Tag Archives: Matthew 18:23-35

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

 

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

unforgiving20servant2

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

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

Homily: Natural Law & the Christian Life

Sunday, August 16, 2015: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost & Eleventh Sunday of Matthew; After-feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos; Recovery from Edessa of the Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands: ‘The Holy Napkin’

EPISTLE: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
GOSPEL: Matthew 18:23-35

Some Christians, even some Orthodox Christians, will reject out of hand the objective character of moral life. Some base their rejection of natural law on an appeal to our freedom in Christ. In doing this they that our liberty is not license to do as want but so that we can do God’s will (see 1 Peter 2:16; Galatians 5:13).

Others will point out that Christians are called to participate in the divine natural (2 Peter 1:4). Here again, though, we need to be careful that we not overlook what the Apostle Peter actually says. Yes in Christ, we have “escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust”—including the tendency to use morality to control others or exalt ourselves—but this is “for this very reason” that in “all diligence” we foster the life of real virtue (v. 5) to which we must add “knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (vv. 6-7).  Echoing a theme that we hear not only in Paul this morning but also James (2:8-26), St Peter goes so far as to say that “he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:8).

While he doesn’t use the language of natural law, the Apostle Paul certainly affirms the notion. This natural moral law—while not sufficient for our life in Christ—does exist and obedience to it prepares the human heart to receive Christ (see Romans 1:18-32). In today’s epistle the Apostle goes beyond what he says in Romans.  As does Jesus in the Gospel, Paul appeals directly to this natural moral sense not simply as a preparation for the Gospel but as normative for the life of the Church. He says that he and Barnabas have a “right to our food and drink” and, like the other Apostles, “the right to be accompanied by a wife.” His argument though isn’t just based on the Gospel or his apostolic office. As he makes clear in the subsequent verses, these are rights that we know not only from revelation but also human experience.

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?  Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?  Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?  Do I say this on human authority?  Does not the law say the same?  For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.”

There is a harmony between natural law and the moral teaching of Scripture. Contrary to what we might think, the latter—revealed morality—doesn’t minimize or negate what we know from natural law. Rather they are related analogically. What I mean by this is that while there are differences between them, they also share a striking similarity.

We can understand something of the Kingdom of God by looking at everyday experience. To be sure, everyday life isn’t  sufficient—we are always dependent on divine grace poured out in the sacraments, the Scriptures and Holy Tradition—but we ought not make the perfect the enemy of the good. And an understanding and obedience to the “laws of nature and nature’s God” dependent not on revelation but reason is a good, if imperfect, thing.

Turning to the Gospel, Jesus draws a parallel between an earthly kingdom and the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t dismiss or negate the demands of earthly justice—a debt owed is a debit that must be re-paid. He also makes clear that, in the affairs of men, justice is not the only concern.

Even among the powerful of this life justice can, and often is, tempered by mercy. Forgiveness is not unheard among the children of men. Justice, mercy and forgiveness are available in sufficient measure in this life so that we can see in them if not “the very image of the things to come” at least “a shadow” (see Hebrews 10:1).  Again in all this it is important to remember that natural morality points beyond itself to Christ Who is Himself the “substance” of the things to come (Colossians 2:17).

So what does this mean for our own spiritual lives?

There is a tendency among some Orthodox Christians, and let me be frank it is a Gnostic tendency, to dismiss or minimize everything that happens on the other side of walls of the church as unimportant, a distraction and even sinful. Concretely this takes the form of reducing the Christian life to attending liturgical services. Now the Church’s liturgy is essential to our life in Christ. So too however, are the Scriptures, the Fathers, philanthropy and evangelism. And all these must be found in us together with prayer and ascetical struggle. These are the essential elements of a fully developed Christian spiritual life. None of these, however, can come at the expense of the rest of life. The spiritual life in not an escape from this world; it is rather about our personal transformation and the redemption of the world.

As we are transformed, we are able to transform the world around us. Marriage and family life, the life of commerce and work, the arts and sciences, and every single human encounter becomes, for the heart transfigured by grace, a sacrament of God’s presence, a revelation of His grace and of His love for mankind.

The words of the ever memorable Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh about the person are equally applicable to natural law. He writes

One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty.

To embrace the natural law, to be faithful to it personally and in the life of the Church, is to do nothing more or less than to embrace with joy those often obscure glimpse of beauty in the world of persons, events and things. Seeing this natural beauty is to live as God meant us to live, it is a preparation for faith in Christ and, most importantly, for the life of the world to come. Amen.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory