Tag Archives: charity

Hidden in Christ

Sunday, February 23 (OS February 10), 2020: Meat-fare Sunday, Commemoration of the Awesome Judgement; Hieromartyr Charalampos, Bishop of Magnesia and Martyrs Porphyrius and Baptus, (202); St. Anna, wife of Yaroslav I (1050); Ven. Prochorus of the Near Kyivan Caves (1107); Martyrs Ennatha, Valentina and Paula of Palestine (308); St. Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict (543).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Glory to Jesus Christ!

This past week the daily Epistle and Gospel readings have focused on two themes.

The epistles have emphasized the primacy of charity–of love–in the Christian life. As for the Gospel readings, these have recounted the events of Holy Week. Taken together, the epistles remind us of Jesus Christ’s great love for each of us. They remind us as well that it is the same sacrificial love to which we are called.

Let me make this stronger.

Love that is not sacrificial is not really love. However if we stop here we risk misunderstanding the life to which we are called. To know what it means to love sacrificially we need to turn to today’s readings.

St Paul reminds those troublesome Corinthians, that while fasting and the ascetical life are important, they are not the point of the Christian. The goal, as we’ve heard all week in the readings, is to love others. And, by love, Paul means to do that which is best for our neighbor.

Often in my own spiritual life I get undone because I assume–wrongly as Jesus tells me in the parable–that to love others means I must do great things. After all, if my love for you must be sacrificial, don’t I need to do something big? This isn’t what Jesus asks of us today.

Rather our Lord asks us to do small acts of kindness that St John Chrysostom says are within the reach of all of us. Indeed, one needn’t even be Christian to know that you ought to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirst, clothe the naked or visit those who are sick or imprisoned. All of these are the actions of any morally decent human being.

So where is sacrifice? It is this: rather than doing great things to win the praise of others, or even to bolster our own sense of self-worth, we are called to live a life “hidden in Christ” as St Paul tells the Colossians (3:3). The humility of our love should be such that it is easily overlooked not only by the world but, as the response of both the sheep and goats suggest, by us as well.

Put slightly differently, we are called to engage in quiet acts of simple charity for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. This means that need to be indifferent, detached, from not only your opinion of my actions but of my own as well.

And doing the morally good thing because it is good changes me. Too frequently get things backwards. I don’t do good things because I am a good person. I become a good person by doing good. It is the habit of small acts of charity that purifies my heart. If I wait for my heart to be pure, my intentions to be right, then I’ll never act.

The sheep in the parable simply loved others without any thought of reward. The goats, however, did good but did so to earn a reward; their good deeds, their charity, was transaction. They did something to get something.

Sheep love others, goats love only themselves.

While the good we do is easily overlooked, we shouldn’t underestimate its effects in the aggregate. It was through small, easily overlooked acts of charity, that the early Church overcame the Roman Empire. The Church conquered the Empire not by force of arms by making it the Church.

Everything the Church has accomplished, it has accomplished by the habit of daily acts of personal charity. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, all of these persecuted Christ and the Gospel. And all of these fell not through military might but by Christians who lived faithful lives hidden in Christ. It is the Cross, not the sword, which overcomes the world.

The Church has triumphed in this life when Christians have embraced a life hidden in Christ. We will triumph as a parish, to say nothing of finding our own, personal salvation, by likewise living a life hidden in Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To do this we need only take our eyes off ourselves and fix them on Jesus Christ. Look to Jesus and allow Him to direct you in the ways you should go.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be Brave! Be Strong! Be Loving! Be a Saint!

September 1 (OS August 19), 2019: 11th Sunday after Pentecost; Afterfeast of the Dormition of the Theotokos; Commemoration of the Holy Martyr Andrew the General and the 2,593 martyred with Him.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
Gospel:  Matthew 18:23-35

Glory to Jesus Christ!

For all that he criticizes them, St Paul sees the Church at Corinth as the “seal” of his ministry. For all that they fall short of the Gospel, the Corinthians are the tangible proof that the transformation of Saul of Tartus into the Apostle Paul is real.

And not only this.

The murder of Christians has become the father of the Church at Corinth and it is as a father that Paul reminds them of their obligations. He has the same “the privileges granted to the other apostles. 

Like Peter and the rest, Paul and Barnabas are exempt from “manual labor” and instead have the right to earn their livelihood in recompense for his preaching as the Lord appointed” (St Augustine, The Work of Monks, 2).

Immediately after sketching out his rights, Paul says that he and Barnabas “we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.”

As we’ve seen, central to being a disciple of Christ is the willingness to embrace a life of “voluntary self-restraint” in imitation of the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the Son in His Incarnation for the salvation of the world.

For his part, “Paul does not exercise his rights because they might be an obstacle to the gospel.” In addition, by freely setting aside what is owned him, he is all the freer “to argue that he was not one of the false apostles” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary of Paul’s Epistles).

There is something admirable about not exercising our rights. There is also something admirable about accepting without complaint injustice and even abuse. For these, we have the example not only of Jesus but the Apostles and martyrs whose blood is “the seed of the Church” as Tertullian says (Apologeticus, 50).

And yet, Jesus doesn’t call us to a life of passivity. We are instead called to pick up our cross and follow Him (see Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23).

Nor can we be passive because and fulfill our calling to “preach the Gospel to all creation” and to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things” that Jesus has taught us (Matthew 28:19-20).

While sometimes we must remain silent, there are times when the same voluntary self-restraint, the same self-emptying, that requires me to bear with injustice and suffering, moves me to speak and even speak forcefully. There are times when obedience to Christ requires from me to act and even act forcefully.

To see this we need only look at the parable in today’s Gospel.

The King has compassion for the servant who owes him an unimaginable amount of money. The debt is so large that it couldn’t be paid off in several lifetimes. Nevertheless, rather than assert his right to repayment the King forgives the debt.

But this isn’t the end of the story. 

Because the wicked servant fails to forgive a smaller debt from his fellow servant, the king doesn’t just re-instate the debit. He doesn’t even just send the man to prison or sell his family into slavery. No, he turns the unforgiving man over to torture “until he should pay all” he owes.

The king’s reasoning becomes clear in the details of the parable.

The wicked servant doesn’t just ask for the repayment of what he’s owed. He violently attacks his fellow servant; “he laid hands on him and took him by the throat” (Matthew 18:28, KJV)

Moreover, the size of the debt tells us that the wicked servant isn’t an ordinary servant. He is a close and trusted servant of the king. How else could he secure such a large loan?

The conflict between the two servants is not one between equals. The wicked servant is a wealthier and a more prominent member of the king’s household.

Given this, by his lack of forgiveness, the servant reveals himself to be an enemy not only of his fellow servants but of the king as well. He is a violent, unforgiving man who exploits his equals in their need and the trust of the king.

It is for these reasons that his fellow servants complain to the king and that the king responds as he does.

There are times in our Christian lives when, like the servants in the parable, we must speak because our silence will leave someone outside the Kingdom of God. There are times when we must act because failing to act means that someone else will suffer harm by our failure to intervene.

In these cases, my failure to speak or to act makes me culpable for the evil I see. By my omission, I sin and sin grievously.

To be sure, too many Christians use the obligation to speak or act as an excuse for their anger. They are concerned not with mercy or justice but of doing harm under the guise of the Gospel. These individuals have the “form of godliness but denying its power” because they lack charity; they preach but don’t believe, they confess but they don’t repent. And so St Paul tells us “from such people turn away” because they will lead us astray and if possible even corrupt the Church from within (2 Timothy 3:5, NKJV).

Even a cursory examination of Church history will reveal any number of such bad Christians. These are they who, as Apostle Paul says, “preach Christ … from envy and strife, and … from selfish ambition” instead of “from goodwill” and “love” (Philippians 1:15-16, NKJV).

Our faith as Orthodox Christians, our lives as disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ, will sometimes require that we speak even as, other times, we will be called to remain silent. This time we patiently endure, while at another time we act and act boldly.

The difference between the two is simple enough.

While I am free to endure the evil inflicted on me, I am never free to remain quiet and passive when evil inflicted on you! The former requires courage and can even make me a saint; the latter reveals me to be a coward in need of repentance.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus calls us today to be brave! To speak on behalf of those without a voice and to act on those without the ability to resist wickedness.

Be brave, be strong! Love requires both and without love what are we?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

The Boldness of Humility

Sunday, May 19 (OS May 6), 2019: 4th Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Paralytic; Righteous Job the Long-suffering (c. 2000-1500 B.C.); Martyrs Barbarus the Soldier, Bacchus, Callimachus, and Dionysius in Morea (362); Martyr Barbarus the former robber in Epirus (IX). Righteous Tabitha of Joppa (I). (moveable feast on the 4th Sunday after Pascha).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 9:32-43
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Following the biblical witness, the fathers of the Church saw bodily infirmity–blindness, deafness, or in the case of today’s readings paralysis–as symbolic of humanity’s fallen condition. The Venerable Bede writes that “anyone who embraces the unstable joys of the present is as through flattened upon his bed, devoid of energy” trapped as they are by the “sluggishness” of “worldly pleasures” (Commentary of Acts of the Apostles, 9.33).

It’s important to say that neither Bede nor any of the fathers were denying the goodness of Creation or the delights that are to be found in this life. Marriage, to take only one example, is a sacrament of the Church and according to St Paul a revelation of the love Christ has for the Church (see Ephesian 5:32).

No, the problem is not the goodness of Creation but the human hearts indifference to God. As in any relationship, indifference today becomes hostility tomorrow.

It is this hostility born of indifference that leads some among the Jews to condemn the paralytic for violating the law by carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. They do this, St Augustine says, because to condemn the healing would have been to invite the rebuke they heard from Jesus at another time. “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5, NJKV)

Instead of criticizing Jesus–and so have their hypocrisy exposed–“they addressed the man, … as if to say: Even if the healing could not be delayed why command the work?” Even so, the question exposes their hypocrisy. Augustine says that to ask this is to invite a response that testifies to the divinity of Christ: “Why should I not receive a command if I also received a cure from Him?” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 17:10)

For the person, indifferent and even hostile to the presence of God brings with it a heavy cost. Unaware of God’s presence in their lives means as well that they live unaware of His great love for them and for the dignity to which they are called in Jesus Christ.

The full implications of what has happened will take the rest of the paralytic’s life to understand. But while his understand is immature, his experience of God’s love for him makes him bold!

When confronted the man doesn’t conceal the miracle. He doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that he had been cured “of his illness.” And when falsely condemned he did not ask “for pardon. Instead, he boldly confessed the cure. This is how he acted” and this is how we are called to act as well (St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 37.2).

Both sin and love make us bold. But where the boldness of sin is fool hearted and rash, love’s boldness is courageous.

Look at St Peter.

At this point in Acts, he has already been arrested twice and beaten once. Stephen has been martyred, Saul is arresting and handing Christians over to the authorities, and “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).

And yet, Chrysostom says, Peter walks about “like a general … inspecting the ranks.” Because of his great love for Jesus, Peter always

…goes about first. When an apostle had to be chosen, he was first; when the Jews had to be told that these were not drunk, he was first; when the lame man had to be healed, he was first; when the crowd had to be addressed, he was before the rest; when the rulers had to be addressed, he was the man; when Ananias had to be addressed, when healings were worked by the shadow, still it was he.

When “the situation is calm” the disciples “act in common.” But when “there was danger” Peter acts alone. In all of this he “did not seek a greater honor. When there was need to work miracles, he leaps forward, and here again he is the man to labor and toil” (Homilies on Acts of the Apostle, 21).

And when it is time for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, Peter once again takes the lead in following the path Paul has blazed.

In the Christian economy, evangelical boldness the fruit of humility. Peter like Jesus, “Who conquered persecutors [here] below and reigns over angels [in heaven] above spoke … in a humble voice,” (St Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord, 26.1) because the word he speaks is not his but God’s word to him for the life of the world (see, John 7:16, 12:49, 14:10).

To remain silent about the Gospel is not humility. We have all of us been given a word to speak; we are all of us in baptism called to be witnesses of the Resurrection and evangelists of the Gospel.

But a problem remains. If remaining silent when we are called to speak is not humility, how then are we to speak? In this as in all things, Jesus shows us the way.

Before He heal the paralytics Jesus asks the man “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus invites the man to cooperate with grace.

Jesus question reflects the humility of the Father Who never imposes Himself on us but woos us. In doing this He also makes clear “the cruelty of those … who were well” but who never lifted “their hand to help” the man but instead treated him “like an enemy” when he asked for help (Amphilochius of Iconium, Oration, 9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Every day, we meet those who ask for our help in coming to know Jesus Christ; every day we meet those who even if they do so poorly ask us about the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

Humility, to say nothing of love, demands we speak.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Faith & Reason, Charity & Prudence

Sunday, April 7 (OS March 25), 2019: 4th Sunday of Lent; Sunday of St John of the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the Feast of the Holy Annunciation of the Theotokos; Martyr Victoria

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 2:11-18/6:1-20
Gospel: Luke 1:24-34/Mark 9:17-31

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The hymnography for the Feast of the Annunciation includes a conversation between the Mother of God and the Archangel Gabriel.

In response to Gabriel’s announcement that she is to give birth to the Son of God, the Virgin Mary asks the angel as to how this is even possible: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

Though she doesn’t understand how God’s will for her is to be accomplished, in humility she accepts the divine will calling herself “the handmaiden of the Lord.”

The humility of her response, however, is not passive. Nor does it reflect a simplification of the complexity of God’s will for her life. Though she responds in a common-sense manner to the angel’s message—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?—the hymnography makes it clear that she is not naïve.

Immediately after raising the biological question, the hymnography tells us Mary turns to philosophy: “How shall I become the Mother of my Maker?’” How, in other words, will the creature conceive and contain in her womb the Creator?

Mary’s questions however are not merely speculative. She is motivated by a concern for the whole human family. She is aware that the last time an angel appeared to a virgin–the Serpent to Eve in the Garden–things ended badly for us.

As we reflect on the Virgin’s hesitancy we come to see that it reflects not a lack of faith on her part. Rather, she is moved by an abundance of charity. No matter how great the honor offered her, she doesn’t want to act impulsively; the reward is great but is great as well.

We can apply to Mary the Solomon’s description of the wise man:

The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps. A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident (Proverbs 14:15-16, NKJV).

Mary is no fool! She is wise and carefully thinks through the implications of her actions.

She reflects on the Angel’s greeting not only in light of Scripture but also science and philosophy. The Handmaiden of the Lord is obedient and charitable but also respectful of reason and what reason knows.

So what does all this mean for us?

In the Mother of God we see the harmony–the synergy–of faith and reason, of charity and prudence.

Faith without reason is mere fantasy even as reason without faith is idle speculation.

Likewise, charity needs prudence since without the ability to give practical expression to our concern for others we are left with mere sentimentality. As for prudence, without love it is cowardice.

When I violate the partnership between faith and reason or charity and prudence and I set the stage for violence. Violence not only in society but in the Church, the family and in our personal lives.

Sentimentality gives rise to violence because it demands recognition. For the one gripped by the passion of sentimentality, it isn’t enough that he feels happy or sad; others must join him in his feelings. And, if they don’t or won’t, they must be made to comply.

All this is so because once we break the inherent connection between faith and reason, between charity and prudence, we set ourselves adrift. We strip ourselves of everything except our current emotion or most recent thought or most pressing desire. We become slaves to our own thoughts, feelings, and desires.

In other words, faith without reason, charity without prudence, is precisely that from which God comes to save us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We see in the Mother of God an icon of the faithful, loving and rational disciple of Christ. In her faith and reason, charity and prudence are not only in harmony with each other but also at the service of the Gospel.

She is as well the icon of the Christian professional, the Christian scholar, the Christian scientist.

We see in her what it means to give ourselves wholly to Christ not only for our own sake but for the salvation of the world. And so we see in her both our vocation as disciples and apostles of Christ but also as citizens of a Republic.

May God through the prayers of the Holy Theotokos grant us a life faithful reason, rational faith, charitable prudence and prudent charity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: What Love Demands

Sunday, July 23, 2017: 7th Sunday of Matthew; Phocas the Holy Martyr, Bishop of Sinope, Ezekiel the Prophet, Pelagia the Righteous of Tinos, Trophimos & Theophilios and the 13 others martyred in Lycia, St. Anna of Levkadio, The Icons of the Most Holy Theotokos of Pochaev, Icon of the Mother of God

Epistle: Romans 15:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 9:27-35

When the Apostle James reminds us that faith without works is dead, by “works” he means our acts of practical, and this is the important point, effective charity. Wishing someone good luck and that they are “warm and well-fed” it isn’t enough. Put another way, while good intentions matter they aren’t sufficient.

Turning to this morning’s epistle, St Paul tells us to “bear with the failings of the weak.” Paul isn’t counseling “tolerance” as it is often understood in our culture. God doesn’t call us to moral indifference. In this life, we regularly meet people whose lives are marked, scarred really, by serious moral failing. Paul doesn’t tell us to turn a blind eye to this.

So, to understand what the Apostle means when he says “we who are strong,” we need to read on.

First, compassion for others is not about pleasing myself but pleasing my neighbor. Charity for my neighbor isn’t about doing something that makes me feel good about myself. In fact, if I take charity seriously, there are times when doing the morally and practically right thing will be costly. Failure to pay that cost because I don’t want to make the sacrifice is bad enough. But failing to do what love requires because it contradicts my self-image? This is by far an even worse sin because it makes my own comfort rather than Christ the standard of my life.

So, to understand what the Apostle means, we need to read on.

To please my neighbor doesn’t mean to do what he wants. Rather it is to act, as Paul says, “for his good, to edify him.” I must be for you, as Christ is for me. To do what is good for my neighbor is to do not what I want or even what my neighbor wants. It is rather to do what God wants from me for my neighbor.

Love, properly understood, means I want what God wants for you. And because “faith without works is dead,” love in its fullness always includes a practical dimension. God doesn’t simply desire our salvation, He does what our salvation requires even when doing so is costly to Him. “Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.’”

To avoid the temptation to sentimentality, to “faith” without works, we need to remember that actions worthy of the name “charity” demand practical skills. While our emotions have a role to play in our spiritual lives, like good intentions, they aren’t sufficient. More importantly, and again like good intentions, detached from the moral obligation to practical and effective good works, our emotions can easily deceive us.

To grow in holiness, I need to guard against prelest; I need to guard against spiritual deception or delusion. This doesn’t just mean not thinking that I am better than I am. I also need to avoid thinking I am worse than I am. Both self-aggrandizement and self-degradation are the fruit of pride.

Our need for realistic self-knowledge is why repentance (metanoia) is important. St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” Where we often go wrong, is that we assume repentance means to think less of ourselves; it doesn’t

St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” Where we often go wrong, is that we assume repentance means to think less of ourselves; it doesn’t

To feel bad about my past actions isn’t repentance. Rather, repentance means to accept with thanksgiving that I am loved and accepted by God. This transforms not only how I see myself but changes my relationship with you. This is because the same God Who loves and accepts me also loves and accepts you. And if we love someone don’t we naturally, spontaneously love what they love?

It is this conviction that everyone is loved by God that gives us the courage to do as Paul tells us, to act on behalf of our neighbor’s good. But what about those times when I don’t have the practical ability to care for my neighbor?

As we grow in our experience of God’s love for us and for our neighbor, something changes in us.

Like when we’re children, at the beginning of our spiritual life, will have a sincere but narrow sense of what love means. In our culture, that usually takes the form of refraining from judgment. This isn’t bad but (again!) it isn’t enough.

One of the great strengths of our culture, and especially of the young, is the importance we place on not rejecting others because of our moral disagreements. At the same time, we are called to something more.

Not just to refrain from judging but to help people grow in the knowledge of God’s love for them and, in so doing, become who God has called them to be.

Put another way, because we love others, we refuse to judge them or turn away from them because of their failings. But, because we love not only our others but God, we want for our neighbors what God wants for them. The power of our witness as Orthodox Christians is that we know from our own experience, that metanoia is wholly positive. It is through repentance that we are freed to not simply to be who we are but are freed to love our neighbor and to do so practically and sacrificially.

And what we want for others is they too have what God has given us.

Part of the sacrificial character of love is realizing that there are times when my practical skills are simply not sufficient to my neighbors need. But if I have come to accept God’s love for me, and so accept who God has created me to be, I can be at peace with my limitations. Not only that, but I can see my limits as an invitation to draw others into the circle of charity.

No, maybe I can’t help you in the way that you need. But I may know someone who can.

Love worthy of the name looks not only to serve but to help other also learn to serve. In Christ, I rejoice in my weaknesses, my practical limitations, because they make room for you to serve those who I can’t serve.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God has called us not simply to do good for others but to help others become good according to the path God has called them to walk. What better way is there for us to live than this?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Taxes, Justice, Charity & A Fair Share

Moral posturing on economic matters is always risky. When it works it tends to do so because, as with most populist arguments, it appeals to some combination of greed, envy, and/or fear.

This doesn’t mean, I’d hasten to add, that economics and morality are divorced from each other. Like the rest of my life, economic decisions are subject to moral scrutiny and criticism. Like in other areas of my life, my economic decisions can be virtuous or sinful.

Contrary to what we hear from some libertarians or anarchists, taxation isn’t theft. I have not only a legal obligation to pay taxes to support the common good, I have a moral obligation as well.

That said, paying taxes doesn’t have the same moral weight as the obligation I have to care for my family. To my family, I owe a debt of love. To the tax collector, on the other hand, I owe a debt of justice.

Contrary to what Senator Warren would have us believe (see video), Donald Trump’sfair share” in taxes is same as it is for everyone else: it’s what the law says it is and not a penny more. Moreover, if the tax laws of my nation allow me to reduce my tax burden either through deductions (e.g., the mortgage interest deduction) or by sheltering a portion of my income (say in a tax-deferred retirement savings account), it is just—fair to use Warren’s word—for me to do so. The only way it is unfair for someone to minimize his or her tax burden according to what the law allows is if the law itself is unfair.

This maybe the situation in Trump’s case but this isn’t the argument that is being made. Again, as long as things are done within the limits of the law—and those laws are themselves just—it is fair to pay as little tax as one possible can.

While it is in my economic best interest to pay as little tax as the law allows, this doesn’t mean my actions are unfair. Why? Because minimizing my tax bill is more than mere naked self-interest.

I owe a morally weightier debt of love to my family (and to myself), it is not only fair for me to reduce my tax burden, I’m obligated to do so. And again, as long as I stay within the law.

Failure to take advantage the means that the law allows for reducing my tax burden is both unjust (because I give the government more than is due) and uncharitable. Overpayment of taxes is something like spending money on alcohol rather than on food for my children; both are sins against charity.

I’ve not seen the Senator’s tax return but I imagine that, like Trump, she takes all the deductions allowed by law. If she takes those deductions than, by her own logic, Senator Warren isn’t paying her “fair share” either.

Like I said, economics matters are—and should be—subject to moral analysis. Failure to do so is harmful both to the individual and the common good.

But equally harmful, is the all too common tendency (on both the Left AND the Right) to substitute moral posturing for serious reflection.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be Merciful!

Sunday, February 21, 2016: Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican; Venerable Timothy of Symbola; Eustathios, archbishop of Antioch; Zachariah, patriarch of Jerusalem; George, bishop of Amastris

St George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Grand Rapids, MI

Epistle: 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: Luke 18:10-14

The Apostle Paul sets an intimidating standard for me as a priest. He tells Timothy, to quote what Paul says not once but twice in another place, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1). This is an intimidating standard because the Apostle is saying that it’s not only does his “teaching” proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No, the whole of Paul’s life is nothing more or less than a testament to “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). His behavior and his goals, his patience and love, his steadfastness in persecution and suffering are all part of his witness to Christ and the sign of Paul’s apostleship.

After saying this about himself, Paul turns to the young bishop Timothy and says do as I have done; “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Timothy, like Paul, is called to make of his life “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God.” This is Timothy’s “reasonable service”: that he refuse to “be conformed to this world” and instead “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” so that not only in the life to come but also in the ebb and flow of this life he testify to the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2, NKJV).

A lofty standard for the priest to be sure but not simply for the priest. It is also the standard for all Christian. Like Paul, like Timothy, by virtue of our baptism God has called each of us to be His disciples and so also set each of us aside to be His witness, His apostles, for a world that desires a love they don’t know and without us can only glimpse. We are like Paul and Timothy called to be disciples of Christ and apostles, that is witnesses, to God’s love for the world poured out in Christ and Him crucified.

Turning to this morning’s Gospel, it is an unbearable tragedy that all too often the Gospel is used not to liberate people from the powers of sin and death but to shame and degrade them. Yes, when this happens it is an abuse of the Gospel and a betrayal of Christ and a sin against that love that God has shown us. And yet, it happens again and again.

All too easily I fall into the role of the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. Too often by my attitude and actions I say “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Self-satisfaction fills the space in my life that God would have filled by those three things that last, faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV).

Tragic as all this is, if I stop here in my self-evaluation I fail not only my neighbor but also myself. You see the Pharisee condemns the tax collector because his own repentance is incomplete. Reading the text quickly we might think that the Pharisee knows his virtue but not his sinfulness. This is true, but only to a point. Origen says “the Pharisee … boasted with a certain wicked self-conceit” (Against Celsus, III:64). As important as it is for me to know my sinfulness, it is more important still to know “the greatness of God” and, like the publican, to continually ask Him for His mercy. As an observant Jew, the Pharisee knew his obligations under the Law. This is why he fasts twice a week and pays tithes. And it is likewise why he thanks God that he isn’t “like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

We mustn’t think that the Pharisee’s gratitude and piety aren’t real, they are, it is rather a matter that they are deficient because he lacks mercy.

Mercy is often misunderstood. It isn’t a matter of saying that sin doesn’t matter or isn’t important. Mercy isn’t getting a free pass on my sinfulness; it isn’t as if God says that my moral failures don’t matter. No, God by His great mercy (to return to Origen) makes up for “our deficiencies” and supplies “what is wanting” in us (Against Celsus, III:64). To ask for divine mercy, is to confess my weakness, my deficiency, before God.

And having experienced God’s mercy for me, I want to offer that mercy to others.

While the Pharisee is, no doubt sincerely, grateful for what he has received from God, he fails to see the true depth and expanse of his own need. His self-conceit is that he believes that the process of repentance is over for him. He sees in himself no need, and in the tax collector no possibility, to go “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Pharisee is far from St Gregory of Nyssa‘s observation that to become like the God Who is perfect and Who never changes, we must change “and change frequently.”

For all that he is grateful, the Pharisee is nevertheless in the grip of despair. His life, his view of himself and of his neighbor, is wholly static and so inescapably self-satisfied. There is in the Pharisee no awareness of his own deficiencies, his own need for the mercy of God “which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking” (Ordination of a Presbyter). And not seeing this in himself he can’t see this in others. So though he is grateful, his gratitude is insufficient because it lacks hope and charity. In his own way, the Pharisee is the embodiment of what the Apostle James warns against: “faith without works is dead” (see, James 2:14-26).

Turning from the Pharisee and the Apostle Timothy, what do the readings say to me about my own spiritual life on this, the first Sunday of the Triodion, the beginning of our preparation for the Great Fast?

Of all the things that could be said, I think the most important is this. God has called me, called each of us, to bear witness to the life, death and resurrection of His Son and our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. This witness isn’t just a matter of having the correct faith but being always aware of God’s mercy in our lives and the lives of those around us. This awareness is the wellspring of our charity for others.

Love requires that I must not succumb to either moral indifference or theological triumphalism. The latter assumes that, having received the Gospel in its fullness, the demands of charity are fulfilled by offering a summary of the Creed or a lecture in Church history. Cruel as this is, the former is worse since it fails to see deficits, and so the suffering they cause, as real.

To be a witness of God’s love and mercy I must be prayerfully open and obedient to the deficiency that God would complete in the moment. What I mean is that to give food to the thirsty, to give a drink to the hungry, isn’t mercy and so isn’t charity. At best it is well-meaning but incompetent; at worse it is the same self-conceit that blinded the Pharisee to his own need for repentance and that killed his love for the Publican before it born.

One person needs from me the kerygma, another a glass of water. This person needs a kind word, this one a stern word. But to respond in mercy to all of them, I need the repentant hope of the Publican but also to the faith of the Pharisee (see, Matthew 5:20). It is only in this way that I can bear an effective witness to the love of God poured out for all mankind in Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory