Homily: Good Deeds Can Change Sinful Hearts

Sunday, July 19, 2015: Sunday of the Holy Fathers of Fourth Ecumenical Council

Venerable Macrina, sister of Basil the Great; Venerable Dios of Antioch; Theodore, archbishop of Edessa; uncovering of the relics of Venerable Seraphim of Sarov; Holy Stephen Lazarevic, Serbian Prince and Holy Militsa his mother

St Ignatius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

EPISTLE: Titus 3:8-15
GOSPEL: Matthew 5:14-19

The Apostle Paul tells Titus to “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law” because “they are unprofitable and futile.” After admonishing him “once or twice” we are to “have nothing more to do with” a “factious” person. Why? Because such a person “is perverted and sinful.” The irony here, if I may use that word, is that we are mostly likely to find ourselves in conflict precisely when we are unwilling simply to acquiesce to the factious people in our lives. So what are we to do? What is Paul telling us?

St John Chrysostom says that by contentious men, the Apostle means “heretics.” that The heretic is not just someone who has fallen away from the Church. Rather the heretic is that person who is so in love with his own opinion that he won’t even entertain the possibility of that he is in error. Or, as Chrysostom says, the heretic “is predetermined not to change his mind, whatever may happen” (“Homilies on Titus,” 6 in ACCS NT vol IX, p. 306).

The tragedy of heresy—and so of the heretic’s situation—is how it apes faith. Looking more deeply into the psychology of the heretic, Chrysostom says that true heretics “do not so much err from ignorance as they owe their ignorance to their indolence” (“Homilies on 1 Timothy 17,” in ACCS NT vol IX, p. 306). It is sloth or indifference to love is the root cause of heresy.

True faith—to say nothing of the True Faith—on the other hand is the fruit of love. There is first God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and our love for God and each other in response. This is why St Paul includes in his instruction to Titus not only an admonishment to avoid argumentative people but also a command to undertake those “good deeds” that “are excellent and profitable” to others.

When, turning to this morning’s Gospel, if we take seriously our vocation to be “the light of the world” and to draw others to God the Father through our “good works” we will sooner or later find ourselves in conflict with those around us. And yet we can’t “build a fence around” our good deeds. Rather, “humility, gentleness, mercy and righteousness” must “overflow” our hearts if we are to be of “benefit to others” and to draw them to God (“The Gospel of Matthew” Homily 15.7 6 in ACCS NT vol Ia, p. 93). It is only through our good deeds for others that we can hope to help them fall in love with the God Who continually falls in love with us.

Just as I need to distinguish carefully, theological error rooted in ignorance and heresy rooted in an antipathy to love, I need to examine my heart. It could be that I want my “good works to be seen by others” not to draw them closer to God but “to be elevated in their sight.” If this is the case then I fulfill “neither of the commands” given by God (St Augustine, Sermon 54.3, 6 in ACCS NT vol Ia, p. 94); I neither love God nor my neighbor. Instead I’m serving my own “interests not those of Jesus Christ” (see Philippians 2:21) and (at least potentially) become an even greater source of division then the heretic. Why? While he explicitly seeks to draw others to his own opinion, in my hypocrisy I do so covertly. He uses a bludgeon, while I use poison.

And yet even if our good deeds are done for show our situation isn’t hopeless.

St Cyril of Jerusalem begins his lecture to the catechumens, by examining their motivations for seeking baptism. Looking out at his listeners this man is in attendance “to pay court to a woman.” And, he says, the “remark applies … to women also in their turn.” He goes on to say a slave seeks baptism “to please his master, and a friend his friend.” But then he says something extraordinary.

I accept this bait for the hook, and welcome you, though you came with an evil purpose, yet as one to be saved by a good hope. Perhaps you knew not whither you were coming, nor in what kind of net you are taken. You have come within the Church’s nets: be taken alive, flee not: for Jesus is angling for you (“Catechetical Lectures,” Prologue, 5).

Likewise and by God’s mercy, even if insincere good deeds done consistently can soften the human heart. I can become, by God’s grace, who my actions say that I am. Even though my heart is dark, I can become the light of the world if only I will tolerate my own insincerity and continue to do the good deeds God commands.

St Moses of Optina says that “If you show compassion to one who is suffering (and of course, this is not a great deed) you will be numbered among the martyrs.” Even if “there is no love” in me, say St Ambrose of Optina, I must “do deeds of love” and God “will put love” in my heart. This is why, a little after the section of the Gospel we’ve heard today, Jesus tell us “bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). While doing this may not change our enemy’s heart, it can change ours.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory