Tag Archives: justice

Rights & Forgiveness

Sunday, August 12 (O.S., July 30), 2018: 11th Sunday after Pentecost. Apostles Silas and Silvanus of the Seventy and those with them: Crescens, Epenetus, and Andronicus (1stc.). Hieromartyr Polychronius, bishop of Babylon (251), and Martyrs Parmenius, Helimenas (Elimas), and Chrysotelus presbyters, Luke and Mocius deacons, and Abdon, Sennen, Maximus, and Olympius. Hieromartyr Valentine, bishop of Interamna (Terni) in Italy (273). Martyr John the Soldier at Constantinople (4th c.).

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

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Glory to Jesus Christ!

Over the years I have heard more than one Orthodox Christian tell me that “human rights” is foreign to Holy Tradition. Discussions of rights, so the argument goes, is a “Western” innovation. At best it is an import, at worse a heresy that undermines the Gospel.

“Christians,” as one bishop told me, “don’t have rights. We have responsibilities!”

Evidently, St Paul didn’t get the memo. In today’s epistle, the Apostle explicitly appeals to his rights as an apostle. And these rights aren’t unique to Paul. All the apostles have the right “to take along a believing wife” and “to refrain from working” so that they can devote themselves to the preaching of the Gospel. He concludes by asking the Corinthians: “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?”

That Paul and Barnabas give up these rights doesn’t mean these rights don’t exist. If anything, it serves to highlight their importance and acceptance in the life of the early Church.

We need to distinguish between what Paul is talking about and the various contemporary theories of human rights. The latter, it must be said, sometimes is used merely as a justification for sinful behavior.

But the Scriptures establish an objective standard of justice in our relationships with each other. Far from abolishing or dismissing the demands of justice, the Gospel fulfills them. “Do not think,” Jesus tells His disciples, “that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17; see also Romans 3:31).

Like Paul and Barnabas, we are free to lay aside our rights. But if we do so, we must do it freely and for the right reason.

The Apostle is instructive here.

Following his example, no one can demand from us that we lay aside or surrender that which is ours by right. And when we do lay them aside, we do so not to be “nice” but for the salvation of others.

Put another way, no one can coerce you into giving up your rights. Nor should they penalize or punishment you for demanding that which is yours by right.

Not only must we rule out any external coercion, we need to be on guard against any internal compulsion. The demands of just not only places limits on our relationship with each other, it also sets out the moral limits of my relationship with myself.

If I lay aside my rights, I must do so not only free from external coercion and internal compulsion but only in the service of the salvation of others. I must not lightly give up my rights. This point is frequently misunderstood–or worse, dismissed–by many of us.

Jesus tells us that “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). Morally, no one can compel us to do what we can only do freely.

How, though, do we reconcile this with today’s Gospel? Doesn’t Jesus tell me that I can’t inherit the Kingdom of God unless from my heart I forgive those who have harmed me?

To understand what Jesus is telling us we need to remember that forgiveness frees us from the resentment that often accompanies the injustice committed against us. It is only through forgiveness that we find the moral freedom that we see in St Paul.

Compare Paul to the wicked servant. Even though he has benefited from the generous mercy of his master, the servant is unwilling to extend even a small measure of forgiveness to his fellow servant.

St John Chrysostom points out that while “the blessings and gifts of God are irrevocable” by my “recalcitrance” I can “frustrate even the intention of God.” But it isn’t God Who changes. My desire for vengeance only “appears to overthrow” the mercy of God.

The great tragedy is that through his lack of forgiveness the wicked servant inflicts a greater evil on himself than he does on his fellow servant. He loses or rather rejects, the friendship of his master. In doing this, this he loses as well as the respect and affection of his fellow servants.

Like the wicked servant, there are those who think human rights “ free” them from the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, their adherence to the demand of justice and their own rights is really a conceit; a way of avoiding the demands of the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, I all too easily cling to my rights not from a sense of my own dignity or the demands of justice but because of the hardness of my own heart.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the wicked servant, it is my own inhumanity to others, my own lack of mercy, my own lack of a gentle spirit and a forgiving heart that separates me from God and so my neighbor. The tortures the parable promise are really self-inflicted.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Witnesses to Beauty

Sunday, May 13 (O.S., April 30), 2018: Sixth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Blind Man; Holy Apostle James, the brother of St. John the Theologian (44); St. Donatus, bishop of Euroea (387); Uncovering of the relics of Hieromartyr Basil, bishop of Amasea (322). Martyr Maximus.

Epistle: Acts 16:16-34
Gospel: John 9:1-38

Christ is Risen!

St Paul tells the Church at Ephesus that they are to speak “the truth in love.” He tells them this so that they might not be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men” and “in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.”

And they are to speak the truth in love so that they

…may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (see Ephesians 4:14-16, NKJV).

We need to pay close attention to what the Apostle says here.

The command to speak “the truth in love” is not something we do to draw others to Christ. Speaking “the truth in love” is essential for our own salvation, own growth in Christ and spiritual maturity.

Compare this to the idea that, as I’ve heard more than one Orthodox Christian say, “The most loving thing I can do is to tell someone the truth.” Did you catch the difference?

Paul says that for your own salvation and to become more like Christ, let love guide your words. This is different from the rather crass assumption that my words are loving because they are true and I’m telling you something for your own good.

The naked expression of the truth is not loving. Far from it. It is simply a means of gaining power over others by shaming them. Rarely, if ever, are the people who say the most loving thing you can do is to tell someone the truth open to such “love” themselves.

Look at the reading today from Acts.

The slave girl is saying something which is indubitably true. St Paul and his companions “are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And yet, as events unfold, we discover that while what is said is true, it is said not “in love” but because of demonic possession. The girl says something true in the service of extending the power of demons.

Her owners, by the way, are fine with this. They are happy to see this girl enslaved to a demon because it makes them rich. They are willing to grow wealthy by enslaving not only the girl’s body but also her soul.

And in all this, she tells the truth but she does so without love.

Compare the situation of the slave and her owners with what happens at the end of today’s reading.

A “great earthquake” opens all the doors of the prison freeing all the prisoner. Because of this, the jailer is prepared to commit suicide rather than face the consequences of allowing the prisoners to escape.

But what does Paul do?

At the cost of his own freedom, he remains in his cell with Silas and cries out to his jailer: “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”

Speaking the “the truth in love” is salvific because it puts the good of my neighbor before my own. To speak “the truth in love” means that I sacrifice myself for you. And it is this sacrifice for others that join us ever closer together in Christ and which fosters our spiritual maturity.

What, though, does it mean–concretely–to speak “the truth in love”? We get a glimpse in today’s Gospel.

While the text says Jesus restored the man’s sight, this isn’t strictly speaking true. The man was, after all, born blind. He didn’t live in darkness because, never having seen light, he had no understanding of its absence.

While he felt the sun on his face, he never saw its light. He felt the wind but never saw trees bend. He felt the rain but never saw clouds.

And then is one amazing moment–and for the first time in his life–the man born blind saw the beauty of creation. And he saw this beauty not gradually but in an instant!

He saw the sun he only felt.

He saw the trees bend in the wind.

He saw the clouds that carried the rain.

All around him and all at once, he saw the beauty of creation. And, in that same instant, he saw the face of Jesus, of God become Man.

To speak “the truth in love” is to heal the blindness of the human heart. It is to reveal to others a beauty that, like the blind man, they could not even imagine.

To reveal this beauty to you, I must first see it you, in creation, in myself and in God. That which is True, and for that matter what is Just and Good, is Beautiful.

And because Truth is one, if I can’t–or won’t–see the beauty in one part of creation, I can’t see the beauty elsewhere. If I can’t see beauty here, I can’t see it there; if I can’t see it in you, I can’t see it in myself and I certainly can’t see it in God.

Or rather, I fail to see the beauty around me and in me because I fail to see it in God Who is the Uncreated Source of all the is Good, True, Just and yes Beautiful.

Why does beauty matter? Because it is in the nature of beauty, of beautiful things, to attract us. To speak “the truth in love” is to make manifest not simply the beauty of the Gospel but of the person to whom we speak.

And. as I said, I can’t do this unless I have grasped something of the beauty of God and creation, of my neighbor and myself.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has called us to reveal beauty to the world. We are here, in this small and poor room today, for no other purpose. This is why we concern ourselves with, among other things, not only being the Church but building a church. So that we can through our words and deeds reveal the Beauty of God to the world.

May God bring to completion the good work He has started in us.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Be Faithful Today, Don’t Worry About Tomorrow

Sunday, August 20, 2017: 11th Sunday of Matthew; Samuel the Prophet, Holy Martyr Luke of Bouleutos, Afterfeast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, Stephen, First King of Hungary, Hierotheos, Bishop of Hungary

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul chastises the Corinthians for failing to do for him and for Barnabas what they have done for “the brothers of the Lord and Cephas.” Paul is clear. As apostles, he and Barnabas have a “right to our food and drink” and “to be accompanied by a wife.”

This means that the church has an obligation to provide for the apostles. And make no mistake, Paul is talking here about the material and financial support the church is obligated to provide the apostles. “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim upon you, do not we still more?”

Yes, Paul chooses to not make “use of this right,” so as not to place “an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” But his sacrifice while it frees the Corinthians from their financial obligations, calls them to an equally high standard of generosity and service.

Using himself as an example, he sketches an expectation of self-sacrifice for all Christians. Though “free from all men,” St Paul willingly makes himself “a servant to all.” He does this so that he can “become all things to all men” in the hope that he might “save some.”

In other words, he makes these sacrifices “for the gospel’s sake” and with the hope that the church will make similar sacrifices so that they might also receive the “imperishable crown” of salvation (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-27).

At no time, though, does St Paul deny or minimize the demands of justice; he doesn’t pretend the Corinthians don’t have concrete obligations toward both him and Barnabas. Yes, he gives up these rights but he does so in obedience to his own obligation to preach the Gospel and draw others to Christ.

Paul doesn’t ask the Corinthians to forsake justice. Rather, by freeing the Corinthians from their obligations toward him, he calls them in turn to a higher moral standard. LIke Paul, they are called by God to preach the Gospel.

To see what it means to be freed from our obligations, let’s turn to the Gospel.

In the parable, the king absolves his servant of a debt that can’t possibly be paid. As the story makes clear, this new freedom obligates the servant to be merciful to others. When he fails in this, his

As the story makes clear, this act of forgiveness obligates the servant to be merciful to others. When he fails in this, his lord condemns him to prison “till he should pay all his debt.”

The sobering part of the parable, however, comes next. Turning to His listeners Jesus says “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The genius of Orthodox spirituality is that it is so wonderfully human. The fathers, the saints, and the spiritual writers of the Church are all united in their understanding that we grow in holiness. Just as it does physically and emotionally, socially and vocationally, it takes time to mature spiritually. What Paul says of himself, applies to us all.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).

 

Our life in Christ is a call to grow in holiness. We don’t need to worry about meeting what God will ask of us tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now. Rather, we only need to do what God is asking of us today secure in the knowledge that by God’s grace what we do today, will prepare us for what is asked of us tomorrow. Do “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will” bring with it not only new demands but the grace and new-found freedom we need to say yes to God (see Matthew 6:25-34).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to worry, much less despair, of our ability to do what God calls us to do. God only asks of us today the sacrifice we can make joyfully, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

It is through our fidelity to the daily demands of our personal vocations and the life of the Church, that we are able to grow ”from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). And it is through our daily sacrifices, freely offered, that we will all someday “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

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

Homily: Justice & Mercy Have Kissed

Sunday, May 15, 2016: Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women; Pachomius the Great, Achillius the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Larissa, Barbaros the Myrrhbearer of Kerkyra, Andrew the Hermit & Wonderworker

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7

Gospel: Mark 15:43-47; 16:1-8

Christ is Risen!

Sometimes you will hear Orthodox Christians contrast what they call our “therapeutic” understanding of salvation with the “forensic” model in the West. There are two problems with this.

First, it reflects a basic lack of understanding of the broad sweep of how the Church—East and West, Greek and Latin—have understood salvation. To say that our own understanding is exclusively, or even primarily, therapeutic is simply factually wrong. Beginning with the New Testament, the tradition of the Church uses both therapeutic and forensic imagery to explain salvation and our new life in Christ.

Second, and more serious problem, is that people make this contrast because they see justice and mercy as opposed to each other. How often have we heard—or said—we are the Church of mercy, not justice?

Now if by “justice” we mean revenge, then this is true as far as we go. We are not a community that seeks revenge. And we don’t because while vengeance belongs to God alone, God in Jesus Christ makes clear that He doesn’t seek revenge against us for our sins. Instead, He offers us forgiveness and healing.

But, as the readings this morning make clear, justice and mercy presuppose each other and both are essential to our life in Christ. Let me explain.

We read in Acts of the Apostles of a conflict, one rooted in differences of ethnicity, language and culture as it happens, that arose in response to how the Church cared for two groups of widows. While both groups were Jewish converts to Christianity, the Greek-speaking widows complained that they were not being treated as well as were the Hebrew-speaking widows. There “arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1). That the daily distribution of food is an act of charity, of mercy if you will, it doesn’t prevent the Greek-speaking members of the community (“the Hellenists”) from complaining that they are being treated unjustly. Far from invalidating the demands of justice, mercy presupposes justice.

If I disregard or violate the demands of justice, my actions simply are not merciful. To see this, look at Hellenists’ complaint and, more importantly, from the Apostles’ response. The Apostles don’t say to Hellenists that their complaints are an offense against mercy. There is, in fact, a real injustice being committed and resolving it is necessary for mercy to reign in the Church.

Notice, as well, how the Apostles resolve the situation. Again, while they take the complaint seriously, they are also clear that God has not set them aside to care for the philanthropic life of the Church but to preach. “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables” (v. 2). So what do they do instead? They create a new ministry within the Church to oversee “this business” (v.3).

This is an odd response if the Church is only concerned with mercy. When faced with a real sin against justice, the Apostles don’t call people to repentance or to pray more. No, what they do is add a level to the hierarchy of the Church. Like Moses in Exodus, the Apostles realize that they can’t do what God asked them to do—preach the Gospel and govern the Church—on their own. They need help to govern the Church, they need help to be faithful to their own vocation: “brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (vv. 3-4).

It’s also worth noting, if only in passing, how the Apostles went about ordaining the first deacons. They didn’t impose leaders on the Church. Instead, they consulted the faithful. Fulfilling the demands of justice requires that we actively collaborate with those whose lives our decisions effect. In other words, if mercy requires justice, justice requires that we respect the autonomy of others. We are to relate to each other as co-workers in Christ each with our own proper area of competence and responsibility.

But justice prepares the way for mercy in another way.

It would have been enough, turning now to the Gospel, if the disciples had buried Jesus in “the potter’s field” (see Matthew 27:3-9, NKJV). This is all that justice demanded of them. But notice what happens. The disciples, having been instructed in what justice demands, do more than justice requires. Instead of doing the minimum they freely offer what only mercy can provide—the sacrifice of themselves on behalf of another.

Look at Joseph of Arimathea. John’s Gospel describes him as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38, NKJV)). Fearful though he is, he nevertheless went “to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43, NKJV). He then proceeds to purchase “fine linen” in which to wrap Jesus and places His Body “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). Together with “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night,” he anoints the Body “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39). Two fearful men become courageous disciples who, like the Lord Jesus Christ, are willing to stand before Pilate and testify to the Kingdom of God.

Likewise, with the Myrrh-bearing women. “Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?'” (Mark 16:2-3, NKJV) When in mercy they go to the Tomb they discover that “Christ is Risen from the dead” and that “Death has been trampled down by death!” Justice prepares them to be merciful and mercy reveals to them the glory of the Resurrection.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, far from being opposed, justice and mercy require each other. Without mercy, the pursuit of justice becomes harsh and unyielding; without justice, however, mercy becomes mere sentimentality and leads me to collude with evils great and small.

But justice and mercy are meant to support each other. More than that, they prepare us to receive Christ and to shape our lives according to His commandments (John 14:15). To paraphrase today’s prokeimenon, justice and mercy must kiss. This happens when I take to heart the words of the Prophet Micah “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NIV).

In the words of our father among the saints, Herman of Alaska “”for our good and for our happiness, let us all make a vow: at least from this day, this hour, this very minute, we should strive to love God above all else and do His will!” Let us, in other words, commit ourselves to act justly, to love mercy and work humbly with our God!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregorydr