On Fasting and caring for the poor

Homily for Nov 1st, based on Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:8

I would like to frame this talk with the words from St. Paul to the Romans, he writes “you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Romans 2:21) And from this comes the famous saying we all know “Practice what you preach”.

I say this, because I feel stricken by today’s Epistle and Gospel reading, the application of which I find myself continually working on, and more often than not I seem to fail horribly. It’s obviously difficult to “preach” about a topic I personally continue to have such a hard time with, and that topic is: fasting, and caring for the poor.

It may not be immediately obvious why today’s Gospel reading is about fasting and caring for the poor, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is burdened with theological richness, and there are many fine points which could be made about it. At it’s most basic in this parable we have a rich man, and then we also have this poor homeless beggar named Lazarus. Both of them die and their positions become reversed, the one who used to be rich and who enjoyed a luxurious life finds that he is in fiery torments, but on the other hand the poor beggar Lazarus after he dies is taken to rest in the bosom of Abraham.

So what’s the point of this? Basically the point is that the poor homeless beggar Lazarus is being held up as a good example for us to follow, and the rich man is being held up as a negative example. Yes really, that’s the basic point. Jesus is saying it’s better for us to be like that poor homeless beggar Lazarus, than to be like the rich man.

We’ve all heard Jesus famous expression that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, well the subtext of that expression is that if you happen to be a poor beggar like Lazarus then it would be relatively easier for you to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Not that anyone is guaranteed, or excluded, whether rich or poor, but the kingdom of Heaven is simply closer to the poor and lowly than it is to the rich and powerful.

There are a lot of very famous, very rich, preachers out there today who preach something called “the prosperity Gospel”, basically that if you put God first he’ll make you rich. Not only is that not true, it’s nearly the opposite of truth, Christ actually preached “The Poverty Gospel”! As we can see from today’s parable where the poor beggar Lazarus flies to heaven, and the rich man who would eat sumptuous feasts every day is condemned to fiery torments.

The principle of this parable has to do with God’s fairness. As Abraham said to the rich man “you in your lifetime received your good things, but Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” Think for a moment about what if the opposite had happened. What if the rich man on departing this life, after having greedily feasted on sumptuous foods every day, then went on after his death to rest in the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, but the poor, hungry, and downtrodden Lazarus, whose greatest wish had simply been to have a scrap of food from the rich man’s tables, then went on after his death to an even worse poverty. Wouldn’t that be the height of unfairness? So Jesus tell us plainly that it is not going to be that way. Those who devote their lives greedily to riches and pleasures, and those who live in poverty and pain, will both experience an opposite condition after their deaths.

So, what can we do about this? What would you do with your life if you heard this message from Jesus. Speaking personally, I have a wife, I have a son. Honestly I’m a big wimp, I don’t think homelessness and abject poverty would suit me very well. No doubt you probably feel the same about that.

Well, the Church proscribes two things that we can do: fasting, and caring for the poor.

Willingly eating less food, and also willingly giving up the richer foods, the milk, the cheese, the eggs, the oil, the meats. Willingly depriving ourselves from time to time is in a way like attempting to step into the shoes of the poor beggar Lazarus, an attempt to feel some of the poverty of his life, and to take on ourselves a little bit of the pain of his life, at least for a little while.

At the same though we must also remember to have compassion upon those for whom fasting is not a choice of piety but rather an inescapable dilemma. So, unlike the rich man who cared only for himself, we must use our excess riches, and our surplus food, to do what we can to help the poor. The reason the rich man was condemned to “fiery torment” was not simply because he was rich, but because he used his riches to cloth himself “in purple and linen and feast sumptuously every day”. He could have done much to help the poor man Lazarus who was sitting at his doorstep if only he had but lived a simpler and more moderate lifestyle.

To willingly give up everything and become a beggar for Christ is always an option though. In the long history of the Orthodox Christian faith there have been many who have done exactly that. We usually call them monks, and many times we also end up calling them saints. One such modern example is the Elder Dobri Dobrev (link to article on Dobri Dobrev). He spends his days begging for change on the streets of Bulgaria, and while living in poverty himself, he has contributed over $100,000 to the Churches of his homeland.

Paul also wrote to the Corinthians in today’s Epistle reading that “You are the body of Christ… are all apostles, are all prophets, are all teachers, are all miracle workers?” We might also add that not all are monks, and not all are holy beggars like Elder Dobri. Then Paul goes on to say that “I will show you a surpassing way”, what is this special way? Paul next talks about love. Love is the “surpassing way” and is the primary calling of all Christ’s followers, from beggars to kings.

Fasting is one expression of this love. Fasting is about loving God more than riches, it’s about loving holiness more than food, it’s about loving our fellowman more than ourselves. It’s about following the example of Christ, the example of him who became poor and suffered for our sake. To follow his example means that out of love we also become poor and suffer for the sake of others. To help us in this let us look to the example of the poor beggar Lazarus, and to his comforting outcome. Let us also not forget about the rich man who “feasted sumptuously every day”, and his painful torment.

To Jesus Christ be glory, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Understanding the Vineyard as the Holy Scriptures

Homily for August 30th 2015
Based on Matthew 21:33-42

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In today’s Gospel reading we are told about a vineyard. First it says that the master plants and establishes this vineyard, and he builds a tower above it, and a hedge around it to protect it, and a wine press within it, and he lends it out to cultivators to watch over it. Eventually the cultivators, the tenants, prove to be wicked, because the master sends his servants to collect the fruit but the tenants become violent and resist, and kill them. Then the master sends his son to collect the fruit of the vineyard but the tenants again become violent and murder the son in order to try to keep the vineyard for themselves.

Now, on a superficial level we could say: Oh this is just talking about the nation of Israel, God sent prophets to them, they were always getting into trouble it seems, but often times they wouldn’t listen to the prophets and sometimes the prophets were persecuted and even killed. Eventually Jesus Christ was sent to them, the foretold messiah, he arrived but the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, who are represented by these wicked tenants, they had Jesus put to death. Certainly that interpretation seems to fit the parable well enough.

But there is in fact a better, deeper interpretation in Orthodox tradition, and more importantly it is an interpretation which is more applicable to us as Orthodox Christians today, and that is, that the vineyard represents the Holy Scriptures. When it says that the master built a hedge around it, this stands for the literal words of the scriptures, what you physically see when you read them, the outer shell, the tower up high represents the dizzying heights of theology, and the wine press down low represents the deeper meanings of the Scriptures.

God gave these Holy Scriptures to the nation of Israel, but these Scriptures had a purpose, they were supposed to be like a vineyard which produced good fruit in the right season. These good fruit represent good qualities, faith, love, loyalty, righteousness, etc. But in the hands of the nation of Israel it seems the Scriptures were not always producing good fruit, and so God sent his prophets to them to correct them and set them back upon the right path, and to help them to understand the Scriptures properly. But the religious leaders who had control of the Scriptures often rejected God’s prophets, even killing many of them. Finally God sent his Son, to take possession of the Scriptures and to teach them properly, so that fruit that could be harvested could be produced, but as we know, the teachers of Israel, the scribes the Pharisees, they rejected Jesus and had him killed.

At the end of the parable, Jesus asks them, what will the master do to these wicked tenants when he finally arrives? They reply that “He will put them to a miserable death, and will give the vineyard to others who will produce the fruit in due season.” Well of course that must be referring to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles. At that time they were given the authority to understand and to interpret the Scriptures properly and to cause the good fruit to be produced. This authority to teach the Holy Scriptures was taken away from the religious leaders of Israel because they had rejected and killed Christ, and taking away the Scriptures from them was like putting them to a miserable death.

Keep in mind though, that when Gospels, or the letters of Paul talk about Holy Scripture, specifically they are talking about the Old Testament, the Laws of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets. So what this is really saying is that the authority to teach and to interpret the Old Testament for the purpose of producing good fruit, no longer belongs to the nation of Israel. That vineyard has been taken away from them and given to the Christians.

This is important to understand because as Christians, when we read the Old Testament, it is important that we do not read it as someone who does not know Christ would read it. Sometimes we can be tempted to do that, but we have to keep in mind the event that took place on the Road to Emmaus after Christ was resurrected, it’s in Luke chapter 24, It says there that two of Christ’s disciples were walking along the road to Emmaus and Christ came to them and began to speak with them, but it says that their eyes were kept from recognizing him, and what Christ does is he teaches them is how in all the scriptures, that means in all the Laws of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, how all of them were actually about the Christ. This was a revelation from God. Up until that point nobody understood how all of the Old Testament actually pointed to Christ, but now that it has been revealed to us we see that the Old Testament is full of examples of Christ, in fact you could even say that the Old Testament is nothing but Christ, and that to teach us about Christ is it’s true purpose and true reason for existence.

For example we see Jesus in the story of Adam, when Adam falls asleep and then has his bride taken from his side, it is just as when Jesus fell asleep in death and had water and blood pour from his side, water and blood representing Baptism and the Eucharist, that water and blood formed his bride, the Church.

Jesus Christ is Abel slain by his brother Cain, Jesus is Enoch taken up to heaven, Jesus is Noah saving all creation through baptism, Jesus is Elijah bringing the dead back to life, Jesus is Moses giving the Law, and he is Moses setting the people free from the bondage of Egypt, which represents paganism. Jesus is Joshua leading the people to victory over sin and death as Joshua lead the people to victory over the Canaanites. Jesus is Sampson giving his life and pulling down the pillars of Hades. Jesus is Jonah being swallowed by the fish just as Jesus was swallowed by death and then spat out alive again after three days. And so on, and so forth.

All these stories of the Old Testament, all these accounts, all the laws and the lessons, they are about Jesus Christ, but we wouldn’t understand that if we are reading the Old Testament with the eyes of a person who doesn’t yet know Jesus. To be properly understood the Old Testament must be read with the eyes of the Christian. This is the right way to read them, because as we see in the parable today of the wicked tenants, the authority of the vineyard has been taken from the nation of Israel and given to the Church by Jesus Christ our Lord.

To him be glory, along with his unoriginate Father, and the all good and life giving Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages, Amen.

“Therefore be perfect”

I loved Mr Rogers as a child, and I always appreciated it when he would look into the camera with his gentle smile and soft voice and tell the audience: “I like you just the way you are”. It’s easy in our cynical culture to dismiss such words, or give them a simple meaning, but I think Mr Rogers was actually being quite profound. What if a child in his audience was a bad kid? What if he was a liar, or a thief, or a bully? Surely Mr Rogers had thought of that. Would he still have said “I like you just the way you are” to them? Yes I think he would, because what really are you? You are a human being, and that does not change no matter what you do. Mr Rogers loves you just the way you are, not the way you behave.

It may sound surprising, but when Jesus Christ said the words in the title, “therefore be perfect”, he was actually encouraging his followers to view people in the same way that Mr Rogers did. The full verse goes like this “Therefore, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What does Jesus mean, how could we ever be perfect like God? Jesus explains exactly what he means in the verses just before that when he said that we should treat all people with love, no matter what they do. He puts it like this: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise upon the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you only love those who love you, what good is that?” and he concludes “Therefore, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. (Matthew 5:43-48)

What an incredible lesson this is because when Jesus tells us to love our enemies and persecutors what he is really teaching us is that God also loves them. God does not just love those who love him back. God does not have two standards of love, one for us to follow, and then a different one for himself. He tell us to love our enemies exactly because that’s what he does. Jesus calls that type of love “perfect”, and he encourages all his followers to do likewise.

Perfect love is certainly no easy assignment, we have our own sins to wrestle with, as well as this hate filled world around us. It would be easy to throw up our hands and conclude that “perfect” love means that nothing matters, nothing is sinful. You’re okay, I’m okay, it’s all good. However, that would be just as much of a mistake as it would be to hate our enemies.

We must not confuse permissiveness with love. Love is not the opposite of judgement. I am sure that Mr Rogers never approved of children telling lies, or of children being bullies, even though he said “I like you just the way you are” to every child he ever met. Neither does God approve of sin even though he loves all people, whether they are good or bad. In order to keep this balance between these two opposites we must learn to differentiate between the human being, the one we are commanded to love perfectly, and the wrong actions that no follower of Christ could ever approve.

How can we keep this balance? How can we love a person despite their bad behavior? By being forgiving. If we have love for people, perfect love, then we will not be able to withhold our forgiveness of them, just as St Peter wrote “Love covers over a multitude of sin” (1 Peter 4:8).

On love for the ritually impure

The recent legalization of gay marriage in America has generated a great deal of debate and discussion among Christians, some of it very hurtful and unkind. I’m not writing this article to try to add to that mess, at least I hope not. While I don’t claim to have all the answers or the authority to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do, or believe, hopefully this adds in in a positive way to the present discussion.

It is impossible to be a Christian and not have heard of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but let us just briefly review the account anyway. It goes like this, a Jewish law expert comes to Jesus to test him and asks him what he thinks is the greatest of the laws in the Law of Moses. Jesus replies with the well known words that the greatest commandment is that we must love God with all our heart and soul and body and mind, and the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Then the lawyer tells Jesus that he answered well, but then he asks “Who really is my neighbor?”. Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan which goes something like this: A Jewish man is beaten and robbed and left for dead in the ditch beside the road. A Jewish priest travelling on the road sees him, but walks by without helping. Next a Jewish levite does the same thing. Finally a Samaritan man sees him, and stops to help, he takes him to the nearest inn and pays for his lodging. Jesus asks the Jewish law expert, which of these men acted as neighbor, he answers “the one who stopped to help”, and then Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.

An often overlooked aspect of the parable of the good Samaritan is the reason why the priest and the levite passed by the injured man without helping, it had nothing to do with them being good or bad people and had everything to do with ritual purity. The man Jesus was speaking with was an expert in Jewish law, and the Jewish law contains very strict regulations concerning the purity of priests and levites. No one was permitted to serve at the temple, or even go into the temple if they were not pure, and one of those regulations was the prohibition on touching blood, so helping an injured and bleeding man on the side of the road was absolutely out of the question.

So that explains the priest and the levite, but what about the Samaritan? Well, actually, the Samaritans also followed strict purity laws and were also prohibited from touching blood or they would also become ritually unclean. The Samaritans used to be Jews in fact, but due to the tossing and turning of history the Samaritans found themselves outsiders from the Jewish nation, yet they still followed the Law of Moses, and still performed sacrifices at their temple and still maintained strict ritual purity. So what about him? The Samaritan man is called “good” not just because he helps a man in need, but because he is willing to break his own purity regulations to do so. Furthermore, culturally speaking, Jews considered the Samaritans an unclean people, in fact they were not even permitted to enter a Samaritan city! And in a tit-for-tat way of thinking Samaritans also viewed Jews as unclean and tended to avoid them, so the Samaritan was totally breaking his cultural norm by going out of his way to help this injured man.

The great thing about the good Samaritan parable, in my opinion, is that Jesus gets a Jewish Law expert to admit that those who follow the law codes on purity would fail at the second greatest commandment, the commandment to love their neighbor.

It is hard for us to understand these notions of ritual purity today, because most Christians in the west are not very ritually minded, and they tend to only think of purity in terms of morality, but even if we only think of it in that way… I must ask myself: would I be willing to sacrifice my purity, as the Samaritan did, to show love to someone in need? Or do I value my purity more than their need, as did the priest and the levite? Something for me to think about.

Now getting back to the discussion of homosexuality and gay marriage, some might say that we should completely scrap all Christian regulations which prohibit such things, after all, in the parable the one who Jesus praised was the Samaritan who broke the purity laws, not the priest and levite who kept them, but I think this is the wrong way to look at it. What the Samaritan did was such a great act of love exactly because he was willing to do it even though it broke regulations and norms. If there had been no such regulations and norms then would he really have been doing such a great thing?

I do not believe that the moral regulations and norms of Christianity are up for debate, they are what they are, and they aren’t going to change. I am a traditionalist after all. However, if there is such a thing as a valid reason to break rules and regulations I think that reason is love. If there is a valid reason to sacrifice our own purity I think that reason is love. When we see someone spiritually left for dead in the ditch, if we fail to show them love and we just pass them by, for whatever reason, then we are no better than the priest or the levite.

I am not advocating that we approve or condone sin, but rather that we show love regardless of the sin, and that we not be stingy with our love, or view loving the sinner as something which will make us dirty. The world only lacks one thing, and that is love, may we not be the bottleneck which continues to block it.

An interpretation of the parable of the dishonest steward

I heard this interpretation of “The Dishonest Steward” from Luke 16:1-9 from a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous, and I found it quite enlightening. Now I wish to share it with others so I am putting it here on my blog. Any mistakes in transmission are entirely my own.

Verse 1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’

First we must identify who these characters are: The rich man must be God, and the steward should be understood to be ourselves in our individual relationship with God.

According to the parable God hears that we are wasting his goods, and tells us that we are going to be fired, that we are going to lose our position as his steward, which means that we are going to be cast out of his house.

What are these “goods” that we have been wasting? The goods represent God’s love. God has assigned us the responsibility to manage his love as a steward, to distribute his love, and to cause his love to grow, but we have wasted it by hiding it, and we have caused it to stagnate and to be unproductive,  and for that we are going to be cast out of God’s Kingdom.

Verse 3 And the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

Faced with the possibility of being cast out of the masters house for not managing his “goods” properly, the steward looks for any other avenue of support, or in other words, he looks for any other way back into the Kingdom.

“Digging” stands for ascetic efforts, hard labors for Christ, strict fasts, long vigils, multitudes of prostrations, and other such ascetic efforts, but the steward does not want to do these things, he says “I am not strong enough” to do that.

“Begging” represents beseeching prayer, begging God day and night to have mercy upon all of creation. However, the man says that he is “ashamed to beg”. He does not have the humility necessary in order to devote his entire life to such prayer.

Verse 4 I have decided what to do, so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’

So, having ruled out the possibility of becoming a great ascetic, and having also ruled out the possibility of devoting his entire life to begging God in prayer, the man realizes there is but one avenue remaining to him, and that is for him to be forgiving towards everyone.

The important thing that we must understand about forgiveness is that the majority of our debt to God, our perceived burden of sin, primarily exists in our own conscience. God has already forgiven us. It is we who refuse to forgive ourselves, and it is we who refuse to accept that God has forgiven us. So by forgiving one another, by cancelling out each others debts, and by saying to everyone we meet “I forgive you”, we are lifting off some of the burdens that they carry in their conscience towards God. So the steward gathers all those who have any debt owed to his master, and he cuts their debt in half, he forgives their sins. Afterwards there is still some debts remaining, but they seem greatly reduced.

Furthermore he says that the reason he does this is: “so that people may receive me into their houses when I am put out of the stewardship” This can be understood if we think of our hope of one day entering the Kingdom of God. The day will come when we will stand before the gates of the Kingdom, and then we will realize that we are completely unworthy to enter. In that day our own conscience will absolutely condemn us, and so we will stand outside and refuse to enter. But, if during our lives we have been generous with our forgiveness of others, if we have been busy blotting out as much of other peoples debts to our master as we can, and thus if we have made friends for ourselves by being generous with our forgiveness, then these people who we have forgiven will refuse to let us stand outside in the darkness, they will refuse to listen to our attempts to condemn ourselves, and they will come out and gather us into God’s house, and even pull us through the gates if they must.

This is not to say that it is okay to be a wasteful steward, or that asceticism, or a life dedicated to prayer are not things we should strive for, but the reality is that we are all wasteful stewards. So then let us at least be forgiving stewards, so that when we stand before the gates, and our own conscience condemns us for being the horrible and wasteful stewards that we are, then those who we have spent our lives generously forgiving will come out and gather us home.

Abraham, Isaac, and the sacrifice of Christ

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul likens different spiritual teachings to different types of food when he says to them “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it”. In this regard, the story of Abraham and Isaac is definitely ‘solid food’, the sort that only belongs to those who are willing and able to chew.

The standard interpretation of the account is that Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac foreshadowed God’s sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ. While not disputing that basic interpretation, the early Christians also believed in what some might call an alternative interpretation, which shall be further explained below. (See S. G. Hall, “Melito of Sardis: On Pascha and Fragments”, Fragment 9)

The alternative interpretation finds it root in the fact that although Abraham bound up his son Isaac and placed him upon the altar he was not actually sacrificed. The account says that after the Angel of the Lord told Abraham not to sacrifice his son, “Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Genesis 22:13). This sacrificial ram was seen as a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which in turn made Isaac, the one for whom Jesus was offered, into the symbol of Adam, or all humanity.

Understanding the story in this light gives new meaning to certain words which are found earlier in the account. The account begins this way: “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah” (Genesis 22:1-2). If Isaac is seen as the symbol of humanity, and Abraham the symbol for God, then by the phrase “Isaac, whom you love” we see expressed God’s reason for saving man, because God loves him. Also notice in the account that the ram that symbolizes Christ was found “caught in a thicket” which of course was understood to be a reference of how Christ was fastened to the cross.

While both interpretations are valid, I prefer this one. This interpretation shifts the entire story rather to being about God’s love for man as symbolized by Abraham’s love for his son Isaac, and about God’s plan for the salvation of man as symbolized by Christ the ram being caught in the thicket of the cross and then being sacrificed on behalf of all.

Naysayers of course will challenge this account, just as they do the rest of the scriptures, by saying that it was unnecessary for Isaac to be sacrificed at all, and thus they will miss the entire point of the matter. Jesus Christ is not a lamb, nor is God a nomadic tribesman who lived in Canaan five millenniums ago. These are simply placeholders, or tokens, which we “see through a mirror darkly” as Saint Paul puts it to the Corinthians. They are intended to raise our minds gently and slowly, like the opening of a flower, to the light of God’s mysteries hidden in Christ. They are bread crumbs upon the trail, which God has lovingly left for us to ponder, and ponder indeed we do, as we chew upon this solid food.