Wealth: Much More than Money

Wednesday, February 28 (O.S., February 15) 2018: Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent; Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy († c. 109); New Hieromartyrs Priests Michael and John († 1930); New Hieromartyrs Priests Nicholas, Alexis and Alexis; Deacon Symeon; Venerable Martyr Peter; and Venerable Martyr Sophia († 1938); Venerable Eusebius, Hermit of Syria (5th C); Venerable Paphnutius and his Daughter Euphrosyne (5th C); Martyr Major Venerable Paphnutius, Recluse of the Kiev Caves (13th C); Dalmatovo Icon of the Mother of God (1646).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 5:16-25
Vespers: Genesis 4:16-26
Vespers: Proverbs 5:15-6:3

We misunderstanding the moral teaching of Scripture if we think wealth is just money. As all three readings today, it’s much more.

It’s also about human and social capital, it’s about my abilities and my character and the kind of communities we create for ourselves.

Through the Prophet Isaiah, God condemns those of bad moral character “who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes.” These individuals have contempt for God: “Let him make haste, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!”

In their pride, they fail to realize that God’s silence, His seeming unwillingness to take swift action against the sinner, isn’t weakness. God delays in responding “for our salvation” (2 Peter 3:15). God gives me time to come back to myself, repent of my sins, and return to Him in humility (see Luke 15:11-32).

Without repentance, our wealth becomes “bitter.” Without humility, we “call evil good and good evil.” We have inverted and corrupted our understanding of the moral life because we “have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”

This temptation has been with us from our earliest days.

Only six generations after Adam, humanity has learned build cities, herd cattle and create music. We created an abundance of material and cultural wealth. But along the way, something went terribly wrong.

Cain slew Abel in a fit of jealousy. Now Lamech kills the man who strikes him. Murder has become cold and calculating. Where once humanity depended on God right wrongs, now we seek revenge: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

And yet there is hope.

Though the darkness has spread throughout the human world, Adam and Eve haven’t surrendered to despair. Instead, they have a son–Seth–who God calls to take up Abel’s place in the human family (compare Acts 1:12-26). Like every newborn child, Seth is a sign of hope, a reminder that individually and all corporately we can begin again.

New beginnings in a fallen world require renewed self-discipline and a more discerning response to our neighbor.

We must, Solomon tells us, be content to drink from our “own cistern.” We need to see to our own needs and those of our family. This doesn’t mean we are indifferent, much less hostile, to our neighbor. It does mean that we must be careful in how we disperse our wealth.

Humanity is now a mixed moral bag. Virtue and vice exist in each heart and are battling for control. If we fail to account for this our material, human and social capital will be squandered. Like “streams of water in the streets” it will just be wasted.

Once again what matters most is not wealth–material, human or social–but wisdom. Without proper discernment and discretion, to say nothing of ascetical discipline and moral virtue, our best intentions will lead to slavery.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

My Wealth is For Your Benefit

Tuesday, 14 February, 27 (O.S., February 27) 2018: Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent; Repose of Saint Cyril, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Teacher of the Slavs († 869); New Hieromartyr Onesimus, Bishop of Tula († 1937); New Hieromartyr Deacon Tryphon († 1938); Venerable Auxentius of Bithynia († 470); Venerable Isaacius, Recluse of the Kiev Caves († c. 1090); 12 Greek Master-Builders of the Dormition Cathedral in the Lavra of the Kiev Caves (11th C); Venerable Maron, Hermit of Syria (4th C); Holy Hierarch Abraham, Bishop of Carrhae in Upper Mesopotamia (5th C); Transfer of the relics of the Martyred Prince Michael of Chernigov and his councilor Theodore (1578); New Martyr George of Mytilene.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 5:7-16
Vespers: Genesis 4:8-15
Vespers: Proverbs 5:1-15

If wealth were morally bad then there could be no virtuous way to create, acquire, concentrate or much less use it. After all, as St Paul reminds us, we can’t “continue in sin that grace may abound” (see Romans 6:1ff, NKJV).

Whether we are talking about its material or less tangible (though no less real) forms wealth is fundamentally good. And because it is morally good, our use of wealth must likewise conform to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Whatever its form–spiritual, intellectual, social, cultural no less than material–wealth makes moral demands on us that we can only meet if we are wise.

The reading from Isaiah sets the standard for wealth. Isaiah’s argument is easy to miss because (as if often the case with the Prophets) he tells us what we must NOT do with our wealth.

Having blessed “the house of Israel and the men of Judah,” God expects them to respond with justice. Instead of a People who pattern themselves after “the Lord of Hosts,” what He sees is “bloodshed,” what He hears is the”cry” of the oppressed for liberation.

It isn’t that some are rich and some are poor. Rather, the rich have rigged the system so that the poor remain poor. The rich have “join[ed] house to house” and added, “field to field until there is no more room” for the poor to live or work.

The rich have used their wealth not just to marginalize the poor but to keep from them the necessities of life. For this reason, God will reduce the rich to poverty. He will destroy the wealth they have and prevent them from again growing wealthy. “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”

Having forgotten the lesson of Cain–that to be human, to be myself, is to be my brother’s keeper–the People of God people “go into exile” where “their honored men are dying of hunger, and their multitude is parched with thirst.”

Wealth must be used–invested if you will–in our neighbor so that he, in turn, can likewise invest in others. It isn’t enough to give the poor bread; we are called as well to help the poor fulfill their own vocation to care for others.

We are all of us, rich and poor alike, our brother’s keeper. It is in this shared obligation for each other that we find the moral principle to guide our relationship with wealth in its material and less tangible forms.

And if we fail to be our brother’s keeper? Then like the man in Proverbs who succumb to the blandishments of the “loose woman” whose lips “drip honey,” those who fail as to be their brother’s keeper soon discover that their wealth “is bitter as wormwood.”

Like the adulterer, the person who uses wealth for his own advantage at the expense of others will follow his mistress as “her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol.”

None of this, however, is to suggest wealth is evil; it isn’t. But wisdom requires that I use my wealth–in all its forms–not simply for my own benefit but for yours as well.

For Solomon, and so for us, the wise man is the one who avoids loose living, who loves ascetical discipline and accepts correction gracefully. Such a person will “drink water from [his] own cistern, flowing water from [his] own well.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wealth is Good, Wisdom is Better, Both are From God

Monday, February 26 (O.S., February 13), 2018: Monday of the Second Week of Lent; Venerable Martinian of Cæsarea in Palestine (c.422); New Hieromartyrs Priests Basil and Gabriel († 1919); New Hieromartyr Sylvester, Archbishop of Omsk († 1920); New Hieromartyrs Priests Zosimas, Nicholas, Basil, John, Leontius, Vladimir, Parthenius, John, John, Michael; Deacon Eugene; Venerable Martyrs Anna, Faith and Irene; Martyr Paul († 1938); Saint Stephen Nemanja (in monasticism Symeon), Prince of Serbia, the Myrrh-Gusher († 1200); Holy Apostle Aquila and his wife Priscilla (1st C); Saint Eulogius, Archbishop of Alexandria († 607-608); Venerable Zoe and Photina (5th C)

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 4:2-5:7
Vespers: Genesis 3:21-4:7
Vespers: Proverbs 3:34-4:22

Like many Old Testament authors, the Prophet Isaiah see material wealth as a good thing and even, as in today’s reading a blessing from God. In the day of the Lord “the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.” This wealth will belong to the holy ones of Jerusalem and to those washed clean by the Lord.

Poverty and deprivation, however, are a sign in Isaiah that the person has lost God’s favor because of his sin. In fact, just as God blesses His faithful followers with wealth, He brings ruin on those who fail to uphold the demands of justice.

To contemporary Christians, this all sounds crude. We’ve come to believe that the true blessings are spiritual, internal and, above all, non-material. Many Christians are simply uncomfortable with saying that God has blessed them materially.

Our reluctance to see wealth as a blessing can have an unfortunate result. However unintentionally, it walls off from God the material aspects of human life. Whether we think of material goods as a necessary evil or only as morally neutral, not seeing them as a blessing from God “frees” us from having to do the hard work of thinking about the morality right use of wealth.

And yet in Genesis, there is an intimate connection between our relationship with God and how we value–or not–the material world. Abel offers God “the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.” He offers to God the best of what he has.

Cain, however, evidently just offers whatever he has at hand. He doesn’t take any care in choosing his offering. He is seemingly indifferent to the quality of the fruit he grows.

When we denigrate material wealth, we very quickly fall into the habit of offering to God not what is best in our life but whatever is convenient. If I scorn the material blessings that God gives me, I say in effect that I have nothing of value to offer. And how could it be otherwise since I don’t see any value in the things I have?

Over time this deadens my sense of gratitude to God. What might starts as sincere attempt to avoid being overly attached to material goods can quickly become lack of thankfulness to God. When this happens I become, in Solomon’s words, a scorner, a fool who will only “get disgrace.”

The material world is a blessing. Wealth is a blessing. Wisdom requires that I understand this. It also requires that I understand that material goods are not greatest of God’s blessing.

To prize wisdom above all else, I need to understand the value of things. If I don’t see the value of the harvest, how can I thank God for the fruit? If one lamb is as good as another, there are no choice lambs to sacrifice.

Wealth is good, wisdom is better. But both come to us from the hand of God.

I need to understand the value of passing things to understand the value of lasting wisdom.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday of Orthodoxy: Witnesses to God’s Love

Sunday, February 25 (OS February 12): First Sunday of Great Lent: Triumph of Orthodoxy; Venerable Mary of Egypt; St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.); St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome (604); St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The troparion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy reminds us that Christ willingly ascended the Cross for our salvation. Jesus dies, the hymn says, to free us from “bondage to the enemy” and, in so doing has “filled all things with joy.”

We should be careful here.

We often hear in the popular American religious culture, that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s anger. Or we might hear that on the Cross Jesus balance the scales between the offense of sin and requirement of divine justice.

Assumed here is the idea that the Incarnation is motivated by human sinfulness. God becomes Incarnate, suffer and dies, because of our failings.

For the Orthodox Church, however, the Incarnation isn’t motivated by human sinfulness. For fathers like St Irenaeus and St Maximos the Confessor, the Incarnation isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t some kind of moral course correction.

No for the fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the point of Creation. God creates in order to Himself become Man. God creates us, in other words, to become as we and so that, in turn, we can become by grace what He is.

“This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became Son of Man:” St Irenaeus writes, “so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God” ( Against Heresies, III.19.1).

St Maximus, likewise, sees the Incarnation as the purpose of creation. He says that out of His great love for us, the Word of God for us “hides himself mysteriously” in the essence of His creature. It is as if every single thing that God creates is a letter of the alphabet which, when they are all taken together, reveal God in “His fullness” (Ambigua, PG 9 1, 1 28 5-8).

All of this is simply to repeat what we will hear in the Gospel on Pascha:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1-3, NKJV).

And what then of the Cross? Why does Jesus suffer and die?

We get a partial answer in the Lamentation Services that we sing on Holy Friday evening when Jesus asks us for which of His miracles have we Crucified Him?

The sobering fact is that Jesus dies on the Cross not to calm God’s anger. No, he dies because in our sinfulness we kill Him. He dies because we–I really–reject Him. I lay the burden on my sin on His shoulders.

Our Lord isn’t betrayed by Peter or abandoned by the disciples. He isn’t crucified by the Jews or the Romans. All these things I do with each and every sin I commit.

And yet, this isn’t the whole of the story. In the Tradition of the Church, while human sinfulness is taken seriously, it is never the explanation.

St. John Chrysostom says “I call him king because I see him crucified: it belongs to the king to die for his subjects.” Jesus goes to the Cross willingly because He refuses to impose Himself on us. In His great love for us, Jesus willingly accepts an unjust death.

And how could He not? To do otherwise would violate the freedom of His creature. THis respect for human freedom matters because the love that isn’t free offered isn’t really love.

All that God does, He does freely–that is to say, in love. This is the life He wishes to share with us, this is the life to which He calls us. And it is this life, and this life alone, that is the source of joy.

For God to avoid the Cross would be to undermine human freedom and so make our love a fraud and to rob us of joy.  It is with all this in mind that we turn to the Gospel.

The Gospel reading today from St John is an interesting one. It isn’t a “theological” Gospel in the sense that the Prologue is. There is no lofty theology in the scant few verses the Church puts before us.

Today’s Gospel is an evangelical Gospel.

Jesus says to Philip “Follow Me” and he does. And what happens next? Philip goes and finds Nathaniel and tells his friend “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Philip offers no argument in response to Nathaniel’s disbelief. He doesn’t try to change Nathaniel’s mind with clever arguments. He makes no appeals to philosophy or the Scripture. All he says is “Come and see.”

Much as some would have us think, the hallmark of our lives as Orthodox Christians isn’t our theological sophistication. It isn’t our sublime liturgy or beautiful music.

It rather that we are disciples and evangelists. We follow Jesus Christ and shape our lives around His teaching and–above all–His Person.

And having experienced the great love God Who accepts the Cross rather than violate the freedom of the creature we say to others “Come and see.”

“Come and see” the fulfillment your heart’s desires!

“Come and see” Divine Love in human form!

“Come and see” what it means to be love without limit by Him Who knows all about you!

And how could we do otherwise? What more does love desire expect to share its joy with others?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today as we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Restoration of the Holy Icons, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the whole of the Tradition of the Church has only one goal: To introduce men and women to the God Who loves them without compromise.

If are faithful in this, we will transform the world around us beginning first and foremost with ourselves.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Pursue Wisdom, Find Peace

Friday, February 10, 2018 (OS: February 23): Clean Friday; Hieromartyr Charalampus, Bishop of Magnesia in Thessaly, and the Martyrs Porphyrius, Baptus and 3 Women Martyrs († 202); New Hieromartyrs Priests Peter and Valerian († 1930); Virgin-martyrs Ennatha and Valentina and Martyr Paul of Palestine († 308); Venerable Prochorus of the Kiev Caves († 1107); Holy Hierarchs of Novgorod: Joachim, Luke, Germanus, Arcadius, Gregory, Martyrius, Anthony, Basil, and Symeon; Venerable Longinus of Koryazhemka († 1540); Holy Right-Believing Great Princess Anna of Novgorod († 1056); “Fiery Appearance” Icon of the Mother of God.

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 3:1-14
Vespers: Genesis 2:20-3:20
Vespers: Proverbs 3:19-34

Human beings are in a sad muddle. If only, as Solzhenitsyn suggests, the line between good and evil was drawn somewhere else than through the human heart. Life in a fallen world would easier–or at least simpler he says–“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.”

But it isn’t this way.

Everything in this life is a mix of “wheat and weeds” (Matthew 13:24-30). I do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons.

This moral confusion extends as well to the created world. The creation, St Paul says, is subject “to futility” because of our sinfulness. And so it “groans and labors with birth pangs” in anticipation of our final redemption (Romans 8:18-25).

We see this all laid out for us in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. The natural social hierarchy has been upended. Men of experience and power “make boys their princes” and are “ruled over” by infants. Now “the youth” are “insolent to the elder[ly],” and “the base fellow to the honorable.”

The natural human impulse to friendship has likewise been corrupted. People “oppress one another, every man his fellow and every man his neighbor.” We have lost the communion with each other that was God’s gift to us in the beginning. And so strife reigns.

And we suffer poverty. The land itself, as we read in Genesis, has lost its natural fecundity. It still produces food. But now we must contest with the ground our sinfulness has cursed; “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you. … In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”

In our desperation and loneliness, our hunger and our illness we seek out anyone we can find to lead us. Anyone, that is, but God.

But, like I said a moment ago, though fallen the world is not divided into discrete units of good and evil. Though extensive, the corruption of sin is not–and can never be–absolute.

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth.” Even if I often have trouble seeing it, all of creation, as Solomon reminds us, reveals the wisdom and the knowledge of God.

Like taking food from the earth, acquiring “wisdom and discretion” requires effort, even a battle. But if we hold on to them we are able to “walk … securely and … not stumble.” Yes, we will be tired but when we sit to rest we “will not be afraid” and our “sleep will be sweet” even when we see the  “panic” and “the ruin of the wicked” around us.

As we grow in our confidence and trust in God fear retreats and our communion with our neighbor grows. Even if at times it will require a real sacrifice on our part, we will find joy in taking Solomon’s advice that we “not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”

What good are we asked to do?

Do not plan evil against your neighbor who dwells trustingly beside you. Do not contend with a man for no reason, when he has done you no harm. Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways.

Even in though the world is fallen, if we pursue wisdom we will find peace.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory