dead as he was being carried to burial.

Likewise, O Lover of Mankind, 

Raise my soul, deadened by sins, as I cry:

“Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”

(Kontakion 2 from the Akathist to the Sweetest Jesus)

Wealth and Being Human

While many Americans assume that “pursuit of happiness” will involve some kind of prosperity or at least wealth sufficient to enable the pursuit of  happiness, Christians in antiquity did not assume that wealth is always identified with happiness or blessing from God.  In fact many Christian saints thought of wealth as a kind of Ouroboros, the snake consuming it’s own tail.  The pursuit of wealth can become all consuming, never satiating one’s greed but always enflaming it.  While some have good intentions about what they would do if they had a lot of money, sometimes the use of the money gets forgotten  as one pursues ever more of what one already has.  My father, a high school drop out and a factory worker, once told me that his observation in life was that no matter income level a person was at from the least paid janitor to the high paid executive, everyone seemed to imagine that if only they had 10% more income they would be satisfied.  But as he observed no matter how far up that income ladder someone moved, they continued to desire that 10% more.

 The New Testament does not present to us that more wealth would make a better world – increasing wealth does not get us closer to the kingdom of heaven or make it more possible to be a Christian.  In fact the New Testament shows Christ not just indifferent to wealth but even dubious of its goodness (Mark 4:18-19; Luke 18:24-25).  “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

So St. Nikolai Velimirovic (d. 1956AD) teaches:

“Wealth is not evil in itself, as nothing that God has created is evil in itself, but men’s bondage to riches, lands, and possessions is evil; and the destructive passions that riches empower and invoke, such as adultery, gluttony, drunkenness, miserliness, boastfulness, self-praise, vanity, pride, scornfulness, and denigration of the poor, forgetfulness of God and so on ad infinitum, are evil. Few are there who have the strength to resist the temptation of riches and to be in control of their wealth, not becoming its servants and slaves. […]   God would be able, in the twinkling of an eye, to make all men equal in wealth, but that would be sheer folly. In that case, men would become totally independent of one another. Who would then be saved? How could anyone be saved? For men are saved through their dependence on one another. The rich depend on the poor, and the poor on the rich; the learned depend on the ignorant, and the ignorant on the learned; the healthy depend on the sick, and the sick on the healthy. Material sacrifice is repaid in spiritual currency. The spiritual sacrifice made by the learned is repaid in material currency by the ignorant. The physical service given by the healthy is repaid in spiritual currency by the sick, and vice versa: the spiritual service of the sick (that reminds men of God and of Judgement) is repaid by the physical service of the healthy.” (Homilies, pp 123-124)

No doubt many of us would be willing to risk being slaves to wealth.  And St. Nikolai’s logic might appear strange to us – God in his wisdom does not give wealth to everyone.  Why?   It is wealth inequality which teaches us to love and value others different from us.  humans need to have some sense of dependency on each other or they will treat all other life as not very valuable and may try to do away with others.  St. Nikolai’s logic is that a world in which everyone is rich would be a world in which no one would know how to love or show mercy on others.  We would have no need for others and they would have no need for us.  It would be the perfect world for attempting to destroy all those you don’t need – a world in which euthanasia and abortion abound.

 

Possessed by Possessions

“Do not bury your heart in earthly property, for beneath the earth it will decay.

Offer up your heart to God – as a gift to the Gift-Giver, and your possessions will become your harmless slave instead of your harmful master. …

O my penitent soul, choose! Do you prefer to exist or to possess?

If you prefer to exist, your possessions will amount to no less than God.

If you prefer to possess, your existence will be no greater than the moonlight in the depths of the lake.

O Son of God, help my soul not to err and not to choose destruction.”

(Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, Prayers by the Lake, pg. 122)

Weighing the Swine: How Much do We Value Charity?

In Luke 8:26-39, we read the Gospel lesson of the man possessed by a legion of demons.  This lesson has its parallel in Matthew 8:28-9:1 (which is read on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost – in 2013 that fell on June 28).  In Luke’s version (and in Mark 5:1-20), Jesus and the apostles are among the Gerasenes (in some ancient versions it is referred to as Gergesenes –  see the comment of St Nikolai Velimirovich below) while in Matthew’s version, the land is said to be of the Gadarenes.   The spelling of the name is of no particular consequence for the story – this happens in a non-Jewish territory.  The details of the story are similar, though in the Matthew version there are two demoniacs instead of one which Luke and Mark report.  Some ancients thought that perhaps Matthew is telling another miracle different from Luke and Mark.   Here is St. Luke’s version:

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

St. Nikolai Velimirovich takes up the issue of the local people’s reaction to Jesus when they see the demoniac in his right mind and the herd of pigs drowned.   One might conclude that the people were ungrateful or even hateful toward God, but St. Nikolai warns us not to be too quick to judge them, for we often behave like they did.

“Let us not be in a hurry to condemn these Gergesenes’ love for their swine before we consider the society of our day, and count up all our swine loving fellow-townsfolk, who would, just like the Gergesenes, have more concern for their pigs than the lives of their neighbors. Just think how few there are today, even among those who cross themselves and confess Christ with their tongues, who would not quickly make up their minds to kill two men if this would give them two thousand pigs. Or think if there are many among you who would sacrifice two thousand pigs to save the lives of two madmen. Let those who condemn the Gergesenes before first condemning themselves be filled with deep shame. Were the Gergesenes to rise up today from their graves, and begin to count, they would arrive at a vast number of the like-minded in Christian Europe! They at least begged Christ to leave them, while the peoples of Europe drive Him out. And why? In order to be left alone with their pigs and their masters, the demons.” (Homilies Vol 2, pg. 50)

Sunday of All Saints (2013)

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”   (Matthew 19:28-29)

St. Nikolai Velimirovic  (d. 1956AD) commenting on the above passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, writes:

“The Lord uses the number ‘an hundred’ because it expresses the whole fullness of the gifts that the faithful will receive. Not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands, of men and women have left all this and received it all. To these and all such this Sunday – the Sunday of All Saints – is dedicated. Some saints have their special commemoration during the year. These are only the best-known. But there is, apart from them, an enormous number of saints who have remained hidden from human sight but are no less known to God the living and omniscient. They make up the victorious, glorified Church of Christ, and stand in the closest relationship to us who make up, on earth, the militant Church of Christ’s soldiers. Through them, the Lord shines like the sun among the stars, for they are members of His Body (Eph. 5:30).  They are alive and powerful, and close to God. And they are also close to us. They constantly observe the life of God’s Church on earth; they vigilantly accompany us from our birth to our death; they hear our pleas, know our troubles and help us with their strength and their prayers, which, like the smoke from incense, rise through the angelic heights to the throne of God (Rev. 8:3-4). These are Christ’s great martyrs , both men and women, the saints and our God-bearing Fathers, pastors and teachers of the Church, devout kings and queens who defended God’s Church from persecutors; confessors and hermits, ascetics and solitaries, stylites and fools for Christ – in brief, all those for whom Christ’s love overshadows every other love on earth, and who, for Christ’s name, left all and endured right to the end, for which they were themselves saved and brought salvation to others. They help us today to come to salvation, for there is no selfishness or jealousy in them; they rejoice that as great a number as possible of men and women should be saved and come to that glory in which they themselves rejoice. They were all victorious through faith. They all quenched the fiery power that, in the form of the passions, burned up weak human nature. Many of them, to whom the whole world was not worthy, wandered over the face of the earth, in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth (Heb. 11:38). This life is a test of our works, and the reward is given to the world to come. They passed the test with flying colors, and now give us their aid, that we may not be ashamed but pass the test as they did and be like them in the Kingdom of God. God is indeed wonderful in His saints!” (Homilies, pgs.8-9)

Christ’s Coming Again

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.”  (Matthew 25:31-32)

The Holy Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich  (d. 1956) tells us:

“He came one; He will come again. The first time He came in humility; the second time He will come in glory. The first time He came as the Redeemer of the world; the second time He will come as the Judge of the world. The difference between His first and second coming is very great. During His first coming He spent thirty-three years on earth. His second coming will last a very short time. ‘For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man,’ as He himself said about His own second coming (Matt. 24:27). Thus the second coming of the Lord will be unexpected and as quick as lightning. Hence, He gave this warning to all the faithful: ‘Watch therefore, for you do not know at which hour you Lord will come’ (Matt 24:42). The first time He came as a painstaking sower; the second time He will come as a swift winnower. And just as winnowing is a brief task compared to the many tasks involving crops from the time of sowing to the time of winnowing, so shall be His second coming, when compared to the first, be swift and brief. Oh, and how unexpected it will be! Therefore, vigilance is demanded of you, along with alertness of spirit, watchfulness, and expectation.” (The Faith of the Chosen People, pgs. 56-57)

A Prayer for One’s Enemies

In 1941, with the Nazi German occupation of Yugoslavia, Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich was arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Dachau Prison Camp in Germany. He spent two years in Dachau, and later in life wrote the PRAYER FOR ENEMIES whose English translation is below.  His Christian understanding of “enemies” is profoundly based in the Gospel teachings and commands of Jesus Christ.

Bless my enemies, O LORD. Even may I bless them and not curse them. Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have. Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world. Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having secured myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O LORD. Even may I bless them and not curse them. They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world. They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself. They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments. They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself. They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O LORD. Even may I bless them and not curse them. Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish. Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were small. Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background. Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand. Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep. Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out. Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O LORD. Even may I bless them and not curse them. Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me: so that my fleeing to you may have no return; so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger; so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life. Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself. One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends. It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O LORD, both my friends and my enemies. A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands. For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O LORD. Even may I bless them and not curse them.  Amen. 

(St. Nikolai Velimirovic ,  Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle 518-41)

Why Pray? (III)

This is the 3rd blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is  “Why Pray? “ and the previous blog is Why Pray? (II).

When prayer is not merely one activity among many that we do, but becomes our way of living in which all we do is to acquire God’s love, then we can pray without ceasing.  When all we do is directed toward God, then all of life is prayer.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”   (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Notice how St. Paul does not separate out prayer as an activity unrelated to other aspects of the Christian life.  Things we are to never stop doing:

Rejoicing

Praying

Giving thanks.

Sometimes we find fellow believers quoting and focusing only on “pray without ceasing” while ignoring the context of St. Paul’s words and his complete message.  Too often there is this idea that prayer is the only activity worthy of Christians, but this is not the teaching of St. Paul.   Prayer is one continuous activity in our lives as believers, but so is rejoicing and giving thanks.  When we forgot all of these elements, we practice a reduction of the Christian faith and of St. Paul’s teaching.

“We must pray that we may be constantly and firmly assured in our hearts that everything we have – both of soul and body, in prosperity and adversity, and all our possessions as well as all the circumstances of our life – come from God, from His Power, and not from nature, or chance, or from ourselves.  If you cease praying to God, you will soon forget your Benefactor, Creator, and Lord, and in forgetting Him you will fall into every evil.  Therefore, you see that prayer always brings you real benefit.”   (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 128)

When we remember that all things come to us from God, then we learn to give thanks and rejoice in every circumstance.   Prayer is the means by which we can acquire the love of God, but also the way we remember God’s love in and through the world He created for us.  Rejoicing and giving thanks equally with prayer gives us proper orientation toward our God, the God of love.  Prayer restores in us the memory of God and of all of his deeds.

In so doing, by establishing our relationship with God, prayer is also a way to learn, think about and remember virtue – those things which those who know the love of God do in their daily lives.

“Virtues are formed by prayer.  Prayer preserves temperance, suppresses anger, restrains pride and envy, draws down the Holy Spirit into the soul and raises man to heaven.” (St. Ephraim the Syrian in Orthodox Prayer Life, pgs. 31-32)

Notice how in St. Ephraim’s teaching: prayer helps us in knowing how to live on this earth while simultaneously lifting us to heaven.  Prayer makes God present in our lives.

“With prayer I cleanse the vision of my faith, lest it lose sight of you in the mist, O Most Radiant Star.

“What use will your prayer be to God?” asks the swarthy workers of the earth.

You speak rightly, sons of earth.  What use is the mariner’s telescope to the North Star, when it sees the mariner even without a telescope?  But do not ask me, since you already know what use a telescope is to a mariner.

Prayer is necessary for me, lest I lose sight of the salvation-bearing Star, but the Star does not need it to keep from losing me.”     (Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, Prayers by the Lake, pg 70)

Prayer keeps us oriented toward and focused on the Triune God of love.

Next:  Why Pray?  (IV)