June 25, 2017: Third Sunday of Matthew, The Holy Venerable Martyr Febronia
St Paul’s command that we rejoice in our suffering has always been a hard sell.
Yes, we can see how “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” But until we have experienced “God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” the positive potential of suffering is lost to us.
Unfortunately, we sometimes encounter those who encourage us to endure suffering but fail to tell us about God’s love for us. But, again, apart from the experience of God’s love for us, suffering–whether physical or emotional, social or spiritual–has no positive value. It is the experience of God’s love that transforms suffering into something of value.
Jesus tells us to not be “anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” There are two conclusions we can draw from our Lord’s words.
In other words, deprivation–like suffering–can’t separate us from the love of God. We are always tempted to imagine that when life isn’t what we want it to be that we’ve been abandoned by God. But listen to what Jesus tells us:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?
St John Chrysostom telsl us, Jesus’ words here remind us of “the dignity of the human race.”
Our dignity, the saint tells us, is precisely this: that God has given us not simply a soul but a body. And not just these. God has also sent us “Prophet and gave His Only-Begotten Son (Homily on St Matthew, xxii). This brings us to our second point.
Just as faith transforms suffering, it transforms how we view ourselves and our neighbor. Seen in the light of the Gospel, human life is more than food and drink, more than clothes and material possessions. Our true and lasting dignity is found in God’s love and care for us. To understand who we truly are, to be the men and women God has created us to be, we must “seek first” the Kingdom of God “and his righteousness.”
Commenting on this passage, St Augustine tells us that we ought not “to preach the Gospel” so “that we may eat” but rather “eat… that we may preach.” To do otherwise he says is to “reckon the Gospel of less value than food.” It is here that we find the cause human suffering, of the myriad crimes and offenses, great and small, committed against human dignity.
Again, listen to what Jesus tells us in the Gospel:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
The pursuit of wealth instead of a life of obedience to God, the fathers say, turns us into robbers and slaves. Robbers because we will take from others even the little they need to survive; slaves because we become increasingly ruled not by reason illumined by faith but by the ever-changing cascade of our own desire.
When we fail to seek first the Kingdom of God, Chrysostom says, we make ourselves vulnerable to “strifes and toils.” Most “more grievous of all,” we become unfit for “God’s service” which is “the highest blessing.”
So how do we avoid this? How do we transform suffering into something positive and the necessity of body life into service to God? The answer is found in the opening lines of this morning’s Gospel:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
St Gregory the Wonderworker says that by “eye” is meant “love unfeigned.” Such love is nothing less than a glimpse of God’s glory and our sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
For the fathers of the Church, we grow in virtue by first laying aside vice. In this case, to transform suffering and to grasp our true dignity, we must first lay aside what Gregory calls “the pretended love which is also called hypocrisy.” Yes, we can, he says, “produce words that seem to be of light” but these are “in reality wolves… covered in sheep’s clothing” but when we do, we alienate ourselves from God and enslave ourselves to our own will.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
God has poured out His grace into our lives through the mysteries. It belongs to us to accept what we have been given and then to act on it.
We do this not only through our participation the sacraments and the worship of the Church but also a life of personal prayer and ascetical struggle. Taken together, all these work to first uproot hypocrisy and then to teach us what it means to love as Christ loves.
As we grow in love, we come to find meaning not only in suffering but even the most ordinary aspects of human life. In turn, this allows us to see the depth and breadth of human dignity.
To borrow from C.S. Lewis, after the Eucharist “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” While suffering may obscure this holiness from our sight, it can’t destroy the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. And this why that, with St Paul, we can rejoice in our suffering. Simply put, suffering and sin can’t destroy the image of God that is our true and lasting identity.